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America the Violent

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Mark Gordon - published on 12/18/14

Why is a country full of followers of the Prince of Peace so enamored of conflict?

“From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent are taking it by force.” (Matthew 11:12)

The most dispiriting thing about the revelations contained in the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) report released last week isn’t the depiction of acts of torture committed in our name by the CIA. It isn’t even the exculpatory response of large segments of the political and pundit class. Though shocking, the report was no surprise to anyone who’s followed the torture debate for the last decade, and it is likewise no surprise that Washington’s red and blue teams would line up to bash each other on the issue.

No, the most dispiriting thing about the entire affair is the attempt by many Catholics to justify those acts on grounds that have nothing to do with the teaching of the Church and everything to do with the utilitarian conviction that torture is acceptable when, in the words of former Vice-President Dick Cheney, it helps us “achieve our objective.” In order words, ends justify means.

The well-known Catholic blogger Mark Shea has been decrying the evil of torture for a long time, attempting to awaken the conscience of Catholics to the reality that torture is just another manifestation of the “culture of death.” Since the release of the SSCI report, Shea’s comboxes have exploded in an orgy of hackneyed justifications, obfuscations, redefinitions, redirections and false comparisons, all offered by Catholics who one would think (and hope) might know better.

Most disappointing are those Catholics who pair their acceptance of torture – which in the case of the CIA’s operation resulted in the death of at least one innocent man – with an assertion of their impeccable pro-life credentials, as if their condemnation of one intrinsically evil act cancels their embrace of another intrinsically evil act, sort of a moral “buy one, get one free” deal. If nothing else, this response demonstrates once again the appalling state of catechesis in the American Church, where members, lacking deep formation in the Gospel, interpret the world through the lenses of ideology and party affiliation.

Sadly, none of this is really any surprise. Most Americans think of themselves as good Christians. Many consider the United States to be a Christian country, founded on Christian principles, and the preeminent defender of Christian values in the world. But our comfortable attachment to violence gives the lie to all of that.

Consider that this Advent and Christmas, while we celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace, Hollywood is rolling out its annual catalog of nauseating violence: “Dying of the Light,” about a vengeance-minded CIA agent; “Poker Night,” about a serial killer and the cop who hunts him down; “American Sniper,” the “true” story of America’s “most lethal” military sharpshooter; “Maze Runner,” a violent teen apocalypse; and “Hunger Games 6: Mockingjay,” another installment of the franchise built around teen-on-teen violence. And, of course, we are the world’s leading producer and exporter of pornography, an inherently violent and degrading form of addictive entertainment.

Violence saturates our television programming, from “The Walking Dead” and “Homeland” to the fare targeted specifically at children and young adults. The A.C. Nielsen Company estimates that the average child will see 8,000 murders on television by the time he or she completes elementary school, and a given child will view over 200,000 acts of violence by the age of 18.

The $60 billion a year video game industry’s most popular 2014 titles – “Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare,” “Dragon Age: Inquisition,” “Far Cry 4,” “Assassin’s Creed: Unity,” and others –give players the opportunity to kill with relentless, bloody satisfaction. By some estimates, nearly 90% of American boys and young men play video games, and up to 15% of those meet the criteria for addiction.

But our involvement in violence isn’t just the stuff of fiction. The United States has the highest rate of gun ownership in the world and the highest rate of firearm homicide among developed nations. Our prison system, which is itself a kind of graduate school of violence, is the largest in the world by far, dwarfing even China, with four times our population. On the other hand, we share with China and a handful of other tyrannies (like North Korea) a deep and abiding commitment to the death penalty.

We spend more on our military than nearly the rest of the world combined, and we are the world’s leading exporter of weapons. If there’s a lethal conflict anywhere in the world the chances are good that one or both sides are using American arms. And we are often one of those sides. In the last 100 years, the United States has been a main antagonist in 25 wars, often as the aggressor.

In any given year, the United States is at war in at least one country and often, as now, in several at one time. Our over 700 military bases around the globe speak to the American conviction that war is the best, even the first, response to any provocation. And none of that counts the US role in the violent overthrow of unfriendly regimes, from Iran’s Mossadegh in 1953, to South Vietnam’s Diem in 1963, to the democratically elected governments of Honduras and Ukraine in 2009 and 2014, respectively.  

And yes, behind it all stands the American holocaust of abortion. In this “Christian” country of ours, over 55 million unborn children have been ripped from their mothers’ wombs since 1973, all enabled by a political and economic system that rewards the maximization of personal desire and glorifies the triumph of the strong over the weak. We stew in a petri dish of resentment and violence against the most vulnerable – “choice,” they call it – and yet we wonder why our politics, foreign policy, culture and economy wind up looking the same.

Catholics are supposed to know better. We’re supposed to be followers of Jesus Christ – first, last and always – with every other motivation and loyalty trumped by that inestimable identity.

“Do not repay anyone evil for evil; be concerned for what is noble in the sight of all. If possible, on your part, live at peace with all. Beloved, do not look for revenge but leave room for the wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ Rather, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.’ Do not be conquered by evil but conquer evil with good.” Romans 12:17-21

It’s true that the Church does not command pacifism (though she does praise it, c.f. Gaudium et Spes, #78). It’s true that in a fallen world it is sometimes necessary to use the weapons of war in the common defense. (CCC #2307-2317) But we do so only reluctantly, even regrettably, under strict conditions and always with the aim of minimizing the loss of life, restoring peace and reconciling with our enemies, who like us are children of God.

As Mark Shea writes, “The distance between asking, as the Church does, ‘How can we avoid harming or killing unless absolutely necessary?’ and ‘When do we get to kill?’ is the immense gulf between how the Church thinks about human life and how post-moderns – whether Nancy Pelosi looking for loopholes for abortion or ‘conservatives’ looking for loopholes for unjust war and torture – think.”

Why is that? Why do followers of Jesus Christ even have to be reminded of these things? Why do they have to be called – insistently, urgently – away from privileging violence as the answer to the challenges we face? In “
New Seeds of Contemplation,” the Trappist monk and writer Thomas Merton pondered the same question and proffered a most disturbing answer. His words are needed now more than ever:

“Strong hate, the hate that takes joy in hating, is strong because it does not believe itself to be unworthy and alone. It feels the support of a justifying God, of an idol of war, an avenging and destroying spirit. From such blood-drinking gods the human race was once liberated, with great toil and terrible sorrow, by the death of a God Who delivered Himself to the Cross and suffered pathological cruelty of His own creatures out of pity for them. In conquering death He opened their eyes to the reality of a love which asks no questions about worthiness, a love which overcomes hatred and destroys death. But men have now come to reject this divine revelation of pardons and they are consequently returning to the old war gods, the gods that insatiably drink blood and eat the flesh of men. It is easier to serve the hate-gods because they thrive on the worship of collective fanaticism. To serve the hate-gods, one has only to be blinded by collective passion. To serve the God of Love one must be free, one must face the terrible responsibility of the decision to love in spite of all unworthiness whether in oneself or in one’s neighbor.”

Mark Gordonis a partner at PathTree, a consulting firm focused on organizational resilience and strategy. He also serves as president of both the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Diocese of Providence, and a local homeless shelter and soup kitchen. Mark is the author of Forty Days, Forty Graces: Essays By a Grateful Pilgrim. He and his wife Camila have been married for 31 years and they have two adult children.

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