Evangelical Individualism



by Robert Glenn Howard

When we think of evangelical Christians today, we do not often imagine them forming small groups on the estates of their wealthiest adherents, reducing their reliance on infrastructure, and fostering a radical anti-establishment politics based on communal property. But the earliest Christians did just that. If you can forgive the anachronism, you could say they practiced a radical form of socialism characterised by common ownership. Today apocalyptic Christian believers might also eagerly await the return of Christ, but most of them aren’t selling their possessions and moving onto farming collectives while they wait.

A text from 130 AD, “The Epistle to Diognetus,” describes the “striking method of life” whereby diverse and dispersed Christians lived in the large cosmopolitan cities of Rome, “as citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners.” Historians tell us that the early Christian churches were “ecclesiae” or loose networks of people who met or possibly moved into in each others’ homes to wait for an imminent return of a god who would judge their enemies and unify their souls with the divine. While they waited, they sought to establish a communal social fabric that provided an alternate to that of the hegemonic economic and civil structures of the Roman Empire. With their refusal to pay taxes, which took the form of sacrifices to the pagan divinities including the Emperor himself, the Christians were persecuted by mainstream society. As their numbers swelled, they remained radical “foreigners” in every land until (their messiah still not returned) the Roman Emperor Constantine gave up getting rid of them and made their leaders judges in local courts in 313 AD. Then they largely gave up waiting for God in 426 AD when St. Augustine declared the doctrine of Christ’s imminent return and judgment to be a spiritual instead of a political message. Christians became the hegemonic force instead of the resistance, and the rest is, as they say, history.

While doing the research for my study of how contemporary evangelical Christians are using the internet to form communities, Digital Jesus (2011 NYU), I was struck when one couple told me that by using social media to talk about the “End Times” they were acting “like first century Christians.” With the help of today’s digital network technologies, these Christians can virtually meet in their homes. They can study and practice their beliefs without the leadership of ministers or priests. They can foster a shared sense that the end is near and that the hegemonic forces of mainstream society are persecuting them. One big difference between the 1st and these 21st century Christians is, however, that while some specific groups probably do practice communal ownership, of the hundreds of individuals I have located and the many I have interviewed online over the last 20 years or so, I have not met one apocalyptic Christian believer who also practices the communal ownership of their ancient counterparts.

Why not?  What is different? With the rest of us around here, contemporary apocalypse Christians are profoundly individualistic.

Believers today can use social media to locate hundreds of thousands of others who quietly believe the same thing: that they each individually possess special knowledge that mainstream society does not. Sharing advice and links to obscure websites and stores, they can help each other ready themselves and their families for the turbulent times before Christ’s return when Christians will be persecuted by a one-world government. The apocalyptic believers of the 1st century seemed to believe the same thing, in the 21st century these believers can connect with each other individually without having to connect with anything collectively. Studying network communication technologies for more than 20 years now, I am struck by how these technologies possess the power to both connect and isolate.

On the internet, every node is designed to operate independently even if every other node ceased to operate. The basic technology of the internet, TCP/IP and its ability to deliver data in packets, connects us, but it also isolates us because it encourages us to imagine ourselves as radically independent from the social fabric in which we live. Radical activist and apocalyptic prepper alike rely on the corporations and governments that make digital networks work, and separation from them would make our individualism simply impossible.

Today, individuals can use social media to locate each other, share ideas, and even act communally.  We can redeploy the mundane medium where we post pictures of our kids to create powerful political protests based on our ongoing engagement with like-minded others. In this sense, we are far more connected to each other than were the 1st century Christians. However, we are not, as they were, forced to engage our beliefs side-by-side with nonbelievers. The 1st century Christians couldn’t order $8000.00 worth of nitrogen packed emergency meals from TheSurvivalPlace.Com and put them in their suburban basement. Living in the cosmopolitan cities of the Roman Empire, they would have to engage their neighbours to grow and store that food—often face-to-face; in this sense they were embedded in the larger communities of their times in ways believers today do not need to be. The early Christians chose communal ownership and cooperative labour as the only way to loosen the hold mainstream society had on their daily lives because they had no ability to connect with each other alongside but apart from their real-world neighbours. Apocalyptic believers today have an easier road because, with TheSurvivalPlace.Com as a resource, they can travel that road more or less alone.

The 21st century’s surge of individuals thinking about and even adhering to apocalyptic ideas is no doubt partially a result of the increasing anxiety caused by a near constant bombardment with images and stories of a world ridden with political unrest and natural disaster, careening toward an assured destruction. Unlike the 1st century, however, today’s apocalypticism is radically individualistic and characterised by a profound sense that we can go-it-alone at the end of time. And these believers today are not so different from our political activists—or even our daily lives. Today’s radical individualism seems to be a product of our overall sense that we are not so much a collective as we are a collection of individuals; and this sense of individuality has been made available to us in very real ways by our 21st century technologies. Technologies to which the communal Christians of the 1st century had no access.

Piece originally posted at The Occupied TimesCreative Commons Licence
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