|Volume 23 Number 5 May 2021
C. Philip Slate
The tragic December 2012 incident at Sandy Hook Elementry School in Connecticut calls attention, once again, to the violent streak in our society. Statistically, it is by far the most violent industrialized country in the world. Indeed, someone has quipped that the reason football is the quintessential American sport is because it combines committee meetings with violence!
If the issue of violence were simple, then the solution would be simple, but it is not. Much of it is culturally learned, some of it is a product of mental illness, and a slice of it is a lack of self-control. Its complexity, however, makes violence neither more acceptable nor less painful.
Christians should be especially incensed at violence since throughout Scripture it has earned God’s disapproval and retribution. Domestic violence, Cain killing his brother, occurs early in biblical history (Genesis 4:1-16). By the time of Noah, “the earth was filled with violence,” and because of it God said, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh; for the earth is filled with violence through them” (Genesis 6:11, 13). The Lord’s soul “hates him that loves violence” (Psalm 11:5). In Proverbs, the wicked “eat the bread of wickedness and drink the wine of violence” (4:17). God was displeased with Israel’s multiple sins, among them “deeds of violence” and their haste to “shed innocent blood” (Isaiah 59:6; Jeremiah 22:3, 17). Because Jerusalem was ‘full of violence,’ God said He would bring “the worst of the nations” upon them (Ezekiel 7:23-24; 12:9).
Even nations who were not in a covenant relationship with God were condemned for their violence. Edom incurred God’s retribution for, among other things, “the violence done to your brother Jacob” (Obadiah 10; Joel 3:19). Nineveh was called upon to repent of her violence if she wanted to be spared destruction (Jonah 3:8). Both Tyre (Ezekiel 28:16) and Babylon (Jeremiah 51:35-6) incurred God’s wrath because of their violence. God took vengeance on Israel’s neighbors for their violence (Amos 1:3, 6, 9, 11, 13; 2:1).
In the New Testament, John the Baptist told soldiers that repentance involved their ceasing to rob by violence (Luke 3:14). One expression of the angry, unbelieving Jews was violence, or the will to do so, toward Jesus (John 10:31), Stephen (Acts 7:54-58) and Paul (Acts 14:19; 2 Corinthians 11:24-27). When reference is made to words like “wrath” and “anger,” the list is much longer. It is extraordinary how often and significant these words are in Scripture. Thus, Christians should have an acute desire to avoid violence in their own behavior and to seek its prevention in society.
Causes of Violence
Violence and destructive behavior are known to arise from several causes. (1) Uncontrolled Anger. Frequently people lash out at others in varying degrees of violence when they do not control their anger. It is not sinful to be angry. Indeed, people who are incapable of anger may be in trouble emotionally. It is long-lived (Ephesians 4:26) and uncontrolled anger that is dangerous; it is the lack of self-control when one feels grossly wronged or incensed at someone else’s behavior. (2) Chemical Causes. In some cases, people who drink alcohol become violent, while others become docile. The same can be said for the use of other substances. It can also occur with unexpected reactions to prescribed medications. (3) Mental Disorders, whether caused genetically or through injury, are known causes of violence. I am no specialist in this area; I simply read what specialists have written. (4) Learned Behavior. People are enculturated differently. Ruth Benedict, American cultural anthropologist, pointed out several decades ago how among the Plaines and other Indians, violence was pervasive, whereas among the Zuñi of New Mexico, violence was absent. “They do not contemplate violence,” she wrote (Benedict 107). In many sub-groups and individual homes in the USA, children are exposed to violence as a way of “solving” problems of anger. Many cultural expressions in the USA teach violence as a way of “solving” problems.
What Can We Do?
Christians should strive for the prevention of violence when that is possible. Among the things that can be done are these.
1. Be sensitive to troubled people and refer them to potential helpers. Most of us have known loners in school but without knowing why they distanced themselves from others. Is it anger, resentment, timidity or a symptom of some sociopathic condition? One should not play the role of a clinical psychologist unless he or she is one. As an act of Christian love, however, one might reach out to those who seem to have no friends, seeking to bring them into a circle of wholesome people. When such efforts fail, it would be wise to talk to school officials, leaders in the work community or others about getting such people under the analysis and care of professional mental health workers. That approach will not solve all the problems, but it is a constructive step that may prevent some incidents of violence.
2. Protect potentially violent people from themselves and others. Of course, in many cases, no one suspects violence from those who do great violence. In other cases, however, it is prudent to be proactive. Even under the law of Moses a man was held to be responsible if he failed to control an ox that had “been accustomed to gore in the past” (Exodus 21:28-32). I had an uncle who suffered a head injury in the Navy in World War I. After the war, he was violent at home and in the community. My grandfather had him committed to an institution for his and others’ safety. It seems prudent to lock up or put out of the reach of children and troubled teens both guns and knives. That doesn’t prevent all violence since a violent person will use other “weapons.”
3. Teach Self-Control. The bumper-sticker theology “If you feel like it, do it” is demonstrably anti-Christian. Normal humans desire to possess things (acquisitiveness), but that desire is not to be expressed in theft, robbery or fraud. Most humans feel anger, but biblical teaching requires that Christians limit what they might feel like doing to another. Humans have God-given desires for sex and intimacy, but those desires are to be expressed in limited ways. Jesus’ followers are called upon to learn self-control, to be in their right minds. That needs to be taught to children as their value systems are being formed and to adults who take it upon themselves to follow Jesus (1 Peter 2:19-21; Matthew 26:51-54). Surely, there is a place in society to teach the philosophy of discipline, of self-restraint for the good of the whole. Unfortunately, we live in an indulgent, largely undisciplined society that often results in obesity, financial ruin, drunkenness and poor scholarship.
The Chinese proverb, “Men strike when they have no ideas” may be true, but it is still largely learned behavior whether one strikes or not when bereft of ideas in a tense situation. Violence is a way of getting one’s way, of defense or of gaining control. Mathematician and philosopher A.N. Whitehead was likely right when he contended that “The survival of civilization depends on the victory of persuasion over force.” He was borrowing unapologetically from Plato’s thought, but surely that is an insight worth imparting to a society. It is a secular statement of a biblical and Christian value.
I question whether gun control will significantly ameliorate the violence in our society. When guns are not available, violent people use machetes (Kenya), knives (as in a Chinese school), shotguns (the Menendez brothers), baseball bats or clubs. In some societies, poison is a common means of killing. I know a man whose wife became mentally ill and sought to kill him during the night with a common kitchen butcher knife. People with training in hand-to-hand combat or the martial arts can kill with their bare hands. Prohibiting assault weapons could prevent mass killings but would not change people’s violent behavior. Other kinds of intervention are necessary.
It is still a matter of dispute whether watching violence on TV and in the movies or playing violent video games contributes significantly to an increase in violence. Through the influence of movies, like westerns and those of WWII that glorified war, as a preteen boy I “killed” most of East Tennessee with wooden guns. Yet, by my late teens, I was largely a pacifist. Evidently, several of the shooters in recent years have been heavy users of violent electronic games, but in fairness, I do not know whether that is a causative factor or merely a source of ideas how to express a violence derived from other causes, or neither one. It is known that some violent people are “play acting” out of games and movies, the copycat killers. It seems to serve no good purpose for young people to spend a lot of time playing violent games. Rather, at least from a Christian point of view, the taking of a human life, even when a matter of justice, should be regarded as a heavy event; if it is not a heinous crime it is still a horribly weighty event (Genesis 9:6), very different from killing an animal.
Christian love, agape love, is to seek what is best for others, even if we do not like them or approve of their behavior. Surely, with our value system, we as Christians can make some contribution to the reduction of violence in our society.
Benedict, Ruth. Patterns of Culture. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1934.