Systemic Violence

Systemic Violence

Cain said to Abel, “Let us go out to the field.” And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him. Genesis 4:8

We can point fingers of blame at those who commit violence-against-innocents in our society, as we probably should. We should not, however, think we are addressing the source of violence by locking away those convicted of such acts. Rather, we are only tackling a symptom, and symptom management does not resolve the underlying problem. In order to address the root causes of violence we must do more than incarcerate those convicted of violence. We need to examine our history and the social systems evolving from it.

Human beings, presumably since the beginning, have frequently resorted to violence to get what they want, whether that is property, food, safety, recognition, or a sexual partner. Even the Bible, in the story of the initial offspring of the allegorical first humans, records Cain killing his brother Abel out of jealousy. The Bible contains many stories of people going after what they desire using violence, including horrific acts against those with no power to resist or harm the aggressors. Some are quick to use these stories as a justification for violence – that if it’s in the Bible, God must have ordained and blessed it. This is not only a lazy reading of the Bible, it is also a gross misunderstanding of what God does or does not condone.  

The clearest model the Bible provides for what comprises a Godly life is found in the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. And the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth are unwaveringly non-violent, even to the point of giving up his own life instead of taking violent action to preserve it. It is a sad commentary that many who claim to be followers of Christ feel justified in arming themselves against threats to their earthly being.

Civilizations throughout history have risen and fallen by violent means, and the United States is no exception. Our early European settlers fled what they perceived as tyrannical authorities, only to tyrannize the indigenous people already inhabiting this land in order to establish their societies the way they saw fit, usually through threatened or actual violence. When we needed cheap labor to feed our insatiable hunger for inexpensive goods and services, we tyrannized peoples of Africa, uprooting and enslaving them as property. Today, with overt slavery prohibited, corporations employ underpaid and overworked labor in other countries to keep our prices artificially low. The violent oppression serving our capitalistic system has simply moved offshore where it is less visible, but the violent injustice remains unchecked.

It is interesting to examine why we feel the need to resort to violence to achieve our aims. Several possible reasons come to mind for me. The most serious, from a religious perspective, is the lack of faith that God will protect us and provide for our needs. Granted, God works in and through us and our actions. If we believe, however, that God works in non-violent ways, as Jesus modeled for us, then our faith should assure us there are non-violent ways to achieve what we need.

A second cause is impatience. We tend to want what we want as quickly and cheaply as possible, even when it causes others to suffer. It is easy to forget that our time is not always in sync with God’s time. A third reason is a lack of vision of alternate, more just and sustainable ways of obtaining what we desire. A fourth reason is a lack of maturity in the sense of believing that we have a right to whatever we want as long as we pay a “fair” market price for it. This is an expression of our feelings of superiority and positions of privilege.

One problem with how we understand violence is our belief that it must be physical to be deemed as violence. Granted, we are making headway in identifying and targeting emotional and psychological violence, but the violence embedded in our economic and social systems continues largely unchallenged. Most of us today did not create these systems, but many of us perpetuate and benefit from them. Anyone with an investment-based retirement account (myself included) benefits from the violence that private equity inflicts on businesses and their employees to fuel their insatiable appetite for higher profits. Our political systems are skewed to favor politicians and those who support them, resulting in government-imposed actions that widen the gap between the haves and have-nots. Even our religious organizations, in their quest for self-preservation and self-justification, spew violent threats of hell and exclusion against those who practice and believe differently.

Violence is violence regardless of its source and mode of transmission. Until we recognize and transform our violent systems there cannot be peace in our world, individually or collectively.

This is the 23rd in a series of Life Notes titled Guns, Mental Illness, and Jesus. The opinions expressed here are mine and not necessarily those of other individuals or organizations. To engage with me or to explore contemplative spiritual direction, contact me at

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