I wonder, both as a parent and a follower of the way of Jesus, how to even go about defining violence, and what my call as a Christian is – or for that matter, simply as a member of the human species – to do about it.
I remember when I took wrestling in grade school and I pinned Andrew, more or less by accident, during one of our practices. Apparently he wasn’t too used to losing, because as soon as I let him up, he unleashed on me. After a few fists to the face, coach pulled him off me. I told my dad about the incident over dinner that night, and when he found out I didn’t fight back, he looked like I had told him I got someone pregnant.
A man fights back, he said. The subtext, of course, that went unspoken was that I was no man in his eyes.
Lots of men in the Bible used violence to settle disputes. Even David, the celebrated king of the Jewish people, makes his debut in the texts by killing a giant warrior. So maybe violence does have some redemptive qualities? Maybe my dad was right. What if the “right” thing to do really was to go back and pound on Andrew until I felt better, or until he relented, whichever came first?
Then along comes Jesus, preaching about love, peace, meekness and turning the other cheek. Did his copy of the Bible say something different than mine? Didn’t he see the part about “eye for an eye” and all the great stories about men kicking butt in the name of the Lord? The way he’s talking about gentleness and lambs and warm fuzzies, he kind of comes across as a wimp.
So it seemed at the time like there were two choices: either be a butt-kicker or a doormat. I wasn’t particularly fond of either of those choices. My dad obviously saw me as a disappointment, being his only progeny, as I skulked around school, wondering why I wasn’t man enough to teach Andrew a lesson.
But all of this kind of physical violence is pretty obvious stuff. What about professional sports? If I enjoy watching boxing, football or even basketball, am I contributing to a system that celebrates violence? Not to mention television, movies or video games.
And how about food? If I (or more likely, someone else I’ve never met) slaughter an animal for food, is this still violent, or at least acceptable violence? What if I don’t use every part of the animal? What if it suffers? What if it goes bad sitting in the refrigerator?
What if I live in a state that sanctions capital punishment? How about assisted suicide? Abortion? Legalized drug use? Unsafe driving habits? Where is the line?
Some would argue that our very lifestyle in the United States inevitably is propped up by an infrastructure fed by violence. From the exploitation of migrant workers to the sweatshop factories that produce our clothing and the indigenous lands we exploit for natural resources, violence is inhered in nearly everything around us. Another, perhaps more radical, notion contends that the basis of democracy is itself violent since it suppresses the will of any not in the majority.
In the book, “Banned Questions About the Bible,” fellow contributor Brandon Gilvin puts it this way:
The World has always been a violent place. Some of the earliest stories in the Bible acknowledge this. Whether it’s the mythic stories from Genesis, such as Cain’s murder of Abel, or the later epic stories that recall violence against women, such as the rape of Tamar, violent acts are part of the stories that make up the Bible. The death of Jesus, which serves as the climax of the Gospels, is itself an act of state-sponsored violence (Seriously…How else would you describe Capital Punishment?).
From my perspective, however, those differences have little to do with how God sees violence. The stories in the Bible were written by human beings, not directed by an invisible, divine hand. The communities of faith that wrote these stories should be understood as fallible human beings who were struggling to make sense of how God was present in their histories.
So maybe today, much like those who authored the stories in scripture, we use our own way of life as the standard for what is acceptable. We call on God, the Bible, or a sense of patriotism to justify how we got here, or even how we maintain our way of life.
If we claim God’s favor, after all, how can our way of life be wrong? But this assumes an awful lot about what God considers acceptable.
I went to pick up my son, Mattias, from school the other day, and he had the “I got in trouble” look all over him. Shoulders slumped forward, eyes downcast, lower lip stuck out.
“Jamie growled at me, and so I pushed him,” he said. “But then he came over and pushed me back,” he said, “so when he was on the slide, I went over and cut him.”
“You what?” my eyes bulged. I had visions of Mattias calculatedly fashioning a shiv in the corner of the playground with his cafeteria spork, tucking it under his Garanimals jacket, and then moving in for the attack by the twisty slide.
“I cut him,” he said again. “I got in front of him in line.”
“Oh,” I breathed a quiet sigh of relief.
“So he pushed me again, and I hit him back, and then…” he looked back down at the asphalt, “we got in trouble.”
We talked on the way home about how he felt when Jamie had growled at him and about how he felt after pushing him.
“Did it make you feel any better to hit him?” I asked.
“Not really,” he said. “I was still mad.”
“And did everything go back to normal after you pushed each other?”
“No,” he grumbled. “We kept fighting.”
“Plus you both got in trouble. That’s no fun.”
“No,” he agreed. “Are you gonna tell mom?”
“I’m going to let you handle that one,” I said, “but I’ll be there with you when you do.”
Christian Piatt is an author, editor, speaker, musician and spoken word artist. He co-founded Milagro Christian Church in Pueblo, Colorado with his wife, Rev. Amy Piatt, in 2004. Christian is the creator and editor of “Banned Questions About The Bible” and “Banned Questions About Jesus.” He has a memoir on faith, family and parenting being published in early 2012 called “PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.” For more information about Christian, visit www.christianpiatt.com, or find him on Twitter or Facebook.