Over the past couple of weeks, news has reached us about a disturbed young man in Santa Barbara who went on a rampage of stabbings and shootings that left six people dead and a number of others injured. We have heard about two 12 year old girls in Wisconsin who stabbed another 12 year old girl 19 times after luring her into the woods. Fortunately, their victim has survived. These are but two incidents in a long catalogue of violence that has become almost commonplace in the United States. Mother Jones reports that in the last 10 years, there have been 70 mass shootings in America (mass shootings defined as injuring or killing multiple people). This past January, the journal Pediatrics reported that every year in the United States, 10,000 children are killed or injured by guns. That same journal pointed out that the mortality rate in the United States due to firearms is 10 times higher than in countries of similar wealth. And in 2013, there were 28 shooting incidents in American schools.
You would be forgiven at this point for thinking that this is a blog about the need for gun control. But, it is not. No, this is a blog post about the relationship of the American people to violence. One can argue, of course, that the easy availability of weapons contributes to the statistics quoted above, and that is certainly true. But it seems to me that the deeper problem is not simply the availability of weapons, but the willingness of people to use them. We live in a culture in which violence is glorified. We live in a culture in which a president who is reluctant to rain down violence upon evildoers is described as weak. Our movies, games, TV shows, and other entertainments are rife with scenes of violence which both glorify it and present it as a legitimate tool for solving one’s problems. In many of these programs, the evildoers are regarded with a certain awe for their violent ruthlessness, even though that violence is clearly wrong. We are, in short, surrounded by violent images, and in most of those images, the violence itself is not really condemned; only those who wield it for evil purposes are condemned — but, as I said, only after a certain grudging respect is bestowed.
Coupled with the glorification of violence in our society is an increasing problem with rage. There is a lot of anger out there, and it both emerges in and is catalyzed by our public discourse. Our politics have become more polarized than they perhaps have ever been in our history, and politicians activate their “bases” by using the most outrageous, inflammatory rhetoric they can muster against their opponents. Much of that rhetoric is rooted in significant shifts within our culture in terms of economics, religion, sex, gender roles, ethnicity, and morality. Without speaking to whether any of these shifts is good or bad, I simply want to observe that they are — and as some rejoice in these shifts and others recoil, the level of anger in our nation seems to be quite high. As that level of anger rises, the need to point the finger at some person or group as the one(s) who should bear the blame intensifies, and so different people and groups make scapegoats of others — and that makes violence against the scapegoated person or group seem legitimate in the eyes of the angry. That is especially true given a cultural background in which the use of violence is seen as heroic.
When it comes to Christianity, one finds that many of those who would most vehemently defend the right to bear arms and use them also ascribe to theologies that themselves glorify violence and give it legitimacy as a sacred tool of God. Central to these theological perspectives are interpretations of the book of Revelation that view that book as describing a violent confrontation between God/Christ and evil/Satan. Such an interpretation of Revelation often serves to legitimate human violence by demonstrating that it is, after all, a tool in the divine arsenal. This is further reenforced by a concentration on texts in the Hebrew Bible which appear to ascribe violence to God or at least divine approval to human violence. And, there are a few verses which these interpreters can point to (a very few) in which Jesus himself seems to bring together God and violence.
But if we look at the broader picture of Jesus, and at a fuller account of his teaching, we do not find such sanctioning of violence. We hear Jesus saying, “Blessed are the peacemakers…..” We hear him rebuking Peter for drawing his sword, pointing out that those who live by the sword will die by it. We hear Jesus condemning the “eye for an eye” sort of mentality in which meeting violence with violence is considered legitimate. We receive Jesus’ instruction to love our enemies, to do good to those who hate us, and to turn the other cheek. And Jesus reinterprets the commandment against murder to point to anger as the real problem — for it is the anger that began the chain of events that led to murder. Finally, speaking perhaps more loudly than anything Jesus said is what he did: he willingly went to his own execution, refusing to fight against it or allow his followers to fight for him. Jesus willingly became the victim of human violence precisely to demonstrate how unlike God such violence is, to shine a spotlight on its utter futility — the spotlight of Resurrection in which God declares life to be more powerful than death.
In the full light of the teaching and life of Christ, there can be no successful argument in which Jesus or God can be said to approve of violence. Indeed, this was self-evident to the early church, which was profoundly dedicated to pacifism. So much so that early Christians refused to baptize people whose jobs might require them to kill someone, so much so that early Christians refused to fight to defend Jerusalem from Roman attack. It was only after Christianity became the official religion of Rome that the churches backed away from their opposition to violence — after all, how could it be maintained on behalf of an empire with a sizable standing army? Then, later, came theologians who created criteria for a “just war”, seeking to establish standards for when war would be acceptable to Christians. Yet, it has never been acceptable to Christ.
America is much more like the ancient Roman Empire than we would like to admit. Yes, guns are too readily available in our society. But our problem goes much deeper than that one issue. We need to come to terms with the way in which our culture legitimates violence, and begin to find ways to change that. We must deal with the rage that lies beneath the surface of our society, and begin to lead people into healthy ways of dealing with that rage. And our religious traditions need to go back to their founders and discover again the non-violence that lies at the heart of most of our traditions, so that we become part of the solution rather than perpetuate the problem.
This is social, political, psychological, and spiritual work — and we owe it to ourselves, and to our children, to get on with it.