The power of ‘we’ in the face of violence


I had a conversation recently with a number of folks about the role of violence in our culture. Often, the first images that come to mind when the word “violence” is uttered are movies, video games and images we see on the evening news. But there are a number of contexts within which violence can be considered, and in many cases, the acceptability of violence depends on the situation.

Most of us can agree that violence exacted by gangs, or through acts of genocide, are reprehensible, period. But then there’s the matter of government-sanctioned violence, such as the upholding of the death penalty, or the sanctioning of war. Regardless of your feelings about the righteousness of these and other violent acts, they are just that.

In many cases, the justification of violence has to do with responding to some other perceived wrongdoing, generally violent in nature as well. In the case of the death penalty, there is some irony that our societal response to someone committing violence on others is to do the same to them. But there is a perceived moral righteousness when it’s argued that government-commissioned acts of violence lead to a result that is worth the cost: even a human life.

Unfortunately, in the case of war, the price is much higher than a single life. In Iraq, more than 3,000 Americans have died, along with more than 10 times that number of Iraqis. Families across the world are irreversibly damaged, and even among those who survive, the physical and psychological scars of war will live with them forever.

How do we ever justify such behavior against God’s creation? In some way, the benefits must be argued to outweigh the costs, or else it’s just complete madness. And like most things in life, we can find support in scripture for war, capital punishment and other acts of atrocity. I believe, however, that Jesus pushes us toward something else.

CNN recently published a story about Iphigenia Mukantabana, a Tutsi master weaver living in Rwanda, whose entire family was slaughtered by Hutu rebels. “Women and girls were raped and I saw it all,” she said in the article. “The men and boys were beaten and then slaughtered. They told others to dig a hole, get in, then they piled earth on top of them, while they were still alive.”

If anyone would have justification for a call for justice, it’s this woman. In addition to her own family members, nearly a million of her fellow Tutsis have been exterminated. Because the court systems have become too overwhelmed to process all of the criminals, tribal councils have been allowed to handle so-called “lower level” killers.

Before these councils, perpetrators are given the opportunity to make a public confession and to ask for forgiveness. The council determines what punishment is necessary, but the goal of the tribal leaders is to affect community healing as much as possible. There’s less of an emphasis on individuals getting what they deserve, and more of a focus on the overall wholeness and well-being of the group.

It seems that this collective consciousness has led to what some might consider more merciful solutions to these matters. In the case of Mukantabana, she has found the love and support from the council and her community necessary to offer forgiveness to her family’s killer. Today, in fact, they dine together and have a bond of friendship that many of us would struggle to understand.

Also important is the role that Mukantabana’s faith as a Christian plays in her decision to show mercy and forgiveness. “I pray a lot,” she says, noting also the importance that the entire community bore witness both to her suffering, and to the contrition offered by the killer.

In grieving together, the entire community shares her pain. In turn, they also share in the healing process. Nothing is too big, too violent or too unjust that it cannot be responded to with faithful, compassionate unity.

Christ died while embracing such peace in the face of violence. It seems to me that, instead of worrying so much about what was right and just, he saw his own unfailing vulnerability and love as the ultimate Christian act. So if we are indeed transformed by our Christian faith, how does this challenge our notion of violence when faced with it firsthand?