After the latest insane slaughter of school kids in Florida I’ve been pondering, like most everyone else, why and how such murderous, senseless violence can occur.
On the one hand we have to simply face the grim fact that there is no reason. It’s irrational rage and senseless violence. That’s why it is so terrifying. It seems unpredictable and un avoidable.
However, for some research for a new book I have been delving once more into the thought of Rene Girard. Girard was an anthropologist and literary critic whose life was eventually dedicated to the study of societal violence and its connection with religion. One of the things he points out is that societies or tribes are fragile and vulnerable bodies, and when they are in crisis tension builds. The unhappiness of the individuals in the tribe becomes a corporate tension and stress and this multiplies and reverberates until violence breaks out.
Girard’s theory is that primitive societies naturally blamed the outsider, the deformed, the odd or the crippled for the problem. This person was blamed and eventually murdered to get rid of the problem. This corporate murder eventually became ritualized in the sacrificial systems of primitive groups. First it was human sacrifice, but eventually animals were substituted.
BUT–and here’s the big BUT: this system no longer functions. We don’t do ritual sacrifice anymore. There are no more lynch mobs or Ku Klux Klan rallies. There is no more persecution of Irish and Italian Catholics. If we haven’t totally got rid of the death penalty we’re almost there. We don’t do ritual scapegoating and murder anymore.
That has all died out with the rise of Christianity which teaches sympathy for the victim and an end to ritual sacrifice. The Christian world view calls for repentance not revenge. It calls for personal responsibility not scapegoating. It calls for forgiveness, not bearing a grudge. It calls for justice and peace not retribution and revenge.
That’s all well and good, but these virtues can only be practiced within a context and dynamic of a Christian faith that is being held to and practiced not only by individuals but by the majority of a society.
If enough members of the society drift away from an intentional practice of the faith they will soon also drift away from the principles of forgiveness, personal responsibility and repentance. In the absence of these positive and intentional virtues, revenge, irrational rage, resentment and eventually violence will emerge. We will once again revert to the primitive acts of murder and violence.These acts spring up irrationally from within the corporate society. The ones who step out to commit the acts of violence are the marginal members–the loners, the addicted, the mentally ill, the lonely and the traumatized. They are the weak members of the tribe and most prone to the fits of rage and violence that most everyone else holds at bay. That is why, in the primitive societies the outcasts, the foreigners, the mentally ill and the odd ones were distrusted and why they would most often be the ones who were chosen as the sacrificial victims. One person would be killed so the rest would be spared. Think of it as pre-emptive capital punishment.
Furthermore, these fits of irrational rage are also part of a nexus of violence in our society which is accepted–sometimes accepted and celebrated, and sometimes accepted as a grim and unpreventable manifestation of our chaotic tribe. I’m thinking of the violence against the unborn–in which we legalize and accept the slaughter of the innocents. I’m thinking of the epidemic of suicides among white men which no one mentions. I’m thinking about the epidemic of gang violence and murder in our inner cities. I’m thinking of the epidemic of violence in the wars we consider patriotic and all American. I’m thinking of the astronomical rate of citizens we incarcerate and the plague of drug addiction and violence.
It is out of this accepted violence that the other, seemingly irrational and terrible violence emerges. But is it so irrational? In some way or other each one of the gunmen must have opened fire on a particular group of people because he perceived them as the enemy. In some twisted labyrinth of his mind the people he was gunning down were the ones who were to blame for the chaos. It is this cycle of blame which produces the murder.
It is out of the chaos of a tribe locked in the endless cycle of blame and accusation that the weak and powerless ones claim power and grab a gun and begin yet another slaughter of the innocents who they think deserve to die.
Looking at American society from one point of view therefore, we can look past all the affluence, all the technology, all the power and prestige, all the entertainment and glossy lifestyle and see a nation of barbarians–neo-pagans–violent, vengeful, primitive and irrational–and always searching for the next victim.
Those who wish to dream on about the endless upward progress of our society should think again.
Our society has not moved forward. It has fallen back–back into the primitive, irrational and demonic rage of the savage.
Image Creative Commons.