Non-Physical Violence, Part 3
A lot of giving and receiving has a violent quality, because the givers and receivers act more out of need than out of trust. What looks like generosity is actually manipulation, and what looks like love is really a cry for affection or support. Henri Nouwen
Violent, aggressive acts are not always physical. Most of the violence manifesting today is non-physical. Physical violence originates as some form of non-physical aggression. Harsh words exchanged between participants at potentially triggering events – car accidents, parties, sporting events, and the like – can escalate into defensive and often violent physical acts. The post-incident blame focuses on the perpetrator of the physical act, as perhaps it should, but with little consideration given to the non-physical aggression leading up to the incident.
There is a well-hidden form of violence that is not, in itself, an act of violence as much as a symptom of underlying aggressive attitudes and unjust social systems. It is not as likely to result in acute physical harm as it is to perpetuate chronic social injustices under the guise of mercy. This occurs in countless acts of charity participated in by many of us. As with acts of neglect and other forms of aggression, carefully examining our motivations for participating in such acts of mercy is important in determining if we are (1) providing the type of help a person really needs and wants, (2) providing help that addresses the underlying causes of the chronic need as well as the acute need, and (3) not simply covering our guilt for perpetuating the unjust social systems we participate in and benefit from.
While the most egregious of these acts of “mercy” may be the lavish charity events put on to attract obscenely wealthy people (and television audiences), those events are imitated on a smaller scale everywhere. Such events usually include an abundance of food, drink, entertainment, and pampering of attendees. Granted, those events raise a lot of money for their designated charity. They also, however, cost a lot of money to put on. One must wonder if those paying the price of admission are doing so out of guilt for the little they otherwise do for those in need, out of a desire for positive publicity, or to actually help meet a desperate need in society. If their motivation is guilt or publicity, they are likely perpetuating and benefiting from the systems causing the need, if subconsciously. If their motivation is to maximize their financial contribution to the needs, would they not better accomplish that end by contributing their money directly to the organization and not making the organization incur the costs of facilities, food, and entertainment for their extravagant evening?
Of course, charitable motivations for most of us have a combination of motives. Henri Nouwen writes that our acts of generosity are often acts of manipulation, even though that may not be our overt intent. We desire to be affirmed as good, caring people, but when we primarily seek personal affirmation, our motivations are not charitable but narcissistic. It is easy to say a problem is too big for me to have an impact, so I write a check and feel I’ve done my part. True acts of charity, however, require plugging the leak that is causing the need. True acts of mercy can be messy, uncomfortable, unnoticed, long-term, and unfulfilling. We do them, however, for a purpose greater than our own need.
This was illustrated for me on a mission trip to Honduras. I thought I was going to assist with a construction project to help ease the misery and poverty of the people there. I certainly saw extensive poverty, at least by Western standards, but I did not see misery. Rather, I saw more joy, generosity, and contentment than I see here. I realized they did not need my physical labor, my physical presence, or my arrogant belief that my lifestyle is superior to theirs. They needed money for building materials and worker salaries. My presence required them to also fund drivers, translators, lodging, and cooks. If my motivations were truly charitable, I would have donated the entire cost to the organization and, if I decided to go, pay extra for my own expenses.
The violence in many of our charitable offerings occurs as we try to make those we offer to help more like us – help persons of color be whiter, encourage foreigners to act American, throw money at the poor so they can appear more middle-class – while ignoring the systems that perpetuate their need. We can honor, celebrate, and support the cultures, ethnicities, and unique sets of God-given gifts of others without threat to our own and without manipulating them for subliminal purposes that affirm our goodness. When we make our assistance conditional on others conforming to us, even indirectly, we do violence to their being.
This is the 12th in a series of Life Notes titled Guns, Mental Illness, and Jesus. The opinions expressed here are mine and are not intended to imply the agreement or support of other individuals or organizations. If you wish to respond to my thoughts, please contact me directly at email@example.com.
 Henri Nouwen, excerpted from You Are the Beloved, Convergent Books, 2017.