The Decline of Violence and the Fallacy of the Evangelical Narrative
This latest evidence was from the number of people treated for injuries sustained through violence and is of a piece with other crime statistics. An increase in the price of alcohol and decline in binge drinking has been cited as a possible reason for the decrease in violence but most commenters have been shaking their heads in mystification at the growing pacification of our culture.
For the news media a decrease in violence is confusing and must also be somewhat concerning. Good news is no news – it is much easier to generate copy when crime is increasing than when it is on the decline. And as well as journalists having less violence to report on, the decline in violent crime is a challenge to the typical evangelical social narrative.
At times it can seem that we evangelical Christians have a vested interest in the world getting worse. There is a general catastrophizing tendency in western society: despite on almost every measure life becoming more secure and prosperous over the past 200 years, we tend to imagine that the world is about to come crashing down and that we are all doomed. For evangelicals this tendency is heightened because it can almost seem part of our job description to say, “The world is going to hell in a hand-basket: Come to Jesus!”
It irritated him that in my review of Preston Sprinkle’s Fight I made a point of what was only a minor point in an otherwise excellent book, but I was irritated by Sprinkle overegging his argument by claiming that violence is on the increase. This is the kind of apologetic I have heard too many times from too many Christians. I have lost count of the number of prayer meetings I have been at where people have complained about, ‘the world going from bad to worse’ and the rallying calls I have heard from Christian leaders telling us that the reason we need to be evangelistically active is because the whole of western culture is collapsing.
These arguments simply don’t ring true. Even on a global scale, with the Syria’s and Central African Republic’s taken into account, there is evidence that violence is on the decrease (Steven Pinker being the most notable proponent of this argument); and in the UK the statistics are now irrefutable: life is longer and safer than it has ever been.
As evangelicals we can confuse moral decline with general anarchy. Morally there clearly is a decline, most obviously reflected in the collapse in marriage signified in the ubiquity of co-habitation, high divorce rates, and the legalisation of same-sex marriage; and in the nearly 200,000 abortions that happen annually in the UK. But this moral decline is not yet accompanied by general anarchy. We are living longer, more healthily, and with less likelihood of experiencing violence, than any previous generation.
This means there are really two questions for us to consider: 1. Why are levels of violence declining? And 2. What is the impact upon our gospel message of living in a society where most things are getting better rather than worse?
The answer to the first question is complex. Changes in the pricing of alcohol and in drinking habits certainly seem to play a part, but I suspect a very significant factor is the ageing population profile of the western world. This is a factor rarely picked up on in the secular media, but we are growing old, and old people have always been less prone to violence than the young. As the demographic balance tips increasingly away from youth we should not be surprised that our society becomes increasingly pacific. Added to this is the unsettling claim of Freakonomics author Steven Levitt that abortion has had a disproportionate impact on removing from the population those who would be most likely to commit crime. As he puts it, “Legalized abortion led to less unwantedness; unwantedness leads to high crime; legalized abortion, therefore, led to less crime.”
I also feel – though this would be difficult to prove – that we have been pacified by porn and technology. As Naomi Wolf claimed in her now classic 2003 article, ‘The Porn Myth’ the increasing ubiquity of porn has not increased men’s sexual appetite and predatory behaviour, but numbed it. Similarly, perhaps the violence saturated film and games industry does not (as so often claimed) lead to an increase in violence, but provides a hyper-reality ‘fix’ that replaces brawl-in-the-gutter reality. Anyway, it is hard to punch someone when you are permanently clutching an expensive phone or tablet.
Very importantly, we are a society with an ever decreasing tolerance for violent behaviour. Any society that can fine a man £300 for failing “to meet the needs of a goldfish by failing to protect it from pain, suffering, injury or disease by drinking it” is clearly highly violence-phobic. Part of the outworking of this is that we are more comfortable with psychological punishment than physical discipline – the naughty child is sent to ‘the naughty step’ for ten minutes rather than receiving a swift rebuke with a wooden spoon; the criminal is incarcerated rather than flogged.
What then of the second question, as to the impact of all this on our gospel message?
Some of the contributors to this blog attend a church whose strapline describes itself as, ‘a church committed to making London a great place to live.’ To me this seems muddle-headed. Surely the point is that London already is a great place to live – which is why millions of people live there and countless others want to join them! I appreciate the point my friends are trying to make – that there are many Londoners for whom life is not great, and they want to be a church that helps those who are marginalized and broken; but in making this point the main point seems to be missed. More compelling is Boris Johnson’s, ‘London is the greatest city in the world! Everyone wants to be here!’
I think we need to be more honest. We live in the most prosperous, secure, healthy and safe society the world has ever known. If you don’t believe me, just imagine what a visit to the dentist might have been like 500 years ago. I think we need to get better at celebrating these things – they are evidence of God’s common grace, and also in many ways the legacy of what was once a more obviously Christian culture.
This means we also need to be more prophetic: that is, we need to declare – and demonstrate! – that the material safety and affluence of western society is not sufficient. We need to make people hungry for something more, something that only Jesus can fulfill. Rather than saying, “The world is terrible: Come to Jesus!” we should be saying, “Life is great: But there’s so much more!”
We also need to get better at connecting with psychological needs, but without reducing our message to a therapeutic gospel. There are those in my town who are materially poor, and we seek to serve them, for example by involvement with victims of domestic violence. But the reality is that the primary threat to personal happiness in Poole and Bournemouth is not financial destitution but a sense of purposelessness despite material prosperity; or a broken heart resulting from divorce. We need to demonstrate how the gospel is good news psychologically as well as materially – and that this good news is not no news, but wonderfully transforming.
Living in a world that is getting better is counter-intuitive and confusing, but I’m glad that I do. Let’s find a narrative that recognizes this, and paints a picture of how life lived in Christ is richer yet.