Christianity and Violence

The United States faces a unique problem: unparalleled violence among developed nations. While American Christians widely repudiate violence, the slaughter of innocents, and the abuse of power, many also assert the inviolability of individual rights involving potentially violent acts—especially regarding restrictions on assault weapons. No small part of the varied Christian responses to violence stems from cultural location. Traditions (even, or perhaps especially, political ones) shape Christian self-understanding.

This raises a fundamental question: How can Christians initiate change in the American culture of violence when so many Christians are unable to agree on the nature of the problem?

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Consider Jacques Ellul’s provocative assessment of American history in Violence: Reflections from a Christian Perspective (New York, 1969):

“Americans have it that the Civil War was an accidental interruption of what was practically an idyllic state of affairs; actually, that war simply tore the veil off reality for a moment . . . Tocqueville saw the facts clearly. He indicated all the factors showing that the United States was in a situation of violence which, he predicted, would worsen. As a matter of fact, a tradition of violence is discernible throughout United States history—perhaps because it is a young nation, perhaps because it plunged into the industrial age without preparation. (This tradition, incidentally, explains the popularity of violence in the movies.) And it seems that the harsher and more violent the reality was, the more forcefully were moralism and idealism affirmed” (88–89).

Ellul traces the American culture of violence not to slavery or the civil war, but “the slow, sanctimonious extermination” of Native Americans, the competitive methods of capitalism, and the annexation of land in Texas and California. “All this,” he explains, “and much besides show that the United States has always been ridden by violence, though the truth was covered over by a legalistic ideology and a moralistic Christianity” (88).

Violence permeates the fabric of American culture. The problem, however, as recent events have shown, is not a matter of international war or the abuse of governmental authority alone. Many Christians, far from denouncing the culture of violence, willingly embrace the principle of “an eye for an eye” as the solution to the problem. Instead of repudiating the culture of violence, we often assert an illusory notion of individualism and justice based on the primacy of the self.

I am not suggesting that there is no place for national defense, local government, or individual participation in the political sphere. American sports involve violence, too, and I remain uncertain how to assess that aspect of the larger problem. The task, in short, is immense.

Let’s be clear: Violence may sometimes be deemed necessary, but it is certainly not a Christian value. Violence stands outside of the freedom found in Jesus Christ—the one who bore the violence of the world for our redemption. Violence is marked by fear, doubt, and unbelief. Violence reminds us of the brokenness of our world. Violence demands repentance.

Christians must challenge the churches to reexamine pervasive cultural assumptions. The causes of violence in American society are undoubtedly complex, and it is tempting to assert that there is no viable solution to the problem. Christians will continue to disagree on the best political methods to curb violence in our nation, but the ability to see the face of violence in our nation requires courage acquired “through faith and hope in Jesus Christ” (Ellul, 91).

American Christians must find the courage to reject the instinctual appeal to violence. Violence belongs to the Fall, to the curse of sin, and to a world separated from God. While perfect peace belongs to the eschaton, Christians who follow in the path of Christ must discover—through fellowship and proclamation—the promised hope found in Christ.

The culture of violence in America will not change in a moment, a decade, or even, perhaps, in a lifetime. Christians are called to lead their communities in acts of reconciliation, even at the expense of self-interest and the risk of individual well-being. Those who profess to follow the way of Jesus Christ ought to renounce the temptation to take up any other means to solve those ills that face us, and determine instead to know only love in word and deed until “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (Isa. 2:4).

Faith, Hope, and Les Misérables

Les MisWhile visiting Toronto on Christmas vacation (no, not that kind), I had the opportunity to see Les Misérables (2012). The film was great. I saw the production on Broadway nearly two decades ago and loved it. Many years back, I even bought the book (admittedly, I never finished the weighty tome, but I frequently see it on the shelf beckoning for my complete attention). I’ve watched the BBC production of the 10th Anniversary Concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall on PBS numerous times—so many times, in fact, that my wife purchased the two-disc collector’s edition and gave it to me as a gift last year. Listening to my children sing songs from the film on our nine-hour drive back to Chicago was priceless.

The story, music, drama . . . there’s no denying it: I love Les Misérables.

But a recent report indicating that part of the recent success of the film was target marketing to religious groups—especially Protestant evangelicals in the U.S.—has me scratching my head. When overt religious themes emerge in films and books, corporate marketers publicly court faith communities. In the process, they risk impoverishing the broader public conversation by bifurcating the audience, polarizing discourse, and dismissing the needs of society as a whole.

Had I been duped? Did a marketing campaign lead me, unwittingly, to seek the film out on my winter break? I don’t recall ever attending a special viewing. My (evangelical) college never ran advertising for the film in the student paper. My church never held special discussion groups either (though, to be fair, my church is a United Methodist congregation and not identifiably evangelical). Perhaps the film, with admittedly sub-par renditions of some songs, only appeals to me because of my religious background.

The film’s pronounced themes of love, forgiveness, and redemption certainly appeal to me as a Christian. And, as with so many other great works in the history of literature, Les Misérables draws deep from the wellsprings of the Old and New Testaments—a fact we too quickly overlook in an age of alarming biblical illiteracy (alarming, at least, for all those who wish to understand the history of Western politics, philosophy, science, and literature).

The day after I watched the film, I happened to sit down and read the Bible with my family (certainly not something we do every day, but it’s not unheard of either). We were reading from Hebrews 11 on the meaning and history of faith (“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”). In time, we began discussing the film—the yearning for freedom and hope, and the complex vision of heavenly redemption in the final scene of the movie.

Let’s be clear: the fact that my family was engaged in devotional Bible-reading places us squarely in the evangelical orbit. There’s no denying it. Family Bible reading is a tradition going back hundreds of years. Theater-going . . . not so much (but that’s for another day). Surely I don’t love Les Misérables just because I am a Christian though, right?

No, I suspect a better explanation exists. Les Misérables addresses fundamental aspects of human existence—just as the Bible does. Great artistic works resonate with the human heart because of a deep (religious) longing within all humans. Les Misérables encourages—demands, even—reflection on the human person, freedom, poverty, justice, and redemption. We ought not be surprised when great writers capture a reader’s imagination with ideas of universal concern.

Perhaps the real question, after all, is not why Hollywood markets films such as Les Misérables to Protestants, Catholics, or any other religious body. If ideas such as love, freedom, justice, and peace—the themes that Les Misérables and other artistic masterpieces portray—are universal concerns, then the real question is why religion is so often marginalized, pidgeon-holed, and portrayed as the exclusive concern of a few.

Dialogue about themes of ultimate concern are essential to the public good. Religion provides answers to the existential questions raised in the human heart. Great works of art—not only Les Misérables, but even so sacred a text as the Bible—enrich the conversation, challenge unreflected social norms, and offer symbols of faith, hope, and love.

Don’t Throw Away Your Hymnals!

Epiphany is this coming Sunday, so Christmas isn’t over yet.

Gustave Dore - The NativityIn the days leading up to Christmas, I saw quite a few friends posting a link to Peter Leithart’s fascinating blog: “How N. T. Wright Stole Christmas.” Leithart is an excellent scholar—I frequently find myself turning to his works on early Christianity—but something seemed missing in his interpretation of Christmas hymns. How could Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, and John Keble be so misguided?

I wrote up a response, which appeared on First Things as “Don’t Let N. T. Wright Steal Christmas.”

If you missed my blog over the winter break or didn’t have time to respond, I hope you’ll take a moment to read it and share your thoughts.

Merry Christmas!