Dear Donagh, We are terribly worried about all the mindless violence in the world today. We can't watch the news without being horrified. Where’s the natural kindness of people gone? What's the explanation? Is it because of all the rapid change in the world? Is there anything we can do to stop violence? Can you say something about this? Thanks. Jim and Eleanor
Dear Jim and Eleanor, You ask a question that is burning in everyone’s brain. The wisest people in the world ask it and try to answer it, but still violence continues. It has so many forms and aspects that one wonders if it isn't totally bound up with modern civilisation. But then we look at the past and we see no great difference except in degree. Our greater organisation makes it possible for us to be violent on a wider scale then before. We are extraordinary beings: a mixture of tenderness and cruelty, of refinement of feeling and utter barbarity. The Scriptures express it plainly enough: “What race deserves honour? The human race. What race deserves contempt? The human race” (Ecclesiasticus 10:19).
No list of the ways of violence is ever complete. You could mention aggression at the individual level: anger and hatred, physical violence, injustice, prejudice and exclusion, abusive language and abusive behaviour - all aggravated by alcohol and drugs…. But the list can go on and on. What strikes me is that many of these forms of violence are so tied up with other aspects of our world that they are inseparable from it. Even our leisure activities, our sport and entertainment, frequently rely on violence for effect. Violence sells novels and videos, and it keeps TV tam ratings up. Violence is not only portrayed in films now, it is exaggerated and gloated over; it is the pornography of violence. Think too of that contradiction in terms, ‘blood sports’. I knew someone who spent all his weekends and holidays killing animals for ‘sport’. Anyone who enjoys killing is a damaged human being. Animals kill, but only for food, or in defence of their young, or in self-defence. They don’t kill for fun. We are far and away the most vicious and blood-thirsty species on earth. What we see on TV is not alien to us - it would have no appeal for us if it were. The violence on screen connects with the violence in ourselves. It is ourselves that we see: the violent side of ourselves. It is well to bear this in mind. One of the greatest tragedies in every post-war period is that people look back and blame it on ‘them’, ‘the enemy’. But it is truly about us. We should say, “Now I see that there is a potential Hitler in me, or a Stalin, or a Mao Tse Tung.” Because we don’t acknowledge the violence in ourselves we are always destined to fight another war. Unrecognised or unacknowledged violence can have even more far-reaching effects than visible violence. One’s way of life may appear perfectly peaceful, but in some countries it is being financially sustained by their governments selling arms to emerging countries, sometimes to both sides in a conflict.
Television programmes are not alone in glorifying violence: a great deal of the world’s literature glorifies war and killing. And the national anthems of very many countries glorify and celebrate violence.
It makes you think of the Ik! The Ik are a small tribe in northern Uganda, who were formerly nomadic hunters. The government turned their territory into a national park and they were forced to become farmers on poor hillside soil. The anthropologist Colin Turnbull lived for two years among them and wrote a book about them, entitled The Mountain People. The dismantling of their society and traditions changed them radically. He found them totally brutalised - selfish, loveless, solitary. They share nothing, they never sing, they send out tiny children to scavenge, they abandon the old and let them starve to death. They breed without love or even casual regard, they soil each other’s doorsteps, they laugh only at one another’s misfortunes….
The biologist Lewis Thomas (in The Lives of a Cell) has a theory. The Ik, he said, are individually behaving in just the way that societies do! Their society has been destroyed, so each individual becomes a sort of society in him or herself.
“Now everything falls into place,” he writes. “This is precisely the way groups of one size or another, ranging from committees to nations, behave…. In his absolute selfishness, his incapacity to give anything away, no matter what, [the individual Ik] is a successful committee. When he stands at the door of his hut, shouting insults at his neighbours in a loud harangue, he is a city addressing another city.
“Cities have all the Ik characteristics. They defecate on doorsteps, in rivers and lakes, their own or anyone else’s. They leave rubbish. They detest all neighbouring cities, give nothing away….
“Nations are the most Iklike of all. No wonder the Ik seem familiar. For total greed, rapacity, heartlessness, and irresponsibility there is nothing to match a nation. Nations, by law, are solitary, self-centred, withdrawn into themselves…. They bawl insults from their doorsteps, defecate into whole oceans, snatch all the food, survive by detestation, take joy in the bad luck of others….”
It is hugely tempting to apply this to present-day societies. As traditional society breaks down in many respects, the individual becomes sovereign and begins to behave like a society. Every day on TV we see how societies behave: we see countries reneging on treaties and agreements, refusing to take responsibility for polluting the planet, waging war and terror on other countries…. These are headlines in every sense: they are not only news headlines, but headlines for individual behaviour.
What are we to do? It’s clearly not enough to talk about violence and non-violence. We have to be non-violent, we have to embody non-violence. It helps if we understand violence a little and watch the movement of it in ourselves. It’s possible to be a violent promoter of non-violence - to be driven by hatred even in a good cause. We have to watch ourselves like hawks, because in a sense we are hawks! - only more predatory. But if we become peacemakers, rather than people who talk about peace or lament violence, we can do incalculable good. So I hope and pray. If we understand our bad side while living on our good side, there’s hope for us all.
I hope I haven't depressed you more! The liturgical greeting becomes more urgent than ever before: “The peace of the Lord be with you always!”