Note from CM: I have long thought that many American Christians have a moral blind spot when it comes to violence. Last week’s horrific attack in Colorado has brought the specific matter of gun violence to the front pages once again. Though numbers have been declining in recent years, the FBI reports that there were still 8,775 murders by firearms in 2010 in the U.S. This represents 67.5% of all murders. We pay attention to the spectacular mass killings, but gun violence is an everyday occurrence, not the exception.
Roger E. Olson is Professor of Theology at George W. Truett Theological Seminary of Baylor University. A prolific writer, he blogs at Patheos at Roger E. Olson: My Evangelical Arminian Theological Musings. With his kind permission, I present a post he wrote on July 22 on the subject of Christians and our often unexamined acceptance of violence in American culture.
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“God, guns, and guts”
by Roger E. Olson
Used by permission
So, now there’s been another (what the media is calling a) massacre of Americans in a public place. This time not a school but a movie theater in a suburb of Denver. Many people are asking what these horrific events say about our society. I don’t have any final answers; mostly I have only questions and some thoughts about possible answers that at least, I think, bear further investigation.
As I drive around my part of the country (and I’m sure it’s not unique in this regard) I see bumper stickers that say things like: “God, guns and guts” and “Thank God for our soldiers–especially our snipers.” When I go into the “video store” (yes, a few really still exist!) and peruse the hundreds of “new releases” (some of them have been in that category for over a year!) I see scores, probably over a hundred, of extremely violent movies obviously aimed at impressionable young minds–mostly adolescent boys (even if some are still in their twenties!).
I see full page ads in the newspaper for “gun sales” at stores and in rented coliseums and event centers–often showing pictures of guns nobody would ever need for hunting. I have been told that up to half of all adults in some parts of the country carry concealed weapons (licensed or not).
My question is whether it is time for Christians to speak out openly from pulpits and pages (of Christian publications) about our obviously increasing gun culture and culture of violence. Is this a subject for sermons? I think it is.
One need not be a pacifist to abhore violence. Perhaps some violence is necessary, but surely not the kind of random, extreme violence depicted in movies and comic books (which many young men in their twenties are still “reading”). Why do I see Christians picketing abortion clinics and Planned Parenthood sex education events but not violent movies and gun “shows?”
In my opinion, this is one of those “frog in the boiling water” kind of social situations. We have simply gotten so used to the violence depicted in movies (and sometimes also on TV) and in comic books and everywhere (almost) that we are numb to it.
Would it be appropriate for a pastor to counsel a man (or women) who shows up to the church parking lot with a bumper sticker that proclaims “God, Guns and Guts?” I think so. Would it be appropriate for a church to encourage parents to go beyond the rating system of movies and video games and comic books (do the latter even have a rating system) and actively discourage allowing boys (rarely girls) from watching, reading and playing them? I think so.
Should Christian leaders speak out against the culture of violence and death that is so overtaking our everyday lives? I think so.
Would any of this decrease the incidence of extreme violence that we have witnessed in suburban Denver and other places? I don’t know, but it would at least raise Christian voices against the culture that, in my opinion, feeds it and enables it.
Another issue I think social scientists need to look more closely at is why all the mass killers in these incidents are boys and young men. Who has ever heard of a girl or woman carrying a gun into a school or public place and shooting a bunch of people? I suppose it has happened, but I have never heard of it. Obviously there’s something about boys and young men that makes them more likely to do it. What might that be? Well, could it have something to do with the combination of testosterone and visual violence portrayed as beautiful and even redemptive–if not for everyone at least for the socially alienated and disaffected?
All that seems so obvious, but too few strong voices are speaking out about it. I think for two reasons. First, they are afraid of being accused of going against publishers’ and movie makers’ rights. Second, they are afraid of portraying this as a gender issue. but one can certainly criticize movies, comic books, video games and publishers and producers and stores that make and sell them without calling for government censorship. And one can certainly raise questions about how society is treating one gender without being sexist.
What do I mean “treating one gender?’ Obviously boys and young men are being exploited by movie makers and publishers, etc., as they know most of the decisions about what movies to see are made by young men. When I go to the (huge) video store I see mostly boys and young men perusing the shelves. And more often than not the trailors being shown on the video monitors are of excessively violent movies.
Yes, I actually do think that boys and young men are being victimized as well as society at large. Testosterone is notably associated with aggression. Boys and young men are vulnerable to images of sex and violence; these can become addictive and can (not always) contribute to acting out in anti-social ways.
People who make movies and video games surely know all this. So do the stores that market and sell them. And the movie theater chains that show them.
I am not calling for government censorship. I am calling for Christians to begin to focus attention on this problem and speak out openly about it–especially within churches and youth groups. I think it would be a good idea for Christian groups to develop their own rating systems for movies and video games and encourage parents and young people to avoid those that are excessively violent. We certainly have done that for a long time with regard to sexual content (or have we given up?).
I was actually raised in a church and denomination that forbid going to movies. I don’t think I really missed anything valuable or important. My parents carefully monitored what I watched on TV (when we had TV). Comic books were rare. The only ones in our home were “Classics Illustrated.” Ironically, I was allowed to play with toy guns, but only “old West” type toy guns–very unrealistic. I don’t think that damaged me, but, given America’s obsession with guns and violence now, I admire parents who do not allow their kids to own or play with toy guns.
I realize I’m not being original in all this; I’ve read and heard thoughtful Christians saying most of this for a long time. The one thing I’m saying that I haven’t heard very many people saying is that this is a problem specifically for boys and young men and through them for society at large. The solutions are elusive, of course. But perhaps if we, as a society, began to identify the sometimes lethal combination of visual violence and “raging hormones” (viz., testosterone in adolescent males) we might begin to think of some social conditioning that might mitigate the problem.
For example, we have long now identified how many young females are vulnerable to eating disorders. We don’t blame them; in fact we see them as victims. I’m not suggesting that a boy or young man who shoots people in a movie theater is a victim. However, I do think boys and young men are being made prey by overly zealous promoters of extreme visual violence and in that sense they are victims. All of society becomes victimized as the ripple effect goes out from a series of shooting massacres. What if we used some of the same teaching methods on boys that we use on girls with regard to body image–teaching them to resist the images they see in magazines and visual entertainment and advertising, etc.? What if we educators (and others) set up workshops and found ways to draw in boys and young men and educated them about the lethality for some boys and young men of feasting their eyes and minds on images of violence?
I have to ask myself this question. During 30 years of teaching in three different Christian universities and after many more years of being part of “Christian culture” in America–why have I never once seen a poster aimed at boys and young men about suicide and violence? (Boys and young men are much more likely to succeed at suicide than girls or young women.) I’m thinking of all the posters I have seen aimed at girls and young women about eating disorders and body image disorders–often inviting them to workshops about the subject. Who among the social workers and other concerned educators cares enough about boys and young men to identify their distinctive problems such as vulnerability to pornography and graphic violence? If they don’t care about boys and young men they should care about society that becomes victimized by some boys and young men whose minds have been warped by such graphic images. Why are preventive measures not taken by university counseling officials to stem this apparent epidemic of violence at its roots–mostly young, impressionable male personalities being warped by graphic images?
I am calling on pastors, counselors, youth pastors, Christian camp facilitators, etc., etc., to turn some attention toward boys and young men with regard to the destructive influences of some video games, internet web sites, movies, comic books and television programs. Don’t make it moralistic; make it a matter of “for their own good and society’s well-being.” If you just wag your fingers at them and say “Don’t!” they will. Use the same methods so widely used to discourage girls and young women from starving themselves to death–teach them to recognize and resist media images that are self-destructive and destructive of others with whom they have contact.