A slight, almost imperceptible call has persisted throughout the ages. This call-to gravitate toward the light of nonviolence- has been heard and heeded by a long list of now-heroes who offered their lives as a sacrifice in hope it would make a difference. Reading accounts of these visionaries in conjunction with a new book on the history of violence and humanity, the call becomes more than a nice suggestion; it is an urgent plea for humanity to come to its senses.
In his profound Violence Unveiled: Humanity at the Crossroads
, Gil Bailie makes accessible to the average reader the work of Rene Girard, a cultural theorist and author of Violence and the Sacred
. Mixing contemporary news accounts, modern literature and mythology, and biblical stories, Bailie makes a strong case that humanity is indeed at a crossroads, between choosing love and nonviolence or slipping into "apocalyptic violence."
At a time when unspeakable acts of violence are committed in such places as Rwanda and Bosnia, we throw up our hands in despair. Even united in the understanding that the situations are unjust, we are largely unwilling to shed blood to make things right. Isolationism and memories of a war lost in Vietnam contribute to our inertia, but the realization, however slight, that violent restoration of order is only temporary and may ultimately cause more problems is another factor. As the ability of the culture of violence to legitimate itself decreases and the sense of order it provides disappears, we witness desperation leading to uncontrolled, brutal attempts to re-establish order through force.
THIS IS WHERE we are. And, according to Bailie and Girard, it's Jesus' fault. We arrived at this place through an evolutionary process of interpreting the spirit of nonviolence unleashed by the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Previously, through the mystification of violent acts-human sacrifice and wars-we were held in the grip of the religion of violence. The unspeakable violence rended on people of other tribes and of others within was deemed necessary and sacred. Bailie reasons that the violence now accepted as natural originated as a cure for the social chaos that existed.
This chaos existed in the beginning because of mimetic
desire, briefly translated as "envy." In a detailed, extremely perceptive argument, Bailie explains how the human desire to have what others have evolved from individuals violating individuals into a unified majority, unified in its envy and hatred for one individual. This is sustained by distancing people from the sacrificial victims, either literally (by veiling the eyes of the victim) or figuratively (by manipulating words and ideas to create the sense that this victim is not "one of us").
The first primitive culture was founded on this cathartic violence committed against a scapegoat. Every subsequent culture stemmed from the same principle of violence, veiled in lofty ideals of "order," "nature," "culture," "morals," whatever was necessary to unite society.
In the interest of society at the time, Christ, too, was offered. This time, the disciples did not allow the murder to be veiled in mythological terms. They spoke outright that Jesus, one of them, was murdered by an unjust society, and its act of violence could hold no power over him. These disciples and authors of the New Testament text, however, differed from their forerunners in that they were told not to exact vengeance and repeat the sin. Their unity was God-centeredness. The cycle of violence was broken.
From that point, humanity has progressively been unable to get
out of its mind. Humanity started, slowly, to recognize and identify with the victims of its previously unquestioned sacrificial rituals. Though you can point to times when Christians have justified brutality in the name of Christ, such as in the Crusades, these have been shown to be perversions of the true message of the Bible. Despite attempts to pervert it in this way, the Bible-and the story contained therein-still stands. Our savior was a victim, yet even his
murder did not provide justification for violence.
ENTER THE people who witness the resurrection and hear the screams
of the victim. Nonviolence in America
, edited by Staughton and Alice Lynd, is a collection of many of the witnesses in American society, influenced, no doubt, by those from other cultures and religious traditions, united in their understanding that a world founded on violence cannot last. Focusing almost entirely on how these voices shape American society, the Lynds offer a volume of hope and challenge.
Their introduction, which outlines the development of nonviolent
thought in American history, illustrates how American society
fits Bailie's model. They write, "Probably at no other time
in U.S. history was nonviolence so alien to the mainstream of
this country's social thought as in the Revolutionary generation."
The violence that founded American society is most often shrouded
in lofty words of liberty and justice. But when it is stripped
of these ideals, such as in attempts to justify U.S. support of
the revolting violence of the Nicaraguan contras
(i.e. they are just like Revolutionary War Minutemen), the violence is unveiled as savagery.
Each of the witnesses in Nonviolence in America
presents a different piece of the story. We read of Helen Prejean's ministry to death row inmates, challenging them to face their crimes, while at the same time challenging society at large to recognize the faces of those we kill in our execution chambers. Brian Willson and other peace activists remind governments that the victims of their weapons and war games have names and people who care about them. Barbara Deming, Jane Addams, Henry David Thoreau, Shelley Douglass, and others remind us that the violence we struggle against is the violence within ourselves, writ large.
These books read well together. When Bailie seems to have everything completely figured out, the progression and variety of views in the Lynds' volume remind us of the traps inherent in making theory ironclad ideology.
Theorists like Bailie, Girard, Deming, and others are essential. Their theories help ground our action and give words to what we feel instinctively about our role in a world that seems so alien to us. Danger arises, however, when the theory becomes ideology and is unable to adjust to a reality that doesn't fit the model. This leads to despair, and we come to the conclusion that nonviolence is an outdated idea.
Barbara Deming relates a conversation she had with another activist who declared, "'You can't turn the clock back now to nonviolence!' Turn the clock back? The clock has been turned to violence all down through history....It is nonviolence which is in the process of invention, if only people would not stop short in that experiment."
Violence has been with us always, to be sure. But so has our attempt to second-guess an unfathomable God. If our theories leave no room for a powerful, loving, and mysterious God, we have still failed to appreciate the sacrifice made on the cross. Bailie's theories seem to leave little room for this mystery, which is necessary if we are to rid ourselves of myths that blind us from our brutality.
In his final pages, Bailie suggests that even he is unwilling
to let go of the mystery that is God, "so the resurrection
remains a historical enigma...until-at the breaking of the bread,
or while at prayer, or in the giving or receiving of unearned
love-everything is suffused with the light of the resurrection."
The experiment of nonviolence is
the story of God's light in darkness, and the story continues to be written.
KELLY M. GREEN, a former
intern, is a teacher's assistant with at-risk senior high students in Omaha, Nebraska.