The Common Good
June 2007

When Violence Kills Itself

by Shane Claiborne | June 2007

The horror of death does not have the last word.

I've always heard the adage "violence is a weapon of the weak." But after events like the Virginia Tech massacre, it's easy to think that violence has ultimate power. After all, we've learned history through the lens of war. And we read the news through acts of violence rather than the hidden acts of love that keep hope alive.

But there is often a common thread in many of the most horrific perpetrators of violence that begs our attention—they kill themselves. Violence kills the image of God in us. It is a cry of desperation, a weak and cowardly cry of a person suffocated of hope. Violence goes against everything that we are created for—to love and to be loved—so it inevitably ends in misery and suicide (either literal or metaphorical).

When people succumb to violence, it ultimately infects them like a disease or a poison that leads to their own death. Judas, the disciple who betrayed Jesus with a violent kiss, ends his life by hanging himself with a noose. After his notorious persecutions, the Emperor Nero's story ends as he stabs himself. Hitler passed out suicide pills to all his heads of staff, and he ended his life as one of the most pitifully lonely people to walk the earth. We see the same in the case of Columbine, the 2006 Amish school shootings, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and the recent Virginia Tech massacre—each ends in suicide.

VIOLENCE IS SUICIDAL. Suicide rates of folks in the military and those working the chambers of death row execution are astronomical; they kill themselves as they feel the image of God dying in them.

It is in moments like these violent times that grace looks so magnificent. It is in the shadow of such violence, as was the case after the Amish school shooting, that the victims' grace to the murderer's family shines so brightly. Sometimes all the peacemakers need to do is practice revolutionary patience and steadfast hope—for the universe bends toward justice, and the entire Christian story demonstrates the triumph of love. And it makes it even more scandalous to think of killing someone who kills—for they, more than anyone in the world, need to hear that they are created for something better than that.

I am reminded of a letter I got from someone currently on death row. After reading some of my writing, he wrote to me to share that he was a living testimony against the myth of redemptive violence (the idea that violence can bring redemption or peace). This fellow on death row told me that the family of his victim argued that he should not be killed for what he did, that he was not beyond redemption, and as a result he did not receive the death penalty for his crime. "That gave me a lot of time to think about grace," he said. And he became a Christian in prison. Another story of scandalous love and grace.

So in these days after Easter, even as we see the horror of death, may we be reminded that in the end love wins. Mercy triumphs. Life is more powerful than death. And even those who have committed great violence can have the image of God come to life again within them as they hear the whisper of love. May the whisper of love grow louder than the thunder of violence. May we love loudly.

Shane Claiborne is author of The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical and a founding partner of The Simple Way community in Philadelphia. This reflection is adapted from the God's Politics blog (

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