Today I wish to begin where we left off last week, with the Wendell Berry quote that I ran:
This cheapening of life, and the violence that inevitably accompanies it, is surely the dominant theme of our time. The ease and quickness with which we resort to violence would be astounding if it were not conventional. …Each new resort to violence enlarges the argument against our species, and the task of hope becomes harder.
…The event in _________ is not unique or rare or surprising or in any way new. It is only another transaction in the commerce of violence: the unending, the not foreseeably endable, exchange of an eye for an eye, with customary justifications on every side, in which we fully participate; and beyond that, it is our willingness to destroy anything, any place, or anybody standing between us and whatever we are “manifestly destined” to have.
We congratulate ourselves perpetually upon our Civil War by which the slaves were, in a manner of speaking, “freed.” We forget, if we have ever learned, that the same army that “freed the slaves” established for us the “right” of military violence against a civilian population, and then acted upon that “right” by a war of extermination against the native people of the West. Nobody who knows our history, from the “Indian wars” to our contemporary foreign wars of “homeland defense,” should find anything unusual in the massacre of civilians and their children.
It is not possible for us to reduce the value of life, including human life, to nothing only to suit our own convenience or our own perceived need. By making this reduction for ourselves, we make it for everybody and anybody, even for our enemies, even for the maniacs whose enemies are schoolchildren or spectators at a marathon.
We forget also that violence is so securely founded among us— in war, in forms of land use, in various methods of economic “growth” and “development”— because it is immensely profitable. People do not become wealthy by treating one another or the world kindly and with respect. Do we not need to remember this? Do we have a single eminent leader who would dare to remind us?
…The solution, many times more complex and difficult, would be to go beyond our ideas, obviously insane, of war as the way to peace and of permanent damage to the ecosphere as the way to wealth. Actually to help our suffering of one man-made horror after another, we would have to revise radically our understanding of economic life, of community life, of work, and of pleasure. We employ thousands of scientists and spend billions of dollars to reduce matter to its smallest particles and to search for farther stars. How many scientists and how many dollars are devoted to harmony between economy and ecology, or to amity and lenity in the face of hatred and killing? To learn to meet our needs without continuous violence against one another and our only world would require an immense intellectual and practical effort, requiring the help of every human being perhaps to the end of human time.
This would be work worthy of the name “human.” It would be fascinating and lovely.
–from “The Commerce of Violence” (2013)
As noted last week, Berry’s big idea is that we are simply not invested in doing anything about the status quo. We don’t know the answers and we don’t even want to know them, because we are just too invested in the violence inherent in the status quo and how it benefits us.
Perhaps the best place to begin is just by owning up. I am violent. You are violent. We are a violent people. Violence is part and parcel of who and what we are as human beings. Sure we’re not all terrorists or mass murderers, but who’s to say what any of us is capable of, given sufficient access to weapons and the right provocation at the right time?
You doubt me? Go ahead and try driving the freeways of Atlanta during rush hour. There, respect is not given, it must be demanded and taken by force. You do not wish to imagine the words directed by me towards other drivers who are unwilling to grant me the respect I feel I am due.
There is a beautiful young woman on the horizon of my world. (And I’m…well, hoping for the best but expecting the worst. Hey, story of my life: The other guy always gets the girl while I get to go back home to my imaginary wife and 2.6 imaginary kids. But that’s beside the point here.) She has a very sweet disposition, which is a large part of what endears me to her. I find it well nigh impossible to imagine anything that even remotely begins to resemble a violent bone in her body. Yet imagine it I must. Given a sufficiently difficult day at work or a sufficiently lengthy and exhausting commute or a sufficiently awkward Thanksgiving dinner or other such stressful situation, who’s to say what manner of violent words and/or deeds she could be capable of?
Zoom out to the national level and the view doesn’t get any prettier. As Americans, we are a violent people, by far the most violent in the world. We feast on it. We thrive on it. We gorge ourselves on it as entertainment. We are morbidly fascinated by it when we see it in the news. As a nation, we are the farthest thing from a peace-loving people. We are wired to dominate, to control, to force our way and throw our weight around on the world stage. Go ahead and tell me what a bad thing it would be for us and for all the rest of the world if America were not like that. You’re probably right and I don’t want to have that argument right now. But even if our large, controlling, dominating presence on the world stage has made the world a safer and happier place by scaring all the bad guys into submission, it has come at a heavy cost to us because as individuals, we are shaped in the violent, controlling image that our nation projects on the world stage. You doubt me? Try driving the streets and/or freeways of Atlanta during rush hour, as noted above.
Given all of this, it is very difficult to have hope. “Same as it ever was”, screams the chorus of cynics whenever a significant violent event takes over the news cycle. “There’s nothing we can do.” “That’s how it will always be.” These voices shout down any hope that anyone could possibly have. It would be so easy just to give up and go with the flow, to join our voices with those of the cynics who proclaim that we should not expect anything different and there is nothing we can do.
But as Christians, that option is not open to us. We are followers of Jesus Christ, who was very much an idealist. We believe in some crazy things, like the forgiveness of sins, redemption, and resurrection from the dead. We believe in a guy who predicted his own death and resurrection and then went and pulled it off. We have no business whatsoever just going with the flow when the cynics scream that it’s the same as it ever was and there’s nothing we can do.
But how can we possibly hold out hope when everything we see in the news cycle screams that there is no reason to hope? We will have to take that up another time.