Yesterday in Dallas, twelve police officers were shot at a Black Lives Matter protest, with five killed (two civilians were wounded as well). They were there to keep the peace, to direct traffic, and protect those on the streets of Dallas, including the protesters. Whether the recent tragic shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were right or wrong, these officers had nothing to do with them. They were just doing their job.
That didn’t matter to the shooters. They knew the police would be there keeping the peace at an event where heightened emotions raised the risk violent confrontation without a police presence, and they came prepared and armed to the teeth. More details will emerge in the coming days—most importantly, whether the injured officers live—but it’s clear now that three or four of the people at the protest were there not to show solidarity with those condemning the shootings, but to take “revenge” on police officers.
This should not be surprising. For years, the distinctly Christian idea that each individual has worth in his own right, purely because he is created in the image of God, has given ground in the western world to a cadre of worldviews that view the individual as being given meaning, value, and purpose primarily through his membership in one of a collection of groups. Class, nationality—as we’ve seen so regrettably recently from Donald Trump’s rhetoric—ethnic group, or privilege status: each have been used to replace the true value and purpose of the individual with a sham that depends on the actions of others.
The logical end of such ideologies is the subsumption of the individual into the collective. It is this concept, ultimately, from which concepts like collective victimhood, collective guilt, or collective privilege are derived. A strictly Christian view places this concepts at the individual level: individuals commit crimes, are victims of crimes, or are given unfair advantages. Individuals are guilty of their own crimes—”The soul that sins shall die . . . . The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself,” in the words of Ezekiel 18:20. This has the advantage of allowing tangible action to remedy or enforce justice for the action. An individual can be punished for his actions; a community cannot. (With the obvious exception that God, being both sovereign and omniscient, is more than capable of meting out precisely what each member of a community deserves through corporate punishment. We are hampered in following this example by being neither sovereign nor omniscient.) Further, an individual can act to change his behavior, while a community cannot—the individuals in a community can, but they don’t hold power over other members. Responsibility for the outcome of an action should not be divorced from the agency to make the action.
But that isn’t the view of responsibility that’s taken hold of our culture. Instead, the collectivist idea that an individual exists as a member of a group first has become dominant, and has been used by race-baiters to stir hysteria. If a police officer shot a black man unjustly, from this standpoint, the perpetrator wasn’t an individual police officer and the victim an individual black man. Rather, the perpetrator was the police, collectively, and the victim the entire black community. The oppressor against the oppressed, and the individuals themselves are nothing more than cogs in a machine.
Each allegedly unjustified police shooting of a black man furthered the narrative. Many of these shootings were later found to have been justified, if tragic—the case of Tamir Rice stands out as a particularly heart-rending example, in which a young boy playing with a toy gun was shot because his toy was indistinguishable from the real article and the police had no choice but to act based on what they could see—but it’s enough to feed the narrative. Like a scaffold that is torn down as soon as its usefulness is over, each incident, regardless of its own merits, built a narrative that still feeds a deep pool of fear.
Worse still, another branch of the foul collectivist tree only exacerbated the problem. While members of the black community were being encouraged to view the police as a dangerous enemy, the same flawed philosophy led police officers to view the black community as a dangerous enemy, and in the past has . If a collective group is called to answer for the crimes of its individual members, instead of placing those crimes on the head of the individual alone, there can never be peace.
And so there is no peace. If the collective group really is the most important unit, there can never be true justice for police misdeeds, real or perceived, because only individuals can be punished, while the collective goes free. Collective guilt is a recipe for an open, festering wound, never healing, always building fear and anger.
That fear and anger came to a head in Dallas yesterday. Possibly as many as four men set out to kill as many police officers as they could, even though those officers had nothing to do with the incidents that stirred the outrage in the first place. That didn’t matter. They were part of the collective, and that was enough.
This isn’t exactly new—in the dark past, we’d call it a form of tribalism, although it’s much more sophisticated than that—but it is nonetheless destructive. It is a rejection of the idea that what gives us value and meaning is our status as individuals created in the image of God. By rejecting that truth, a collectivist view that values the group over the individual divorces itself from reality. The implications of such a divorce are less obvious in philosophy than in, for example, physics, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t present. A group can’t stand trial for its crimes, only individuals can. A group can’t ask forgiveness, only individuals can. A collective can’t forgive, only individuals can do that. If society is truly be viewed as a collection of groups, rather than a collection of individuals, there can never really be justice, forgiveness, or closure. Every wound stays open.
One, at least, is open and gaping today, reaping the whirlwind sowed by the bluster of human reason apart from God.