You can tell a good deal about a culture by the stories it tells. A lot of the tales popular in the US include the notion that ‘violence is the solution’ to problems. We see this most clearly in movies and TV shows where, at some point in the show, someone pulls out a gun or hauls off with their fists and solves the problem. “Wham!” (Thump) ” My hero!” Seems to be the theme of the day.
Whether it’s Michael Bay blowing things up ‘because’ or the Furious franchise casually pulling out a gun to solve their problems, it’s the same formula. Do violence, things get fixed. Is it any wonder that we tend to reach for our fists as a demonstration of ‘being strong?’
And when some well meaning person comes along and points out that violence, while simple in application, brings along with it a whole complex of implications many of which create new problems, they are glibly told to ‘tell it to the nazis’ or the confederacy. They are told that the Jews would have been completely exterminated and the slaves never freed if we hadn’t taken up the sword against evil.
Therefore, we’ve come to assume that violence is to be our ‘everpresent help in time of trouble.’ And thus we justify our violence, blithely forgetting that the motto is “ultima ratio regum.” (For those to whom this is too obscure, king Louis XIV of France had this motto on his cannons because the heavy guns were the “ultimate/final argument of kings.”)
Violence is thus enshined as a tool by our stories. Furthermore, it is appealing to use because it is simple to apply. Once I decide to hit you, the only things that are important are can I reach you with my fist and can I hit you hard enough. Who you are and how we have come to this moment in time are utterly unimportant. The complexities of life have been simplified to the equation my fist + your face = victory!
H.L. Menken made a pithy and critical comment about this kind of thinking “to every problem there is a solution that is simple, obvious, and wrong.” I am not by any means ruling violence out entirely as my pacifist friends do but as a Just Warrior I know that one must have more than simply “just cause” before initiating violence.
Furthermore, I have Jesus resurrection as a reminder of the radical (from the Latin radix “root”) change that can come in life through God’s intervention. I have even seen this trasformation take place in my life and the lives of those I know. Furthermore, Scripture reminds us that the fight of our life is a spiritual one. We will indeed face physical barriers and physical opponents. We will absolutely have to address these things with physical force. But when we go from “I am angry” to “you must die” in 0.5 seconds, we are failing the spiritual battle in order to win the physical.
This is because, as Paul reminds us, our war is not with the flesh and blood “enemies” we see in front of us but with the ideas, the assumptions, the miasma of spiritual evil which floats in the air around us. Our fight is against the prowling lion that seeks to devour us whole in our rage and thirst for blood. This is the enemy that tempts us to believe that victory comes when our enemy is completely destroyed instead of when they are reconciled, that punching “nazis” in the face is spiritually superior to gaining them for life.
Certainly there is a time when violence is our last available response, our ultima ratio, but even then it must never devolve into Holy War where absolute violence is permissible against a dehumanized enemy. Nor must it be taken up casually, our minds kept in the same scabbard as our sword. As I had to learn at home, simply being an annoying little snot is not sufficient justification for pounding on someone, not even if they are your little sister and the Source Of All Evil (sorry sis, I was a total jerk).
In the same way, just because someone is part of Other Political Party/This Protest Group, saluting (or not saluting) the flag, shouting things I hate/shouting hate at me, punching them in the face because I hate them is wrong or, as they say in the Royal Navy you flash, you lose.
So, given that our real enemy is the miasma of evil ideas and not the people in front of us, and that violence is our last resort against direct physical threats (not just people who are jerks), what are we supposed to do?
Could I interest you in the Spiritual Practice of discernment? In this context, it’s the heart habit of being aware. Aware of who we are, our limits as human beings, and that we are not at war with our enemies (no matter how emotionally satisfying and simplistic the “war” might be)