Violence

Our Most Segregated Hour: Church, Black Theology & René Girard

Tito Wong / Shutterstock

A back view of praying sister inside church. Tito Wong / Shutterstock

On March 31, 1968, a few short days before his assassination, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., preached at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.

He spoke a phrase he had used on a number of occasions and which by now, 45 years later, has gained a hard proverbial ring: "Eleven o'clock on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of America."

The situation he described has stubbornly resisted any real movement, but the recent emergence of a radical theology dealing with violence itself is promising a crack in the walls that divide.

Black theologians such as James Cone and Kelly Brown Douglas have recognized the work of the theoretical anthropologist, René Girard. They consider it one of the few frameworks able to illuminate the nature of the violence suffered by the African-American community.

In Guns We Trust

Sojourners' bumper sticker

Sojourners' bumper sticker

When the really hard stuff happens, when we witness the true face of evil, Americans have a predictable habit. Even as cameras feed the latest bubble-shattering violence into our family rooms, we start looking for someone or something — anything — other than the actual perpetrators to stone. We panic for a scapegoat.

We hunt tirelessly for the person (a parent, an educator, a cop) who didn't catch the warning signs, who failed to read a memo — anyone on whose shoulders we can cast our collective fear — then rush as many measures into place as possible, no matter the cost in treasure or freedoms, to regain an illusion of safety and impenetrability.

One iteration of that really hard stuff happened at Sandy Hook. The backstory is eerily familiar. A young man, left to stew in our culture's juices, fleshes out the nightmare in his broken soul, and deals out tragedy in living color as if the holy innocents of Newtown were mere pixels on a screen, points in a twisted "shooter." Now, just four months later, it's a swept-away moment of terror and sadness that everyone just wants to forget because it's unthinkable to think on it any longer.

Virginia Tech, Aurora, and Newtown each stopped the nation in its tracks but we eventually moved on, and before anyone might guess, well over 3,000 more have died by gun violence in America since December.

Boston Bombings: Deliver Us from Evil

Boston Marathon bombing, hahatango / Flickr.com

Boston Marathon bombing, hahatango / Flickr.com

What do you say in the face of evil?

The stories from Monday’s attacks at the Boston Marathon are heartbreaking, gut-wrenching. One in particular stands out to me. A woman was waiting for her husband to cross the finish line when the bombs exploded. For three hours she searched frantically for him, not knowing if he was alive or dead, not knowing if he was frantic and looking for her. Her voice cracked and tears flowed with the raw memory as she told of the moment when she and her husband embraced.

Moments like this, even when they end happily, remind us of our vulnerability. As hard as we try to protect ourselves with heightened security measures, we know that complete invulnerability is impossible. I am vulnerable. My wife is vulnerable. My children are vulnerable. We cannot escape it.

In the face of gun violence and bombings, gender violence and rape, we would be irresponsible not to ask big questions about evil and human vulnerability.

A few hours after the bombing, President Barack Obama addressed our natural desire to carry out justice after these events.

[M]ake no mistake; we will get to the bottom of this. We will find out who did this, we will find out why they did this. Any responsible individuals, any responsible groups, will feel the full weight of justice.

Like the president, I want to take action against evil and I want to know I am secure. I hate admitting that I’m vulnerable. But the president’s words didn’t reassure me. They made me feel more vulnerable because the phrase “full weight of justice” is always a veiled call to violence. 

On Scripture: May April Tragedies Bring May Justice

Boston bombing, Rebecca_Hildreth / Flickr.com

Boston bombing, Rebecca_Hildreth / Flickr.com

Resurrection is the theme of the 50 days of Eastertide. Yet, for decades, the month of April has been filled with particularly horrific deaths:

  • The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. (April 4, 1968)
  • The murder of 13 persons at the American Civic Association Immigration Center in Binghamton, N.Y. (April 3, 2009)
  • The shooting death of 32 students at Virginia Tech. (April 16, 2007)
  • The end of the Waco siege and the death of 82 members of the Branch Davidians. (April 19, 1993)
  • The bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City that killed one hundred sixty-eight children and adults. (April 19, 1995)
  • The Columbine High School shooting resulting in deaths of 15 persons (April 20, 1999), a shooting that has been echoed in 31 schools since, most recently in Sandy Hook Elementary School of Newtown, Conn. 

In 2013, April continues its trend. On Monday, April 15, someone decided to plant bombs along the route of the Boston Marathon. The explosions killed at least three people and wounded more than 100. Among the dead is 8-year-old Martin Richard.

Witnesses to Trauma: Faith Leaders Stand Up for Gun Violence Legislation

Interfaith grave markers, cofkocof, Shutterstock.com

Interfaith grave markers, cofkocof, Shutterstock.com

For many pastors of urban congregations, “stepping up” to end gun violence stems from a very personal place — as they have been forced to bury their own neighbors and church members. According to Samuel Rodriguez, gun violence – especially in urban areas – deeply affects interfaith leaders there, who are declaring violence-free zones and taking action.

Faith-based leaders in Philadelphia and Chicago have rallied to fight gun violence. Heeding God’s Call, based in Philadelphia, holds prayer vigils at the locations of gun homicides as well as organizes gun-store campaigns that ask gun store owners to sign a code of conduct.

In Chicago, All Saints Episcopal Church organized CROSSwalk, a walk through downtown Chicago, which drew a few thousand people the past two years. Violence on Chicago streets has killed more than 800 young people in the last six years.

Nuenke addressed breaking the chain of violence and pain that we see in every community. He quoted 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 and Isaiah 61 as examples of God’s compassion and its life-changing, healing power.

“What would happen if the body of Christ more fully was involved in living out Christ’s compassion in a broken world?” Nuenke asked. “Sometimes people who are hurt or experience violence end up hurting other people. The care and compassion they might receive from the Lord Jesus will impact them more in 20-30 years than anything else.”

On Scripture: Repairing Our Grief

U.S. soldier mourning, BPTU / Shutterstock.com

U.S. soldier mourning, BPTU / Shutterstock.com

My Uncle Norman fought in Europe during World War II. An artillery observer, he didn’t return with many “heroic” stories to tell. When I was little, he would roll out some souvenirs from the war, and I’d be impressed: German military dress knives and lovely table linens. I don’t recall all of the stories or how these things became his, but I’m pleased to report the table linens were a gift. His war experience was hardly glamorous.

Uncle Norman did tell of one harrowing experience. He and his partner were identified by German artillery, and they experienced exactly the treatment they dished out. Out in front of their own unit, as they always were, they heard a shot go just overhead and explode behind them. Then one fell just short. Placing a shell a bit to the left and one to the right, the Germans had them zeroed in. Uncle Norman’s friend panicked, frozen, stuck to the ground. And in the last minute – as he remembered it – my uncle tackled his partner and carried him to safety. Pretty dramatic stuff for a kid to hear.

When Uncle Norman was much older, he came close to death after gall bladder surgery. That night he experienced profound nightmares, the Lady Macbeth experience of bloody hands he could not cleanse. The next day, he told me a very different story than the ones I’d heard before. I believe I was the first to hear of the time when he called in the coordinates for an intersection across which a significant body of Germans was crossing. For 30 minutes, he said, he watched the effects of the barrage he had targeted. And now, 40 years later, his hands wouldn’t come clean.

Violence Rules: North Korea, Syria, U.S.

Military plane, Andrey Yurlov/ Shutterstock.com

Military plane, Andrey Yurlov/ Shutterstock.com

Does violence rule our species? The barrage of international conflicts now in the headlines seems to suggest that violence may be the one language we have in common. 

Though we all speak it fluently, very few of us learned it in school. We didn’t have to study its “vocabulary” and “grammar rules” – no, it was much easier than that. Humans pick violence up by immersion and so we are all native speakers. From Syria to Korea to Pakistan to Iraq to the U.S., the language of violence is so natural to us that we couldn’t recite one of its “grammar rules."

Sadly, ignorance of language rules does not diminish fluency. The odd thing is that if we stopped to learn the rules governing our fluency in violence, it would actually make us less fluent. Why? Because the rules of violence reveal an unpleasant reality: We don’t use violence; violence uses us.

Shooting Down Easter

Angel statue, Malgorzata Kistryn / Shutterstock.com

Angel statue, Malgorzata Kistryn / Shutterstock.com

The conversation yelling match around gun control is exhausting — both in terms of the ethical boundaries each side will breach to advance its cause, and the way our rhetoric has turned into an exercise in “crash-testing:” we always hit a wall in talking our good sense to the Dissenters, but are content to back up, add force, and try again. Because “One day, THEY will see the light. One day, THEY will become US”…

… crash!

The more gun violence we experience as a nation correlates to our panic in pursuit of the common good, however we define it. And get too many panicky people in a room – people who are certain they are right – and watch how skillfully they evade progress. I am a pastor in Chicago and I speak on behalf of all who serve in neighborhoods where violence has become the rule and not the exception: I am tired of you hitting the wall.

This course of action and righteous disrespect of Those-With-Their-Heads-You-Know-Where will not make us masters or better neighbors. It has made us dummies. And while we are arguing, our children are losing. In Chicago, and Baltimore, and Detroit, and Newtown, and in Washington. They are losing because we are competing to see who can make the wall topple over the other first. Because we are arguing over rights from the wrong perspective.

Faith and Doubt Dancing on Good Friday (Rob Bell Blogalogue Part 4)

Faith and doubt,  iQoncept / Shutterstock.com

Faith and doubt, iQoncept / Shutterstock.com

(The Controversial figure Rob Bell has created another firestorm with his latest provocative book What We Talk About When We Talk About GodRaven Foundation Education Director, Adam Ericksen and Tripp Hudgins will share our thoughts on the book in this blogalogue. We invite you to join the discussion by leaving a comment below.)

Tripp Hudgins always gets me thinking. He is right that Rob’s chapter “Open” in What We Talk About When We Talk About God is about science and religion but that it’s also not about science and religion. This is the longest chapter of the book, and it’s full of scientific information that points to the mystery of the material world. What’s the point? As Tripp states, Rob is “asking for a little humility. He’s asking for a little poetic imagination. He’s asking for curiosity.”

That’s the point of the next chapter, too. Titled “Both,” in this chapter Rob points out a major problem we have with “God-talk.” That problem is language. Tripp set me up for this at the end of his post by asking, “Are words actually enough? Ha! Write about that. Words. Words. Words.”

When I was in seminary I learned about apophatic theology, or negative theology. It tries to define God by what God is not. A 9th century apophatic theologian named John Scottus Eriugena asserted, “We do not know what God is. God Himself does not know what He is because He is not anything. Literally, God is not because He transcends being.”

Time to Start Talking

A scene from the video game Call of Duty.

There is an overwhelming need for publicly compelling conversation about violence, guns, and the role of entertainment media.

Gareth Higgins is a writer and broadcaster from Belfast, Northern Ireland, who has worked as an academic and activist. He is the author of Cinematic States: America in 50 Movies and How Movies Helped Save My Soul: Finding Spiritual Fingerprints in Culturally Significant Films. He blogs at www.godisnotelsewhere.wordpress.com and co-presents “The Film Talk” podcast with Jett Loe at www.thefilmtalk.com. He is also a Sojourners contributing editor. Originally from Northern Ireland, he lives in Asheville, North Carolina.

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