When talking about violence, how do you imagine it? How would you define it? Many images and definitions can come to mind. Violence is essentially hurting another person. But defining violence as only hurting another person is pretty shallow. Can violence be more specific? Of course, violence is visible in the wars countries engage in, school shootings, gang violence, reducing to numbers the people who have passed away from COVID, the murdering of Black people on the streets, and even holding Brown men, women, and children in cages; Different images come to mind, different specific images.
To say that violence is to hurt another person is limiting. Violence does consist of hurting another, but violence is also more. That is one problem with trying to define violence; definitions impose limits on words and concepts and leave out important considerations that should extend the meaning of those words not limit meaning. It is one thing to say that one has been violent by hurting someone and another to say that one has been violent by killing someone. It is still another thing to say that one has experienced violence and has seen it; Experiences like the killing of a Black woman, such as Breonna Taylor. The shift is from generalities on violence to essential and vital considerations regarding race and gender and how real bodies experience specific acts of violence.
This is not to say that definitions are not needed. Still, it is to say that we need to learn how to describe more fully what we experience daily, in this case, how we experience violence. In the case of Christians, we need to be able to offer theological detailed descriptions of the violence that permeates our social fabric, name it for what it is, and wrestle with the tensions.
Now, violence… what is violence? What does it mean to view violence as a theological concern? Once we discover what violence is, what should we do about it? Those are the question that the series seeks to answer, or at least it is an attempt to do so. In his poem titled Questionnaire, Wendell Berry, an incredible poet (amongst other things), does a fantastic job of naming violence and being honest with the questions that said violence produces. This is how it goes:
1. How much poison are you willing
to eat for the success of the free
market and global trade? Please
name your preferred poisons.
2. For the sake of goodness, how much
evil, are you willing to do?
Fill in the following blanks
with the names of your favorite
evils and acts of hatred.
3. What sacrifices are you prepared
to make for culture and civilization?
Please list the monuments, shrines,
and works of art you would
most willingly destroy.
4. In the name of patriotism and
the flag, how much of our beloved
land, are you willing to desecrate?
List in the following spaces
the mountains, rivers, towns, farms
you could most readily do without.
5. State briefly the ideas, ideals, or hopes,
the energy sources, the kinds of security,
for which you would kill a child.
Name, please, the children whom
you would be willing to kill.
The poet poses a questionnaire that names the idols to which we offer blood sacrifices. The poet exposes the myth of goodness, the stories that we tell ourselves and others that justify the violent means that lead towards “good” ends. These myths permeate our lives through commercials, language, wars, and results in committing acts of crime and violence in the name of culture and nationalism; in the name of progress. We build our lives on the backs, blood, sweat, and tears of others – for the opportunity to participate in the free market and live the “American dream.” As the poet says, we kill others and their children to protect our own. Berry calls us to break the silence and open our eyes and name the costs of serving our idols.
Addressing violence then is not a secondary concern to spiritual matters or even heavenly matters. Addressing violence and naming it for what it is, is central to the revelation of God in Scripture and the life of the Christian. You see, the Bible is not merely a book about topics and prayer. The Bible consists of stories about how God confronts and deals with violence in the lives of his people. God confronts violence in different ways.
The goal then of these writings is to provide theological nuances and insight into how God calls Christians to be a people of peace, non-violence, by the Spirit of Jesus and through daily actions. It is to be able to name the violence that we experience on a daily basis, expose it, name it for what it is, and align our lives more faithfully with the reign of God and Scripture as reference.