Deconstructing Violence, Embodying the Kingdom

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“Non-Violence” image courtesy of Flickr.com

In a recent workshop on faith and politics the standard trope about Anabaptism quickly emerged. “We have a moral responsibility within society, and to vote would be to abdicate that responsibility.” The implication was clear- the Anabaptist impulse to withdraw (itself a narrowly defined understanding of the tradition) is a dismissal of that social moral imperative. This presenter then followed it up with the typical casuistry exemplar. With the rise of gun violence in Chicago, a well documented trend, what is the Christian to do? Wouldn’t lobbying for gun reform be the wisest, expedient, and most moral action to take?

Now in the most recent issue of The Christian Century Scott Paeth, associate professor of religion at DePaul University asks in a brief editorial: “What culture of violence?” The subtitle of the article makes his case clear- “Why we shouldn’t blame video games and movies.” If that was not enough to reveal his partisan stripes, his opening summary of the National Rifle Association and concluding remarks about the need for limiting firearms placed him within the political debate. “A more effective approach, I suspect, would be to contain the potential damage done by the confluences of violent media and violent intentions by depriving the fire of its power to burn. This would entail imposing tighter restrictions on the availability of certain kinds of firearms and ammunition” (pg, 12).

The argument leading to this conclusion follows typical modern assumptions about society and progress. As he states plainly, “the data do not support the idea that the consumption of violent media leads to a greater propensity toward violence.” Even more starkly, he says that the evidence “points in the opposite direction” (pg. 11). In support he states rather plainly, “overall violence has declined in the United States over the past five years” (pg. 11).

To be fair, Paeth’s overall caution is worth keeping in mind. The causes of violence are intricate and complicated. Addressing violent games and movies is not sufficient. Issues such as poverty, drugs, and access to weapons play a role in societal violence. What is more, the brief theological observation later in the editorial is equally a part of the conversation for the church: “At the heart of Christian teaching is the realization that we are in some sense fundamentally broken creatures, sinners in need of redemption from a transcendent source” (pg. 12).

However, the leap to advocate for public policy does not necessarily follow. As was evidenced by the presenter who asked what an Anabaptist was to do in the face of rising gun violence in Chicago, the modern imagination is hostage to the politics of the society. Meaningful, and “efficient” engagement with society- the redemption from a transcendent source- is to be found in the legislative debates of partisan politics. Underlying this limited thinking is a kind of exceptionalism, of the progressive kind. Despite mass killings in the 20th and 21st century, and the stunning efficiency (even dehumanizing of) killing, progressives continue to champion the progress of modern society. Not only have the last five years seen drop in violent crime, but the very political system itself is  presented as a sign of humanity’s rising, its capacity to effect societal change. In a moment of Pelagian optimism, Paeth demonstrates this plainly when he says that “as a society, we seem to be getting less violent even as the depiction of violence in media becomes more graphic and realistic” (pgs 11-12).

Indeed, as Paeth says, the causes of such horrific violence- whether in mass shootings or on the part of nations- the causes of violence are legion. To name one facet, whether violent video games or access to firearms or poverty induced crime, is to over simplify. Unfortunately, by taking the legislative position he does, Paeth engages in the same fallacy as the NRA.

In truth, the lobbying option is too easy. Asking a senator to vote one way on a particular piece of legislation requires nothing of us. In terms of discipleship to Christ, such advocacy does nothing for the incarnational witness in the places that need the change the most. In other words, the lobbyist can live in the comfort of affluent K St northwest in Washington DC but never have to confront the actual violence just a few miles away in the northeast quadrant of the city. To legislate weapons of any kind does nothing to address the statistically confirmed indicators of violence- poverty, isolation, and drugs.

To the presenter in the faith and politics workshop- the answer is clear, but not easy. Changing the culture of violence asks us to embody Christ in the places where the violence is happening. Move into the neighborhood. Build relationships. Mentor young people. Invest in local businesses. In other words, live the same self-emptying posture of Jesus himself (Philippians 2). Step down from our affluent isolation, beholden to societal expectations of upward mobility, and live with the people in most need of love and grace. It isn’t new laws that stop the violence. It is real people, in real relationships, that work in Christ-like ways, telling new stories of non-violent redemption and resurrection, sharing food around real tables, and caring for one another that bring to life a new way of Christ-centered peace into our world.

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5 Comments

Filed under Politics and the Church

5 responses to “Deconstructing Violence, Embodying the Kingdom

  1. Scott Holland

    Shouldn’t it be both political lobbying as well as embodied personal practices of peacebuilding in our communities? The successes of the civil rights movement, the antiwar movements, as well as the women’s rights and gay rights advancements, plus a host of other movements for social change and public justice teach us that personal practice without political engagement is incomplete if the work and hope are for good the beloved community more than for the righteousness of the sect. From Seattle, where the “Circle of Peace” consultation concludes it is both/and, not either/or, Scott Holland

  2. Jordan Bles

    Thanks for this, Josh. I agree with Scott, that the problem is that we make it an either/or. It doesn’t ask nothing of us to approach our Senator or Congressperson. That is also part of our call to discipleship as a part of a democratic society. To pretend that voting and engagement of our political system is not something we are called to, while fully engaging in other aspects of societal life, is missing something. If we aren’t weighing in on policy decisions, then we are, in essence, giving our blessing to policies that increase, or at least keep in place, the structures that contribute to and create the various causes of violence that you named above, and more.

    The challenge for the church is that our role is broader than that. We are in the practice of making disciples. I had a conversation in my DMin class on faith and politics with a pastor of a church on Wall St., who was making the argument that the church should be in the practice not of taking positions on issues of policy, but rather creating people who would be disciples in their various professions from politician to banker and so on. I would argue that that is actually the larger issue for the church. When we have politicians, bankers, store owners, laborers, and so on and so forth that see their work as part of their discipleship, we might be able to see some of the deeper societal and structural change that is needed. For too long, the church has been willing to take policy positions, but then not challenge our members to live them out in everyday discipleship. Therein lies the challenge in making our public voice actually effective.

    • Joshua Brockway

      Thanks Scott and Jordan,

      I think that is just it…the presenter and the writer of the editorial were presenting it as an either/or situation. What else would “abdicating our moral responsibility” mean other than advocacy or lobbying on the part of the church is the way to make a just society? As some said in that workshop- is voting a way to be faithful, maybe. That is very different from saying “No, christians are not to vote or lobby.” Rather it calls politicized christians to realize a vote is the very least we can do. Too many in the church today- across the spectrum- champion their Christian civic duty and then do absolutely nothing in their work or everyday life to change things in their local community. It is just far to easy to write a letter or tap the ballot screen, and then say our work is done. So I say with you it isn’t an either/or proposition. Yet, my aim here and in much of my work is to say that the partisan system has so totalized the discourse and our imaginations as disciples that it is nearly impossible to take a nuanced policy position and not be labeled a democrat or a republican.

      As to the Civil Rights movement, I was thinking of that as I finished the orinal post. I asked myself why Jarrod McKenna being arrested for civil disobedience on a military base or Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove protesting panhandling laws in Durham didn’t draw out the same response as the editorial in Christian Century. In part I think that their policy positions are consistent with their way of life. They both have imagined and lived into different ways of being with those most effected by bad public policy- Jonathan living in Wall Town and Jarrod with his First Home Project where they have bought a large house and have invited refugees to live with them as part of resettlement. In effect the policies they are willing to advocate far are directly related to their way of life. Though I know this week has brought about much discussion of the Letter from a Birmingham Jail, I read the effectiveness of the Civil Rights campaign as a protest and policy effort from those most disenfranchised by the systems of segregation. Please do not twist this to say that sounds like the stupid clergy whose letter precipitated MLK’s brilliant letter. Rather, I am saying that white affluent clergy did come along side, pray for, and support King and others in their work. But they did not speak for the movement.

      Paeth’s main fault was that his solution to the plan, contrary to his statements about complexity and the correlation between poverty and drugs, was the talking point of a partisan position- ban assault style weapons, limit magazine sizes, and increased background checkes. That was exactly what the VP had presented, and yet Paeth said nothing about effecting the statistically correlated issues he himself named. In a way, he used statistics when convenient (drop in violent crime rate) and dismissed them when it did nothing to support his preconceived policy position. It was faulty logic, bad reasoning, and honestly typical of modern political rhetoric. That editorial was for me the perfect example of how many (not all) modern advocates cannot seem to break out beyond the partisan policy imagination. Everything gets narrowed down to an issue or to talking points, and robust thinking and action about the complexities of true justice are overlooked in favor of a piece of legislation.

  3. Good thoughts here, Josh.
    A question and a comment (from my admittedly Catholic perspective):
    1)Does it have to be an either/or? Can we both lobby and witness?
    2) A politically indirect ecclesiology in which Christian individuals witness as individuals is, in my opinion, probably not enough. Rather, it is real communities, real churches, enacting the Christ-like ways and welcoming the other into the communion which will organically – as it were – reduce the violence.

    • Joshua Brockway

      Right Joshua,

      I tackled some of your question of either/or in some of the other responses. Suffice to say, it isn’t either or, but I think that often the indirect lobbying on the part of churches is the first thought, and the least effective. So, as you say it is real christians in real places with real people that can work to reduce violence (probably more holistically than could a single issue lobbying effort).

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