Wednesday, 18 September 2013

An Essay on Violence


‘Peace, Peace, to those far and near’[1]
An Essay on Violence

In Dostoyevsky’s The Grand Inquisitor,[2] the character Ivan recalls a poem written in a convent called ‘The Travels of the Mother of God among the Damned’.  The poem describes how the ‘Mother of God’ travels with the archangel Michael to guide her through the various levels of hell, a picture similar to Dante’s nine circles of Hell.  She witnesses the variety of torment that the different categories of sinners endure before finally witnessing those who are damned to ‘gradually sink in a burning lake of brimstone and fire…whose sins cause them to sink so low that they no longer can rise to the surface.’ The Virgin is utterly shocked and pleads with God through tears to have mercy on all in hell, forgiving and releasing them all from their torment.  God, ‘pointing to the pierced hands and feet of her Son’[3] responds by crying out ‘How can I forgive His executioners?’[4]  At this the Virgin calls all of heaven to prostrate themselves before God and implore Him to change His wrath into mercy and pour out forgiveness on them all.  A compromise is obtained whereby there is a yearly respite of tortures and the damned are heard singing,
‘Thou are right, O Lord, very right,
Thou hast condemned us justly.’[5]

It is a fascinating scene within Dostoevsky’s classic that highlights an understanding of violence and forgiveness that we can do well to listen to and
then apply to our own culture here in the UK, namely that, even with a call to forgiveness, violent retribution is how many understand justice.
This is no surprise as human history has found that violence is the primary means through which we seek to achieve ways of making things ‘turn out right’.  The UK and USA’s current involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan are but one example of how we believe violence to be the only way that we might secure peace and gain security.[6]  Yet for many here in the UK the violence that is witnessed by soldiers and communities on a daily basis in war zones around our planet is thoroughly removed from their own existence.  But violence is a part of our daily existence, yet so ingrained within our sub-conscious we struggle to recognise it for what it is.  Recently I was at a Baptist ministers gathering and the conversation and discussion centred upon same-sex marriage and homosexuality.  Near the end of the discussion I made a comment in regard to how disproportionate our time was spent on this particular issue than, say, violence.  One of the ministers said that violence did not really affect our churches whereas homosexuality did and that is why we are spending so much time talking about it and not violence.  This comment was an example of how ‘numb’[7] we are to the issue of violence within our society.  

Walter Brueggemann in The Prophetic Imagination sees the role of prophetic ministry as there to criticise established structures that lead to death and then to energise people through hope. He says, ‘The task of the prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.’[8] Brueggemann asserts that people become enslaved to ‘the royal consciousness’; society believes that things are simply the way they have to be.  Ultimately the royal consciousness believes that death and violence are a necessary result of the structures put in place to provide wealth, power and peace.  Brueggemann says, ‘The royal consciousness…leads people to numbness, especially numbness about death.’[9]  He goes no to say, ‘The task of the prophetic imagination is to cut through the numbness, then penetrate the self-deception, so that the God of endings is confessed as Lord.’[10]

Within our own culture here in the UK violence is a regular part of our consciousness.  In the movies that we watch, the video games that we play and the books that we read violence is often the dominant reaction to the narrative that we are invited to witness and be a part of.  A cursory look at the highest grossing films of all time reveals that, in the top ten, all but one use violence as the means through which the world in their own narrative finds redemption.[11] Five of the biggest selling video games of all time are all violence based with the top two games, both centred on violence, totalling sales of over £10 billion.[12] In 2012 the top three selling books in the UK were the Fifty Shades trilogy, all of which glamorise sexualised violence.[13] So violence continues to play a significant part in what we watch and read to entertain ourselves.  That said, this does not necessarily translate over into our communities whereby we all act violently to each other.  Indeed the link between acts of violence directly as a result from our viewing habits are still unsubstantial with evidence both in favour and against the notion.[14] However, rather than understanding our violence as a result of our entertainment habits, perhaps we should understand our entertainment habits as a direct result of our violence. 

Advertisers and creators of products understand to a degree the consciousness of the culture.  They create and then promote their brands in light of where the cultures ears and eyes are itching.  Many advertisers use sex to sell their products because they know that sex sells.  Tapping into peoples desire to acquire they use sex to make people want their product; lust and greed are but two sides of the same coin.  Once advertisers have grabbed your attention and convinced you that you need the product they are offering you, it then comes to how long before you go out and buy said product; speed then becomes the form of violence that our lives take.  Speed means that we do not have time for one another and that time and space become saturated with speed.  By having no time for one another we put value on those who can keep pace with us and who are able to quickly contribute to the value of our lives.  Relationships become an exercise in ‘target’ and ‘resource’ so that you simply become a person I want a relationship with that I might gain something from it.[15]  Speed is violence because it has no time for other but is dominated by self with self-preservation the ultimate understanding of security. Locality becomes insignificant with speed opening up the whole world into each individual home.  As Stanley Hauerwas puts it, ‘The alleged democracies in the which we live run on speed, necessitating technologies designed to help us become the sort of people who do not need anyone.’[16] Speed becomes the driving force for our possessions and our possessions the source of our violence.  We fear that others desire what we have, ‘we seek self-deceptive justifications that mire us in patterns of injustice which can be sustained only through coercion.’[17] So we become violent to protect what we have.  The so called ‘War on Terror’ after attack on the World Trade Centre in 2001 has resulted in this very understanding of violence; we assume the giving of violence for the ‘greater good’ will result in our own security and peace.  After the September 11th attack President Bush addressed the nation and half-way through his speech declared, ‘Our financial institutions remain strong, and the American economy will be open for business as well.’[18] And then on September 27th 2001 Bush said,

‘When they struck, they wanted to create an atmosphere of fear.  And one of the great goals of this nation's war is to restore public confidence in the airline industry.  It's to tell the travelling public:  Get on board. Do your business around the country.  Fly and enjoy America's great destination spots.  Get down to Disney World in Florida.  Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.’[19]

Our ability to spend our money on possessions is but another way of us seeking to create our own security and peace.  We believe that our possessions will protect us from death, a sign of our ability to have control over our own lives.  And so the violence in the world is but a mirror of the violence within our own lives.  Our desire for self-preservation means that we will support that which we believe will enable our continued existence, even if that means others perish as a result. After the 7/7 bombings Tony Blair addressed the nation and said,

‘the extremist minority…in every European city preach hatred of the West and our way of life.  This is what we are up against. It cannot be beaten except by confronting it, symptoms and causes, head-on. Without compromise and without delusion.  The extremist propaganda is cleverly aimed at their target audience. It plays on our tolerance and good nature. It exploits the tendency to guilt of the developed world, as if it is our behaviour that should change…that if we changed our behaviour, they would change theirs. This is a misunderstanding of a catastrophic order.’[20]

We have a way of life that needs to be preserved with politicians calling us to continue to live the way that we are, vowing to eradicate that which would thwart our chosen way of life.  Indeed, consumerism is seen to be the answer to the world’s poverty problems.  David Cameron, speaking at the G8 summit on the 15th June 2013 said that the issues of poverty needed to be dealt through ‘the benefits of growth’ and that without these growth benefits poverty will never be eradicated and will continue to cause suffering and pain in countries ‘where thousands of children are dying every day because of malnutrition or where sick parents have to choose between whether to buy medicine to save their own lives, or pay for food for their hungry children.’[21] So we are caught in this violent circle where freedom and choice are eradicated and growth is the god of the age.  Poverty is beamed into our front rooms and charity workers knock on our doors.  Rather than being a catalyst for generosity it becomes something altogether different.  We become numb to the violence of poverty and our language focuses on the self and our own survival; ‘charity begins at home’ really means ‘I’m struggling to preserve my way of life so give me a tax break and stop helping other countries.’[22] Once again we highlight the need for self-preservation. 
After the 9/11 and 7/7 attacks the response from both the USA and UK was of eradicating terrorism.  More recently the murder of the soldier Lee Rigby further emphasised this desire.  And certainly most would desire to no longer see such acts of violence and cruelty on our streets, yet when the state calls for an eradication of terrorism it understands that eradication to happen through the use of violence.  So the state believes that violence is the necessary means to preserve freedom and justice.  Violence therefore is the normative language of our culture that speaks into our desire to live and see justice prevail.  Yet is this the way of the Church?  Should not the language of those called to worship the Trinitarian God be shaped according to the Word made flesh?  Is violence really our only option?  It is here that we now turn.

Rene Girard, the French philosopher and theologian, developed the idea of mimetic desire and argues that this very concept underpinned the entire way humanity relates to one another.  Mimesis means imitation, but it is not simply the idea that we copy one another, but that we copy each other’s desires.  Mimesis is not that I am hungry, see you eating a cake and want to then go and eat a cake, but that I desire to eat your cake.  Girard develops this idea and recognises how biology and genetics play their part, but mimesis will be the thing that leads us down destructive paths far worse than our desire for someone else’s cake; violence illustrates our mimetic sensitivity- this desire to imitate one another.  James Warren explores the idea of mimetic desire and develops it (largely from a Girardian philosophical and theological perspective) in light of scapegoating and sacrifice.  Warren, in Compassion or Apocalypse, invites the reader to imagine early humanity before anything like ‘community’ existed.  He describes these early homo sapiens in perpetual cycles of violence caused by mimetic desire and mimetic rivalry, ‘Imitating the other’s feeling and desires leads to empathy and closeness; but when the imitated desire is an acquisitive one, seeking to possess a particular object, imitation results in violent confrontation…[N]o doubt many groups did not need external threats or enemies to destroy themselves; their own competitiveness did the job nicely.[23] Warren argues that the way in which this cycle of violence and chaos resolved itself was mimetically with hominid groups uniting in finding a scapegoat, someone whom the group could polarize unanimously against.  It could have happened with a single pointing finger, that then became two and suddenly a mimetic wave takes over whereby the whole group has an urge to attack the victim.  Here Warren believes we have our first instance and understanding of what it means to be ‘in’ and ‘out’.  This then leads to, what Girard calls, the ‘founding murder’.[24]  Here in this sacrifice the group finds a glue that holds them together.  The violence that they have perpetually raged at each other with now finds its totality vented out upon a single victim that unites them in a common purpose and goal.  Peace, although fragile, has now been achieved.  Chaos has been subdued and the group can now slowly become something that we would call ‘community’.  Killing the scapegoat becomes an act of life for the community, not an act of murder, an act of salvation rather than condemnation.  The uniqueness of the Biblical story however is that the story that we are invited to hear is from the view of the victim, the one being scapegoated or sacrificed.  As we journey through the Biblical narrative we increasingly see a God who calls for peace, not killing, forgiveness not vengeance.[25]  Jesus therefore is the One who reveals an absolute commitment to non-violence, exposing the cycles of violence that destroy humanity and calling people to be defined by another narrative, a non-violent narrative. 

Jesus’ life, death and resurrection ‘unmasks and thus ends religion based on sacrifice or retributive violence.’[26] His command to non-retaliation,[27] to lay down our weapons[28] and to take up our cross and follow him[29] is to reject violent cycles of behaviour and to embrace a way of life that emphasises and actively practices the way of non-violence.  Yet to live in such a way is at odds with what we have already discovered about the world.  Furthermore, it is a calling by the Church to retrace its non-violent history,[30] to seek ways beyond violence and retaliation and to actively pursue peace.[31] Today, with such a dominant culture of violence, the Church has an opportunity to be distinct to the ‘nations’ around them, displaying and declaring what it looks like to be a community who practice forgiveness, love for enemies, reconciliation, restorative models of punishment and frontline peacemaking.  To be this kind of people is to be a peculiar and distinct kind of people who are not like the people around them.  It is to live – like Israel before were called to live – the Way of the Kingdom of God, a ‘kingdom run not by…strength and connivance but by…faith in Yahweh, a servant nation instead of a ruling nation…a people set apart, different from all other people by what they are and are becoming – a display-people, a showcase to the world of how being in covenant with Yahweh changes a people.’[32] Here we have something distinct and important, that being in covenant with God changes a people, sets them apart as a different people whose attitude and actions are different because they are a covenant people.  Therefore, the Church is called to be a covenant people with Yahweh made flesh, the One who calls His people to non-violence.  At a time of increased worldwide political tension where demonstrations often break out in violence, where children are exposed to violence on computer games and movies, where in our relationships we act physically and emotionally violently towards one another, to have a people whose way of life is non-violent is a powerful and distinct message that points to the God who lives in eternal self-giving love.[33]  He is the One who lives in

‘the freedom of the Father, the Son and the Spirit, the freedom of the one who is eternally perfectly loving in this communion and intimacy.  God’s aseity and simplicity as Father, Son and Spirit is the aseity and simplicity of perfect love.  God does not need that which is other than himself to love in order to be perfectly loving, he is already and eternally perfectly loving in the communion of Father, Son and Spirit without that which is other than himself.’[34]  

To live non-violently is to first recognise our own fear that all too easily dominates our lives.  It is to acknowledge this fear and then to learn how to trust again.  We need to learn how to trust one another and to see that violence will always erode that trust.  We need to trust God,[35] the one who calls for a day when swords will be beaten into ploughshares,[36] who makes wars to cease,[37] and who calls on his people to not trust in war, but to trust in him.[38]  To live peacefully is not to believe that we will bring salvation to the world, for that alone is God’s task.  Rather, it is to live faithfully, prayerfully and patiently, to, as Clement puts it,

‘turn again to the practice of that peace which from the beginning was the mark set before us; and let us look steadfastly to the Father and Creator of the universe, and cleave to his mighty and surpassingly great gifts and benefactions of peace.  Let us contemplate Him with our understanding, and look with the eyes of our soul to His long-suffering will.  Let us reflect how free from wrath He is towards all His creation.’[39]

Our task is not to make the world less violent, but to call each other, the Church, to live less violently that we might be salt and light in this violent world.  To live peacefully is to recognise it is not up to us to ‘make all things new’, that people are not commodities to increase our own status, but that we have all the time in the world to care for those that God calls us to care for.  To live peacefully is to live as a people shaped by the gospel, a people who follow the One who declares, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons and daughters of God.’[40]


‘Now I am making an end of my anger.  It does not become me, unrelenting to rage on.’  Homer, The Iliad




[1] Isaiah 57:19
[2] The Grand Inquisitor is a chapter from Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamoz that stands as a short book on its own.
[3] Dostoyevsky, F., The Grand Inquisitor p 2
[4] Ibid
[5] Ibid p 2
[6] Bonhoeffer laments our confusion of peace and security saying, ‘Peace is the opposite to security…Peace means to give oneself altogether to the law of God, wanting no security, but in faith and obedience laying the destiny of the nations in the hand of the almighty God.’  Meditations on the Psalms, p 49
[7] ‘Numbness’ is how Walter Brueggemann describes a society that has become apathetic to the structures in society that lead to death and oppression.  See Brueggemann, W., The Prophetic Imagination
[8] Brueggemann, W., The Prophetic Imagination, p 13
[9] Brueggemann, W., The Prophetic Imagination, p 46
[10] Ibid p 49
[11] See http://boxofficemojo.com/alltime/world/.  Accessed 24th July 2013
[14] See http://mediacoalition.org/only-a-game/ for a report that argues that violent video games do not increase gun crimes. For the opposite argument see http://www.news.iastate.edu/news/2013/03/26/violentvideogames.  Accessed 24th July 2013
[15] This violent behaviour of relationships as commodities is everywhere, but it worryingly is seen within the Church.  Vision statements made by churches compound the problem because we put a number on how many new people we want to see in the church within the next 3 years.  So every relationship outside of the church is seen as a goal towards achieving that number.  People therefore become targets to reach.  Once reached and inside the church we then train those achieved targets to become a resource in order to get more targets.  We therefore dehumanise each other, making our relationships nothing more than a violent cycle of target and resource.
[16] Hauerwas, S., Living Gently in a Violent World, p50
[17] Hauerwas, S., The Peaceable Kingdom, pp 86-87
[18] http://archives.cnn.com/2001/US/09/11/bush.speech.text/ Accessed 25th July 2013
[22] I was involved in this very discussion in my local pub recently.
[23] Warren, J., Compassion or Apocalypse, p 16
[24] For more on this see Girard, Things Hidden
[25] ‘He has exhorted us to lead all men, by patience and gentleness, from shame and the love of evil.  And this indeed is proved in the case of many who…have changed their violent and tyrannical disposition.’  Justin Martyr, First Apology, XVI
[26] Denny, J., The Nonviolent Atonement, p 51
[27] Matthew 5:38-41
[28] Matthew 26:51-52, John 18:10-11
[29] Luke 14:27
[30] For a robust and comprehensive account of Christina non-violence, drawing from The Scriptures, Church Fathers, Medieval period, Reformation through to the modern era, see Long, Michael, (ed) Christian Peace and Nonviolence: A Documentary History
[31] ‘At the high meridian of the ‘Enlightenment’, the hope of many was a world freed from the burden of ‘superstition’ and ‘priestcraft’ would evolve into a rational society, capable of ordering itself peacefully, harmoniously and wisely…And yet, by the end of the 20th century, wars had been waged on a scale never before imagined, and a number of Utopian, strictly secularist ideologies…had together managed to kill perhaps 150 million persons. Over three centuries, the worst abuse of ecclesial authority in Christian history…caused the deaths of maybe 30,000…but organised irreligion had proved a far more despotic, capricious and murderous historical force.’ pp 329-330 See Bentley-Hart, D., The Story of Christianity for a magnificent account of Christian history.
[32] Durham, J.I., Exodus, Word Biblical Commentary, p 263
[33] The doctrine of perichoresis understands God in eternal love and self-giving relationship, Father, Son and Spirit mutually and fully indwelling one another.  This term seems to have first been used by Maximus the Confessor (c.580-662) regarding the divine and human nature of Jesus.  John of Damascus (c. 665-749) seems to be the first to apply it to the persons of the Trinity, although Irenaeus (c. 130 – c.200) and Athanasius (c. 296 – 373) are attributed to the root of the concept.
[34] Colwell, J., Promise and Presence, p 26
[35] ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart.’ Proverbs 3:5a
[36] Isaiah 2:4
[37] Psalm 46:9
[38] Psalm 20:7
[39] Clement, The First Epistle of Clement, XIX
[40] Matthew 5:9

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