Violence: A Modern Obsession
Though that might not have been a very statistically valid test, it is nonetheless astonishing. I know people do get punched in the face - like the man I met in my local wine shop who had been the victim of a random and totally unprovoked attack in Bournemouth, leaving him with serious injuries. But, by and large, most of us in the West are privileged to live in an incredibly peaceful society. As I’ve observed before, our concerns about violence often seem to be in inverse proportion to its reality in our lives – just as questions of suffering seem to take on every greater pastoral significance as the levels of human suffering through injury and illness decrease.
In his recently published book exploring the modern obsession with violence, Richard Bessel offers seven reasons for our increased sensitivity:
1. The shock of the eruptions of violence during the first half of the 20th century.
2. The unprecedented economic boom that the West enjoyed after WW2.
3. State structures became more stable, and more capable of maintaining civil peace.
4. Changes in life expectancy, demographic structures and the vast improvements in public hygiene and medical provision over the past century have meant that death is no longer so much a part of life.
5. The transformation in the position of women in society and the increased presence of women in the public sphere has contributed to changes in the ways in which violence is viewed.
6. Civil society in the West has become more distanced from war and from the military.
7. The reporting of violence in the media gained a new quality with the use of communications technology and the dissemination of visual evidence to the public…The fear of becoming a victim of violent crime in western societies, of rape or of murder, is quite out of proportion with the actual risk.
This seems a reasonable appraisal of the evidence, and means that, as Bessel expresses it,
It may be debated whether we really ‘have been getting kinder and gentler’, but we do live in a world where being kinder and gentler increasingly is regarded as admirable and where violence is routinely condemned.
That this is the case must have a bearing on how we, as Christians, think about and respond to violence. The general drift of this blog is pacifist, with Andrew being explicitly so, and me having odd lapses in that direction. An obvious question for us, then, is whether this pacifist stance is one born of theological reflection, or whether we are simply applying theological varnish to wider cultural trends. After all, it is not exactly unknown for Christians to consider themselves as brave theological trailblazers when in fact they are simply children of their time. This is why it is always worth asking what the Church has believed and taught on a matter over the course of centuries – which is not to imagine that theological mistakes cannot be perpetuated for centuries, but to humbly acknowledge that our current innovations are likely to be shaped far more by our context than we would like to admit.
Contemporary concerns about violence must be considered theologically, and responded to pastorally. For example, Christians have often expressed grave concern over violent movies and video games, yet as Bessel demonstrates, we are well able to distinguish between real violence and make-believe. Indeed, the more violent our entertainment becomes, the less violent our actual lives seem to be. Should we, therefore, welcome violent video games as a form of social pacifier? Or should we reject them on the basis of the clear biblical instruction that we are to set our minds on the things that are above, not on things that are on earth?
What, also, of the discipline of children? Bessel catalogues the extraordinary pace of change in this area, as corporal punishment has moved from ubiquitous and assumed, to something that is now outlawed in a growing number of countries. Among evangelical Christians there has been a significant strand of parenting advice which has emphasised the importance of administering physical punishment to our children, usually with a wooden spoon. This advice has been born of theological conviction (though its proof texting from a few verses in Proverbs is hermeneutically dubious, to say the least) as well as the pragmatic observation that a swift, calmly administered, physical chastisement is often far more effective and less psychologically damaging than protracted attempts to get an irrational child to talk things through rationally, banishments to bedrooms, and so on. In our new cultural dispensation should Christian parents continue to discipline their children physically? What if they live in a state where to do so is illegal?
And what of the increasing neo-Marcionism we witness, whereby increasingly large portions of the scriptures are ignored in our churches because of the ‘problematic’ levels of violence they contain?
These are difficult questions.
Changes in Western attitudes towards violence are probably a more significant sociological shift than we realise, and like the other great shifts we have witnessed (for example, in sexual ethics or the rise of individualism), are worth thinking about. If you’ve never been punched in the face, you should be asking why. Bessel’s Violence is a good place to start to finding answers. And if you are inclined to pacifism, it might get you thinking about whether there are times when people (or nations) do actually need to be met with violence.