If anything positive can be said to have resulted from the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, it may be that it has generated a national discussion about gun control that seems to have more seriousness and staying power than that which followed other recent mass shootings. President Obama has set forth a concrete plan to address the issue, a combination of actions that can be taken immediately via executive order and legislative proposals which will require action by Congress. Vigorous discussion is taking place in the news media and social networks. One can only hope that reasonable and effective regulations will eventually be put in place as one step in efforts to reduce the slaughter.
It is not my purpose here to rehash the hundreds of arguments that are being made for and against the President’s plan. Instead, I want to invite reflection on our attitudes toward violence. For purposes of this discussion, I will focus on physical violence, while recognizing that verbal violence can also do substantial harm.
There is no escaping the fact that violence has been a significant component of our national narrative. Our story of origins includes both the written Declaration of Independence and the bloody war that began at Lexington with “the shot heard round the world.” While Manhattan may have been “purchased” for 60 Dutch guilders (roughly $24.00 US Dollars in mid-nineteenth century currency; about $950.00 today), most of the land acquired by European settlers from Native Americans was taken by force, often accompanied by a bloodbath. The violence of the slave trade secured economic stability for a number of states until the brutality of the plantation system was ended by a horribly brutal civil war.
Other examples abound. The inescapable truth is that we as a nation believe in the efficacy of violence. This was stated quite succinctly by the NRA’s executive VP Wayne LaPierre during a speech delivered a week after the Sandy Hook shootings: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” To this way of thinking negotiation, prevention, and non-violent resistance are all ineffective. The only way to solve a conflict is through the use of bigger and better force.
National policies reflect this belief. For each of the past five years Amnesty International has listed the United States among the top five nations in the world in number of executions performed. We share that “honor” with China and Iran. No other G7 country executes criminals, and among the 58 countries that retain the death penalty in law and practice, the only other fully developed and industrialized one on the list is Japan. Though trends are down from a high of 80%, recorded in the mid-nineties, of U.S. citizens in favor of the death penalty, recent Gallup polling still shows a majority 61% who favor execution for convicted murderers.
We also lead in arming the world. Military expenditures in the U.S. account for 41% of the world’s total, more than twice that of the next four countries combined. After several years of depressed global arms sales because of economic downturn, U.S. overseas arms sales skyrocketed in 2011 to $66.3 billion, representing nearly 80% of the total global market. In recent years it has become increasingly common to discover that both sides in a regional conflict are armed with U.S.-made weapons.
When those of us who are Christian turn to the Bible for guidance in dealing with violence, we find very mixed messages. God as understood by the early Hebrew people was quite willing both to use and to command widespread violence. In the story of the great flood, God is depicted as wiping out virtually all of humankind, along with most creatures of the land and air. God is said to engage in wholesale slaughter both in the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, and in the killing of Egyptian firstborn during Moses’ struggle with Pharaoh to liberate the Hebrew slaves. Under the leadership of Joshua, the migrant tribes of Israel are commanded to commit genocide as they occupy the promised land.
Once the Hebrews settled in the Jordan valley, a system of animal and grain sacrifice was established as the primary mode of worship. There are a few hints in the texts, primarily the story of Jephthah’s daughter (Judges 11:29-40) and the almost-sacrifice of the young Isaac (Genesis 22:1-19), that animal sacrifice had replaced an earlier practice of human sacrifice. Indeed, the story of Isaac can be read as an indication of growing awareness that human sacrifice is not necessarily God’s will. Violence against animals, however, remained an integral part of worship up to the time of the fall of Jerusalem in 70 C.E.
On the other hand, there are indications that another understanding of God’s will was developing at least by the time of the Davidic kingdom. In I Chronicles 22:7-8 we read:
David said to Solomon, “My son, I had planned to build a house to the name of the Lord my God. But the word of the Lord came to me saying, ‘You have shed much blood and have waged great wars; you shall not build a house to my name, because you have shed so much blood in my sight on the earth.’”
Here we see the privilege of building the first temple being awarded to Solomon, David’s son and a man of peace, rather than to David, whose consolidation of the kingdom was accomplished through war and bloodshed.
A hoped-for and coming Prince of Peace became a recurring theme in the prophetic writings. Isaiah 9:7 describes this coming ruler thus: “His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom.” The tension between the ideal of the warrior king and the longing for everlasting peace can be found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures.
In the Christian Scriptures, the teachings of Jesus firmly counter the valuing of violence as a preferred method of problem solving. He consistently preached non-violent resistance to oppression, and love of God, self, neighbor, and enemy as the right way to be in the world. The few passages where he appears to advocate violence, such as Matthew 10:34-38: “Do not think that I come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword; etc.” should be read as descriptive rather than as prescriptive. That is, Jesus is warning his listeners of the inevitable consequences that they should expect if they choose to follow him. He is not saying that such an outcome is his intention.
The fact of Jesus’ crucifixion ran contrary to popular belief about the anticipated Messiah. His followers struggled to understand and explain these events. In doing so, many employed the language and imagery of the sacrificial system with which they were familiar. Christian scholars and teachers have, for two millennia, wrestled with the question of the atonement: In what way does Jesus’ life, teachings, death, and resurrection save humanity and accomplish reconciliation with God? The book “Saving Power: Theories of Atonement and Forms of the Church” by Peter Schmiechen, President Emeritus of Lancaster Theological Seminary, describes and examines in detail a dozen such theories that are a part of Christian thinking.
One of these theories, usually termed “penal substitution,” in the past century and a half has come to dominate teaching about salvation in a large number of U.S. churches. This theory maintains that Jesus’ torture and death were required because the shedding of blood of a pure sacrifice was the only way to satisfy God’s demand for justice. The theological reasoning is quite complex. The practical consequence is that in popular devotion the events of Good Friday have become the nearly exclusive focus of the story of salvation, with Jesus’ life and teachings, and indeed even the resurrection, receiving much less attention. The 2004 Mel Gibson film “The Passion of the Christ” illustrated this emphasis on the torture and death of Jesus in such grotesque detail that some critics decried it as pornography.
Walter Wink, Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, and other theologians deeply concerned with the practice of non-violence have referred to this way of thinking as “the myth of redemptive violence.” If violence is required to save us from violence, then the cycle is never-ending. Every assault is countered by a response of equal or greater deadliness. Escalation of violence becomes inevitable, all in the name of saving ourselves, our families, our nation.
If we are serious about reducing the number of shootings, if we honestly want to lower the level of violence in our society, then we need to take a hard look at what we believe about the usefulness of violent action. We could begin with the question often asked about the support for the death penalty: “Why do we kill someone who has killed someone to show that killing someone is wrong?” And we who are Christian need to examine our theology. Have we adopted a theory of salvation that emphasizes torture and violence over the teachings of Jesus on how to live a non-violent life in the love of God?
We are a nation that believes in violence. Our national narratives illustrate it. Our national policies demonstrate it. For some of those of us who are Christian, our theology supports it. The strictest possible gun control will not do much to make our society safer until we change that belief. For the sake of children today and of generations to come, are we willing to try?
Recommended for further reading:
Schmiechen, Peter, “Saving Power: Theories of Atonement and Forms of the Church,” Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2005. ISBN 0-8028-2985-6
Nelson-Pallmeyer, Jack, “Is Religion Killing Us? Violence in the Bible and the Quran,” Trinity Press International, 2003. ISBN 1-56338-408-6
Wink, Walter, “Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination,” Fortress Press, 1992. ISBN 0-8006-2646-X
Parker, Rebecca Ann and Rita Nakashima Brock, “Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire,” Beacon Press, 2008. ISBN 978-0-8070-6750-5