The Bible and Rugged Individualism

Richard H. Hiers

Biblical traditions recall the deeds of many women who acted decisively and effectively on behalf of both themselves and others in the community. Unlike the contemporary ideal – or idol – of the entrepreneur or self-made man, most of these women, while certainly enterprising, as well as courageous, were not simply out to advance their own interests. Instead, their actions were meant to contribute to the well-being of other persons and of the larger communities in which they lived.

Several biblical texts emphasize the importance of caring for widows and other vulnerable persons in the community. Laws intended to assist such persons can be characterized aptly as “biblical social welfare legislation,” which provided them a kind of safety net or social security through a series of practical arrangements. Throughout the Old Testament it is understood that YHWH was concerned with the welfare of his people. Biblical laws regularly give expression to this same concern.

Old Testament law and practice can be contrasted with the modern ideology of autonomous (or rugged) individualism. In its extreme form, proponents of this ideology insist that it is right to seek one’s own advantage, but wrong to assist others except in exchange for equal value received.[1] According to this vision, life from cradle to grave consists of a perpetual process of bargaining or trading value for value.[2] The tacit corollary is that social safety nets are anathema, and that people who are unable to pay their own way should be so obliging as to perish quietly, preferably out of sight, without disturbing the more fortunate. Those who cannot pay their way, including children, the ill, disabled, unemployed, disaster victims, future generations, and all kinds of domestic animals and wildlife, do not count, since, necessarily, they are unable to exchange quid pro quo with present-day entrepreneurs.

It may be appropriate to mention that something like rugged individualism is said to have been at the root of the brutal anarchy, characterized by rape, murder, civil war, genocide, and the nearly total disintegration of what had been the emerging nation of Israel that obtained during the latter part of the Period of the Judges: “In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes.”[3]

In our time, people who care about others are sometimes dismissed as bleeding hearts or liberals. And persons who serve in helping professions such as school teachers, nurses, public defenders, and primary care physicians – whether male or female – are likely to be paid substantially less than those who undertake to advance their careers in more prestigious and remunerative vocations. The apparent rational for such low esteem and compensation seems to be that helping others is considered less important than helping one’s self.[4] Only a few decades ago, in the McCarthy era, many Americans believed that people who were concerned about others in the community must be “communists,” “socialists,” and anyhow “un-American.” It is significant that there is no basis in biblical tradition for the notion that there is something wrong or unworthy about caring for or serving the welfare of others and the larger community. Quite the contrary.

Richard Hiers ’54 B.A, ’57 B.D., ’59 M.A., ’61 Ph.D. is Professor of Religion, emeritus, and Affiliate Professor of Law, emeritus, at the University of Florida. This excerpt from his new book, Women’s Rights and the Bible: Implications for Christian Ethics and Social Policy (Pickwick Publications), is granted with permission of the publisher.

1. This ideology comes to clear expression in the writings of Ayn Rand, particularly in her book The Virtue of Selfishness. See Sturm, Solidarity and Suffering, for a quite different vision of the human condition, emphasizing community rather than the individual. Robert Bellah and others have reflected on the peculiar difficulty Americans have explaining their involvement in community concerns on the basis of individual self-interest. See Bellah, et. al. in Habits of the Heart. Reinhold Niebuhr’s reflections on the themes of the individual and community are perhaps even more relevant to understanding and evaluating the American scene in the second decade of the twenty-first century than when he first set them down. See e.g. Niebuhr, Children of Light, esp. chapter 11; also Irony of American History and Man’s Nature and Communities. See also Rebecca Hiers, “Leadership from the Heart,” Journal of Law and Religion 26 (2011) pp.541-83 (reflecting on Native American values and practices), and Sarah Vowell, The Wordy Shipmates (examining the modern relevance of Puritan ideals).

2. Wendell Berry draws a sketch of modern marriage grounded on such norms: “Marriage, in what is evidently its most popular version, is now on the one hand an intimate ‘relationship’ involving (ideally) two successful careerists in the same bed, and on the other hand a sort of private political system in which rights and interests must be constantly asserted and defended. Marriage, in other words, has now taken the form of divorce: a prolonged and impassioned negotiation as to how things shall be divided.” What Are People For?, p. 180.

3. Judges 17-21 describes the course of gruesome events during those chaotic years (approx. 1200-1000 BCE). The thematic statement quoted here (Judges 17:6 and 21:25) frames or brackets the book’s account of these events. The biblical narrator-commentator clearly condemned and expected readers to condemn the atrocities against women (and men) described in these pages.

4. The same is generally the case as to people in service occupations, such as: farm workers, fire fighters, grocery clerks, hotel and motel housekeepers, janitors, police officers, postal workers, restaurant and fast food waiters and waitresses, street cleaners, and trash collectors.