When I was younger I always thought that violence was, well, stupid. Of course, I wasn’t then thinking about the big moral questions as they relate to violence; I was mostly thinking about fights at school, at the mall, or outside of clubs downtown.
As I have gotten older, I have thought much more seriously about issues of violence, in part because violence is so fundamental to the worlds in which I live (as exhibited by the consumer violence that much of the Church engages in, and the street violence that many of my friends continue to engage in) and also in part because what Jesus and the New Testament say about violence seems very clear.
My opinion that “violence is stupid” has matured into the view that, as a Christian, it is never right to inflict violence upon another person. I have since had the opportunity to see that commitment to nonviolence work out is some truly incredible ways in what could otherwise have been some very devastating encounters (I think especially of a few encounters I, and my co-workers, had with gang members in Toronto).
However, as I have become increasingly accustomed to the constant presence of violence in my neighbourhood and at my work (although not so much at my work these days), I have been coming to realize how much fear played a role in my previous expressions of nonviolence.
That is to say, as I have now arrived at a place where I am not really afraid of experiencing violence myself, I have also found it that much more difficult to not react violently in certain situations. A few encounters I have had recently have driven this point home. I’ll share one.
The other night I was walking to the corner store and I was waiting at a street corner next to a few street-involved men — i.e. men that looked a little rough around the edges. It was the weekend when all the college kids were out celebrating Halloween and a bus full of drunk university students drove by (rather slowly, due to traffic). A few kids leaned out of one of the windows, sprayed something at us from a can and yelled, “Go back to East Hastings, you fucking bums!” (East Hastings, by the way, is the ghetto in which I live.) They then threw a can at us which happened to hit me in the chest and then fell to the ground at my feet. Anyway, before I really even realized what I was doing I bent down and picked up the can and threw it, as hard as I could, back at the bus. Now, usually my throwing accuracy is awful. Usually I couldn’t hit the side of a barn from twenty feet away. So without really aiming, I threw the can as hard as I could. Lo and behold, the can actually went in a window that was open about a foot wide and it hit one of the mouthy college kids smack in the middle of his forehead. At this point, I also realized that the bus had stopped because all the kids were getting out to go to a club that was just up the street. For a second I thought I was going to get mobbed by about 50 drunken college kids but they just looked at me and the street-involved men (who were laughing their asses off, while offering me congratulations) and then turned away.
Later on, as I thought about that encounter, I was pretty ashamed of how I had responded. I was worried, too. I had acted out of anger, I had acted violently, and it had come spontaneously — it had felt natural. It was at this point that I realized just how much of my prior commitment to nonviolence had been motivated by fear. I have come to realize that it is far more difficult to embrace nonviolence when I am not afraid of experiencing violence myself. Before I would ignore situations like the one I just related, or I would de-escalate them — and I would have, at least in part, been motivated to do so because I was afraid. Now, without the fear, it takes a conscious (and actually difficult) effort to not escalate a situation.
I wonder how often the moral qualities upon which we pride ourselves are like this? I prided myself upon my nonviolence, and then I lost my fear, and I’ve realized I’m far more violent that I ever imagined. As I look back on other issues, I’ve noticed the same pattern. I used to pride myself on my “sexual purity,” and then, somewhere around the start of college, I lost my fear of women and, yowza, was it ever a battle to get to a place where I was, once again, living in a sexually pure manner.
Pride is quite the insidious force. It can fool us into thinking that our weaknesses are our strengths. Thank God, that we follow a Lord who offers us strength in weakness. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.