Jesus and Ayn Rand, Part 2: Re-Membering

Somewhere between the Borg and the Lone Ranger humanity thrives. How to define precisely where that Goldilocks sweet spot is (to toss in another cultural reference) varies depending on historical era and social location.

But we need to be very clear about this: The United States has never even come close to Borg-style “collectivism” (as Ayn Rand called it). To the contrary, the dominant Anglo-European (a.k.a. white) culture in the United States has instead preferred to idealize Lone-Ranger-style individualism, frontier independence, and to resist notions of shared responsibility (except in times of great peril, such as World War II).

In that light, it is nearly miraculous that the U.S. Congress ever passed the Social Security Act, provided Medicare for senior citizens, Medicaid to the poor, or food stamps for the hungry. Yet even those modest victories in shouldering one another’s burdens now stand at risk, especially if Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan win the election this November.

Social policy is important, but that’s not what’s really at stake in this election. Two very different visions for the future of this country are on the ballot this fall. And the differences are deeply philosophical, ideological, and yes, religious.

Faith communities of all kinds have an important role to play in these debates, not for the sake of imposing religious beliefs on anyone, but for bearing witness to our shared humanity in communities of generosity and service. (We can also draw on ostensibly “non-religious” sources for these important insights, such as this compelling piece that appeared recently in the New York Times on the “delusion of individualism.”)

Christian communities in particular would do well to reflect on our own traditions as November approaches. Here are just two observations among many.

“Socialism” is not Code for “Godless Communism”
Some self-styled “conservative” Christians still worry about this. A blog devoted to this anxiety actually referenced one of my blog posts as the writer issued a warning about liberal clergy undermining individual freedom in favor of state control.

I don’t take that anxiety lightly; I think Jesus actually shared it. Jesus of Nazareth lived and taught under the oppressive thumb of the Roman Empire and died by its hand. He knew something about fragmented communities, and how religion can quickly acquiesce to imperial power, and what the struggles of the poor and outcast look like.

I think the first-century Jesus would have understood very well what led Ayn Rand to choose so definitively for the self against all its encroachments. Roman soldiers were present at nearly every street corner. They monitored every transaction at the temple in Jerusalem (prompting Jesus to acts of civil disobedience). They levied taxes “without representation” and demanded loyalty to the Emperor.

If you’re living under the kind of imperial power that quashes all individuality (or even perceiving yourself to be), opting for the self over all else makes sense. But Jesus chose a different path: creating a community of disciples whom he called his family; taking on the role of a servant, washing their feet, and telling them to do the same thing; and eventually giving his life for the sake of love.

Eucharistic Theology isn’t Just for Sunday Mornings
In a world of deep fragmentation and, as I suggested in Part 1 of this blog series, in a society perched on the brink of social “dismemberment,” the Christian celebration of the Eucharist has at its heart the Greek concept of anamnesis. We usually associate this word with memory, or the opposite of “amnesia.” But it evokes something stronger: the act of re-membering what has been torn apart.

Many Christian communities over the last few weeks have been hearing from John’s gospel on Sunday mornings about bread, about the feeding of 5,000 with just five loaves and two fish, about the “manna in the wilderness,” and about Jesus’ own body as the bread of the world.

Christians in the first few centuries after Jesus turned often to these passages in the sixth chapter of John’s gospel to describe the Eucharist. And they did so by evoking the image of the many grains of wheat scattered over a hillside gathered into a single loaf of bread – the dismembered is re-membered as food for the world.

There precisely is where my theological conservatism and my social liberalism intersect. God gives God’s own self for the good of God’s own creation. And this creates a community whose members do the same thing.

The Rev. Elder Jim Mitulski of New Spirit Community Church often refers to the Eucharist like this:

What we do at this table is what we want to see in the world: all are welcome; there is enough for everyone; and no one is turned away.

Christians have something to say about Rand-style selfishness that now infects today’s political discourse. And we say it every time we gather around a table to share bread and wine, as we gather to re-member again what has been dis-membered.

That’s the hopeful vision we can and should take with us into the public square. I would call it “socialism,” but it certainly isn’t godless.

Author: The Rev. Dr. Jay

I'm an Episcopal priest, parish pastor, and Christian theologian as well as a writer, teacher, and occasionally, a poet. I'm committed to the transforming energy of the Christian gospel and its potential to change the world -- even today. Now that's peculiar, thank God!

4 thoughts on “Jesus and Ayn Rand, Part 2: Re-Membering”

  1. I enjoyed your presentation in both parts of this discussion. I agree with your observation that fringed members of the community seek a community to belong to (e.g. white supremacists.) I’m curious, how do you square Rand’s invidividualistic approach with the society she creates in Atlas Shrugged? I.e. the industrialists and capitalists in AS also feel like they are on the fringes of society and thereby create their own utopian existence. Would it be fair to say that Jon Galt’s actions are like Jesus’ in that sense – both create a community for the oppressed?

  2. The problem is we have bred a society full of entitled parasites with this welfare state. The people who are capable of getting ahead, prospering and having a good life are being hindered by those incapables which they have to carry with them. Why should my taxes go to subsidizing someone else’s idiotically bad lifestyle choices or sheer laziness? That is a question that, time and again, no collectivist can answer.

    1. Thanks for taking time to respond! I’m not sure exactly how to respond in return, but our taxes go for many things that our society has agreed we all should share together: fire departments, police protection, road building and repair, public schools, libraries, and yes, elder care, health coverage for retired folks, assistance programs for those who are mentally or physically challenged. The list goes on. Are there some who take advantage of system like this? Of course. Does that mean we should abolish the system to Ayn Rand style individualism, every man (literally) for himself? I pray not. I really do think it comes down to the choice between having a society in which we seek to share the burdens, even though some will abuse it, or a system in which no one shares the burdens. I choose the former. And indeed the latter would be disaster for everyone, including the rich.

  3. Ayn Rand saw all the virtues of industrialism (of which there are many) and none of the vices- pollution, unsafe products, and so forth- all of which require public vigilance.

    I have often wondered why in “The Fountainhead” Roark doesn’t just sue Keating for violation of contract. This plot-hole reveals that the notion of a private (but publicly enforcable) contract between two private entities just doesn’t exist in RandLand even though it’s a vital part of any genuine capitalism, again re-enforcing my conviction that Rand has no notion of !*authentic*! community.

    Rand describes her heroes as full of joy, as celebrators of life and creativity, but they in fact come across as socially stunted.

    Capitalism moored in ethics, accountability, and realism about the world’s limits and people’s limits is fine by me. It’s the untethered version that Rand seems to advocate.

    I like this quote recently cited on Paul Krugman’s blog but of unknown origin
    “”There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.”

    Jay, on the lighter side, since you both wish to critique Rand and you enjoy Star Trek, there is a 1998 paperback book called “Treks not taken” which contains hypothetical NextGeneration episodes (in short story format) “written by” Stephen King, Anne Rice, Kurt Vonnegut, etc. and yes, there is a hypothetical episode “written by” Ayn Rand called “Fandom Shrugged”. If you can find it, check it out.

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