“Isms” That Threaten to Undo Us: Individualism

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; February 21, 2021

1st Sunday in Lent

Romans 12:1-21


About 7 years ago, I helped design a Cultural Issues Class using movies to prompt conversation. During the planning phase, an elder in the church I was serving said to me, “Well, I would never talk about controversial issues at church.” When I asked why, he answered, “Because someone might get upset or even leave the church.” I remember walking home afterward, shaking my head, and wondering, “If we can’t talk about weighty issues at church, where can believers talk about them? And what if some things that are controversial are also important to our greater life in the community?


Maybe this exchange seems mundane to you—but to me—as a pastor—it was anything but mundane. In fact, I have carried this conversation in my pocket ever since. And now, here we are, in what feels like one of the most controversial times in American history. There is so much division, so much anger, so much unrest. And now, it seems that everything is political. And what I mean is that the things that matter, the things that need to be addressed, the things that keep us up at night—they have been made into political weapons. Are we to remain silent, still? If not, how do we move forward? What is ours to say? What is ours to do?


As your spiritual leader, these are the kinds of questions I have been lifting in prayer, day after day. I believe an answer came through the idea of a Lenten sermon series we begin today. “Isms That Threaten to Undo Us” is a foray into some important cultural issues. With all the wisdom and humility I can muster, I plan to speak my truth from this pulpit. But since the series is meant to promote dialogue, I hope you will join me on Zoom each Monday at 6:30 p.m. during Lent for what I am calling “Holy Conversations.” Our virtual time will give you a chance to speak your own truth—without judgment or debate. It will also provide a sacred space for us to pray together as believers who are seeking the wisdom of God, above all things.


To begin, let us consider the suffix “ism.” It is commonly added to a word to indicate a practice, prejudice, property, or abnormal condition, like sexism, alcoholism, Buddhism. We may think that “isms” are new to our day and time but that is hardly the case: Nazism, Communism, and McCarthyism, come to mind. During this Season of Lent, though, we will consider other “isms”: Individualism, Ageism, Domestic Terrorism, Consumerism, Christian Nationalism, and Racism. Our exploration will end on Easter Sunday with Radical Optimism. Thanks be to God!


Today’s topic is Individualism. The term, first used in the early 1800s, is defined as a doctrine that the interests of the individual are or ought to be paramount, that all values, rights, and duties originate in individuals. Regarding individualist behavior, the Book of Judges in the Hebrew Bible offers insight. Judges records a dark time in the history of the people of Israel. It was a time of violence, massacre, brutality, and deceit—not quite what you would expect in God’s story of salvation. Yet, there it is—in black and white. And twice in the book, we find this refrain: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” In other words, everyone did what they felt like doing.


Steven Charleston is an Episcopal priest as well as a Native American Indian. In his book, Ladder to the Light, he has this to say about individualism:


Colonialism brought to America the idea of individualism. The rugged individualist was the pioneer who saw what he wanted and took it. In this reality, community was rooted in convenience, and it became an endless competition between individuals who came together or broke apart for any number of economic or political reasons. In contrast, my ancestors believed in individuality: each person’s right to be uniquely who they are but never to be ostracized or isolated from their collective community. Diversity, therefore, was preserved in the heart of unity.


While we have certainly benefited from individualism that fueled the trek out West, centuries later, individualism has been taken to extremes. Some say we have become a “selfie nation.” Interestingly, sandwiched between Colonial individualism and a selfie nation, another time in American history stands out when the desire for community actually outweighed individual desires. Following WWII, people worked toward a shared national agenda, energized by a willingness to sacrifice and collaborate for the common good. The result was the building of numerous institutions—including churches on every street corner. With abundant resources of both people and money—the church played a critical role in leading discussions and shaping the community.[i] Although we may look back nostalgically on the 1940’s and ‘50’s as the good old days, a closer glance reveals that for many people they were not so good. Yes, institutions were being established to serve us, but they would not serve all of us in the same way—particularly when it came to women and people of color.


Fast forward a few decades, and we are now a generation that no longer trusts many of the social systems that were put in place to sustain healthy communities. Episcopal Priest Steven Charleston continues,


In this darkness, we are beset by questions… Can we live together in peace when we disagree? Can we accept the idea that change and tradition are not mutually exclusive? Can we realize that diversity is an innate human characteristic? Can we understand that our ecosystem is a survival pod with limited range and resources? Can we learn that having more for the few is not as important as having enough for the many?


Any reasonable look at American culture today would verify a pervasive unease about the path our society is taking. It does not matter whether we label ourselves as conversative or progressive; the reality we share means many of us are losing confidence. We are worried. The ground seems to be shifting beneath our feet… We are afraid, and we are looking for a way out of the darkness into the light.


Where do we go from here? The work of the church has always been to point people to Christ. But instead of serving as a beacon of light, we have gotten sucked into the vortex of anxiety and chaos. Afraid of speaking truth to power, we have become followers of the culture around us instead of leaders; we have become silent and thus, complicit. Plagued by individualism, even church members have become more interested in security than in the responsibility we have for the greater good.


While Christianity at its core is personal, intimate and, yes, individual, it is not private. It is not individualistic. Furthermore, the weighty problems we face will not be solved by individuals. It will take all of us, with our different skills, different strengths, and different experiences to build a shared abundant life of peace, forgiveness, justice, and love—for all God’s children. If we fear we are not up to the task, let us remember that God is in the chaos and the Spirit is eager to provide everything we need for the journey ahead. Amen.

[i] Gil Rendle, Quietly Courageous: Leading the Church in a Changing World. 160.

*Cover Art by Rara Schlitt, Used by permission.