A Theology of Violence

We know the news is bleak, but it came closer to home this past week with the terror in Boston. It was just one week ago when two bombs detonated amidst bystanders at the Boston Marathon, killing three and wounding 170. Here in the U.S. we’ve come a little closer to identifying with what folks in Israel, Syria and in many other places around the globe experience every day: not knowing when the next bomb will interrupt life as we know it, when it will take the life of someone we love.

How are Christians to respond? How am I to respond?

I am thankful for theologians who are speaking to us now, guiding the Church towards a productive, redemptive response. In the last decade, many of our universities have all but eliminated the Theology Department, folding its professors and courses into larger departments like Religion or Philosophy. Many churches have eschewed theology as too complicated and cerebral for the average “seeker.” By observation, it seems theologians have lost sway both in our culture and in the Church. Many Christians don’t consider theology as having anything practical to say about their lives or vocations. But as violence continues to knock on the doors of our own lives, as it gets closer to home, does the unthinkable – like taking the lives of children, we desperately need theology. We need a theology that will frame and guide how it is we respond to evil and violence. We need theologians to speak, to warn against responding in a way that damages the path to peace and healing.

I have long since given up on Washington to respond with meaning. I want to hear from our theologians, from the men and women who have dedicated their life’s profession to thinking constructively about the church’s role in a broken and violent world.

I am grateful that my brother Craig, a Dietrich Bonhoeffer scholar who has in recent years studied extensively about violence, has been doing just that. He’s been posting thoughts on Facebook in response to the violence in Boston. And I think he and others like him have a role to play in the Church. They can guide us toward actions that will ultimately honor Christ and honor His call to his Church to be ministers of reconciliation in a world that desperately needs it. They can offer words of caution against ideas that ultimately perpetuate rather than quell the violence.

And I’m just going to re-post here something Craig posted originally on his Facebook wall in response to the Boston Marathon bombings:

Crowds cheer as bombing villain #2 is apprehended, wounded, after another gunfight with police, while the suspect’s aunt insists he is an “angel.” Who is to be believed?

Some years ago now, the German-born political theorist Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) offered us the phrase “banality of evil” in an attempt to show that evil acts are not committed by ghoulish beings who stand out clearly from the rest of us, but are people just like us. Arendt was trying to understand the case of Adolf Eichmann. Eichmann, a Lutheran, did not appear to harbor any particular hatred toward Jews or give outward appearances that he might be capable of terrible crimes. Yet he was responsible for the mass deportation of Jews to the extermination camps. Arendt asks whether those persons we call “evil” are truly heinous, unlike the rest of us “good” people, or whether they might be just as ordinary as the rest of us.

From all appearances we find it nearly impossible to consider seriously Arendt’s question. Faced with atrocities committed by others, we quickly and instinctively position ourselves on the side of the good. It was the “good people” of Boston (including the police force) who banded together (“Boston strong”) to eradicate these ‘poison brothers’ from our social system. Naturally, we construct our systems of goodness such that we are on the side of the good. Evil resides in someone “else.” Thus we perpetuate the myth that evil is extraordinary, exceptional, external, and alien to ourselves. Why do we do this? Because it yields results! This approach achieves a palpable catharsis, for upon the elimination of the poison we shore up our own goodness and enjoy the return to a stable social order with a renewed sense of community and stronger bonds between us. What could be more natural and good than a heightened sense of our social unity and belonging?

But is this the right path toward a serious conversation about violence in our nation? We must, I think, be willing to discover the propensity for evil in ourselves, get sober about it, and adamantly refuse to project it outwards onto others. To be sure, projecting our own proclivities to evil onto others constitutes a massive psychological relief, but it carries us further away from a real solution to the problem of violence, which is ultimately a matter of the human heart. Each time I fortify my own sense of goodness at the expense of someone else, I step deeper into the illusion of my own goodness, ignoring the fact that I, too, participate somehow in the mystery of evil. If we are not to achieve our identity over and against others, where do we get it, you ask? That is among the most important questions a human being could entertain. For my part, I wish to find it on a plane higher than any humanly constructed system of goodness. I cannot enjoy a heightened sense of social unity when I know that an act of violence lies behind it. I need more. I need an astonishing act of love to create that unity.

Craig J. Slane, PhD
Frances P. Owen Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology
Simpson University

I will continue to wrestle with the question of evil and violence in our world. I will continue to search for an answer to the question, “How are we to respond?” And in that search, I am grateful for my brother’s words of caution against seeing myself as “good” over and against the perpetrators of evil. I am thankful to be guided towards the cross, towards that “astonishing act of love,” towards Him who bore our violence in his body. I am thankful for the reminder to imitate Christ whose response to violence was to forgive and to establish His church to be ministers of that same forgiveness that “the world through Him might be reconciled.”