Full of Violence
By Audrey Stallsmith
In a town near here, a woman and her boyfriend returned home from a Christmas gathering to find the woman’s estranged husband waiting for them. He shot the couple to death in front of his own two children.
Although he tried to take his son and daughter afterwards, his little girl bravely stood up to him and phoned 911 instead. On the tape of the call she made, her voice can be heard repeating, “No! I’m not going with you!”
Fortunately, her younger brother was also recovered safely and her father imprisoned. But it’s difficult to comprehend how any man, no matter how angry he was, could do such a thing to a woman he’d once loved—or subject his own children to this kind of trauma. It’s harder still to see what he gained by it.
We can only conclude that, just as rape is not about sex, this type of crime is not about love. Both are about power.
The man who murders his spouse and/or family generally has a long history as an abuser. He sees his wife as his property, which is why he harbors the, “if I can’t have her, no one will,” attitude. Because power is all an abuser has, once he loses that, he literally doesn’t know how to function. He is, therefore, actually a weakling.
“Violence,” Paul Tournier agrees in The Violence Within, “is the opposite of strength, for the energy it brings to bear is only the energy of despair. Despair of winning the argument by argument.”
Speaking of senseless violence and things hard to comprehend, I recently watched a documentary that covered Hitler’s rise. The movie, Bonhoeffer, was about one of the few German Christians who spoke and acted against Nazism—and was eventually executed for his part in a plot to assassinate the tyrant. But, as we all know, most of the German people either went along with Hitler or looked the other way.
Why? I’m thinking that this too had a lot to do with power. Germany had been humiliated by its defeat in World War I. So, like the estranged husband, it was willing to go to brutal and even self-destructive lengths to restore its pride.
Although many Germans must have had to turn a deaf ear to their consciences, it is an unfortunate fact that, as Fulton Sheen points out in Life Is Worth Living, “if we do not live as we think, we soon begin to think as we live.” In On Being Human, he adds “fanaticism is always preceded by a breakdown of reason. It centers around certain persons who have the capacity to drag the nonthinking after them. It enthrones mediocrity in the masses.”
One of the worst of the Nazis, Goring, showed no remorse for his crimes. But he was so addicted to power that he poisoned himself before the Allies could hang him. Even at the point of death, he couldn’t stand not to be in charge. That, when you think about it, is really quite pitiful. He might be compared to the one whom Ralph Waldo Emerson described as “this chill, houseless, fatherless, aimless Cain, the man who hears only the sound of his own footsteps in God’s resplendent creation.”
No, this is not going to be one of those essays that deplores modern violence. If anything, crime in this country seems to have decreased in recent years. (Perhaps all those bloody movies and video games provide an outlet of sorts!) And we are, I would venture, considerably less bestial than the ancient world was. There are things in the Old Testament that will quite turn your stomach!
Bestial is probably the wrong word anyway. As Sheen notes in From the Angel’s Blackboard, “Nature (unlike man!) is never purposefully cruel.” And violence itself is not necessarily wrong. I think most of us would agree that Bonhoeffer did the right thing when he joined in that plot to kill Hitler. As Joy Davidman asserts in Smoke on the Mountain, what God forbade “was not violence but self-seeking violence.” So policemen and soldiers who defend the helpless are doing God’s work.
But even they can become corrupted by their own power. Years ago in Florida, a group of policemen beat an unarmed motorcyclist to death after a high-speed chase. They then tried to cover up their crime by claiming he had hit a pole with his motorcycle.
But an alert journalist discovered that there was no pole in the area indicated. (We can conclude that these were not Florida’s brightest, let alone finest!) The motorcyclist was actually an insurance agent, and his only crime, besides fleeing, was popping a wheelie in front of a policeman.
In one of his columns, Chesterton wrote that “the most brutal civilizations are the least efficient. . .the most merciful. . .is on the whole the most strong.” For the mind that can empathize with the sufferings of others also has enough imagination to come up with new laborsaving innovations, treatments for disease, etc. But we need to recall how quickly a creative civilization like Germany, when intoxicated with power, could turn into one that only seemed able to destroy.
In On Being Human, Sheen comments that “the child who is allowed to do anything he pleases will eventually identify good with whatever he wants to do.” We could say the same about adults—or even countries--in a position of dominance. We all know the old saying about how power corrupts. And we recall Jesus’ comment that “It is almost impossible for a rich man to get into the Kingdom of Heaven.” (Matthew 19:23 LB)
That is why, as Charles Colson states in Kingdoms in Conflict, “Collaboration with power is always ruinous for the church.” Yet the American church, in recent days, has been striving for more and more political clout.
We need to recall, as Tournier wrote, “one is never powerful except at the expense of someone else.” For example, many of the cheap luxuries we all take for granted in this country are only ours because workers in other nations are laboring under abysmal conditions. And we also need to realize that, compared to the rest of the world, most of us Americans fall under the classification of “the rich”—that group who will have great difficulty getting into heaven.
Almost all of us have also reacted more strongly than we like to recall--verbally if not physically--when we felt our control threatened. As Rebecca Manley Pippert observes in Out of the Saltshaker, Jesus “says its murder when we destroy people with our words. . .when we put people down. . .”
Perhaps we’re not as different from that abusive husband as we thought. In Mere Christianity, Lewis suggests that we redirect our aggression towards “the feeling that wants to get one’s own back. . .Every time it bobs its head up, we must hit it on the head.”
There is hope for all of us abusers of power, if we are willing to relinquish that power to God. The apostle Paul was, before his conversion, extremely violent, “like a wild man, going everywhere to devastate believers, even entering private homes and dragging out men and women alike and jailing them.” (Acts 8:3 LB) But along the road Paul met Christ: the God/man who, instead of wielding His power, chose to sacrifice himself for his fellowmen.
In the years since, hundreds of tyrants have come and gone—often overthrown by others even worse than themselves. But the Man who spread His arms on that cross retains an army more massive than those dictators could dream about. And He holds his followers, not by coercion, but by love. Now that’s real power!