The “I’s” Have It
I wonder if the rich man gets it wrong from the start. No, I don’t wonder. I’m sure he does. “What shall I do,” he asks the Good Teacher, “in order that I shall inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17, my translation and emphasis). The rich man’s focus is on his own situation as an individual. Perhaps it is that self-absorbed and self-interested perspective that elicits Jesus’ initial ire.
Jesus responds by quoting commandments focused on the covenant community. “Inheriting eternal life” has something important to do with our relationships with one another and how we treat one another – especially the vulnerable ones in that community. It is not, at least in this text, an individual reality. Here in Mark 10, salvation seems to be a community reality rather than an individual matter.
The argument that “being saved” is more about a community than about an individual runs opposite the assumption of most American, especially evangelical, Christianity. The possibility that human sin could have a structural dimension primarily and an individual dimension in secondary terms is regarded as even more problematic from such a perspective. In fact, it’s not an exaggeration to say that in the Evangelical Christian tradition as it is now expressed in America, there is no such thing as structural sin.
Robert P. Jones wrote a recent article for Time magazine entitled “The Unmaking of the White Christian Worldview.” He was kind enough to put an excerpt from that article on his social media platforms.
Jones describes his growing up years in a Southern Baptist congregation in Jackson, MS. He notes that his theological tradition was “a double inheritance.” On the one hand, he says, “I internalized a cycle of sin, confession and repentance as a daily part of my life.” This part of the inheritance was and is deeply individual.
On the other hand, the inheritance included assumed membership in a privileged community of faith. “Individually, I was a sinner,” he writes, “but collectively, I was part of a special tribe. Whatever our humble social stations might be,” he notes, “we white Christians were God’s chosen instruments of spreading salvation and civilization to the world.”
Jones argues that it has been “the power and sheer cultural dominance of white Christianity in America historically” that has allowed Evangelical Christians to hold these seemingly contradictory descriptions together. The real output of this perspective is that the intense focus on personal sin and salvation makes it possible to ignore and deny the collective and communal dimensions of sin altogether.
It’s no accident, therefore, that a rich man can ask salvation questions in the first person singular. What shall I do that I might be saved? Jesus’ response to him indicates, I think, that this is the wrong question right from the start. “How can we be the Kin(g)dom community together?” seems to be the question Jesus wants to answer. It is, however, the question that privilege refuses to ponder.
Jones expands on this theme in his book, White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity. “It’s nothing short of astonishing that a religious tradition with this relentless emphasis on salvation and one so hyperattuned to personal sin,” Jones writes, “can simultaneously maintain such blindness to social sins swirling about it, such as slavery and race-based segregation and bigotry” (page 96).
Jones reports the work of social scientists who have identified three elements in the “Evangelical Tool Kit” that make this perspective possible. Those three elements are “freewill individualism, relationalism, and antistructuralism” (page 97).
Individualism means that individuals are sovereignly responsible for their own actions. Relationalism means that all problems are rooted in individual relationships, not in laws or institutions. Antistructuralism rejects explanations for social problems that would lie in realities beyond the individual. This suspicion believes that any explanation for bad things other than individual sinfulness is out of bounds.
What is gained by the use of this toolkit? Economic inequities are the result of laziness. Governments should stay out of our school rooms, our pocketbooks, and our neighborhoods. Bad things that happen to people are their own damned faults. Good things that happen to people are due to individual merit, hard work, and accomplishment. Anything “social” or “structural” is a cultural artifact that can and should be ignored.
This discourse of individualism confers specific benefits on White people. Robin DiAngelo outlines these benefits in her article. I summarize her findings.
Individual White people can deny that race matters and that being White confers any advantages based on race. Individualism hides the generational accumulation of wealth. It denies the reality of social and historical context. It prevents any analysis of institutions and structures. It denies any power to culture and the tools of culture to shape individuals. Individualism permits color blindness and supports the myth of meritocracy. Only the privileged get to “be individuals.” And individualism keeps oppressed groups from acting as groups.
Individualism supports the status quo of White Supremacy. And it hides the structural nature of inequality. Problems are all a matter of a few bad apples in the barrel. All lives matter, so nothing systemic needs to change. Sound familiar?
Jones notes that this toolkit is not limited to those who self-identify as Evangelical Christians. In fact, it is the dominant worldview among White American Christians of a variety of theological stripes and traditions. In fact, for many of us, this toolkit simply defines what it means to be “American.” And it conveniently relieves us of any responsibility for our neighbors – especially those who happen not to be White or rich.
I am guilty, to a degree, of anachronism here. I don’t think the rich man was a prototype for White American Evangelical Christians of the twenty-first century. I do think, however, that power, privilege, position, and property operate much the same way in all human cultures and hierarchies. The more power, privilege, position, and property I have, the more likely I am to see myself exclusively as an individual with no real connections to or responsibilities for others.
“In the personal Jesus paradigm,” Jones writes, “Jesus did not die for a cause or for humankind writ large but for each individual person” (page 100). The question that makes sense in this paradigm is, “What must I do to be saved?” That’s it. “There’s nothing in this conceptual model,” Jones argues, “to provide a toehold for thinking about the way institutions or culture shape, promote, or limit human decisions or well-being” (page 100).
The rich man knows precisely how to interact with the “system” in his time. It is, for the most part, designed for him. He has kept all the commandments since he was a young man. He has had the time, the leisure, the status, and the financial resources to do whatever was required by the system. He also had the power and privilege to pretend that there wasn’t really a “system.” He was just doing the right thing, all on his own.
Jones notes that individualism allows for all sorts of moral and political sleight of hand. White evangelicals prior to the Civil War dismissed the brutality of slavery, he argues, “as acts of particular individuals rather than broad patterns; and the broad application of love and equality was denigrated as a move that illegitimately brought ‘politics’—by which they meant anything social or structural—into religion” (page 103).
Now we are, as they say, moving from preaching to meddling. That critique sounds painfully familiar to me. “Keeping politics out of the pulpit” is a way to maintain white power, privilege, position, and property – protected by the thin veneer of individual piety.
Jones writes that “the individualist theology that insists that Christianity has little to say about social injustice—created to shield white consciences from the evils and continued legacy of slavery and segregation—lives on, not just in white evangelical churches but also increasingly in white mainline and white Catholic churches as well” (page 105).
His conclusion is inescapable and devastating. “To put it succinctly,” the White Evangelical theological worldview “has often put white Christians in the curious position of arguing that their religion and their God require them to aim lower than the highest human values of love, justice, equality, and compassion” (page 105). I wonder if this critique might have traction with the story of the rich man in our text.
Why does this matter to Jones – and, I hope, to us? “Confronting a theology built for white supremacy would be a critical first step,” Jones writes, “for white Christians who want to recover a connection not just to our fellow African American Christians but also to our own identity and, more importantly, our humanity” (page 106).
In fairness to the rich man, he is simply operating from assumptions shared in the broader culture. Rich people, perhaps, get to be individuals. If they can’t be saved in that condition, the disciples wonder, then who can?
Peter points out that they have done what Jesus ask of the rich man. Jesus responds by describing the gift of community they are beginning to receive as a result. When Jesus talks about the impossible things that God will do, he describes this new Kin(g)dom. Jesus doesn’t talk about individual forgiveness and reconciliation. Jesus doesn’t launch into a treatise on justification by grace through faith. Jesus situates us in community – in relationship with all, including the vulnerable.
The Christian image of salvation is not an individual reality. Focus on the individual will lead to a privilege competition that has no part in the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Messiah and Son of God. We will be “saved” together or not at all, I think.
Of course, those of us who most benefit from “individual salvation” may leave this conversation sad, for we have many possessions.
References and Resources
DiAngelo, Robin J. “Why Can’t We All Just Be Individuals?: Countering the Discourse of Individualism in Antiracist Education.” Permalink https://escholarship.org/uc/item/5fm4h8wm. InterActions: UCLA Journal of Education and Information Studies, 6(1) Publication Date 2010-01-25 DOI 10.5070/D461000670.
Jones, Robert P. “The Unmaking of the White Christian Worldview.” https://robertpjones.substack.com/p/the-unmaking-of-the-white-christian?r=m09x3&utm_campaign=post&utm_medium=web&utm_source=&fbclid=IwAR3x1ubbXwm1HMXPxmG76O4uCUErS_SYSex5RA5zFXHl_7YncBDr0QaJsVs.
Jones, Robert P. White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity. Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Kindle Edition.
Metzger, Bruce M. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. New York: United Bible Societies, 1971.
Skinner, Matt. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-28-2/commentary-on-mark-1017-31-4. Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.