“What’s your beast?” I paused after reading that question in the conclusion of a paper I was grading. My student had written a thoughtful analysis of Rev 13:1–10, but I was confused by the query. Specifically, I was thrown by the reduction of the beast in Rev 13:1–8—a symbol of imperial power and its systems of violence, domination, and economic exploitation—to a concern for individual piety. The conclusion continued with ruminations on individual sins. Perhaps a hobby that pulls you away from church services is your beast. Is gossip your beast? Maybe viewing pornography has become your beast. Somehow, a systemic and structural power had, in the end, been rescaled to the level of personal sin.
I don’t share this story to demean my student. In fact, my immediate feeling was disappointment in myself! How had I so badly failed to broaden my students’ perspectives on the complex text of Revelation? I also don’t share this story out of a disdain for personal piety. I am, after all, a Methodist! Rather, the experience triggered an insight for me. It helped me to name a certain worldview—a set of predispositions, perspectives, and tendencies—that I’d discerned in my students and myself but had struggled to put my finger on until that moment. I’m referring to a particular flavor of American individualism that influences how we read the Bible and how we perceive and engage the world more broadly.
Our individualism complicates our ability to identify ourselves primarily as part of a community. We cannot be absorbed into some larger group that would allow others to make generalizations about us. No, we have our own social security numbers, work our own jobs, and file our own taxes. The US is not a vast ocean; it’s nearly 330 million individual drops. We therefore assert our personal rights, demand our personal liberties, and live according to our personal preferences. To be sure, I don’t think we should erase the notion of individuals and think purely in collective terms. But when we boil everything down to individual identities, rights, and responsibilities, we diminish our capacity to think in systemic, structural, and collectivistic terms.
In recent decades, researchers in multiple fields have (re)discovered the relational nature of human existence. For a person to have a “sense of self” at all she must gain it from encountering another. Human perceptions, worldviews, beliefs, and even moral agency are all developed by and sustained in relationships. In the words of the well-known African proverb, “I am because we are.”
Similarly, NT scholars increasingly recognize the relational nature of the person as described in the writings of the apostle Paul, expressed, above all, in his metaphor of the church as “the body of Christ” (1 Cor 12:12–31; Rom 12:4–5). Christ has become part of believers, yes. But, perhaps more importantly, believers are part of Christ—we are “in Christ” as Paul likes to say. Accordingly, the church is less like a collection of individual “members” and more like a single body from which individuals derive our existence and personhood. We are, as Paul writes, part of Christ’s body, and “individually we are members of one another” (Rom 12:5).
Likewise, for Paul, moral decision-making begins not with assertions of our personal rights, but, instead, with concern for others. Whether he discusses sexual propriety, dietary practices, or the use of spiritual gifts, he instructs believers to act in ways that build up others and lead to communal flourishing. That ethical norm often demands that those with power deny their personal preferences and forgo making use of their personal liberties for the good of the larger body. After all, Paul reasons, such is what Christ himself did (Phil 2:5–11).
Hyper-individualism cannot sustain a deeply relational understanding of human existence and morality. Considering the most pressing challenges of our day—our “beasts” if you will—whether the COVID-19 pandemic, mass shootings, racism, climate change, or something else, a “You do you” mentality doesn’t measure up to the realities we face. We are, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” If that destiny is to reflect the beauty of God’s kingdom, then we must learn to think in structural, systemic, and collective terms. We must have our minds and our practices transformed by the conviction that we are indeed members one of another.