No mercy in collectivism

In 1885, Jo Niijima (sometimes romanized "Neesima") gave an address at the tenth anniversary convocation of Doshisha University in Kyoto, Japan.  During that address he declared, "A single individual is important."  That might seem like a bland truism to many people these days, but in nineteenth-century Japan, it was a radical assertion.  At that time almost everyone in Japan subsumed his individuality under some form of corporate allegiance, such as the family clan.

Niijima himself had escaped overseas from the constraints of feudal Japan, closed to foreign contact and Christianity at the time.  Japan has changed dramatically since then, but this strong sense of group identity still operates as a powerful force.  Niijima's words on that occasion about individual worth made such an impression that they were eventually engraved outside a walkway on the Doshisha campus.  They are still often quoted.  Some years ago, posters in our Sapporo subway tunnels prominently displayed Niijima's words as part of an ad campaign to recruit students for Doshisha.

Jo Niijima was a Christian who had returned to Japan from study at Amherst College and other institutions in America.  He became a pastor and eventually founded Doshisha.  During his time in the U.S., he was influenced by the writings of Jonathan Edwards, and I once made use of Niijima's copy of Edwards's collected works in my own research.  Niijima learned to value individuality as a result of his religious and American influences.  That also helped to inspire his affection for his wife Yae, who was a unique individual herself.  A gunnery expert, she fought as a soldier in the Boshin War and later became a prominent educator like her husband.  In 2013, a TV drama celebrated her unusual life.

In societies untouched by such influences, people often are not considered to have much individual worth.  In particular, children are not accorded much value apart from the family unit.  For example, in ancient Rome, before the advent of Christianity, a father had the right to kill his own child.  In 374, the Christian emperor Valentinian finally made infanticide illegal under Roman law.

Similarly, Hawaiian parents frequently killed their children before Christianity's influence on the islands, and the widespread infanticide often shocked Western visitors.  For centuries, infanticide was widely practiced in Japan as well.  During those times, girls sometimes fared better than boys, but this was only because they could be sold into prostitution and other forms of servitude.

In our own time, collectivist regimes do not grant individuals much consideration.  In Nazi Germany, a Jew was treated as a Jew, regardless of his own personal actions, and in Soviet Russia, a class enemy often suffered the punishment due his class status in brutal imprisonment or death.  In North Korea, even the grandchildren of those who defected or fought the communists in the Korean War are looked upon as part of a tainted, suspect group.

As a result of similar collectivist thinking, Americans these days frequently find their individuality eclipsed by the group identity assigned to them.  Furthermore, the cost of offending a designated victim group is often instant condemnation and punishment without the possibility of self-defense.  Nevertheless, even members of victim groups are not safe.  Those considered traitors to their assigned collectives (often called "communities") — conservative blacks and women, for example — receive the worst treatment of all.

So it is truly pathetic to see people like ministers pleading for mercy before the Woke Court.  Little mercy can be expected from such offenders.  At best, they may be allowed the second-class status of perpetually abject penitents who are never really forgiven.  However, in a Christian worldview, an individual sinner can receive mercy from fellow sinners, since they are all in the same boat.  As Jonathan Edwards puts it, "we are by nature, companions in a miserable helpless condition; which, under a revelation of the divine mercy, tends to promote mutual compassion."

Niijima proclaimed his belief in the value of individuals in reaction to the news that seven Doshisha students had been expelled during his absence in America.  He was worried about those seven individuals.  Unlike Niijima, many modern American educators and journalists often do not seem to recognize people as individuals with significance.  Were the journalists at CNN, The Washington Post, and other news outlets thinking of 16-year-old Nick Sandmann as an individual when they defamed him?  Probably not — until he brought lawsuits against them.  After all, he was only a white male and a Trump-supporter.

Bruce W. Davidson is a professor at Hokusei Gakuen University in Sapporo, Japan and a contributor to the The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia.

Image via Max Pixel.