by Jeanine Elliott, Bethel Congregational UCC, Beaverton, OR
Here’s an old saying that deserves a second look: “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (Matthew 5: 38-39). Is that going to get us anywhere? Here’s what I propose: Don’t hit back at all. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. (Eugene Peterson, The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language)
Despite the massive media coverage of all events violent and brutal, we live in a far safer world than our ancestors experienced. In his recent book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Steven Pinker documents in 500 pages the decline in violence over human history. “I have to convince you that violence has really gone down…. knowing that the very idea invites skepticism, incredulity, and sometimes anger.” Despite Pinker’s evidence of the decline of violence, many people in this country have become so fearful that they believe that they must take protection and justice into their own hands. Policies, laws, and business practices have moved to reinforce these self-justice and self-protection actions. Do those policies, laws, and business practices escalate moments of violence or reduce them? Strong differences on this question divide us.
The recent shooting death of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of George Zimmerman have brought many of these issues to the fore.
Clearly, there are racial issues. Why should an unarmed 17-year-old walking in a gated community on his way to his father’s home end up dead? What made Mr. Zimmerman assume this boy was a stranger to the community and therefore a threat? What policies supporting street safety for residents and guests were in place in this gated community? There was no crime; there was no threat, but a boy was shot dead. Where does the responsibility lie? And what will we do to ensure that other children do not die in similar circumstances?
There are gender issues. This was a male-on-male act. Most violence, whether in war, through criminal activities, or interpersonal confrontation, is male-on-male. Establishing dominance, saving face, maintaining honor, taking justice into their own hands–all are still largely male patterns of behavior that increase the potential for violence rather than reduce it. Our modern world may no longer demand these behavior patterns, but they continue to be honored.
There are policy issues. Whose interests do the “stand-your-ground” laws serve? Whose interests does the arming of civilians serve? What are the rights and protections unarmed persons can expect in normal public settings? And are these same rights and protections available to all citizens, specifically, African Americans and Latinos? According to Pinker, it is the social forces that bring us together to address problems that have successfully reduced violence. Pinker suggests we “reframe violence as a problem to be solved rather than a contest to be won.”
Peaceable though we may want to be, we still have work to do.