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In defense (not praise) of…”violence”. July 24, 2009

Posted by docgrubb in christianity, culture, religion.

Modernity has dealt the word “violence” a bum rap, (to get my mixed metaphor out of the way early).  This post is a small attempt to rehabilitate that word, not necessarily any actions labelled by such. 

In the present day the ultimate virtue is to be nice, or fair, or non-judgmental.  Out in the country you can still hear phrases like, “he’s a good man”, or “they’re a good family”, but nowhere else.  For that would imply some others aren’t so good.  And to speak of honor today invites stares and awkward silence, with unvoiced thoughts of “what rock did he crawl out from?”  And, honest-to-goodness, when was the last time you heard (apart from a movie script) anyone speak of “duty”, not as in “jury duty”, but in the Victorian sense of “doing one’s”?  

This modern version of virtue is best summed up by a bumper sticker which was popular around the (most recent) turn-of-the-century:  “MEAN PEOPLE SUCK”.  I always wondered about the IQ of those drivers – how the internal hypocrisy of that declaration could be so lost on them.  I always wanted to print my own counter-sticker which might read “People with “MEAN PEOPLE SUCK” stickers are MEAN”.  Or, more succinctly, ” “MEAN PEOPLE SUCK” stickers SUCK”.   Meanness, intolerance, and, ahem,…violence…are all necessarily uncalled for, according to the modern psyche.  It doesn’t matter what happens to arouse the meanness, nor what the person is intolerant of, these are just an unquestioned bad.  Yet perhaps the crotchety old man is mean because he’s surrounded by a world of fools, punks who put “MEAN PEOPLE SUCK” on their bumpers, but won’t offer him their place in the grocery line.  Or perhaps he’s got aches and pains and sensory losses (or griefs) that their spoiled  *ss*s haven’t and may never develop (or endure).   The truly charitable (and virtuous) bumper sticker might read “MEAN PEOPLE MAY JUST NEED LOVE”.   But I concede the pivot here is “MAY”, not “ALWAYS”.   Yet it goes against every hurried modern inclination to devote the time to discern which way it is, particularly with strangers.  And even with such attention, sometimes it remains a mystery to all but God.   But I digress…

So what about “violence”?  This is likely too big a topic for me, but I will take a stab at a few observations or insights.

Some definitions of “violence” include:  ‘swift and intense force’; ‘rough or injurious physical force, action, or treatment’; ‘rough or immoderate vehemence’ (all Random House, online).  It seems in past ages “violence” denoted intensity, whereas today it carries the narrower sense of causing hurt or harm.  And the modern reader or speaker is, to put it mildly, quite mixed up in regards to hurt, harm, and suffering in general.   (Consider how ready we are to witness injury to others on-screen; how desensitized we have become to real pain in others – earthquake victims, African rape-as-weapon crimes, starvation – and yet, how averse we are to enduring a little pain ourselves – putting our children to sleep to pull their teeth, &c.  More on this line later.)  Perhaps this is why modern readers are having even more difficulty than their ancestors understanding or digesting some of the “violent” pronouncements of Christ:  “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.  For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother…’ “.   “And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away.  It is better to enter life…than to have two eyes and be thrown into…hell.”   “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him.”  And the author of Hebrews: “For the word of God is…sharper than any two-edged sword,..dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow”.  No doubt, these are some of the most misunderstood verses in the New Testament, and this was the case even way-back-when violence was much more a fact of life.  But exegesis is not my goal here.  Suffice it to say that the Prince of Peace came to a fallen, cursed world, and, as an aid in apprehending our divine Remedy, advised violence.  Violence against the flesh, the world, and the devil.  Fire to fight fire.

The classic verse which pitted the positive aspect of violence against the negative, and one interpretation against the other, is Matthew 11:12.  “And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force.” (KJV)  (Flannery O’Connor must have preferred the Douay-Rheims: “…the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away.”)  Whether Christ meant that the kingdom was being attacked by evil men (it was), or that inclusion in the kingdom comes via vehement struggle against sin and self (I fear it does), or both, has been the question.  The second sense here may be best summarized by Matthew Henry in his commentary:  “Those who will have an interest in the great salvation, will have it upon any terms, and not think them hard, nor quit their hold without a blessing.”  The end of this quote is, of course, an allusion to an Old Testament act of holy violence: Jacob’s wrestling with God.  The Puritans took up that second sense heartily, and Holy Violence was a ready phrase, theme, and exercise among them.  This endured on through to that other baptist, Charles Spurgeon, who preached a sermon by the same title ( http://www.spurgeon.org/sermons/0252.htm ).  And use of the phrase has seen some revival in recent times, hence, partly, this post.

What about violence itself, not just the word?  Today, on the one hand, we seem desensitized to it.  On the other, so averse to it as to seem allergic.  For the former, the media is largely responsible.  For the latter, no doubt, the following:  In the modern, cushioned world, we have become divorced from it.  As the infant raised in too clean an environment becomes the child with allergies to dust, mold, or dander, so citizens of a civilization where ‘safety is number one’ become ‘allergic’ to all dangers.  And we go to great lengths to shield ourselves from pain, even offenses to our senses.  The far-off slaughterhouse does our butchering for us.  We are content to buy shrink-wrapped protoplasm; not so content to lower a 22 between blinking, bovine eyes.  The educated class of the U.S. has, apart from the screen, become so divorced from it that our girls are no longer choosing nursing as a career.  We have to import nurses from the Phillipines, where blood, guts, pain, smell, and death are, I suppose, still part of the common experience.  In our suburbs, urgent care clinics see patients who are at a loss over how to care for trivial wounds.  Grown men have never seen a tick, let alone faced a wild beast.  Multiple examples abound. 

Truth be told, in a fallen world, violence is a necessity.  A necessary evil.  The surgeon makes violence regularly:  incisions in order to cure, fresh trauma to repair old, painful procedures to overcome handicap.  A tumor meets with all manner of violence: surgical, chemical, and nuclear.  Undergoing radiation therapy winter-before-last, I muttered to the technologist that, fifty years from now (assuming continued medical progress), even this high-tech radiation will seem barbaric. 

Violence is a necessity, but we pretend otherwise.  We banish corporal punishment from public schools.  Years later, the teachers, then unfortunate spouses, bear the consequences.  We set ourselves wiser than God, who said the rod will not injure the child, but might “save his soul from death”.  The pretensions have reached the veterinarians: no longer are we to use a rolled-up newspaper for training dogs, but must squirt their faces with a dilute vinegar!  This advice is far-flung from dogs in wild, and how they assign their hierarchy within packs – via violence.  The same modernists who insist we are all evolutionary products of the laws of nature, are the very ones most eager to divorce those laws from public policy.  (But the internal contradictions of liberalism are beyond this post.) 

Even when violence is not necessary, there are worse sins.  We haughtily judge the violent, but miss the cowardice or apathy in ourselves.  Not too long ago I read the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People.  One of the things from its pages most striking to me was how such newly converted “tribes” – Northumbrians, Angles, Mercians – were so ready to make war with one another, presumably, with fellow Christians.  There seemed to be little diminution of violence, at least in the immediate generations.  Some might naively argue that such was proof of the insincerity of their conversion.  I would disagree.  In fact, during my consumption of that book (I am a slow reader), I would drive past golf courses on my way to church on Sunday mornings.  The greens would be full of amicable golfers.  I would try to imagine how they would judge the bloody Saxon over and against themselves.  And the more I thought, the more I determined that, come Judgment Day, I would rather be in the shoes of those ancient warriors than those of these golfers.  For, though it may be difficult to maintain that genuine faith cohabits with violence, it is downright impossible to maintain true faith exists where there is not even rudimentary private or public worship of the Creator.

Recently I watched an old movie for the first time, How Green was My Valley.  Within the course of depicted events, not only the kingdom of heaven, but western civilization, the Welsh landscape, and every character “suffereth violence”.  Nothing and no one is spared.  Following little Huw’s abuse by his schoolteacher, we watch the boxer friend-of-the-family and his assistant pay the fellow a visit and give him a sound thrashing.  And no one can judge for sure, this side of heaven, whether such executions of justice are divine or just human.  For real life is even more complex.  “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time”, wrote Paul.  We know, or ought to know, that the Curse will not be cancelled until the Second Adam does so.  John wrote, “And He who sits on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new”.”

Through none of this am I belittling the pain of those who have personally suffered real violence.  And corporately, among three of the most destructive waves that have swept across our civilization in the modern era – the French Revolution, the First World War, and the adoption of fiat currencies – two of them were violent.  Extremely violent, and most surely, needlessly.  The point I am trying to make is that, whereas all criminal violence warrants condemnation, not all violence is criminal.  And that, whereas all unnecessary violence is wasteful, not all violence is unnecessary.  And getting this mixed up, or forgetting it, does no one any good.  And making bad policy based on wishful thinking usually creates harm, birthing its own suffering.  Here is the place for two excellent sayings:  “Primum non nocere”, “first, not to harm”, the physicians’ motto (would to God it were politicians’ too).   And my personal favorite and recurring theme, “the perfect is enemy to the good”.

On that note, let me close where I began – near the rear of an automobile.  The most recent memorable bumpersticker I’ve spied was this: “Peace is the answer”, with the requisite rainbow-colored background.  But how to take it: “answer” as in “solution to our problems”?  As an elixir against our base behaviors, or antidote to war?  Oh really?  Unsurprisingly, my derision arose instantly, and I began composing counter-stickers in my head: “Peace:  a destination, not the transportation”, or “PEACE – an end, not a means”.  Indeed, ‘peace as policy’ makes about as much sense as a psychiatrist writing a prescription for ‘tranquility’ or ‘happiness’ to his anxious or depressed patients.  The pharmacist wouldn’t know how to fill it.  And likewise citizens, soldiers, scientists, and clergy have no idea how to fill the peace-talk of politicians.  It makes good press, but it is less than a puff of air.  It is substanceless song, like Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry; Be Happy”, but without the relaxing beat.  A child’s cap-gun has more utility when met with an enemy. 

Yes, peace is a destination.  A New Jerusalem, where there will be no night, no more “death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”  Paul says, “For God was pleased…through him[Christ] to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven”.  And how?  “by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”   (A violent cross.)  Peace the end, blood the means. 

Yes, there will be a New Jerusalem.  But first Faithful and True must return a second time, wielding a sword above those gathered to make war against Him, and the blood will rise to the horses’ bridles.  John says He will “tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God”, and “all the birds” will gorge themselves “on their flesh.”  Then, and only then, come the plowshares, and violence will go the way of tears.


1. Shawnee Allen - July 28, 2009

Yes, I guess I am aquasi-pacifist. But I am not ”divorced”or immune to violence, having been a victim, and having actually seeing it other times. I very seldom watch violent movies, and often have had to take news breaks for my moral sanity. I have not been able to watch “The Passion” not knowing if I would be able to see what they did to our Lord. My vision in my mind is horrible enough. But that is probably the one violent movie I should see. I agree that peace is an end and not a means, and my answer to “Mean People Suck,” is that “There are no good people, only people who do good things.” Or vice-versa, “There are no mean people, only people who do mean things.” But then how do I explain sociopaths?

There are still people who feel a duty to help others, perhaps not as many who feel a duty to serve in unnecessary wars. Just yesterday after a bad storm, a friend of mine had several trees down, with one on top of her house, and three very old ladies knocked on her door and asked if they could clean up the mess for her. For free! Of course my friend declined, worrying about them hurting themselves.

Very interesting article, though.
Food for thought!

docgrubb - July 30, 2009

Thanks for your thoughts.
I’m not a fan of violent movies either – well, maybe war flicks. In fact, I’m at a total loss understanding people’s fascination with being terrified: horror films, haunted/scary-houses, extreme rollercoasters, etc. Even paying for the “privilege”. Life is tough enough – why ask for more?
We need more citizens/neighbors like those three old ladies. But where are the able-bodied, young folks, who might be self-righteously blind/”tolerant” of all manner of indecency, yet blind to opportunities for decency itself?
I do not disparage religious-based pacifism – there are legitimate scriptural arguments there. What I oppose are government policies which ignore human nature. And vapid campaign speech which confuses ends with means, shallow, and therefore non-committal. I’m obviously a big bumper-sticker fan. And my newest one will read:
“A T.R. paraphrase:
Keep yer trap shut,
But pack HEAT! ”


2. celeste - January 23, 2010

very very good topic! tho I will take issue with lumping rollercoasters with horror movies:0) that is just plain FUN. There is alesson in letting go and not dying too.

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