My friend Breanna Randall shares some thought-provoking observations about community life in North America and Southeast Asia:
It’s not my goal to communicate that my Southeast Asian neighborhood is objectively better than that of my North American counterparts (though I’ve not tried to hide my personal preferences, as you can see). I don’t intend to communicate that anyone reading this in North America is entirely responsible for the isolation and individualism that manifests itself in the American lifestyle.
But my time outside North America has helped me observe new things about its values, and I’ve come to question some of the motives behind the systems that shape the American lifestyle and neighborhoods. And the longer I observe, the more questions I have, especially for the Christians in the room.
I find myself wondering, is the individualism that led to the design of the North American neighborhood bad for our souls and bad for our communities?
What does it mean for the common good of the poor, of those who do not have resources to access this American dream, if the rest of us are sequestered in isolated living situations, or sending our kids to private institutions?
What if the things we think make us safe actually make us more vulnerable?
I think Breanna’s right on: isolation and individualism really do seem to be spiritually and emotionally toxic for people, and the Christian forms of this that want a Christian community sequestered off from anyone else seem especially dangerous because they treat evangelism and ministry to the needy as optional parts of the Christian life.
However, I was troubled recently by a conversation with an African colleague. He asked me what I liked about living in East Africa, and one of the things I mentioned was the sense of community and the burden of obligation that people share with one another — how people here recognize that there are obligations we have to other because they are family or part of our community, not because we’ve necessarily chosen to care for them. My colleague was surprised because he felt like many Africans are trying to escape those values and be more like the West!