“Individualism lies at the very core of American culture,” writes Robert Bellah in his influential work, Habits of the Heart.
“Our highest and noblest aspirations, not only for ourselves, but for those we care about, for our society and world, are closely linked to our individualism. Yet…some of our deepest problems both as individuals and as a society are also closely linked to our individualism.”
In a nation of individuals, differences abound. That’s actually a good thing: God created humans to each express their God-given design in unique and diverse ways. The gospel isn’t opposed to individuality; it’s opposed to individualism. The difference? Individuality celebrates our uniqueness; individualism denies man’s common purpose.
Thus, differences abound, and for lack of common purpose difference only breeds distance, and distance breeds distrust.
The problem of individualism is nothing new. In fact, in Eden’s paradise man and woman chose to reject God’s designs to seek their own fulfillment—and we’ve been wiping the juice from our chin ever since.
How do we reverse this?
The temptation is to reclaim justice through a relentless devotion to fairness. Fairness is the currency of individualism, for through fairness do we hope to see ourselves validated and transgressors punished.
In fact, fairness is so central to our understanding of the world that we become incensed at the presence of a lack of fairness. Even our conversations about racial reconciliation are replete with statements about fairness and equality.
The Christian ethic isn’t built upon fairness, but upon virtue. The cross shatters any expectation I have about fairness, for through the cross the righteous becomes sin so that sinners become righteous. God’s justice is met, yet we stand aghast at how this confronts any notion—or any demand—we might have of “fairness.”
So when Jesus asks that we “take up the cross” and follow him, we have to realize that Jesus’ ethics have little to do with self-validation, and everything to do with self-sacrifice.
THE GOSPEL AND FAIRNESS
Now understand, the ancient people lived by a principle we know as lex talonis—the famous “eye for an eye” system of punishment (Exodus 21:24) designed to maintain social stability. But Jesus challenges his readers that now, in the shadow of the cross, this former way of thinking proves itself inadequate:
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. (Matthew 5:38-42)
In the first-century world, Jews were merely tolerated by the Romans. Therefore Roman soldiers were known to make unfriendly demands of the Jews. We might imagine that many of the ancient people expected their Savior to call for a political revolution. Jesus’ revolution would start with the human heart.
If we only had this passage to work with, we might assume that Jesus is calling his followers to serve as mere doormats. Not so. We must read this passage in light of the gospel. The gospel says that despite my in-born brokenness, God revealed his eternal significance by rescuing me through the blood of the cross. That means my worth can never be measured by what I do—positively or negatively—because nothing I do can be so good as to render the cross unnecessary, and nothing I do can be so bad as to render the cross insufficient. This also means that no one is beyond the reach of God’s grace. Therefore to follow Jesus is to follow the way of the cross, to extend love to the world around us…even when it’s not fair. Fairness appeals to human performance; God’s love appeals to Jesus’ performance.
Jesus goes on to talk about the way we engage those who seem different from us:
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:43-48)
It’s tempting to divide the world into “liberal” and “conservative,” “democrat” and “republican,” “black” and “white”—all variations of the divide between “us” and “them.”
Jesus says that such divisions are impossible in light of God’s grace—and God’s grace is shown to all people. Historically this has been called “common grace.” Common grace isn’t about salvation, but about God’s kindness and compassion on his creation. The ancient teachers used to see even the rain (a necessity when your whole economy was based on the growth of your crops) as a sign of God’s goodness.
Jesus therefore calls each of us to mirror that same goodness in love for our neighbors.
Are you willing to show love to your neighbors? Even those who look, think, or act differently than you? Your life, your love, your example may be the only gospel your neighbors ever hear. Does your life story rhyme with that of Jesus? Or are you too busy worrying about what’s fair?
 Robert Bellah, Habits of the Heart, p. 142.