As I write, the United States is angry, anxious, saddened, and split over the shootings of unarmed black men by white police officers in a number of locations. News of a negotiated settlement with Iran over its nuclear program evokes apocalyptic rhetoric. We live in the midst of a stew of fear and violence. News outlets headline stories about scary epidemics, war, mass executions. Social media memes—cleverly chosen images and aphorisms propagated over the internet—cater to stereotypes, polarization, and fear. Popular culture promotes the myth that violence can solve almost any problem and protect individuals as well as nations from any threat.
As theologian Walter Wink wrote in Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination, “Violence is the ethos of our time. It is the spirituality of the modern world. It has been accorded the status of religion, demanding from its devotees an absolute obedience unto death.” Violence and threat breeds fear: fear of others, fear for our safety, fear that we will not be able to stand against the threats screaming from headlines and television news and talk shows.
To climb out of the morass of violence in which we live requires courage, creativity, effort, persistence, personal integrity, and a sense of humor. We must start by honestly examining and healing the violence within ourselves. The first step is cultivating awareness of how we have internalized the violence we experience daily and inflicted it on ourselves and others.
The violence we experience is not confined to news headlines or fiery talk show panelists. We also hear threats and violence daily from our families, our friends, our teachers, our supervisors and from our co-workers. The myth that violence solves problems, that a kind of purification or even redemption comes through violent behavior, dominates our attitudes and behavior. Over time, we internalize the messages of threat and violence and speak harshly to ourselves.
To be sure, often the violent words we hear are not intended to threaten or induce fear, they are simply the consequence of the “ethos of our time” described by Wink. For example, an exasperated parent seeking some support for house-cleaning might say to his child, “Pick up your toys!” in a tone of voice that the child hears as an implicit threat to withdraw love or impose punishment. Over time, we impose limits on ourselves in anticipation of others' disappointment, disapproval, or withdrawal. As we do so, we also strive to earn approval and love and to exceed what we think others expect of us.
Popular culture reinforces feelings that we are not loved, or do not measure up, or both. The same media that conveys messages of violence and threat conveys advertisements and subliminal messages that tell us we are each inadequate but can soothe our anxiety through self-indulgence or can compensate by purchasing the right products. We often fall into this trap and substitute material goods for love or identify and value ourselves through our possessions: I drive a luxury car or an SUV or a sexy sports car! I wear brand “x” clothing!
Popular culture also urges us to avoid relationships in which we feel insecure, such as those with the poor or socially stigmatized. We see the weakest members of society—the homeless, the mentally ill, the undocumented worker—as threats to be met with bravado and force rather than as people desperately in need of help. Since we feel inadequate to deal with our fear, we automatically resort to violence instead of carefully considering responses proportional to the degree and probability of the threats we perceive.
How then, can we defeat the violence that envelops us? How can we live a fully nonviolent, fully human life, passionate and compassionate, stalwartly resisting evil and injustice? The Gospel accounts of Jesus' life give us some guidance. All three synoptic Gospels tell the story of Jesus' baptism; the story opens the Gospel of Mark. In all three, God declares, “You are my beloved son.” Throughout his life, Jesus' trust in God's love freed him from shame, fear, and other emotional and social pressures. Thus, he was free to love others, in the process breaking through social constraints to heal and build community with outcast, despised people like tax collectors, differently-abled people, and even Roman soldiers. He saw beyond the letter of the Mosaic Law into its spirit and confronted those who could not or would not grasp the Law as deeply. Jesus calls us repeatedly to this same sort of risk-taking and removal of barriers to community.
The practice of contemplative prayer has opened the door to feeling beloved for many. The longer I sit quietly in the cloud of unknowing, the more aware I become of God's love. Whether we focus on our breath, recite a sacred word, or use any other technique, when we are still we are open to God.
We can also feel God's love more intensely when we practice gratitude. Simply recounting to ourselves a few people, situations, or things we are thankful for in our lives brings concrete evidence of God's love, and offering thanks to God fosters more intimacy with God and a deeper knowledge of divine love. We can, moreover, acquire a sense of being loved when we are serving others in some way—when we care for “the least of these” we honor their belovedness and our own.
As members of the body of Christ, we, too, are God's beloved children. As described above, we find this difficult to know and feel, although we may give our intellectual assent to the idea that God loves us. Father Henri Nouwen was much concerned with this subject. He moved from a kind of academic but detached allegiance to the Gospel through stages of engagement with others that culminated in his long participation in the life of a L'Arche community in Canada.
These words, from a posthumously published talk by Nouwen, sum up the centrality of feeling God's love: “We are not what we do. We are not what we have. We are not what others think of us. Coming home is claiming the truth. I am the beloved child of a loving Creator.”
Iconic leaders in nonviolent action also stress the value of feeling beloved. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. defined belovedness as “an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. It is the love of God working in the lives of men.”
We can come to know and embrace God's love through various routes, but several steps are critical to free ourselves of the effects of our culture's ethos of violence. We might start by growing more aware of the violence directed at us by mass media, simply noticing the content of news reports, novels, films, and so on and exploring how we feel as we see and hear such things.
We should at the same time become more mindful of how the people around us replay what they see and hear and how we and they often respond with a fight-or-flight response. We should not neglect a careful look at the violence we do to ourselves. All of this can be painful, and it is hard work, so we need to be gentle with ourselves as well as aware, honest, and brave. Acknowledging emotions like fear, anger, and pain takes persistence and patience, since allowing ourselves to experience these emotions helps dissipate them.
A set of questions posed by Father John Dear in his recent book The Nonviolent Life offers a framework for examining the violence we and