The allure of belonging to Black Lives Matter and how the Church can respond

“We intentionally build and nurture a beloved community that is bonded together through a beautiful struggle that is restorative.” Who is making this lovely promise? None other than Black Lives Matter (BLM), an organization that promises a place “where each person feels seen, heard, and supported.”

Why have so many people bought into the language of community from a self-professed Marxist organization? Sociologist Robert Nisbet asked the same question in his 1953 book The Quest for Community, at the height of the communist regime in the Soviet Union: Why were so many people attracted to Marxism? Nisbet’s theory was that it was precisely because so many Westerners had embraced individualism — which, ironically, set them up to be drawn in by a collectivist vision of society.

How did individualism come to have such a counter-intuitive effect? Ever since the rise of the modern age, leading Western thinkers have accepted what is known as social contract theory. First proposed by Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, social contract theory fundamentally changed the way people in the West thought about relationships. These early social thinkers aspired to be “scientific,” so they based their social theories on Newtonian physics, which views the material universe as a collection of atoms bumping around in the void under the forces of attraction and repulsion. Applied to the social world, social contract theory pictured humans as individual “atoms” that entered and exited relationships at will.

According to social contract theory, we are highly autonomous individuals whose highest aim is self-preservation. Social contract theorists proposed that prior to the rise of civilization, humans existed in a “pre-social” condition. Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau regarded all relationships — familial, civil, and religious — as contracts we enter into, not something intrinsic to human nature: Relationships are something that we create and define. As a result, all relationships start to look more like a contractual exchange of goods and services, rather than innate connections.

The goal of redefining all relationships in terms of contracts was always phrased in the context of liberation. Relationships, rather than being primary, become secondary and derivative, something we create by choice. While social contract theory promised freedom for the individual from any biological or social bonds to other people, it ultimately led to lonely people, lacking any sense of belonging. Robert Nisbet put it this way: “Release man from the contexts of community and you get not freedom and rights but intolerable aloneness.”

As social contract theory percolated down through American society, families, church communities, neighborhoods, and other smaller communal groups weakened and began to break down. With this disintegration came the loss of spheres of influence that give people a sense of identity and belonging, apart from the state. Nisbet notes, “Individualism has resulted in masses of normless, unattached, insecure individuals.” Individuals, increasingly alienated from the community, are drawn to the state in hopes of finding community and a causes larger than themselves. People seek from the state a source of community that transcends them, with which they can identify and belong.

For disillusioned, isolated people, Marxism offers the salvation of community. Nisbet observes, “To a large number of human beings Marxism offers status, belonging, membership, and a coherent moral perspective.” Because Marxism offers a comprehensive worldview, it is attractive to the isolated individual despite its demonstrated totalitarian nature. Historically, Marxism has always led to a despotic authority — whether it be in the Soviet Union, Cuba, or Venezuela. As Hannah Arendt points out in her book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, it is isolated individuals who are most vulnerable to totalitarianism, because they lack identity within a social group.

No wonder Marx called for the abolition of the family. He knew that deconstructing the family was the main way to draw people to the totalitarian state. Totalitarianism was not just imposed on people. People themselves gravitated to it because of the natural longing for community.