In the wake of recent controversy in response to Chicago's firearm laws, Father Barron comments on violence and its spiritual repercussions.
This has been a particularly terrible year for gun violence in Chicago. We wring our hands over the killings in the Holy Land, Iraq, and Afghanistan, but things are practically as bad in our own streets. Attention has been drawn to this problem recently because of the Supreme Court’s striking down of Chicago’s gun ban and the City Council’s rapid re-institution of another version of the same law.
I won’t enter into the details of the political discussion (I’m not really qualified to do so), but I would like to explore a religious dimension of the problem. I wonder how many have remarked that, with only a few exceptions, the murders that have taken place in our school yards and on our streets have been instances of Christians killing other Christians? In this regard, our home-grown mayhem is like the violence of the two great world wars of the last century, in which French, English, American, and Canadian Christians killed German, Austrian, Italian, and Russian Christians. How ironic and terrible all this was (and is), given that the figure who stands at the heart of the Christian faith advocated the path of non-violence with great seriousness and told his followers that they should be known, above all, by the love they have one another. Stanley Hauerwas, whom Time Magazine named in 2001 as the “best theologian in America,” once uttered this cri de coeu
r: “a modest proposal for peace, Christians should stop killing other Christians.”
To be sure, the stubborn and tragic violence on our streets is the product of many causes: a breakdown in family structures, a compromising of relationships within the community, economic collapse, political fecklessness, etc. But I would suggest that it is also a failure of the Christian churches effectively to teach, to their own people, the way of non-violence. The non-violence that Jesus preached in the Sermon on the Mount is a canny and spiritually informed strategy for dealing with the problem of unjust aggression. There are two classical responses to violence: fight or flight. Faced with a threat, we typically either fight back or run away—and sometimes this is all we reasonably can do. However, we also know that neither of these strategies is particularly efficacious in the long run. Fighting fire with fire usually just exacerbates the problem (as Gandhi said, “an eye for an eye, making the whole world blind”); and acquiescing to violence confirms the perpetrator’s injustice.
What Jesus proposed was a third way: “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn and give him the other.” No one in Jesus’ time would have used the unclean left hand for any kind of social interaction. Therefore, to strike someone on the right cheek was to hit him with the back of the hand, and this was a gesture of contempt, reserved for slaves and social inferiors. Faced with this kind of aggression, Jesus says, one should neither fight back nor flee; rather one should stand one’s ground and turn the other cheek. He thereby signals to the aggressor that he refuses to live in that person’s spiritual and psychological space. And he mirrors back the aggressor’s aggression, shaming him into self-awareness and prompting conversion.
Naïve? Impractical? Tell that to Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and John Paul II, all of whom effected massive social changes through creative employment of Jesus’ teaching. The Christian Churches need to recover their confidence in this method and to teach it, at the very least to their own congregants.
Father Robert Barron is the Director of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.