This Christmas, I’ve found myself in a hierarchical, litigious (and in an odd way), communally isolated Australia. How on earth did we get here?
Western culture is built upon freedom and individuality. We value our own goals, our own expression, our own categories of thinking and being. We define our own roles on our own path, inspired to fulfil the dreams of our own making.
One great thing about individualism is that people aren’t forced to do anything they don’t want to. There are limitations of course. We don’t want to hurt anyone else on the way, we want to be tolerant of other people’s ways of thinking and we don’t want to place obstacles in the way of someone’s self-fulfillment.
Maybe it’s a hangover from our convict past, but Australia’s particular brand of individualism also shuns hierarchy. Hierarchy carries with it the suggestion that someone with a title is ‘better than me,’ and we don’t like the thought of that. Neither do we like rules being imposed on us. People ought to be autonomous and in charge of their own bodies and choices.
So you can imagine my surprise to find that something has happened in Australia off the back of the COVID-19 pandemic. Turns out individualism is great when it’s business as usual, but when mass tragedy strikes, it becomes necessary to think of ourselves as a community that can rely on one another. We’ve even realised that it’s good to have someone in charge. How did we get here?
We’ve seen the empty grocery store shelves, the result of individuals hoarding for themselves. We’ve also seen people flocking to the beach amidst calls for a united effort to maintain social distance and flatten the curve. But we’ve also seen the results in other nations that don’t share the same individualist culture as Australia. These cultures, such as Japan and Taiwan, have been much more successful at stemming the rapid spread of coronavirus. A Taiwanese relative of mine highlighted their collectivist perspective when discussing face masks. Whilst Australia has asked, “will a face mask protect me from the virus?”, in Taiwan they’ve said, “wearing face masks will help protect others.”
As a Christian, I’m surprised that the West, a culture significantly influenced by the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, isn’t a little more like Taiwan in this regard. Why do I say this? Two reasons.
Firstly, because of one of Jesus’ most famous sayings: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Matt 7:12). At first glance, this might seem very similar to our modern Western philosophy of – “do what you want, just don’t hurt anyone else”. But the subtle difference is everything. Whereas most of us would never deliberately hurt someone less fortunate – which is admirable – Jesus goes further and asks us to provide them with free food and board. The leftovers of this ideology are still evident in the West. The Western system of welfare was built on it, after all. I imagine we’ll do all we can in Australia to hold onto social services like Medicare, but is it reasonable to think that an individualistic society like ours will continue to think of new and sacrificial ways to care for other people – particularly when there can be no foreseeable benefit (not even social media glory) for ourselves?
The second reason I’m surprised is the concept of ‘church’. Not many Australians are involved in a church today and fewer and fewer are considering themselves religious at all. Nevertheless, the majority of those from a European background will share a cultural heritage of ‘church’. The New Testament uses a number of analogies to describe church and a body is one of them. A body has many different members – hands, feet, a head. Each member has a different function, but all are part of the same body. One member cannot operate without the others, and it even relies upon the others for its own proper functioning. What Australians might struggle with is that for a body to function well (to push the analogy), a hand needs to be a hand, a foot a foot, and a head a head. In the context of community, this means that I might need to sacrifice my desire for autonomy, and submit to the leadership of the head, for the sake of the proper functioning of the whole. I might just need to remain functioning as a thumb, and that’s okay!
Churches are little communities where this sacrificial love is alive and well. On an ordinary day it’s a beautiful thing. But communities like this really shine during hardship. Helping one another in sacrificial ways will come naturally to them because of their understanding of what the church is and how it’s called to function – ways that hyper-individualist cultures struggle with.
Australia is beginning to realise again the value of personal sacrifice for the sake of many. As we work together by staying at home, helping those most vulnerable, and listening to the direction of our national leaders, we have seen the curve flatten and the cases dwindle. It’s been incredibly hard for many people, but as I understand it, many lives may have been saved already. What will life be like on the other side? Will we flip back to a more individualistic outlook? My hope is that through this, our individualistic culture might rediscover the relevance of Jesus’ teaching. Yet furthermore, that we would rediscover the supreme value of Jesus’ sacrificial act of love for us. I also hope that those of us who are Christian will be better at faithfully reaching out and inviting those around us to experience just how good life in God’s family can be.