Democracy don’t rule the world
You’d better get that in your head
This world is ruled by violence
But I guess that’s better left unsaid
• Bob Dylan
• • •
The Bible has a lot more to say about violence and its devastating effects upon the human race than it does about other sins, such as sexual misbehavior. “Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence,” the Flood story begins. The one story in our faith that talks about God’s judgment in universal terms blames it on violence. Many Jews have read the murderous story of Cain and Abel, rather than that of Adam and Eve as the account of humankind’s original sin. It’s hard to find a page in the Hebrew prophets that doesn’t decry violence vividly.
The very first moral danger the wise teacher in Proverbs warns the young against is this:
My child, if sinners entice you,
do not consent.
If they say, ‘Come with us, let us lie in wait for blood;
let us wantonly ambush the innocent;
like Sheol let us swallow them alive
and whole, like those who go down to the Pit.
We shall find all kinds of costly things;
we shall fill our houses with booty.
Throw in your lot among us;
we will all have one purse’—
my child, do not walk in their way,
keep your foot from their paths;
for their feet run to evil,
and they hurry to shed blood.
• Proverbs 1:10-16
Why isn’t this kind of wisdom teaching, this moral instruction, chapter one, front and center, instead of the fluff we continue to publish in our anemic, insubstantial “discipleship” manuals?
Why, my fellow Christians in the United States of America, are we not out of our minds with grief, anger, lament, and a commitment to repent and change our ways when it comes to violence in our land? Why is this not right at the top of our agenda when speaking out on public issues and working for the common good?
Yet another case has occurred where someone walked into a church — a church, mind you, a place where the Gospel of the Prince of Peace is proclaimed — and mowed down people with an assault rifle. 26 are dead as of this writing.
As of this moment, we don’t know why. I’m not sure it matters in the end. What matters is what we do know: the U.S. is tragically exceptional when it comes to these mass shootings. We have more of them more often and with more deadly results than anywhere else in the world. And those are just the spectacular cases. Research published in the American Journal of Medicine found that Americans are 25 times more likely to be killed by firearms than people in other developed countries. Among developed countries, the U.S. stands out in violence, and particularly in this kind of violence. Even though we are in a period when the murder rate is nearly half of what it was in 1980, our prisons are still full and we are subjected to reports of violent incidents day in and day out.
Maybe more than anything else, we ought to just own up. America is the most violent country in the developed world. We thrive on it. We feast on it as entertainment. We can’t turn away from it on the news. It is part of our DNA that has been honed and developed through every stage of our nation’s history. We are not a peace-loving people. We want to dominate, control, and have our way in the world. Go ahead, offer me reasons why that’s a good thing and how bad the alternative would be if the U.S. weren’t such a superpower, forcing its will around the globe. Maybe. All I know is that this approach has made us crave power on a level that would shame Attila the Hun. And it’s a mindset that infects us all, whether we realize it or not, in big ways and small. Just watch the way people drive around your city, how they rage through the streets. We are a fiercely independent and selfish people, who take umbrage at the smallest slight and put up our dukes whenever we think we’ve been dissed.
Of course we’re not all mass shooters. But there’s a continuum here, and given enough freedom, access to weapons, and mental strain, who’s to say what any of us might do?
There are no “answers.” I happen to advocate common sense gun reforms, and I seriously cannot believe organizations like the NRA keep important research institutions like the Centers for Disease Control from studying gun violence as a public health threat — that it is is surely the most obvious fact in our nation. But “gun control,” as sane and common sense as some of it might be, won’t cure us of corrupt and violent hearts. Nor will some of the conservative answers — like more guns in the hands of law-abiding citizens — do anything but continue to ramp up the violence. Both sides in this debate cling to myths, and the biggest one of all is that the leopard has the ability to change its spots. That doesn’t mean I think we should stop working to prevent violence, I’m just saying the problem is bigger than any political solution and we simply haven’t faced up to that. I am violent. You are violent. This world is ruled by violence.
But where in hell (literally) is the church? Why shouldn’t we be in the front lines of peacemaking when it comes to actively promoting sane remedies for the violence in our communities? Don’t we owe love like this to one another and to our neighbors? Conservatives abhor the violence of abortion, but are deadly silent when it comes to the slaughter chronicled each day in the news. Progressives detest the oppression of and violence against marginalized people, but have used tactics in the culture wars that can only be described as tribal and warlike.
Here are the thoughts of Wendell Berry on this subject, and I’m thinking of re-running them every time we have a significant event of violence that takes over the news. His point is that we’re simply not invested in doing anything to change the status quo. Not only do we not know the answers, we really don’t want to know them, because our entire social, political, and economic life is based upon violence and how it profits us.
This cheapening of life, and the violence that inevitably accompanies it, is surely the dominant theme of our time. The ease and quickness with which we resort to violence would be astounding if it were not conventional. …Each new resort to violence enlarges the argument against our species, and the task of hope becomes harder.
…The event in _________ is not unique or rare or surprising or in any way new. It is only another transaction in the commerce of violence: the unending, the not foreseeably endable, exchange of an eye for an eye, with customary justifications on every side, in which we fully participate; and beyond that, it is our willingness to destroy anything, any place, or anybody standing between us and whatever we are “manifestly destined” to have.
We congratulate ourselves perpetually upon our Civil War by which the slaves were, in a manner of speaking, “freed.” We forget, if we have ever learned, that the same army that “freed the slaves” established for us the “right” of military violence against a civilian population, and then acted upon that “right” by a war of extermination against the native people of the West. Nobody who knows our history, from the “Indian wars” to our contemporary foreign wars of “homeland defense,” should find anything unusual in the massacre of civilians and their children.
It is not possible for us to reduce the value of life, including human life, to nothing only to suit our own convenience or our own perceived need. By making this reduction for ourselves, we make it for everybody and anybody, even for our enemies, even for the maniacs whose enemies are schoolchildren or spectators at a marathon.
We forget also that violence is so securely founded among us— in war, in forms of land use, in various methods of economic “growth” and “development”— because it is immensely profitable. People do not become wealthy by treating one another or the world kindly and with respect. Do we not need to remember this? Do we have a single eminent leader who would dare to remind us?
…The solution, many times more complex and difficult, would be to go beyond our ideas, obviously insane, of war as the way to peace and of permanent damage to the ecosphere as the way to wealth. Actually to help our suffering of one man-made horror after another, we would have to revise radically our understanding of economic life, of community life, of work, and of pleasure. We employ thousands of scientists and spend billions of dollars to reduce matter to its smallest particles and to search for farther stars. How many scientists and how many dollars are devoted to harmony between economy and ecology, or to amity and lenity in the face of hatred and killing? To learn to meet our needs without continuous violence against one another and our only world would require an immense intellectual and practical effort, requiring the help of every human being perhaps to the end of human time.
This would be work worthy of the name “human.” It would be fascinating and lovely.
From “The Commerce of Violence” (2013)
In Our Only World: Ten Essays