This world is ruled by violence,
But I guess that’s better left unsaid. (Bob Dylan)
• • •
One day recently, a dreaded Intruder came uninvited into our life. His coming was sudden and shocking, as though a blast of wind exploded out of nowhere, shattering our living room picture window, sending shards of glass hurtling mercilessly toward the unsuspecting, unprotected family sitting there together.
In a moment, it was as though we had walked innocently through a door, only to find ourselves under deadly attack behind enemy lines, bullets zinging ’round our ears, shrapnel flying haphazardly everywhere, manic foreign voices screaming for our destruction. We had entered a new world, an inhospitable world, a deeply disturbing and frightening world.
The Intruder’s name who rules that world, who shook our world, is named Violence.
In a short span of time, our family learned about and had to deal with a tragic suicide, a frightening armed robbery, and a disturbing domestic violence incident. Over the years, we have been blessedly immune from these kinds of life-altering events. Now, in the course of twenty-four hours, three separate violent episodes hit hard and hurt. Only time will reveal all the consequences.
The Intruder’s World
I know we’ve been fortunate. People all over the world face potential violence each day of their lives. Think of someone who lives in Israel or any number of Middle Eastern countries, who has to board a bus every morning not knowing if this is the day the suicide bomber will set off his vest. Imagine being an inner city teen harassed by gang members, afraid to inadvertently disrespect one of them and become the latest drive-by victim. Imagine being a poor young village girl sold by her own family into the sex slave trade, now used and abused daily and having to answer to brutal keepers. Criminal conglomerates hold power and sway in dark places around the world, controlling their interests through intimidation and brutality. Drug lords and cartels rule by the assault rifle, intolerant of disloyalty or competition. Secret death squads keep dictators in power.
Envision yourself living in or near a war zone where the sound of bombs and bullets is the lullaby by which you fall asleep each night. Remember all the victims of child abuse, spousal abuse, elder abuse, racism and other hate crimes, and bullying. Hear the silenced cries of political prisoners around the world who are subjected to regular mistreatment, humiliation, and torture. Stop and think about all the needless skirmishes, battles, conflicts, and wars throughout history that robbed us of our young men and women, and impoverished our world in ways we’ll never know.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has a National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (NCIPC). Their web page on Violence Prevention states:
Violence is a serious public health problem in the United States. From infants to the elderly, it affects people in all stages of life. In 2006, more than 18,000 people were victims of homicide and more than 33,000 took their own life.
The number of violent deaths tells only part of the story. Many more survive violence and are left with permanent physical and emotional scars. Violence also erodes communities by reducing productivity, decreasing property values, and disrupting social services.
- Child Maltreatment
- Elder Maltreatment
- Global Violence
- Intimate Partner Violence
- School Violence
- Sexual Violence
- Youth Violence
The page on Intimate Partner Violence in the U.S. states:
- Each year, women experience about 4.8 million intimate partner related physical assaults and rapes. Men are assaulted about 2.9 million times annually.
- In 2005, there were over 1500 deaths resulting from intimate partner violence.
- It is likely that the numbers vastly underestimate the problem, because IPV is under-reported.
Statistics and observations in other situations where violence occurs are equally shocking and concerning.
A Roman Catholic Response
In a 1994 Pastoral Message of the U.S. Catholic Bishops, they proclaim:
Violence — in our homes, our schools and streets, our nation and world — is destroying the lives, dignity and hopes of millions of our sisters and brothers. Fear of violence is paralyzing and polarizing our communities. The celebration of violence in much of our media, music and even video games is poisoning our children.
Beyond the violence in our streets is the violence in our hearts. Hostility, hatred, despair and indifference are at the heart of a growing culture of violence. Verbal violence in our families, communications and talk shows contribute to this culture of violence. Pornography assaults the dignity of women and contributes to violence against them. Our social fabric is being torn apart by a culture of violence that leaves children dead on our streets and families afraid in our homes.
Our society seems to be growing numb to human loss and suffering. A nation born in a commitment to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is haunted by death, imprisoned by fear and caught up in the elusive pursuit of protection rather than happiness. A world moving beyond the Cold War is caught up in bloody ethnic, tribal and political conflict.
They also list aspects of the pervasive problem of violence in the U.S. —
- While crime statistics vary year to year, we face far higher rates of murder, assault, rape and other violent crimes than other societies. One estimate is that crime costs us $674 billion a year. Violent crime quadrupled from 161 reported crimes per 100,000 in 1960 to 758 in 1992.
- The most violent place in America is not in our streets, but in our homes. More than 50 percent of the women murdered in the United States are killed by their partner or ex-partner. Millions of children are victims of family violence.
- The number of guns has also quadrupled from 54 million in 1950 to 201 million in 1990. Between 1979 and 1991, nearly 50,000 American children and teenagers were killed by guns, matching the number of Americans who died in battle in Vietnam. It is now estimated 13 American children die every day from guns. Gunshots cause one out of four deaths among American teenagers.
- Our entertainment media too often exaggerate and even celebrate violence. Children see 8,000 murders and 100,000 other acts of violence on television before they leave elementary school.
- We must never forget that the violence of abortion has destroyed more than 30 million unborn children since 1972.
To their credit, the Bishops go beyond setting forth the problem, drawing upon their theology and historic tradition to offer a framework for action and a call to all Catholic Christians and churches to respond in positive, redemptive ways to make our world a safer, healthier, more peaceful place.
An Evangelical Response?
With the notable exception of those in Anabaptist traditions and those who are known as more “progressive” Christians with a commitment to “social action and justice,” I have to say that, in my experience, the issue of violence has been rarely discussed or taught about in the church. Where is the evangelical church’s voice?
When I was in seminary in the late 1980’s Hollywood was just beginning to consider the idea of marketing their movies through churches and pastors. I took part in viewing a Clint Eastwood film in order to give feedback from the Christian community. It supposedly told a tale that had a redemptive message.
From my perspective, the film desensitized the viewer to violence by gradually increasing the level of severity until the climactic scene, when the hero put a bullet in the villain’s forehead from point blank range. The scene was graphically portrayed. At that moment the audience, filled with Christian pastors and church staff members, erupted with loud cheers of approval. I cringed. A room full of Christ-followers had just applauded a man made in God’s image getting his brains blown out. A few days later, when I recounted this experience in my evangelical seminary classroom and expressed my concern, my classmates dismissed me. What’s wrong with that? they argued.
What is wrong with that? Is it “entertainment” to see someone brutally dispatched with a firearm? Was that the “redemption” the film was pointing us to? What part of being a Christian includes cheering and applauding bloodlust vengeance? Now, I understand that some movie violence is cartoonish, so ridiculously overblown that we can easily separate fact from fiction in our minds and not be affected by it much. But firing a gun directly into a man’s forehead is no cartoon. It does not deserve an ovation.
Evangelicals of all stripes should be unafraid to say that.
However, if we do, we’re also going to have to be able to deal with criticism of the Bible itself. From Cain to the apocalypse, it portrays a world of violence and a God who sometime intervenes violently and commands his people to practice violence. Can we face that criticism? Do we have adequate answers for those who cannot fathom a God who commands “the ban” in books like Joshua, requiring his people to completely exterminate their enemies — women, children, animals, and all? And what about Biblical heroes like David (the Clint Eastwood of the OT?), who hurls a stone into the enemy’s forehead, crushing Goliath’s skull and leading to the first of a great many bloody routs led by the Shepherd-King?
How do we tell our children these Bible stories without serious editing and/or cringing? How do we read them in church? Study them in our Sunday School classrooms? Read them in our daily devotions?
Of course, at the story’s climax, it is the God-Man himself who becomes the ultimate Victim of violence. The Intruder appears to have triumphed through cruelty and death. Unwittingly, however, this is how God’s peace is won.
And now, Jesus says to us, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” How shall we live in his victory so as to promote his shalom and make visible the ultimate vanquishment of the Intruder?
Perhaps God’s future should set the agenda for our mission today:
Violence will disappear from your land;
the desolation and destruction of war will end.
Salvation will surround you like city walls,
and praise will be on the lips of all who enter there. (Isa 60:18, NLT)
I know one thing. The Intruder is a monster. What I have seen in recent days, and what people everywhere experience far too often as a brutal fact of life in this sin-sick world, turns my stomach and gives me nightmares. Stop the violence. Please.
More to come in days ahead…