It seems to me that we live in a violent culture in a violent world that appears to be becoming more violent with time. I admit that I grew up in what was an ideal era under ideal circumstances. I was a Caucasian boy living in a small community with two stable, loving parents. I did watch a few war movies that were made during WWII that had some pretty violent battle field scenes. But this happened once a month if I was lucky and was virtually over long before junior high school. As a young child I did listen to some scary radio shows like “The Shadow.” However, I think the most violent thing I heard on the radio in those early days was the terrible crash every week when Fibber McGee and Molly opened his hall closet door and everything came crashing down.
I do not mean the world was without violence in the forties and fifties. I never had to deal with the issues that war torn Europe was dealing with; I was not part of a minority struggling for basic civil rights, and living in fear; I was not a Jew trying to find a safe place to migrate; I was not watching my family slowly die from radiation poisoning in occupied Japan; and I have never been part of a country while it was going through a violent revolution. But I do not see these things as part of the culture. Rather I understand them to be events or periods that most people assumed would someday be better or different.
How many murders, dead bodies, stabbings, shootings, do our children see on television every day? How many scenes of violence do they encounter on their computers on a regular basis? How many people, aliens, bad guys do they kill, blow up, maim with their computer games every week? And what about us? Have we become numb to the violence of our everyday television programs?
We have created a violent culture and anyone that does not see this must have their eyes closed. Maybe it goes back to violent beginnings in our own bloody revolution with the French and the British. Or maybe our culture is still influenced by the remnants of the Civil War. I have often wondered if the Southern demand for unlimited gun rights is founded on the fear that the Union soldiers are going to return someday. I remember once asking a young man in Alabama why he needed the arsenal in his house that he had shown me with obvious pride. He said; “just in case they try and take them away.” But our violent culture is not confined to the South by any measurement nor is it confined to the issue of guns.
I did an experiment recently that admittedly was not a very scientific. I turned on the TV just after 9 p.m. and started turning the channels, one by one. When I came across something violent, (murder, fighting, yelling, anger, torture or desecrated bodies) I made a check and moved to the next channel. If it seemed like a gentle, fun program, I checked another column and moved on. Of the 30 channels I observed in less than an hour, 22 of them, including a couple of cartoons, had something I would consider extremely violent.
Let’s face it. Even our spectator sports, something that are supposed to be play, have become more violent than anyone could have imagined 30 years ago. And just improving the helmets is not going to solve the problem. Forty years ago cage fighting (two men, and now two women, in a cage beating each other senseless using both their feet and fists) would have been banned as a sport. It would have been unimaginable that this brutal sport could develop a major television market. Today it is considered the fastest growing spectator sport in the nation. Its largest organizer, UFC, recently entered into a seven year contract with Fox Network for $90 million per year for broadcasting these fights.
I find all of this very sad and even strange. Why strange? You see, we hear people often refer to our country as a Christian nation. I don’t agree with that assessment nor do I think it is an appropriate goal. However, the vast majority of people in this country still consider themselves or identify themselves as Christians. And yet, when you read the Jesus story; when you listen to some of the finest Christian theologians and ethicist, it is impossible for me to understand how one can fail to see that Jesus was teaching and promoting a non-violent life as a primary part of his path.
I find this seeming incongruity particularly difficult to understand as I write this article on the day we celebrate the life of Martin Luther King Jr. who truly tested the ideals and limits of a non-violent life. He did this with the integrity of one who sincerely believed he was following the path of Jesus. Early on in the movement he said; “Please be peaceful. We believe in law and order. We are not advocating violence, I want you to love your enemies…for what we are doing is right, what we are doing is just and God is with us.”
I resist citing biblical passages out of context to prove a point, but there is an abundance of evidence that non-violence was and is a central tenet of Jesus’ teachings. History has many heroes who lived and often died following the non-violent path of their Christ. In more modern times we can look to the Hindu, Mahatma Gandhi, as an example. He probably understood Jesus on this point better than most Christians in our country today. More than once he gave Jesus credit for his own understanding that “non-violence and truth are inseparable and presuppose one another.” He did not think of this as something we did in our temples, churches or synagogues or that it was something we do only in the spiritual part of our lives. For Gandhi nonviolence was a way of life. “Nonviolence is not a garment to be put on and off at will. Its seat is in the heart, and it must be an inseparable part of our being. “
I began to understand the depth that this commitment could take over 30 years ago when I was taking a class on Christian ethics. The subject that week was the writings and life of Stanley Hauerwas, currently the Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Theological Ethics at Duke Divinity School. In 2001 Hauerwas was honored by Time magazine as being “America’s Best Theologian.” He once said that non-violence was the most important teaching that Christianity offered the world.
In this particular class we were reading a new book by Hauerwas, A Community of Character (1981) about living in community with a life devoted to the teachings of Jesus. In this book he wrote that if a gunman pointed his gun at your child, the true follower of Jesus could only place himself between the gunman and the child. At that time my youngest daughter was five years old. We were required to write a paper about this statement. I tried everything in my intellectual power to come up with a paper based on Jesus’ teachings that would refute this claim and could not. I was much younger then but I knew what I would do if anyone threatened my children and it was not pretty. The challenge to love my enemies has never gone away, however.
And Hauerwas has not backed down. Just last year he addressed a group of Indiana Wesleyan University students. He said: “Christians are called to be nonviolent, not because we believe our nonviolence is a strategy to rid the world of war, but [because] in a world of war, as faithful followers of Christ, we cannot imagine being anything other than nonviolent.”
And we must remember that non-violence for Jesus was not about cage fighting, war or guns. It was about how we relate to the world and all living beings. What if we treated every sentient being is if they were part of God? It is not only our physical actions, not only the way we converse with others but even the way we think. Thinking is just another form of energy and we all know that when we are thinking angry thoughts, we are putting out angry energy. Do you want to take the path seriously? Then observe your thinking, your thoughts, and even your deepest emotions. Then forgive yourself, love yourself and move on with love—even love for your enemies.
As modern Christians, we sometimes struggle to find relevance and purpose in the Christian story today. What if we really took this part of our faith seriously, both as a path to our own healing and as part of the healing that our world desperately needs today? I suspect that many of us would learn a lot more about what it means to be a follower of Jesus and a lot more about ourselves in the process. And in the midst of these revelations we might actually make a difference toward a better, more peaceful world.
“At the center of non-violence stands the principle of love.” Martin Luther King, Jr.