Charleston and Our Culture of Violence

canstockphoto8784319Once again we are reeling in the aftermath of another mass killing, this one clearly and explicitly racially motivated. As usual, we also have to listen to the same rhetoric from both sides of the gun issue, then watch while nothing gets done before the country gets distracted by the next big thing in the news cycle.

And brace ourselves for it to happen again, as we all know that it will.

I’m not going to insert myself into the gun debate. I don’t find that people are able to talk rationally about it. Like so much of our public discourse, there’s a lot of sound and fury with very little listening going on, and the goal of it all is not a deeper understanding of one another but simply to win, to beat the other guy.

I’ve no interest in such things.

Except that this desire to beat the other person is symptomatic of the greater problem that besets us, just like guns are symptomatic.

They are symptoms to an addiction that our culture—and, indeed, most cultures around the world—has had from the beginning.

We believe in violence. We believe it is a necessary evil. Some aren’t sure that it is always evil, just necessary. We believe that some violence is necessary, and when it prevents or stops evil, it is good.

Good violence.

The answer to bad violence is good violence.

The answer to a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.

As if people are so easy to separate into bad guys and good guys.

As if the line between good and evil doesn’t run through each of us.

As if the Bible doesn’t speak to this.

As if Jesus doesn’t.

Because it does. And he does.

The Bible addresses this at the very Beginning, although it’s missed by so many people who think Genesis 1 is about the process God used to create the world. They get lost in endless debates about creationism, evolution, intelligent design, day/age theory, and the age of the earth.

If you have no idea what that last sentence means, count yourself among the blessed.

Genesis 1 is not about that stuff. Every culture has what are called origin stories, ancient tales that don’t attempt to describe the way things were as much as they explain the way things are.

The origins stories of most of the cultures of the day, including the Babylonians, asserted that the world is fundamentally a violent place. The way the Babylonian origin story tells it, the world was created as the result of a battle between gods, when Marduk slew Tiamat and split her carcass in two.

With half he created the heavens, and with half he created the earth.

The Babylonians weren’t asserting that this is how the heavens and earth actually came into being, they were asserting that this is the fundamental nature of the world that everyone knew was somehow created.

It is a world created out of violence and is therefore in itself violent.

It does not make any assertion that violence is either good or evil. It’s good for the victors, and evil for the victims.

Genesis 1, on the other hand, asserts that violence had nothing to do with the creation of the earth. It was a very peaceful, quiet, orderly process.

God spoke, and light appeared.

He gathered, he separated, he fashioned, he formed, he made, he placed.

Calming the chaos.

All very peaceful. Not a hint of violence anywhere. No killing.

Not even for food. There is no meat-eating in Genesis 1. Nothing has to die in order for something else to live.

That is a theological statement.

Violence comes later, but it comes as an intrusion, not as an intrinsic part of creation.

Violence in Genesis is a violation of creation. A distortion. Always. It’s never good.

To prove that point, when the earth was filled with violence, God decided he needed to scrap it all and start all over again. So he used violence—good violence, I guess you could say, for if God does it it must be good—to solve the problem of evil violence.

The earth was filled with evil violence so God filled it—quite literally—with good violence.

The answer to a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.

Except it didn’t work. “The heart of the human is filled with evil.” That statement bookends the flood narrative. All the good violence in the world didn’t solve the problem of all the evil violence in the world.

“I’ll never do that again,” God said, and put a rainbow in the sky as a sign to us.

There is no such thing as good violence. It’s always an intrusion, always a violation of creation. Even when it stops the evil in front of you, it only perpetuates the problem.

Because when you play by the other guy’s rules, you’ve already lost.

That’s the origins story of Genesis.

That is the one Jesus believed.

When confronted by the twin evils of the Roman empire and the corrupt temple cult, Jesus refused to pick up a sword.

Even while everyone around him, including his own disciples, was telling him differently.

“C’mon, Jesus. The answer to a bad guy with a sword is a good guy with a sword.”

Jesus refused to pick up a sword.

He picked up a cross instead.

As if to say that the answer to a bad guy with a sword is a good guy with a cross.

So there it is.

You can pick up a sword, or you can pick up a cross.

You can believe the origins story in Genesis, or you can believe the Babylonian origins story. (Or the Greek, Roman, Mesopotamian, European, American origin stories. They are all variations on the same story.)

But you can’t claim to believe one, and live according to the other.

You can’t pick up a sword and a cross.

A cross takes both hands to carry.

I don’t know everything about the nine African-American victims in Charleston, but they seemed to at least be trying to live according to the origins story that Jesus believed in and died for.

I also don’t know much about Dylann Roof, but he obviously believes in the other origins story. The one about violence solving things.

One thing I do know: he wasn’t born believing it. It was taught and modeled for him, and not just by the white supremacist website he followed.

There are far too many in this world who believe it.

Far too many Christians who believe it.

I believed it; truth be told, there is far too much in me that still does.

Threaten me, threaten my family, threaten the weak and the innocent with a gun, and I’m far more likely to pick up a gun than a cross.

It just makes more sense.

With a gun I might be able to stop a bad guy with a gun. Armed with only a cross, it’s pretty much assured that I’m dead. So I get it.

To pick up a cross in such a violent world is foolishness.

So it comes down to which story we are going to believe.

The one that says that this has always been a violent world and always will be, so the only thing that can be done is for the good guys to be more violent than the bad guys.

When we believe that story—as we do—we guarantee that there will always be more Dylann Roofs.

Or we can believe Jesus.

Not just believe in Jesus, but believe him, trust him when he tells us to put down our swords, pick up our crosses, and follow him.

One way leads to death.

The other way—the foolish way, the way of the cross—leads to life.

Resurrection life.

Life in God’s kingdom.

Photo by © Can Stock Photo Inc. / ERburenu

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