Our Addiction to Violence

o-GUNS-IN-SCHOOLS-facebookAmericans are addicted to violence.  The roots of that addiction are, I think, to be found in our early history.  As Europeans moved into North America, they had to deal with the fact that there were already people living here.  Ultimately, those people were conquered, and that could not be done without violence.  As early Americans pushed their way across the continent, guns traveled with them as tools for hunting and for defense against the native peoples and criminals.  Out of this history emerged the image of the quintessential American:  the pioneer who made his own way in the world, refusing to be stopped by either nature or government or other people.  Guns were a part of this image, and veneration of the pioneer and then the cowboy led to the veneration of force itself.  The American narrative says that when all is said and done, if you can’t get others to do what you want them to do, then you use force to get your way in the world.

The history of our participation in the global community is testament to that narrative.  While initially reluctant to involve ourselves in the conflicts of other nations, we were inevitably drawn into the first two world wars and made a decisive difference in those conflicts.   They were wars that we did not start, but which we did help bring to an end.   Few people would dispute the need for using force in those conflicts.  Since then, however, we have repeatedly used force in areas of the world where we were not getting our way:  Vietnam, Korea, Afghanistan, Iraq.   None of these uses of force can be said to have brought us the results we were allegedly looking for, and all of them resulted in a great deal of national soul-searching about the wisdom of our actions.  Yet, still, when bad people rise up in the world, we continue to hear average Americans and national leaders alike suggesting that we drop a few bombs or send in the troops.  Despite ample evidence that most of our military adventures have not yielded the results that were promised, that old American narrative that insists that violence can solve our problems continues to assert itself.

But the biggest problem with that narrative lies not overseas but right here at home.  Every year, about 4.5 million firearms are sold in this country.  The percentage of Americans owning guns has actually declined, from 54% of American households in 1977 to 33% in 2009.  However, the number of guns per owner has increased from 4.1 in 1994 to 6.9 in 2004.  There are an estimated 283 million guns floating around this country, and on average, 30 people are killed by guns in the United States every day.   And as of this week, we are now averaging one mass shooting a day so far in 2015 (a mass shooting is defined as an event in which at least four people are shot, which can include the person doing the shooting).    There have been 247 mass shootings in 2015 as of August 26, which was the 238th day of the year.

And our culture continues to glorify violence.   Most popular movies and television shows include violence, often in over-the-top scenes.  Violence in movies and tv shows is used by both the “bad” guys and the “good” guys.  But the messages are clear:  violence is cool, and in the end, it’s the only way to get what you want or stop the evil people.

It’s no wonder, then, that when people in our culture feel angry and without hope, violence is often their chosen response.  One might object that this is just human nature, but statistics from other countries show us that this is not true.  When one compares the United States to other similarly developed nations, we are far and away the most violent.   It’s not that people in other countries don’t feel anger or hopelessness — it’s just that they don’t express that anger or hopelessness violently nearly as often as people do in our own country.  This is a problem that is uniquely American, and yet our commitment to our cultural narrative that glorifies violence prevents us from really doing anything about it.  We are addicted to it to such a degree that we can’t ween ourselves away from it.

Ultimately, this is a spiritual problem.  But, our religious narratives are too often coopted to support our addiction to violence.   Too many people accept the biblical stories in which God does violence or seems to sanction violence at face value, without questioning what those stories are really telling us.   Those of us who are Christians have an obligation to read these stories in light of the proclamation of Jesus the Christ, and when we do so, it becomes clear that these stories of divine violence are really stories of human violence in which God is used to justify our violent ways.  Jesus himself is clearly deeply committed to non-violence.   And yet, many Christians have chosen to interpret the impossible-to-interpret Book of Revelation to paint a picture of Jesus as some kind of apocalyptic Rambo who will return some day to gun down the sinners.   Such a picture cannot be harmonized with the vast majority of what Jesus does and says in the gospels, but never mind.  That Jesus doesn’t fit in very well with the American narrative.

In his Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus makes it pretty clear that if we want to change the world around us, we need to begin by looking inward.  We need to look at our own negative emotions that could move us toward violence and deal with them in ways that are life-giving rather than life-destroying.    We need to begin looking at the roots of this violent American narrative within ourselves, and as we begin to change that narrative there, perhaps the narrative in our culture will change, as well.   But I wonder how many more people will have to die before we really get the message.

Ethics from the Margins

After two months, the blog is returning from sabbatical — and a great sabbatical it was.  Shortly after it began, there were some significant news developments.  The Supreme Court issued a ruling legalizing gay marriage throughout the United States, and The Episcopal Church’s General Convention cleared the way for same-sex marriages to be conducted throughout the church.  For many, these developments were stunning because they signified victories for which people had been hoping, praying, and working for decades.  For others, they were deeply unsettling, a movement away from what Christians (and other religious traditions) have regarded as sacred tradition for millennia.  The aftermath has not been surprising, really.  Amidst the rejoicing by many, various secular officials have resigned or refused to conform to the Supreme Court’s ruling, mostly citing their own religious beliefs.   And some bishops within The Episcopal Church have announced they will not authorize same-sex marriages in their dioceses — though it seems the General Convention will require them to find a way to make that possible, eventually.

What would Jesus do with all of this?

None of us can answer that question with certainty, of course — though there are many who would like to think they can.  When it comes to marriage, Jesus actually said almost nothing beyond observing why we developed this tradition of marriage between men and women in the first place.    For his time and place, what we now call traditional marriage was normative — just as it has been for us until recently.   And, unlike us, Jesus did not live in a time when that norm was questioned.

But one thing that seems clear to me is that Jesus always did his ethics from the margins.  When he thought and taught about how we should treat each other, he always did so from the point of view of those who were the most disadvantaged of his society.   We see this emerge, for example, in his many debates with other rabbis over the keeping of the sabbath.  In each of those debates, he invariably places human need above law, custom, and tradition.  In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus blesses all of the people whom we rarely bless.  And in his healing ministry, his attention is mostly directed toward those whose illnesses left them ostracized and on the outside of their cultures and families.  In those acts of healing, the biggest gift he gives people is not the healing of their disease, but the healing of their separation from community and the restoration of their sense of worth, dignity, and even humanity.

What Jesus shows us over and over again is that those in power, those who are privileged, never have the final word on what is right and what is wrong.  Rather, it is the victims of our personal and cultural prejudices who get that final word.  It is those who are the victims of injustice who get to say what injustice is.  Because in truth, they are the only ones who really know.

For the whole of its history, Western culture has marginalized gay and lesbian people, has declared them unworthy or inhuman or disordered or diseased.  They have been killed and imprisoned.  They have been forced to hide who they are and live locked up in unauthentic lives.  The damage that has been done to generations of gay and lesbian people has been profound.

If Jesus were to come among us today, we would find him among the gay and lesbian community, and among all the other people who are marginalized by today’s Western culture.  He would be visiting our churches and angering people with his radical interpretation of scripture.   He would be about the work of telling gays, lesbians, and all marginalized persons that they are beloved, restoring their self-worth and dignity.  He would be doing what he always did:  proclaiming the ethics of the kingdom of God from the margins, and making it very clear that the privileged and powerful don’t have the right to marginalize anyone.

I long ago came to the conclusion that straight people don’t get to say whether gay marriage is right, because they are not the victims of the traditional cultural norm concerning marriage.  Those of us who are in positions of power and privilege must instead look to the gay and lesbian community and ask, “How are you suffering?  And what must we do to alleviate your suffering?”   It is the question we are obligated to ask every marginalized person and group, because it is the only way we will be able to follow Jesus and do as he did:  develop our ethics from the margins, putting human need and the alleviation of human suffering above law, custom, and tradition.

Jesus said, “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly.”  That should be a mission statement for all Christians:  doing everything in our power to free those who are not free to have and hold the most abundant life possible.