"Before you can search for truth, you must be interested in finding it." -Miroslav Volf

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Am I violent?

I’ve been thinking a lot in the past few days about violence and its subtle manifestations. When I begin to see something, have that “aha” moment and begin to gain clarity about something, it can be both energizing and convicting. “The truth will set you free.” Agreed…gaining a clearer understanding of “how things really are” and seeing my self-deceptions crumble can be a kind of freedom.

But encounters with truth usually come with a call—a call to change, to make adjustments, to repent, to humbly admit my picture of truth was inadequate and that I didn’t know as much as I thought I did. Discovery—of self and of truth—is like that for me at least: it kind of astonishes for a while, then makes me realize that if I’m to have integrity I must change in light of such an encounter.

We use metaphors to helps us articulate the human predicament and what can be done or needs to be done about it. We are broken, and need to be fixed. We are sick, and need to be healed. We are divided and need to be united. We are lost, and need to be found. We are dying, and need to be saved. All these are true and useful, and illuminate different aspects of our condition.

But I think the way of articulating our condition that has been at the forefront of my mind lately is violence. Humans are violent and have violence done on them, and need to find peace—as individuals and as a global community. I think this has traditionally been a less helpful metaphor for me, mainly because I’ve failed to identify with it. Broken yes, lost, yes…but violent? I don’t really think of myself as violent. Football didn’t work out so well for me as a teenager (though golf did).

But I’ve begun to reconsider this self-assessment. One aid in this have been writers like Stanley Hauerwas, who emphasizes in his writing the centrality of nonviolence to Jesus’ life and ministry—his nonviolent approach toward making the will of God known, his nonviolent political methods, and his nonviolent way of interacting with various kinds of people.

Another source was last week’s uproar surrounding pastor Terry Jones and his intentions to burn copies of the Quran. Thankfully and movingly, a great deal of interfaith conversation began to happen and pleas were made from Christians and Muslims (and I’m sure others) to cancel his plans. Jones changed his mind. But the situation underscored how naturally we respond to what we don’t understand and what is “other” with fear and violence rather than a hospitable, curious, and peaceful spirit.

While Jesus calls us to love our enemies, it seems different followers of Jesus, to different extents, qualify what love means. We define love in ways that allow us to feel like we’re being obedient to God while in practice doing things that don’t really resemble what we intuitively know to be loving.

Thus people like Jones make the mistake of assuming that dealing with others who are not like-minded should be done with a violent, confrontational spirit. (I do think Jones should be extended compassion and forgiveness, even if he only reluctantly changed his plans; rather than labeling him a villain, it’s probably more helpful for all to see him as misguided and in need of grace and an encounter with the truly radical love of God for all people.)

And I think this is the case—that we often deal with others with a bit of violent spirit, a spirit that perhaps comes from a place of fear. Hauerwas writes: “This love that is characteristic of God’s kingdom is possible only for a forgiven people—a people who have learned not to fear one another. For love is the nonviolent apprehension of the other as other. But to see the other as other is frightening, because to the extent others are other they challenge my way of being. Only when my self—my character—has been formed by God’s love, do I know I have no reason to fear the other.” (The Hauerwas Reader, 137)

The Western world is increasingly aware of the foibles of the colonial attitudes that have generally marked the ways powerful nations have historically (and presently?) interacted with others. The colonial spirit looks out for its own interests, seeking to Jabez-ify itself (can I say that?) by advancing its own interests and values while paying far less attention to the interests and values of the advanced-upon. When a powerful nation wants something it often (always? need to read more history…) uses violent or coercive methods to obtain what it seeks. Peaceful and nonviolent methods are not usually our go-to, as other nations can be perceived as threats, either because they too are looking out for their own interests, or simply because they are not “us” and thus pose a threat to our own way of life.

Could it be said that individuals possess this same colonial spirit in our interactions with others? I think so. Others can pose a challenge to our “way of being,” as Hauerwas says. We fear others because they pose a challenge to our ideas and habits. I think this feeling of challenge happens in different ways. It can happen on an ideological level: if others hold fervently to their beliefs about what is true and good and right, and such beliefs differ from our own, we might be wrong. And the possibility of being wrong makes us feel anxious, out of control.

It does me, at least. Challenges to my understanding of God and life and ethics and people can be scary because it means I’m not as in control and in-the-know as I thought I was. Which I think can often lead people to (irrationally) assume they’re right about nothing, or right about everything.

So we fear others who seem convinced of their truth. We fear Muslims. We fear homosexuals. We fear atheists. We fear Mormons. We fear people whose very existence or beliefs pose a threat to our world, our views. And the result is that we often then shut down any possibility of real dialogue and partnership and relationship with these people because we won’t listen to them, won’t give any credit to their opinions. We argue, defending with all our might our point of view, not really respecting what others have to say but seeking only to advance our views that we’re convinced are 100% true and in no need of re-thinking and adjustment.

I think this spirit is violent. It does not create peace, nor unity, nor reflect the understanding and hospitable spirit of Jesus. Rather, it excludes, and reacts to others like a violent animal, protecting its territory. But it’s not just about the beliefs and ideas we share with the communities we are a part of. I think we act violently toward others in ways that are not always so overt.

This is what has really hit home with me. I recently watched the movie “To End All Wars,” which I’d never even heard of until very recently. Some of TCC (our fledgling church) gathered last weekend to watch and discuss the movie. It was a profound look at life in a POW camp during WWII, and the transformation of the men in this camp.

The movie gave several moving portraits of men choosing nonviolence, forgiveness, and sacrifice. And it revealed so clearly the ultimate ineffectiveness of violence, while also underscoring the epic challenge it had to have been for Jesus to be completely obedient to God and not harm those who were harming him.

As my friends and movie-watchers and I discussed, pacifism is an irrational viewpoint. To respond to violence and aggression by not repaying that violence with equivalent or greater violence, but by “turning the other cheek” and allowing our oppressors the opportunity to further harm us can sound foolish at times.

People who are much smarter and more articulate than I can find easy arguments to seemingly invalidate a general pacifist stance. There’s the classic: “If someone is about to harm your child, wouldn’t you use violence to prevent it?” I think I’ve walked pretty far down the pacifist road, but not because I think it’s easy. But that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t contradict a hard pacifist stance in a situation like this. I guess don’t really know what I’d do; I don’t have kids.

But I don’t think these unique situations discredit a general nonviolent response to violence. Jesus didn’t strike back against his oppressors. Is this because God gave Jesus a unique mission that involved letting people harm him to his death, a mission not intended to be replicated by his followers? Or do we have in Jesus a portrait of how to confront violence?

It would help I guess if the gospel writers had recorded an instance of someone striking Jesus’ mother, to see how he would have responded. Then again, he did find a solution to those who nearly stoned an adulterous woman, intervening with a creative, nonviolent solution, rather than throwing rocks himself at the violent accusers.

But I’ve digressed from the heart of my point. I do think using nonviolence as a general policy of dealing with other nations is legitimate, though I recognize the challenges and dilemmas this creates. But I don’t know how anything but nonviolence and non-retaliation can end the cycle of violence, in the world and in our more personal relationships.

I believe nonviolence is an act of trust and faith and obedience—it is a way of leaving judgment in God’s hands, and giving others a glimpse of God’s true Kingdom where peace and love reign instead of conflict and aggression. I’d also suggest it requires a strong eschatology that believes God will ultimately eradicate evil and its effects and that is not our job to use violence as a means of bringing about good in the world. In this way Christians should be people of hope—a hope that allows the future to sustain and empower us in the present.

But what has hit home for me is the ways I need to be more of a pacifist in my own mind and heart. For I think I too am a “colonizer”—threatened by others who challenge me, defensive and reactive when I feel I’ve been challenged or exposed in some way. If I’ve been shown to have made a mistake, or shown to be inadequate in some way, my instinctive response is often more violent than nonviolent. I can begin to resent others. Or if someone appears in the wrong or foolish, I will point out their fault to assert my own correctness or superiority.

This is violent. It pushes people away. It is not loving. It fails to appreciate the other. It reflects a fear that I’m the one who might need to change, that this illusion of my own goodness I believe in is crumbling and that I must act out with violence toward others to keep my world intact.

Sometimes this violence comes out in words. Sometimes it comes out in more passive-aggressive ways like silence. My opinions about someone can become negative, which ultimately affects how I treat them. My fear of finding that I’m human and being humbled and shown to be less than I want others to perceive me as prompts me to violently defend myself.

We have great power to harm others. Our violence can happen in such subtle ways. Choosing to respond nonviolently is hard. I think sometimes it means letting someone say something we think is “stupid” and just letting it sit. Sometimes it means not pointing out others' faults when we’re tempted to do so. Sometimes it means valuing someone’s critique of us rather than writing it off, and welcoming their feedback.

Sometimes it means patiently enduring mockery. Sometimes it means not holding someone’s past mistakes against them, choosing to essentially not remember what they’ve done (rather than “cautiously” remembering how someone has hurt us, which maybe is a protective instinct but can sour our attitude toward and treatment of another).

I think we need to consider the ways we need to be freed from violence. And it is bondage—we can be caught up in a vicious cycle of repaying evil for evil or of anxiously trying to protect the “territory” that is our selves, our views, our priorities, our values from those who would threaten to challenge us and possibly change us or require us to change, rather than living with a more humble, hospitable, non-anxious, and free spirit.

I desire to be so rooted in the love and forgiveness of God that I can deal with other people nonviolently—accepting them and the truth of their words rather than resisting, allowing myself to appreciate others as brother and sisters, as partners, rather than as enemies. And I desire to see people who act in violent ways—overt and subtle—as not simply bad people, but as people who are broken, lacking, hurting, missing something, and who only know fearful, protective, and harmful violence as a means of coping with their condition.

I desire to pray for my enemies. And I desire to deal with my own violent heart and find peace and forgiveness, that I might nonviolently extend the love that has been poured out on me to others, not with a coercive but a gentle spirit.


Joel and Rachel said...

Hey Matt. This was really good. I liked the connection you made with it personally. Being a "pacifist" myself in the sense that Jesus was, I often find people in this camp are very violent in the way they put down the people on the other side of the argument.

I often get asked the "What would you do if someone was attacking your child or wife scenario. I think there are a lot of more creative ways to respond than, "attack the attacker." And it is interesting that we have an example of this exact thing with God and Jesus.

I think too, the thing that gives strength and power to nonviolence is to understand Jesus' view on death. For the Christian there are far worse things than to die, such as being violent ourselves. Only someone who sees victory in the grave can act in such a way.

Good words!
(Oh and congrats on getting married)


Matt Boswell said...

Joel, do you have any idea how much I want you to relocate so that you can be a part of my daily life here in Olympia? :) Miss you.

Appreciated your thoughts. You're right...the way we argue and discuss can become very violent and disrespectful. Also liked your point about seeing beyond death--living with hope.

Great to hear from you.