Pride is the root of violence - and both have been with humanity from the beginning
Christopher Dorner’s reign of terror came to a fiery end last evening in Big Bear, Calif., east of Los Angeles. For two weeks, Dorner, a 33 year-old former Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officer, had conducted a private war against his erstwhile colleagues, killing four people and attracting national attention. Two of Dorner’s victims were Monica Quan, 28, the daughter of the officer who had represented him at his LAPD termination hearing, and her fiancé, Keith Lawrence. Reportedly, Dorner later telephoned Quan’s father to taunt him about the murder. Two police officers were also shot and killed by Dorner.
In a bizarre, 18-page testament, Dorner – who was black and a one-time Naval Reserve officer – complained about pervasive racism in the LAPD, the US Navy, and even the elementary school he attended in Norwalk, Calif. He attributed his release from the LAPD in 2008 to his having reported an incident of police brutality involving a white officer and a homeless man. Dorner asserted that he had been railroaded out of the LAPD by a police bureaucracy that is fundamentally hostile to African-Americans, including black officers themselves, and protective of its image to the point of paranoia.
The dragnet for Dorner eventually focused on the area around Big Bear Lake, not far from San Bernardino. After being spotted and chased by uniformed officers of California’s fish and wildlife agency yesterday, Dorner barricaded himself in a cabin and engaged in a furious firefight with police. Late yesterday afternoon, the cabin suddenly burst into flames and eventually burned to the ground. The remains of what officials believe to be Christopher Dorner’s body were recovered at the scene, and samples of those remains have been sent for DNA analysis to confirm their identity. It is not known whether Dorner died from a gunshot, self-inflicted or otherwise, or whether he perished as a result of the fire.
What we see in the case of Christopher Dorner is a pattern as old as man: wounded pride, the perception of injustice, resentment, revenge, and the initiation of retributive violence leading ultimately to self-destruction. The Bible, at once the most divine and human of books, is full of such stories; in Genesis, we see that Cain’s pride is wounded by the Lord’s enthusiastic reception of his brother Abel’s gifts. Cain perceives this apparent preference for Abel as unjust and conspires to kill his brother. When the murder is found out, Cain is deprived of his livelihood and banished, forced to wander the earth. Of his punishment Cain says, “It is too much to bear.”
The elder sons of Jacob are offended by their father’s favoritism toward their youngest brother, Joseph. Their sense of injustice is deepened with Joseph relates to them a series of dreams in which he is their master. In response, they seize him and cast him into a hole in the ground to die. Later, when a caravan comes along bound for Egypt, the brothers sell Joseph into slavery.
In the Book of Judges, we see the cycle of injustice and revenge played out time and time again between Samson and the Philistines, a cycle that eventually climaxes in the brutal deaths of all the antagonists. In Acts, Stephen stands up before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish religious council, and accuses them of having repeated the sins of their fathers in the execution of Jesus, and of having twisted the Law to their own sinful purposes. The mob in attendance is infuriated by this apparent assault on the honor and motives of the Sanhedrin and stone Stephen to death. In the process, Stephen becomes the first martyr of the Christian faith.
Time and again throughout history, the same story is played out on stages large and small: in families, communities, between nations, and even in our churches. It has even played on a cosmic stage: let us not forget that Lucifer himself, the most beautiful angel in creation, believed it to be an injustice that God and not he should be the master of the universe. And so he rebelled, leading his angels in a violent assault on heaven itself!
Violence is the fruit of our pride. It is the product of our perverted sense of justice and our twisted desires, for prestige, for possession, for autonomy from one another and from God. Jesus shows us a different way. Though he had every reason for pride – his structural and personal innocence, his exalted identity as the Second Person of the Trinity – the Lord of the universe “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness, and found human in appearance. He humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:7-8). The cross of Christ is a stumbling block – a skandalon – because it deprives us of the satisfaction that comes from asserting our own honor and enforcing it violently: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who treat you badly” Luke 6:27-28). As Christians, we have only one source of honor that must be vindicated, one template for justice that must be achieved, and it can only ever be accomplished by love, never by violence. The revolution in moral consciousness inaugurated by the revelation of God in Christ is a movement from the sacrificial to the sacramental, from the immolation of offenders to the self-donation of victims. A scandal, to be sure, but “may I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” (Galatians 6:14)
Let us stipulate that an injustice may well have been done to Christopher Dorner in his dismissal from the LAPD, a department with a long and notorious reputation. Dorner’s response, because of its brazen violence, is easy to condemn. The question for all of us on this first day of Lent is whether we will allow our pride to take the injustices we each face, real or imagined, and convert them into a desire for revenge and violent thoughts, words, or actions. Dorner deliberately chose a response at odds with the message of Christ, writing in his manifesto, “… as good Christians we are to turn the other cheek as Jesus did. Problem is I’m not a ____ing Christian.”
Are we? Am I?