"Individual vs. Community" and Anti-Oppression

Unitarian Universalism, in the main, has broken with the mythology of the Enlightenment: that, in some prehistoric dream time, free individuals voluntarily made a social contract to create society to serve each other's mutual needs with justice.

Unitarian Universalism, in the main, has turned to the more realistic understanding that human beings have always been, and will always be, in a social context. No human being ever decided to enter it social life; every human being has been born into a social context, part of a social group. 

Therefore, we now say that humans are creatures of community before they are anything else. To the extent that our theology, anthropology, and ecclesiology have all placed the individual first, they have been mistaken. 

Hence, some UU's argue that the first should be last and the last should be first, at least when it comes to the order of the seven principles. "Interdependence" precedes each person's inherent worth and dignity, or individualism. 

"Individual over community" or "community over individual": the whole dichotomy is made moot by the intention to be anti-oppressive. (We stated that intention when we said our goal was to be an anti-racist, anti-oppressive and multicultural religious movement). The commitment to be anti-oppressive introduces the categories of social power and justice into our theological and anthropological discussions. 

Not only have human beings always been in communities, but those communities have always been, in some way or another, agents of oppression. Society, social institutions, and even communities are  formed by the process of the powerful imposing themselves and their needs on those who are weaker. Community formation is the exercise of social power, which is, in almost all cases, unequally distributed.

(Unitarian Universalists should know this by their own experience. If you look at the formation of any of our communities, whether an old church, or a new fellowship, you see that some of the founders have the power to shape the new institution more to their liking, and some founders go along, or submit.)

Both the powerful and the powerless are composed of individuals existing in communities. Communities exert power over individuals; some individuals oppress their own communities; more powerful communities oppress less powerful communities.

So, our discussion of whether the community or the individual is primary misses the point. The most important question is power: Does Unitarian Universalism submit to and enable the powers and principalities of this world? 

Having seen through the illusion of the Enlightenment's mythology (free individuals co-creating society), we have two choices: one is invent another mythology -- that of the beneficent pre-existing community (a golden age of beloved community) -- and the other is to look at the world as it really is, and to choose to create a community of resistance.

(Text edited and revised by me on March 3, 2014)


  1. Great post. At the end you give two choices that I don't think are mutually exclusive. The dream of an ideal or perfect community can motivate and inform those who are facing reality and creating communities of resistance.

  2. Works for me to think of the Beloved Community as a 'strange attractor'.

    And individuals are created by the community that they exist in (particularly are raised in, but far from exclusively that), and they co-create the community they are in. So it's not either/or, but rather both-and.

  3. Adams lived among us, but we comprehended him not. (at least my generation who knew Jim.)

    Adams argued that the religous liberalism (as distinct from political and economic liberalism) found its roots in the radical reformation in which people found their individuality in community (kiona) proclaiming prophecy (kerygma) of the Spirit of transformation on all powers and principalities of the age. He found the liberalism of the enlightenment to gentile, to accomadationist.


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