Violence is a dominant theme through both the Old Testament and the New Testament. But violence is not the last word even if much of Christian witness might lead us to believe that God’s violence is a moral and practical option.
In the Old Testament we often read of a wrathful even genocidal God: one minute sending in agents to destroy everything in a given area (Isaiah 13:15–18) and the next moment espousing love and showering the object of affection with gifts and blessings (Isaiah 14:1–2). In this concept of God, love and violence go hand in glove without a trace of irony (Psalm 136:10).
The prophets, to whom we turn for visions of justice, and mercy, are rarely any gentler than the Judges, Kings, and Psalmists. We have already heard from Isaiah’s God but Elisha’s temper and cruelty is hideous yet sanctioned by the divine. The comical brutality is narrated when Elisha was confronted by children calling him ‘Baldy’ and responded by getting God to set bears on them, murdering forty-two of them (2 Kings 2:23–24).
We need to understand what the motivators of violence are. Individually and collectively people act with great compassion and sacrifice but also with terrible inhumanity. It’s right that we ask ‘Why?’ Here are six potential sources of violence; perhaps you can think of others?
First let’s look at deference: our attitude to authority figures and our keenness to defer to them in all matters including those that guide our moral compass. Stanley Milgram, an American psychologist, wanted to know how far ordinary people would be willing to go beyond their usual moral limits, when deferring to an authority figure.
Milgram set up a simple yet profoundly significant experiment. Two people would face one another either side of a glass screen. One had tasks to teach the other and a panel of buttons. The second was attached to electrodes and had a few buttons to register the degree of pain felt. The second was, in fact, an actor and would pretend to be painfully shocked as the ‘teacher’ – the real subject of the experiment – pressed the buttons the teacher believed she or he increased the intensity of the shock each time the other person failed a test.
As the screams of anguish became more distressing, many people who took part would hesitate and yet they would press on past what they thought were dangerous levels of electric treatment because they were assured by an authority figure in a lab coat that they would not be held responsible.
Many of us have been taught from early years to discern right from wrong based on rewards and punishments. We become good people but our moral compass is external to us. We know when we are being good because we are being rewarded by an authority figure and we know when we are being bad because we feel like we have let down the person in charge and ultimately those who brought us up. I am not just talking about parents who smack here but rather all attempts to coerce people into being good instead of helping one another to connect with our own real needs and those of others.
Spirituality anchors the activist in recognition that the divine spark animates all creation, making responsibility personal and wellbeing corporate. A compassionate activist’s only authority is the One, referred to by St John as ‘Love’, who is discerned with humility and mutual aid. Any other authority needs to be held in permanent suspicion relative to this Love.
Our second source of violence is fear. Adrenalin and fear are important factors that can lead us to violence. Fear is rooted in anxiety about not having our basic needs met. This is ultimately a fear of dehumanization and death. Most of the time, preserving my own life is a useful instinct. But the ability to override that instinct with a trust that all life is held in God alters the control we have over our responses to danger radically. Those who lose their life will save it while those who save their own lives may lose their humanity.
The possibility of seeing beyond fight or flight into a third option of nonviolent resistance can be opened up with a disciplined rhythm of prayer in community. This is because doing the work of spiritual contemplation together changes us.
Bringing our liturgical life into the public square – as we shall see in later chapters – turns our corporate contemplation into something new. Nothing changed my relationship to my community’s prayer book more than praying it in a police cell. Nothing changed my experience of the Psalms more than saying them in the shadow of a nuclear weapons factory. Nothing changed my experience of the book of Lamentations more than saying them in the city centre interspersed with the names of the casualties of war.
By understanding and speaking out our needs and by hearing with compassion the needs of others, we learn the source of both our fear and our love for others. The Bible allows the whole cacophony of voices room to speak: from the most powerful to the least. In hearing this rich heritage and all the voices of those whose needs remain unmet in our own time, we face up to fear in ourselves and in others. Perfect understanding leads us to perfect love and perfect love casts out all fear.
Silliness plays a part as well. As a ten-year-old I used to love fighting and would sometimes have to sneak into the house to wash off the blood. But as I got older so my fear grew. I will always remember the day I avoided a bloody exchange outside a pub when I was sixteen. A good friend and I had a disagreement over a girl we both liked. We were in a pub and worse for wear. What started out as a quiet argument was managed by the baying crowd into a stand-off on the pavement outside.
We stood opposite each other glaring; each daring the other to move forward and attack. We goaded each other as the crowd of our peers stood around shouting ‘Fight! Fight! Fight!…’ In a moment of sobriety I became more aware of the crowd than of my opponent. I realized I didn’t really want to fight but was now too afraid to back down. I knew the argument was unhelpful but the time for words seemed to have vanished. I needed somehow to diffuse the situation.
I still don’t quite know how it came to me: I unclenched my little fists and grabbed my own ears, making them stick out, while puffing up my cheeks and sticking out my tongue. It was my ‘Pob’ impression; I’ve since seen it in photos taken around the same time. My opposite number couldn’t help laughing, at which point we shook hands and he bought me a pint – much to the disappointment of the crowd who weren’t quite sure what had happened. Finding a way over the other side of fear often involves being creative and daring in ways that, aside from the moment of inspiration, is often hard to plan.
What Walter Wink calls ‘the myth of redemptive violence’ is the commonly held belief, hugely invested in, that violence not only saves us but that it is an important measure of moral rightness. Our whole worldview is shaped by a belief in the myth of redemptive violence, which we often give in to, either in our thinking or on an emotional level. We act out of this belief when we act without stopping to ask ourselves which over-arching story of how the world works is guiding us.
From children’s cartoon characters (Popeye, The Incredibles, Superman), to blockbusting films (Kung Fu Panda, X-Men), western culture has been saturated with the idea that those who win in battle are thus proven to be morally superior. The underlying belief is that the universe, or the divine, is inclined to favor the righteous in battle so you know whose side good/God is on by seeing who claims victory.
This belief has a number of antisocial effects. It inclines us only to listen to the victor’s version of history. There is an ancient African proverb: ‘Until the lions have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter.’ This refusal to hear critical voices in relation to a conflict opens us up to the idea of conflict in the future.
Those who are victorious make a moral claim on those who believe in the myth of redemptive violence: the world would be a worse place had they lost, according to their telling of the tale, and allegiance to them in the future is vital for keeping further evils at bay.
The worldview that violence saves us determines more of our actions than we might realize. From styles of parenting and leadership, through reward and punishment, to our seemingly instinctive desire to call the police who carry with them the constant threat of violence in order to protect our property and person, we rely daily on the availability of saving violence. Our taxes pay for the military; our parades and religions celebrate the honorable dead. We have a cult of the myth of redemptive violence that’s so all pervasive that, like most all-pervasive myths, we rarely notice its influence.
For a couple of years I lived in East London. I loved the small community of social housing tower blocks we lived in. It had its challenges as most communities do. Communal bins were regularly set alight for a while and we would wake up in the night with our bedroom full of smoke, for example, or our neighbors would threaten one another with knives. But we got involved in the residential committee and the local church and got to know everyone on the ground floor fairly quickly.
But the area had a reputation for trouble and the police were keen to show that they were doing their bit. Just before we arrived a sign was put up facing our bedroom window that said, ‘Warning: Anti-Social Behaviour is an Offence’. We didn’t like opening our curtains to that each morning so we changed it: ‘Warning: Love one another’. Much better!
But one day it all went wrong. A neighbor decided to antagonize a guest at our house and stole his camera. The next day we went over to try and settle things. We were confronted by bizarre claims being made against us as well as threats of blackmail. My wife and I were threatened and sworn at as we left the house over the coming days and weeks, and going home was difficult.
I resisted calling the police at first but, under pressure from others, finally did so. They came over, listened, had a chuckle, and were generally useless. We asked for mediation but they said we could press charges or not. We chose instead to find every opportunity to show compassion. Eventually they started acting like nothing had happened. Then one evening, when both the adults had either drunk heavily, taken a lot of coke, or both, one, standing outside her home, frightened to go back in, broke down and confessed everything. In the weeks and months around this event we relied on the love and support of neighbors and our residents’ group who helped us through with good humor and advice.
Reflecting back on this incident, I wondered what had caused me to phone the police. I knew they had nothing to offer the situation. I wondered if there was a deeply held conviction, going back to my childhood, that the police are there to protect me from baddies. But primarily there was an acute feeling of helplessness. The community I lived in had no means of dealing with tensions between neighbors without reference to state authorities. We had forgotten how to constructively hold one another to account and so, childlike, we ran to an external enforceable authority in times of internal conflict.
It takes a number of incidents of police intervention, whether as victim or offender, for us to lose our childlike trust in state-sponsored penalties and to begin to wonder if there might be better ways of feeling secure. But meanwhile we feel helpless.
Most of all, whether we choose to make use of protective, or saving, violence for ourselves, we are constantly confronted by the shadow of violence. A source of violence is our inability to see nonviolent options that work for us. In a sense this is what this whole book is about: moving out of helplessness to a compassionate confidence in God’s wonderful gift of human community.
We have a whole host of legal violent options at our disposal; police, courts, parents and carers, and prisons being the most obvious. Governments throw huge amounts of money at a penal system of social ordering and at the study of war for the safeguarding of the state. Nation states, who rely on our belief that violence is our savior, keep us dependent on their protection from external threat. Because of this we are de-skilled in nonviolent options, and even the way we talk to one another becomes about reward and punishment or the threat of violence.
We have been schooled to think that the only choice in most situations of conflict is fight or flight, so rather than assess the moral implications we simply work out the likely outcome and duck and dive accordingly.
Of course this isn’t the whole story; our true human nature pokes through sometimes with creative solutions and win-win opportunities but these are the exception to the norm.
Another source of violence is scapegoating. Social philosopher Rene Girard describes this as rooted in conflicts that naturally arise when we compete with those we admire. Imagine two lads who play constantly together and share all interests bar none. They, fish, climb, play, and fight together and of course support the same football team. One day one of them meets a girl; she is adorable and he adores her. He tells his best friend how beautiful, intelligent and funny she is and the friend is keen to share in his pal’s enthusiasm.
The friend is so keen to be like his best friend in all things that pretty soon he too is in love with the girl. It is at this point that all hell breaks loose and for the first time these firm friends fall out with each other. It scares them and both hope to resolve their dispute, but they are unwilling or unable to find the source of it. Instead, they seek an outsider to be the target of their anger. The girl, whose arrival on the scene coincided with the conflict, is the obvious choice. She must be blamed in order to preserve the ‘peace’ between the friends.
Scaled up, the same can be true of any community where identification with one another’s desires leads to an inter-communal conflict, which is resolved either by the group destroying itself in revenge or destroying a symbolic outsider. The group usually chooses the outsider rather than face deeper internal issues.
There is an ancient tradition both within and beyond the biblical text of this process. In the Hebrew Scriptures there is a description of a goat being chosen each year to bear the sins of the whole community and be exiled: sent into the wilderness. All this makes for peace but it is a false peace because it is temporary and because it does not deal with the cause of conflict and in the process creates innocent victims.
Identifying the likely scapegoats in our societies and standing alongside them, equipping our communities with means of identifying and working through the causes of conflict, is the stuff of the good news of Jesus. Jesus after all was an innocent victim made to pay for the sins of the system but vindicated by a resurrecting God who refused the sacrificial offering of the ‘Human One’ as Jesus called himself (Matthew 26:63–64) and turned the scapegoating world upside down. In telling the story of a resurrected innocent victim, the gospel writers bring to the forefront a story that has long been part of the Jewish tradition: that it is the outsider, the scapegoat, the one who is beyond care that directs us to the true compassionate justice of God.
Our final source of violence is the inhumanity that results from our disconnection with the world outside ourselves. The more distant we are from a meaningful relationship with creation, the more likely we are to act impersonally and oppressively toward it. The more impersonally and oppressively we act, the more numb becomes our connection to the universe, robbing us of our humanity and of a meaningful relationship. This truth is an important corollary to any belief that there are two groups: victims of oppression and those who benefit from it. In the deepest sense of ‘human being’ all of us are victims of oppression, whether we are the initiators or the receivers of violence. No wonder Jesus told us to love our enemy; any other advice would play into our sense of inhumanity and lead only to more violence and greater estrangement.
My grandmother on my mother’s side was ‘a Theobald’ and the Theobalds were said to be so closely identified with one another that ‘if you kicked one, they all limped’. Whether this was true or not (I never tested the theory) it shows an ability to identify the others with the one person. It showed connectedness on a manageable scale. It also created mutual aid and discouraged internal conflict because what was good for one was seen as good for all. Such a narrow definition of our unity is problematic in many ways but, scaled up to the whole universe, it lets us in on a wholly different spiritual perspective.
A lack of personalization makes violence or oppression more likely because we cannot see the connection between our violence and the harm we do ourselves. We do not automatically notice our humanity being diminished every time we diminish the other person. This is why, below, a whole chapter is committed to explore the meaning of personalism. Being a person and being compassionate are indivisible as much as being dehumanized and lacking compassion go together too.
The same is true in our lack of connection with creation. If we do not see our oneness with the earth we don’t mind ransacking its resources to live luxuriously. If the rest of creation is separate from us then we fear it more and are more inclined to subdue, control, and exploit it. If being human means being in partnership with creation, we cease to be fully human when we reduce the humanity of another person or we elevate our species above the rest of the universe. To be human is to be free and just and to be a partner of creation: creation’s advocate, not creation’s boss.
We can see that there are plenty of reasons to act violently but none of these are healthy or likely to lead to outcomes we want. None of them bring salvation to the world. Deference leads to an externalized morality projected onto the powerful people we seek to please. Fear causes us to operate out of a desire for self-preservation and dislocates us from others.
Helplessness is rooted in our failure to see alternatives to violence, often because violence, of one form or another, is so readily available to us. Our worldview teaches us that justice favors the mighty and dignifies our violence, projecting authority onto might. Scapegoating results from a failure to deal adequately with the sources of conflict among us; it leads to a false and temporary peace and an endless spiral of violence. Inhumanity makes violence a more palatable option because our fear and desire to dominate are partners in making us neurotic and ever more power-hungry as a species.
For each reason to choose violence there is a nonviolent alternative. This option needs to be chosen each moment, and lived in, as we reintegrate with our true humanity. Walter Wink calls this the ‘third way’ of Jesus: It is the constructive and restorative way of nonviolent resistance that we find in the Bible and most explicitly in the New Testament. Being compassionate is an act of resistance; it is different from being caring, or passive. Compassion, literally meaning ‘to suffer with’, is rooted in our loving desire to be alongside one another in our common struggle for a better spiritual and social reality. Compassion is an act of resistance because the compassionate cannot rest until all suffering has ended. Compassion is the recognition that none of us are free until we are all free.
Keith Hebden is an Affirming Catholic Anglican Pioneer minister and Seeking Justice Deanery Adviser in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire where he chairs the Diocesan Greener Churches Group. Keith teaches and writes on Dalit theology, Christian anarchism, Green spirituality, and spiritual activism. His latest book Seeking Justice: The Radical Compassion of Jesus plots experiments in faith based community organising and direct action. Some of his workshop material and other resources can be found at Compassionistas.net. Keith is also an Associate of Ekklesia.co.uk, a think-tank in the UK, on Post-Christendom faith and justice.