Violence is man’s greatest affliction, and unfortunately it was self-inflicted.
Theologian Arthur McGill defines violence in the following way: “The term ‘violence’ refers to an event or an action that ‘violates’ some aspect of human life. Violence, then, is always connected with suffering.” (McGill, 19) This definition shows the nature of ‘violence’ I am speaking about. First, the violence being examined holds an intent to inflict harm to another life, with the end goal to induce suffering. Intent and willfulness to commit an act is needed. Storms can sometimes be described as ‘violent’ because of their destructive, and possibly fatal, force, but the storm does not have a will to cause destruction. A virus can cause great suffering and violent illness in a person, but the virus, though it be in it’s nature to induce violent reactions from the body, never willfully induces this suffering. If we want to consider violence as an act of evil, then it must be linked to a specific intent to act harmfully towards others, with an openness to induce suffering.
Violence disorients us from what God created human beings to be. Made in his image and likeness, we are called to imitate the selfless and loving nature our Creator. In following, we are made to act towards our fellow brothers and sisters of the human family in a selfless and loving manner, adhering to Christ’s revelation: “This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you.” (JN 15:12). Our journey towards violence began when humans first broke away from relationship with God, shown in the story of Adam and Eve. In turning away from God’s love and providence, our ancestors started on a disoriented path without guidance and without proper understanding of how we were to relate to each other. In breaking their relationship with God, Adam and Eve also opened the floodgates to humankind breaking their relationships with each other.
This broken relationship is immediately shown in the book of Genesis with the story of Cain and Abel, children of Adam and Eve. Cain became angry with his brother when God accepted Abel’s sacrifice of the best specimens from his flocks but rejected Cain’s offering of his best fruits. Out of anger, Cain killed his brother in secret. The brokenness inherited from Adam and Eve’s sin now affected more than a relationship to God, and the brokenness turned into a violent act against human life. McGill describes man’s turn to violence as demonic, but not in the sense that all violence is caused by little creatures holding pitchforks. He states that the true demons we face represent “that particular energy of destruction which is met in an infected wound, say, or in a conflict between brother.” (McGill, 48) Cain’s relationship with his brother became wounded when his anger surfaced. At that point all was not truly lost, for emotions are part of human life and struggles in relationships commonly result from conflicting emotions. However, Cain’s downfall came when he allowed ‘demonic’ intent to enter his emotion and infect his relationship with Abel, driving him to destroy his brother rather than reconciling a broken relations hip.
This same pattern has recurred throughout human history. Broken relationships occur on a number of levels within human society: between two individuals, within the domestic household, spread through a community, or escalating into international warfare. Violence creates a great shadow of tragedy upon human history, even very recent history. Victor Frankl, a survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp, illustrates a picture of the tremendous suffering human violence can inflict on an entire people. The novel is written with the assumption that the horrors of the concentration camps (starvation, gas chambers, executions) are common knowledge at this point. The suffering he illustrates are the struggles of the individual soul and mind that resulted from the violence inflicted by the Nazis. What the prisoners felt was the same violation Cain inflicted on Abel–a loss of dignity and respect of life. Cain dis-valued Abel life’s as result of his anger towards his brother, resulting in an easy turn towards violence as a solution to the problem. The Nazi’s had the same ‘final solution’ for the Jewish people, violently stripping them of every human dignity and freedom to the point of death. In a creative manner, Frankl makes a comparison of their suffering to the gas chambers: “To draw an analogy: a man’s suffering is similar to the behavior of a gas. If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber. Thus suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little.” (Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning) His quote reveals that the suffering caused by human acts of violence takes a toll on the dignity of man, whether that be his loss of life or mind or soul. Violence takes away the human dignity given to us divinely by God. Frankl’s account shows that the prisoners of the concentration camps had no guilt on their conscience, yet their dignity was brutally violated regardless. The evil of violence shows its face most thoroughly when an ill intent turns on those who are innocent and defenseless against oppressive power.
Insight into this degree of evil can be found in the book of Job. Although Job doesn’t suffer to violent acts from another person, he finds himself suffering for no justified reason. Rather than despairing, he trusts in God’s providence and remains faithful to him. Amidst his suffering, he even takes time to reflect on the suffering of others who truly despair from the violence inflicted by wicked people. In Chapter 24 of the book, Job describes some of the violent acts the poor suffer at the hands of the wicked: “[The wicked] remove the landmarks; they seize and devour flocks….Others snatch the orphan from the breast, and against the poor they take a pledge. They cause the poor to go out naked without clothing, and they take away the sheaves from the hungry.” (JOB 24:2-12). Theologian Gustavo Gutierrez elaborates that Job’s meditation reveals the tragic light of the poor, as Job realizes “this poverty and abandonment are not something fated but are caused by the wicked, who nonetheless live serene and satisfied lives.” (Gutierrez, 32). What the poor in Job’s account endure is violence, violence at the hands of wicked people turning on fellow humans beings for their own gains. They ignore the call to respect the poor as their own brothers and sisters, and exploit them without regards to the suffering inflicted upon those innocent souls.
Acts of violence speak the same message today as they have done throughout history. One party intends to violate the dignity of another with the understanding that suffering may result. Our world is filled with wounded relationships, and where there is a wound within humanity, violence can infect the wound even more so. Today’s headlines showcase stories of terrorist attacks, domestic abuse cases, the abortion controversy, and countless other instances of human violence. Rather than recognizing the image and likeness of God created in each person, we continually chose to destroy one another by violating basic human dignity. We choose acts of violence over acts of reconciliation when relationships are broken, and we face escalating suffering within the world because of that choice.
McGill, Arthur. Suffering, A Test of Theological Method. Wipf & Stock Publishers, Eugene OR: 2006.
Gutierrez, Gustavo. On Job: God-Talk and the Suffering of the Innocent. trans. O’Connel, Matthew J. English translation Orbis Books, Maryknoll NY: 1987.
Frankl, Viktor. Man’s Search For Meaning. Beacon Press, Boston MA: 2006.
The opinions expressed by the DPS blog authors and those providing comments are theirs alone; they are not necessarily the expressions or beliefs of either the Dead Philosophers Society or Holy Apostles College & Seminary.