Saying No to Violence

Faith in the Public Square
Lompoc Record
May 6, 2007

The news of April 16 stunned us; not news that nearly 200 died in Iraq, but that 33 students and faculty members lay dead from a mass-murder-suicide at Virginia Tech.

It hit many of us hard, because we expect college campuses to be safe havens for learning and transitions in life. For a moment at least, other news pushed off the front pages the latest on Anna Nichole's baby.

In the days following we learned the who, the how, and the possible why. We learned that one victim was a Holocaust survivor who had died trying to save his students. We watched video of the perpetrator of this violence declare his anger at the world in an attempt to justify his turn to violence. We also heard pundits and politicians debate the merits of gun ownership and gun regulation. All of this was mixed together with a national sense of grief and continued disbelief.
But, why are we so shocked? Americans have an almost voyeuristic interest in violence. It dominates our TV shows, video games, music, and movies. Characters like Rambo, the Terminator and Dirty Harry are heroic archetypes, and slasher movies draw big crowds.
As I watched the recently crowned Oscar winner “The Departed,” I found it to be a character study of our trust in the utility of violence. Even though almost everyone dies in the end, the message here seems to be that it takes a bit of violence to get ahead in life. And when Osama brought down a couple of buildings we promised “shock and awe.” Responding to this act of violence, our leaders talked of pre-emptive war and later we heard defenses of torture in the name of security (from fellow Christians at that).
As for this young man who took the lives of his fellow students and their teachers, a couple of things stood out. He fits the profile of recent mass killers - he was a loner, friendless, and angry at the world for perceived injustices. He was - to put it mildly - alienated from the world in which he lived.

This mental state was compounded by the hours he apparently spent playing ultra-violent video games that stoked his anger. While I know that only a few who play such games or watch violent movies will commit horrible acts of violence, these culturally approved expressions of violence may have more of an effect than many of us are willing to acknowledge. Given the right psychological trigger and the all too readily available tools of violence, perhaps we might explode into violence, even as this one student did. Indeed, such acts happen every day in our nation, even on the streets of our own community.

Bobby Kennedy said, in a speech entitled “On the Mindless Menace of Violence,” just months before he would die of an assassin's bullet:
“Whenever any American's life is taken by another American unnecessarily - whether it is done in the name of the law or in the defiance of the law, by one man or a gang, in cold blood or in passion, in an attack of violence or in response to violence - whenever we tear at the fabric of the life which another man has painfully and clumsily woven for himself and his children, the whole nation is degraded.”

Indeed, our lives have been degraded by acts of violence at home and abroad.
As I consider the violence that colors our existence, I'm led to something Jesus said: “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder'; . . . But I say to you that if you are angry with your brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.” (Matthew 5: 21-22).
Seemingly every religious tradition has voices that council war and voices that council peace. And of course there's often a bit of hypocrisy going on as members of different religions point fingers at each other. Since I'm a Christian, I find it ironic that fellow Christians point fingers at Muslims and point to passages of the Koran and say, “Theirs is a religion of violence,” when we seem to ignore what Jesus says about loving our enemies. Yes, and then there is Christian history itself, which is full of violence. No one, it seems, is immune to the grip of violence.
But this needn't be the way things are. Indeed, may the events of April 16, both in Blacksburg and in Baghdad, lead us along a path away from the path of violence.

Dr. Bob Cornwall is pastor of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Lompoc ( He blogs at and can be contacted at or First Christian Church, P.O. Box 1056, Lompoc, CA 93438.May 6, 2007


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