I've noticed a disturbing trend in recent writings condemning individualism and independence, from the oft-quoted "It takes a village to raise a child" (best response to date: "I've seen the village, and I don't want it raising my children") to several of the essays on Patrick Deneen's excellent blog, What I Saw in America, to the many Christian writers who are taking pains to distance their religion from currently unpopular, Western—and particularly American—ideas.  Collectivism is in.

Some of this is a much-needed correction.  Basic human sinfulness (there is no better word for the phenomenon) has bent a respect for the rights and responsibilities of every human being into an excuse for me-first, me-only, me-now self-indulgence that has torn apart community on every level, and especially in our families.  Individual rights without individual responsibility is not a workable equation, and the fault must be addressed.

Nonetheless, it's worth noting the risk of tumbling into the opposite fault.  Some recent conversations with people about their experiences with some African countries alerted me to a cultural problem that I did not, until now, connect with collectivism.  I've removed the country-specific references in the excerpt below, because it is representative of a more wide-spread mindset.

One of the most striking things about [this country] compared to many other developing countries is that there seems to be no spirit of entrepreneurship.   When we were standing along the main street, one of the missionaries pointed to the stores across the street:  "that one is owned by a Lebanese, the next one by an Indian, then a Nigerian", etc.  None by [the locals].  It's obviously not impossible to start a business, given the number of small businesses, but [they] wait for someone else to do it and then hire them to do the grunt work.

It was a remarkable essay by Matthew Parris (hat tip to John Stackhouse) that connected these points for me. In As an Atheist, I Truly Believe Africa Needs God, he muses on a return to his boyhood home of Malawi (then Nyasaland) and his reluctant conclusion that the heart of Africa's problems is spiritual.

Now a confirmed atheist, I've become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people's hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.

The Christians were always different. Far from having cowed or confined its converts, their faith appeared to have liberated and relaxed them. There was a liveliness, a curiosity, an engagement with the world—a directness in their dealings with others—that seemed to be missing in traditional African life. They stood tall.

There's long been a fashion among Western academic sociologists for placing tribal value systems within a ring fence, beyond critiques founded in our own culture: “theirs” and therefore best for “them”; authentic and of intrinsically equal worth to ours.

I don't follow this. I observe that tribal belief is no more peaceable than ours; and that it suppresses individuality. People think collectively; first in terms of the community, extended family and tribe. This rural-traditional mindset feeds into the “big man” and gangster politics of the African city: the exaggerated respect for a swaggering leader, and the (literal) inability to understand the whole idea of loyal opposition.

Anxiety—fear of evil spirits, of ancestors, of nature and the wild, of a tribal hierarchy, of quite everyday things—strikes deep into the whole structure of rural African thought. Every man has his place and, call it fear or respect, a great weight grinds down the individual spirit, stunting curiosity. People won't take the initiative, won't take things into their own hands or on their own shoulders.

Christianity, post-Reformation and post-Luther, with its teaching of a direct, personal, two-way link between the individual and God, unmediated by the collective, and unsubordinate to any other human being, smashes straight through the philosphical/spiritual framework I've just described. It offers something to hold on to to those anxious to cast off a crushing tribal groupthink. That is why and how it liberates.

Those who want Africa to walk tall amid 21st-century global competition must not kid themselves that providing the material means or even the knowhow that accompanies what we call development will make the change. A whole belief system must first be supplanted.

And I'm afraid it has to be supplanted by another. Removing Christian evangelism from the African equation may leave the continent at the mercy of a malign fusion of Nike, the witch doctor, the mobile phone and the machete.

Perhaps if Christians in America looked more like those whom Parris observed in Africa, we wouldn't be so eager to reject a way of life "influenced by a conception of man's place in the Universe that Christianity had taught."
Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, January 18, 2009 at 11:47 am | Edit
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