Living faithfully in a world of violence
In the face of horrific violence the world over, how do we rise above thoughts of revenge and despair?
The news lately seems unrelentingly grim, a constant litany of outrageous violence committed by those bent upon instilling fear: ISIS (the self-proclaimed Islamic State) and its gruesome executions; Boko Haram and its kidnapping and sexual trafficking of innocent children; the murders in Paris at the offices of a satirical newspaper and a Jewish deli. These are familiar examples from a livestream of horror. Considering the daily violence in our own nation, it is not surprising that many are tempted to indulge thoughts of despair, revenge, or helplessness. How can we live faithfully amid such violence and evil? How did Jesus deal with evil in his own lifetime?
First, Jesus teaches that we must call evil by its right names. Often we talk about combating “Islamic extremists.” This labeling is counterproductive, suggesting that our struggle is a kind of holy war against a particular faith. It also ignores the fact that many acts of violent terror have also been perpetrated in our own country by Christians. Every religious faith can be, and has been, perverted and twisted to justify evil acts of horror.
Our struggle is more accurately against “violent extremism.” The ideologically justified destruction of lives and property for the sake of fear—regardless of who does it or their so-called religious justification—is what deserves condemnation.
A second lesson: We cannot capitulate to fear by stooping to the level of our adversaries. The gospels tell us Jesus knew the opposition he faced and the violence plotted against him. Yet he refused to allow his actions to be dictated by those threats. His faith in God gave him the security he needed not to be immobilized by the evil around him.
This leads me to ask: In what do we find security in these troubled times? Can security really be gained through an overreliance on military strategies? Are the Jordanians more secure after executing two ISIS prisoners and conducting bombing raids to retaliate for the killing of one of their soldiers?
Have U.S. drone strikes made us feel more secure?
Jesus’ example challenges us to face the limits of violence in securing a more just society. Martin Luther King Jr. expressed this truth with eloquence when he declared, “Through violence you may murder a murderer, but you can’t murder murder. . . . Through violence you may murder a hater, but you can’t murder hate.” Jesus and King tell us that true security cannot be achieved only, or even primarily, through violent responses to evil.
This leads to a third lesson: Living faithfully in a violent world takes us on a path of compassion and understanding. This is profoundly counterintuitive. We viscerally recoil at trying to comprehend anyone who would callously take the lives of others.
But understanding someone’s motives does not mean that one condones or approves of his or her actions. We must protest against the brutal cruelty in our world. But then what?
Religious witnesses show us that the way to lasting peace lies in understanding. We see this in the truth and reconciliation commissions established in South Africa and Rwanda, where peace emerged after acts of horror thanks to sustained attempts to understand why it happened. We also see this in Jesus’ prayer for his executioners: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Understanding is essential for new beginnings.
Consider a truth that has been proclaimed by every pope since Leo XIII in 1891: Severe social inequality cannot but give rise to resentment, rage, and violence. Pope Francis states this directly: “Until exclusion and inequality in society and between peoples are reversed, it will be impossible to eliminate violence.” We must overcome the hidden causes that fuel the violence in our midst.
There is no easy way to live in a violent world. The good news is that our faith offers hard-won wisdom and inspiring witnesses to guide us in the quest for peace and justice.
This column appeared in the May 2015 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 80, No. 5, page 8).