Unlearning Violence

In the last couple of years, I rewatched the Star Wars films. I had remembered enjoying these films for their humor and exciting action. But as I watched them again, I found myself uncomfortable with portrayals of violence that I had previously been cheering on. My earlier viewing was framed by the presumption that there were “bad guys” who needed to be resisted and “good guys” who needed to fight back against them. So, I was in favor of violence when it was done by the right people for good reasons. It wasn’t a matter of thinking about the issue and drawing a conclusion. It was more a matter of taking for granted something that in my culture was regarded as obvious. 

It shouldn’t have come as a shock to me that there would be a significant amount of violence in these films. After all, the title was Star Wars. If you are watching a war movie, violence is surely something to be expected. But somehow, I don’t think that it had registered with me that I was watching a war movie. Part of the reason, I suspect, was that the films didn’t explicitly depict the most gruesome details. People got shot or blown up, of course. But the portrayal didn’t convey vividly the full consequences of these events. In some ways it was like video-game violence in which we are supposed to think that the casualties don’t really matter. 

My awareness that I was uncomfortable with the violence this second time around did not, of course, mean that the films were different. Rather, something about me had changed. If I had to guess what, I would say that I had been paying more attention to what Jesus taught on the topic of responding to evil, and I had also been reading people who took his teachings seriously. These included the biblical scholar John Howard Yoder and the theologian Walter Wink. My study had led me to two conclusions. One was that New Testament teaching is clearly on the side of nonviolence. Later Christian thinkers would argue that violence can be justified in certain circumstances, but the source documents are most naturally understood as taking a stand against inflicting violence, even on enemies. The other conclusion was that this teaching did not fit well with ideas about violence I had been socialized to accept.

Walter Wink refers to a type of narrative underlying our culture’s thinking on this topic as “the myth of redemptive violence.” This kind of story is not limited to our society. It has appeared in many cultures since ancient times. There are multiple forms, but the underlying motif is that of a struggle between good and evil in which some hero or group of heroes rises up and defeats the evil powers. A central idea conveyed by these stories is that peace occurs only through standing up against those who are using force for evil purposes. If we look at entertainment stories of our time, we will find many that reinforce this view. We cheer on those who beat the villains at their own game and by their acts establish the conditions under which we can live peacefully. One of the problems, of course, is that we never seem to arrive at that point. There are always more villains and the need for more heroes who will violently oppose them.

So, when I watched the Star Wars saga, it was clear to me that I was getting another version of the cultural idea that violence is just a part of the way things are and that the important question is whether you are using it for good purposes or bad ones. However, I had become suspicious about this way of thinking. It wasn’t that I had decided that violence was never justified. I wasn’t ready to declare that self-defense or the defense of others could never be right. But it seemed to me that concentrating on cases in which violence might be justified because there were no other good options too easily flipped into a way of life in which people felt justified in responding violently whenever they thought their cause was righteous. And of course, that way of thinking is a recipe for repeated cycles of violence.

But is there another way? One way to understand Christian teaching on this topic is to view it as telling us to adopt a kind of bias against putting violent options on the table. Just as a truthful person acquires habits that remove telling a lie as a possible option, a person can acquire habits that block the consideration of violent responses. Early Christians understood Jesus to teach that they were to respond even to others who abused them with kindness instead of hostility. They took the view that it was better to suffer violence than to inflict it. They thought that putting this teaching into practice meant not participating in some social institutions. In the first three centuries, it was commonly assumed that a Christian could not be in the military or hold a political office that would require enforcing the death penalty. The question for them wasn’t whether someone might do these things, but whether someone committed to the way of Christ could.

Even if you think that their approach was extreme, you should probably admit that our culture has inclined us too far in the opposite direction. We are too ready to condone violence, and we need to reconsider the assumptions that make it seem acceptable. Doing so calls for a skeptical stance toward the reliability of our judgments about when violence is the best option. Part of cultivating such a stance is to enlarge our imagination about the potential viability of nonviolent responses. We also need to be wary of forms of entertainment that draw us into a mindset conducive to approving violent choices. People who are sensitive about explicit portrayals of sexuality in media are often oblivious to how pervasive portrayals of violence can habituate us to regarding as normal what we should respond to with disgust. We need to unlearn the ways of violence, and there is no better place to begin that unlearning than focusing our attention on how Jesus taught those who wanted to be his followers to live. 


For a fuller discussion of the issue, see chapter 15 (God’s New Order: Enemies and Violence) in Changing Your Mind Without Losing Your Faith.