We live in a violent world. Always have. And if I were a betting man, I’d say we always will. If humans excel — truly excel — at anything, it is coming up with new, exciting ways to kill each other. This will always be the case, as long as we exist in a broken, sinful world.
At the May 22 Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England, a terrorist attack killed 23 people and injured 116. Days later, on a cross-town train in my town of Portland, Oregon, a white supremacist knifed three protectors trying to stop his hate speech toward two minority women. The women escaped, but two of their protectors died.
Acts like these obliterate the idea that this world can somehow overcome violence and achieve peace. We can preach platitudes, but does anyone really think Katy Perry can change the heart of ISIS by begging them to “coexist”? We can pass laws, but does anyone truly believe determined terrorists can’t circumvent them? And if we ask our governments to respond, virtually their only tools are sanctions (not always effective) or brute force (more violence).
Bottom line: We should do our best to avert violence, but people will still kill one another. I realize this is not an ideal reality, but it is one with which we are stuck.
Perhaps as a result of the information age, in which acts of violence from around the world are streamed daily onto our TVs and computers, we have lost our ability to process and to grieve.
On social media, images of terrorism mix with funny memes, vacation pictures, and kitten videos. If the latest horror doesn’t involve us, we scroll past. Only when it touches our personal values do we get angry and demand justice, and then usually only through hashtag activism which costs us nothing. We act as if some deaths matter, while others do not. We pick and choose which violence offends us.
Humanity has always been violent; that doesn’t change. So what must change is how we respond. Here’s what I mean.
We must re-humanize oppositional voices. Our nature is to de-humanize those whose perspective or experience varies from ours. We use labels like “those people” or “people like that”—often with a subtle lip-curl or eye-roll. Usually this shift is subconscious—we don’t even know we are doing it. But slowly, gradually, we begin to see “them ” as subhuman. We are the humane, enlightened ones; they are not just wrong or different, but actually evil. After this switch, we can justify violence as tolerable — even righteous — because we now believe “they” are the real problem. So attacking “them,” we rationalize, serves the greater good.
We must stop politicizing violence. Tragedy has become so politicized that after each new horror, instead of uniting in healing and grief, we split apart in hatred and blame, reducing the victims to mere pawns in the political debate. As stated in the “Rohm Rule” by Rohm Emanuel, current Chicago mayor and former White House chief of staff: “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.”
Immediately after the Manchester concert bombing, some on the political right cheered the attack as poetic justice because Grande once said she hated America. Others used the tragedy to demand a clamp-down against immigrants and refugees coming in to the West. Never mind that the bomber was a British-born citizen.
On the other hand, after the Portland slayings, some on the political left immediately blamed Trumpism. Even former presidential candidate Jill Stein tweeted: “Another heartbreaking tragedy in Trump’s America, as a white nationalist shouting anti-Islam slurs murders 2 on Portland, OR subway.” Never mind that the killer opposed Trump and supported both Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein.
When we use tragedy to advance our own agenda, we trivialize it—and its victims. We become disconnected from the fact that this is not about left or right, but about the fact that something terrible has happened.
People lost their lives. This matters more than swiftly (and usually erroneously, as above) blaming one’s political opponents.
We must remember that we all have violence within. I own a gun, for hobby shooting and self-protection. However, I am not “pro-violence,” and the odds are very slim that I’ll ever have occasion to use it for the latter purpose. Owning a gun does not make me a killer, any more than owning a cutlery set makes you a slasher.
Yet this doesn’t mean there’s no violence in my heart.
In the Old Testament, God says simply, “Thou shalt not kill.”
But in the New Testament, Jesus expands: “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment” (Matthew 5:21-22, NIV). And the writings of John confirm: “Anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer” (1 John 3:15, NIV).
Show of hands: How many of us have never murdered someone? Most of us can raise our hands because we’ve never broken that Old Testament commandment.
Show of hands again: How many of us have never felt anger or hatred in our hearts toward someone? Ah…who’s raising a hand now? If you are, you’re lying.
This would be much easier if we stopped with just the Old Testament. But the New Testament says we’re all killers in our hearts.
When we flame someone on the internet, we are killers. When we rage against Team Trump, Team Obama, or Team Hillary – we are murderers. When my anger flares up toward Antifa rioters starting fires, throwing rocks, or stifling free speech, I am committing homicide in my heart.
This sobering realization proves that I am no better than Salman Abedi (the Manchester bomber) or Jeremy Christian (the Portland slasher).
With this realization comes gratitude that, even so, Jesus still saved my sinful heart.
And with this saved heart, I can once again feel grief for the victims of violence, no matter who they are or why it happened.
Violence will plague us until Jesus comes. But when it does, we believers must respond as he did. We must stop rushing to political agendas and personal vendettas, and instead respond with genuine sorrow, empathy, and compassion.