Violence

Protest and Praise

IT IS FITTING that The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov (New Directions) begins with “Listening to Distant Guns,” written in 1940, when the poet was just 17: “The low pulsation in the east is war.”

The subject of war and its horrors, a constant in Levertov’s poetry and in her life, surfaces for the final time at the very end of this big book with these lines, written in 1997, from the poem “Thinking About Paul Celan”: You / at last could endure / no more. But we / live and live, / blithe in a world / where children kill children.

Denise Levertov (1923-1997), an American poet born in Ilford, England, to a Christian-Jewish father who was a descendant of Rabbi Schneur Zalman, founder of Chabad Hasidism, and a Welsh-Christian mother, herself the descendant of the Christian mystic Angell Jones of Mold, began to see her spiritual sensibility take a more formal religious shape only in her late 50s, when she opened to the liturgical, mystical, and social justice dimensions of Christianity, especially Catholicism, to which she later converted.

Two recent biographies, Dana Greene’s Denise Levertov: A Poet’s Lifeand Donna Krolik Hollenberg’s A Poet’s Revolution: The Life of Denise Levertov, explore deeply, albeit with inevitable overlap, the serial passions and enduring poetics of this singular artist.

At age 11, both biographers tell us, Levertov was going door to door peddling The Daily Worker in Ilford. At 12, she sent a batch of her poems to T.S. Eliot, and received back from him an encouraging response.

Poetry was her life’s purest passion. She had many lovers, many headlong, hurtful affairs to compensate for her romantically derailed and failed marriage to writer-activist Mitch Goodman. She also had a troubled relationship with their son, Nikolai, to whom Collected Poems is dedicated.

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A Moral Crisis in Africa

FOR THE PAST year, life in the Central African Republic has been steadily spinning out of control.

Since the Seleka—or “alliance”—rebellion overturned the government in March 2013, there has been widespread insecurity and chaos. The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has called the situation a "mega-crisis."

Though the rebel movement began as a coalition of 5,000 fighters from a few rebel groups, it is now thought to have increased to 20,000, and there are credible reports that as many as 6,000 youth have been recruited into violent movements. Since December, at least 2,000 people have been killed and more than 700,000 displaced. And now there are legitimate fears of ethnic and religious “cleansing.”

To say that this conflict is about religion is a simplistic narrative. Yes, right now people are banding together with others who are like them—Christians with Christians and Muslims with Muslims. But for more than 50 years prior to the conflict, Christians and Muslims in the Central African Republic (CAR) coexisted in relative peace. From the beginning of the conflict, there were political and regional forces at work, and the Seleka forces happen to be primarily Muslim. And in retaliation for the violence and fear that came with the rebellion and the mostly untrained and loosely organized rebel fighters, fighters who happened to be Christian formed the anti-Balaka (“anti-machete”) militias. These fighters, most would agree, are not the best representatives of either faith, but they have taken over the narrative, and it is the civilians—many families and children—who suffer.

As a Christian, I grieve over the unspeakable violence wrongly done in the name of faith by these men and women—on both sides. And I mourn with the thousands who have been driven from their homes, lost their lives, or felt compelled to take up arms out of fear.

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Faith And Reason Can Help Break Cycle Of Violence We Do To Ourselves, Others

Winright seeks to equip and enable students to think theologically, to inform their consciences about significant questions and issues of the day, and to be men and women for others. He is an active member of several professional and learned societies, co-editor of the Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics, book reviews editor for the international journal Political Theology and a contributing writer to Sojourners magazine.

Surprising Insights on Ukraine in the New York Times

Aquir/Shutterstock.com
The U.S. and Russia may be at odds, but they also might not be so different in attempts for power. Aquir/Shutterstock.com

The news coverage of international conflicts can be very disappointing from a mimetic perspective. When conflicts escalate into violence as in Syria or the Ukraine, news outlets rush to cover the hostilities. They give us the facts on the ground, or rumors thereof, accompanied by an almost mindless report of what each side is saying by way of self-justification. However, if you listen to their rhetoric with mimetically tuned ears, which happens after spending time here at Raven, you realize that their rhetoric is all sound and fury signifying nothing. Unfortunately, it is this “nothing” that usually makes the headlines.

Major outlets like the New York Times rarely give as good an analysis as my colleague Adam Ericksen did last week. Speaking of the crisis in Ukraine, Adam said that we often think conflict is the result of differences. But the truth is that rivals resemble each other in often surprising ways. They are in conflict because they share the same desires and so are locked in a competition for something that they cannot or will not share. In the case of the conflict over Crimea, the “thing” is not the region but power and prestige. Adam explains:

Russia’s desire for power is mimetic, or imitative, and modeled on its rival for power, the United States. Russia wants what the United States has — the prestige of being a global super power — and Russia is willing to use the same methods that the United States has used to gain and sustain that prestige — violence.

Attn SBNR: Biblical Violence Matters to Peace

Crown of thorns, Stephanie Frey / Shutterstock.com
Crown of thorns, Stephanie Frey / Shutterstock.com

It baffles me when people who are deeply concerned about peace and peacemaking define themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” In pursuit of personal and/ or global peace, they shun organized religion in favor of indigenous spirituality. Celtic music, eastern spiritual disciplines like yoga and meditation, and the Native American relationship with nature all seem so attractive and obviously non-violent. I actually have nothing against any of those expressions of spirituality – allow me to offer as proof the trip my husband and I will be taking in July. We will be touring Northern Ireland to enjoy the “storytelling, music, art and peace” of Celtic culture “ancient and new. Great food, inspiring art, and beautiful journeys on foot will form the heart of this soulfully unique and transforming experience.” Sounds great, doesn’t it?

Normally this sort of description would not entice me. It sounds vaguely new age-y, all too “spiritual but not religious.” So why am I going? Because one of the tour leaders is my friend and brilliant cultural critic, the founder of the Wild Goose Festival, Gareth Higgins. Gareth understands that alternative forms of religiosity and spirituality are a necessary part of the revival of Christianity that is going on today, but he also understands that without “religion,” the pursuit of peace is at a serious disadvantage.

I am aware that such a claim runs counter to the primary reason many people give for being spiritual but not religious. They blame religion for violence and war, and there is no denying that many people have killed in the name of their beliefs. Somehow those who abandon organized religion believe that the cure for violence is to purge themselves of religious texts and doctrines that have any reference to violence in them. Why read the Old Testament or believe in a God who requires the death of an innocent victim to be reconciled to us? How could that possibly lead to a more peaceful world?

From the Archives: April 1992

VIOLENCE is the ethos of our times. It is the spirituality of the modern world. What is generally overlooked is that violence is accorded the status of a religion, demanding from its devotees an absolute obedience-unto-death.

Its followers are not aware that the devotion they pay to violence is a form of religious piety, however. Violence is so successful as a myth precisely because it does not appear to be mythic in the least. Violence simply appears to be the nature of things. It is what works. It seems inevitable, the last and, often, the first resort in conflicts. It is embraced with equal alacrity by people on the Left and the Right, by religious liberals as well as religious conservatives.

The threat of violence, it is believed, is alone able to deter aggressors. It secured us 45 years of a balance of terror. We learned to trust the bomb to grant us peace.

The roots of this devotion to violence are deep, and we will be well rewarded if we trace them to their source. When we do, we will discover that the religion of Babylon—one of the world’s oldest continuously surviving world religions—is thriving as never before in every segment of contemporary American life, even our synagogues and churches. It, and not Christianity, is the real religion of America. 

Walter Wink was professor of biblical interpretation at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City when this article appeared.

Image: From the ruins, Hyena Reality / Shutterstock.com

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Crucible of Courage

IN THE PRESIDENTIAL election in Honduras last November, ruling party candidate Juan Orlando Hernández was declared the winner despite serious irregularities documented by international observers. Violence and intimidation marked the campaign period, including the assassination of at least 18 candidates and activists from Libre, the new left-leaning party.

Hernández, past president of the Honduran National Congress, supported the June 2009 coup. His record of operating outside the rule of law includes bold measures to gain control over the congress, judiciary, military, and electoral authority. He helped establish a new military police force in August 2013, deploying thousands of troops to take over police functions. Hernández ran on a campaign promise to put “a soldier on every corner.”

Honduras has been named the “murder capital of the world,” with relentless violence coming from crime, drug cartels, and police corruption. Attacks on human rights defenders and opposition activists have been brutal and have allegedly involved death squads reminiscent of the 1980s. Those working to reverse poverty and injustice receive death threats, priests and lay leaders among them. They are bracing for even greater repression under Hernández’s administration.

The growing militarization of Honduran society, justified as a way of fighting crime, is fueled by U.S. support for the country’s security forces—forces reportedly involved in widespread human rights violations. By denying the repression against social movements, and congratulating the Honduran government for its supposed progress on human rights, the U.S. Embassy has made it possible for rampant impunity to continue.

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Finding Hope in 'The Locust Effect'

Via thelocusteffect.com
Via thelocusteffect.com

Despite our best efforts, we’ve somehow missed it.

Even in the midst of our generous financial donations, volunteer hours, mission trips, and letter writing, we’ve failed to see what should have been glaringly obvious: the global poor lack the most basic ingredient for forward progression — personal security.

In their recently released book, The Locust Effect, Gary Haugen (founder of the International Justice Mission), and Victor Boutros (federal prosecutor with the U.S. Department of Justice) convincingly argue that all our best work to eradicate poverty — even while worthwhile, helpful, and well-intended — is for naught unless we concurrently address the epidemic of violence and fear facing the poor in the developing world. They write:

"...the forces of predatory violence will not simply go away... On the contrary, if the forces of violence are not restrained, it is the hope of the poor that will just keep going away...and there is nothing that our programs for feeding, teaching, housing, employing, and empowering the poor will be able to do about it."

For the World's Poor, Violence Is an Everyday Threat

Image via thelocusteffect.com
Image via thelocusteffect.com

Caleb is a father in Africa. He works hard as a night watchman, and he and his wife save from their small income with the dream of sending their daughter to college. But the family’s dreams are destroyed when the police arrest Caleb on a random sweep for a robbery he had nothing to do with. This is not to say that the evidence against him was flimsy; there is no evidence against him whatsoever. The police needed to show an arrest had been made, and Caleb was an easy target … because he was poor.

Once in police custody, Caleb is viciously beaten. He is shaken down for bribes. And then, he is thrown in jail and charged with a capital offense. He is given no indication of when he might have a chance to prove his innocence – and even if he were, Caleb can’t afford a lawyer to help him. His family struggles to hang on without him.

What is perhaps most stunning about Caleb’s story is not the brutality (though it certainly is brutal), the singular unfairness of it all (though it is dramatically and utterly unjust), the hopelessness (though the story is obviously devastating). No, what is most stunning is just how ordinary Caleb’s story is.

Salt and Terror in Afghanistan

APVs learn about world hunger. Photo by Abdulhai Safarali
APVs learn about world hunger. Photo by Abdulhai Safarali

Two weeks ago in a room in Kabul, Afghanistan, I joined several dozen people — working seamstresses, some college students, socially engaged teenagers, and a few visiting internationals like myself — to discuss world hunger. Our emphasis was not exclusively their own country’s worsening hunger problems. Rather, tmhe Afghan Peace Volunteers, in whose home we were meeting, draw strength from looking beyond their own very real struggles.

With us was Hakim, a medical doctor who spent six years working as a public health specialist in the central highlands of Afghanistan and, prior to that, among refugees in Quetta, Pakistan. He helped us understand conditions that lead to food shortages and taught us about diseases, such as kwashiorkor and marasmus, which are caused by insufficient protein or general malnutrition.

We looked at U.N. figures about hunger in Afghanistan, which show malnutrition rates rising by 50 percent or more compared with 2012. The malnutrition ward at Helmand Province’s Bost Hospital has been admitting 200 children a month for severe, acute malnutrition — four times more than in January 2012.

A recent New York Times article about the worsening hunger crisis described an encounter with a mother and child in an Afghan hospital: “In another bed is Fatima, less than a year old, who is so severely malnourished that her heart is failing, and the doctors expect that she will soon die unless her father is able to find money to take her to Kabul for surgery. The girl’s face bears a perpetual look of utter terror, and she rarely stops crying.”

Photos of Fatima and other children in the ward accompanied the article. In our room in Kabul, Hakim projected the photos on the wall. They were painful to see and so were the nods of comprehension from Afghans all too familiar with the agonies of poverty in a time of war.

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