It is rare to see the president of the United States, considered the most powerful man on earth, shedding tears in a public press conference. But that is what President Barack Obama did in one, recently over the random shooting that occurred in a school in Newtown, Connecticut, resulting in the death of 20 children, 6 and 7 years old; and six adults – some of whom were teachers protecting their pupils. The gunman, a mentally disturbed male, also died, having shot himself.
Violent crime affects everyone – the victims, most obviously; the criminal, though not many resort to suicide; the public, whose sense of safety is diminished; and yes, even presidents. Christians would do well to invoke the Father’s protection; but we all know that Christians are not guaranteed safety from crime. Yes, in fact, even Christians have fallen victims to violence. But what explains the incidence of violence in society?1 Or to put it in the pained query of German-American psychoanalyst, Erich Fromm (1900-1980), Why is man the only creature who kills and tortures his own without reason?
In his massive A Criminal History of Mankind, Colin Wilson observes,
Most animals feel a specific prohibition about killing their own kind. If two animals are fighting, and one of them wished to surrender, it only has to roll on its back and show its stomach; the other animal then becomes incapable of continuing to attack. Man is the only creature who lacks this built-in mechanism.2
Some experts explore the answer as lying in the misfortunes of human evolution. One theory advanced the ‘hunting hypothesis’ propounding that man became man because he lived by killing. Still another sees it in the ‘romantic theory of evolution’ in which competition for females led to violent show-offs. And there are more. But none is remotely acceptable to Christian thinking, however, for how can the natural selection process from apes to homo erectus explain a Charles Manson?
Today’s criminologists have more plausible causes. Two of these have become very common explanations for the incidence of violence. The first treats it as psychological – as lack of self-esteem; the other, as sociological – as an issue of poverty.
The Violent has Low Self-Esteem?
Since Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) developed his hierarchy of needs, it has become a choice handle for human behaviour. It provides a much more ‘human’ explanation for action than the old arousal-and-drive theory. In Maslow’s hierarchy, self-esteem occupies a central place as a step to self-actualization.3 Social-learning theorists define self-esteem as a personal worth or worthiness. It is the experience of being competent to cope with the basic challenges of life and being worthy of happiness. The social bearing of this is deemed obvious. A person of high self-esteem would want to be respected which he gains by way of reciprocation of respect to others. Such a person would hardly become criminal material.
The flip side of this is to find in low self-esteem the catch basin explanation for bad behaviour. Whether the black sheep of the family, or the dimwit of the classroom, they are viewed as having low self-esteem. And thus, the miscreants and deviants of society must be so – of low self-esteem. The cause of low self-esteem can be anything from childhood ordeal to junk food overload. What it does is to provide something to blame outside of the offender. This is the victimization of the violent. By making the criminal a victim himself, his guilt is expunged. John MacArthur, in The Vanishing Conscience, documents cases where the offender, citing victimization, has the case revoked, diminished, or even rewarded!4
- A man committing burglary was injured by the store owner. The owner was forced by the jury to pay a large settlement for injuring the burglar who was deemed a victim of his economic disadvantages.
- Bernard McCummings mugged an elderly New York man in the subway. McCummings was shot while fleeing. Permanently paralyzed, he sued and won $4.8 million in compensation from the New York Transit Authority
- A San Francisco City supervisor claimed he murdered a fellow supervisor and Mayor George Moscone because too much junk food – especially Hostess Twinkies – made him act irrationally. His charge was reduced. Thus was born the famous ‘Twinkie’ defense.
- Richard Berendzen, president of American University in Washington, D.C., was caught making obscene phone calls to women. Claiming he was a victim of child abuse, he received a suspended sentence, and negotiated a million-dollar severance package from the university.
What cases like the foregoing reveal is the denial of guilt that criminal actions incur once victimization is successfully marshalled as defense. This is what the psychological construct of low self-esteem affords. The Christian must see this as militating against his position on sin and guilt. Sin must not be dismissed by turning it into a disease; guilt is not psychological syndrome. But sadly, this is where many discourses, that claim to be Christian, are going. MacArthur observes,
These days, when sinners seek help from churches and other Christian agencies, they are likely to be told that their problem is some emotional disorder or psychological syndrome. They might be encouraged to forgive themselves and told they ought to have more self-love and self-esteem. They are not as likely to hear that they must repent and humbly seek God’s forgiveness in Christ. That is such an extraordinary change of direction for the church that even secular observers have noticed it.5
As popular as this explanation of violent crime being caused by low self-esteem, no serious study proves the correlation. Paul Vitz explains,
What is wrong with the concept of self-esteem? Lots – and it is fundamental in nature. There have been thousands of psychological studies on self-esteem. Often the term self-esteem is muddled in confusion as it becomes a label for such various aspects as self-image, self-acceptance, self-worth, self-trust, or self-love. The bottom line is that no agreed-upon definition or agreed-upon measure of self-esteem exists, and whatever it is, no reliable evidence supports self-esteem scores meaning much at all anyway. There is no evidence that high self-esteem reliably causes anything – indeed lots of people with little of it have achieved a great deal in one dimension or another.6
He cites a 1989 study of mathematical skills which compared students in eight different countries:
American students ranked lowest in mathematical competence and Korean students ranked highest. But the researchers also asked students to rate how good they were at mathematics. The Americans ranked highest in self-judged mathematical ability, while Koreans ranked lowest. Mathematical self-esteem had an inverse relation to mathematical accomplishment! This is certainly an example of a ‘feel good’ psychology keeping students from an accurate perception of reality. The self-esteem theory predicts that only those who feel good about themselves will do well – which is supposedly why all students need self-esteem – but in fact feeling good about yourself may simply make you over-confident, narcissistic, and unable to work hard.
This leads Vitz to conclude:
I am not implying that high self-esteem is always negatively related to accomplishment. Rather, the research shows that measures of self-esteem have no reliable relationship to behavior, either positive or negative. In part, this is simply because life is too complicated for so simple a notion to be of much use.7
To the Christian, low self-esteem is not an acceptable explanation for violence. Moral accountability is basic in the Christian view of man. He is responsible for his moral actions for they are exercised by his free agency. This responsibility translates into the reality of accountability – ultimately to God as Judge. In the case of violent crimes, there is accountability to the state. The enforcer of law in the state is considered by Paul as God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer (Romans 13:4).
The Violent Lacks Money?
Another very common explanation for propensity to violence is poverty. A hungry stomach knows no law!, so declared former president Joseph Estrada. Lacking the wherewithal for his basic needs, a man might resort to crime, theft being the most obvious option – and from ordinary crime, erosion into violence becomes a reality.
It must be said that even Scriptures observe the correlation between poverty and theft, in particular. As Proverbs 6:30, 31 puts it:
People do not despise a thief if he steals to satisfy his appetite when he is hungry,
But if he is caught, he will pay sevenfold; he will give all the goods of his house.
Clearly here, while the correlation is acknowledged, but accountability is not removed. When caught, the penalty of the law applies to the ‘poor’ thief. But theft by a hungry individual is a far cry from a shooting rampage by a drug-crazed gunman which leaves several fatalities of innocent victims. Somewhere along the gunman’s erosion to violence, a choice that was free, but immoral, was made – such as the use of drugs.
The Christian must be sensitive to the problem of poverty. The Church must take seriously its mandate of benevolence to the poor and needy. This was the one reminder to Paul and his mission team when the Jerusalem apostles extended their hand of fellowship: Only, they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do (Gal 2:10). We must reflect the compassion of our Saviour to the needy. See this compassion in our Lord’s words to his disciples in Matthew 15:32:
I have compassion on the crowd because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat. And I am unwilling to send them away hungry, lest they faint on the way.
But compassion to the poor must have with it a respect for their human dignity. To say that being poor makes one more vulnerable to violence is an unacceptable contempt. It is an insult to many poor people who earn an honest living in daily grind. It also overlooks the criminal schemes of the wealthy at the expense of others just because they have the means.
Certainly, there are those who are poor because of their irresponsibility. But one big issue that we must not forget is the social structure that creates oppression of the poor. Many are poor because they are powerless. Much of poverty, in sum, is an issue of social justice. John Stott correctly notes:
It was clearly recognized in the OT that poverty does not normally just happen. Although sometimes it was due to personal sin or national disobedience, and to God’s judgment on them, it was usually due to the sins of others, that is, to a situation of social injustice, which easily deteriorated because the poor were not in a position to change it. We do not understand the OT teaching on this subject unless we see how frequently poverty and powerlessness were bracketed.8
There is one sense, though, where money is very much related to crime and violence. Scriptures teach this:
But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.
– 1 Timothy 6:9-10
It is not lack of money but love of money that is considered a root of all kinds of evils. This love of money can be in the heart of a poor man who mugs someone to obtain money; just as much in the heart of a millionaire swindling clients of their precious resources. It is not poverty that is behind violence; it is covetousness! This is consistent with James’ indictment of the filthy rich:
You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you.
– James 5:5-6
Response to Violence
Violence in our generation is not anything new though, definitely the weapons are new; the media coverage, unprecedented. But violence is the story of world history since time immemorial. Nero’s cruelty against Christians at how he made human torches of them would make the stomach turn. Rome itself would be at the receiving end of an ancient terror attack from the army of the Visigoths. The Crusades of the Medieval period that sought to regain control of the Holy City of Jerusalem from the Muslims were littered with atrocities in the name of the Christian religion. Osama Bin Laden is just our generation’s contribution to the Hall of the Infamous that includes Hannibal, Genghis Khan, Stalin, Hitler. Different personalities and periods with different motivations – but all notable for their terror and violence. The record of history reveals a world of violence.
After the very first act of violence when a brother killed his own, the world steadily eroded into a violent planet. At one point it turned so violent that it needed God’s intervention through the Flood. “Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence” (Genesis 6:11). The world, in effect, was given a new starting point. In this new start, God gave Noah an institution that was meant to curb violence in the human community. “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man” (Gen 9:6). The strict implementation of this principle holds the secret to preserving justice in society. Capital punishment is society’s total rejection of the violent – forfeiture of life. It rests on the highest view of the human creation – “in the image of God.” Combining these two, a God-oriented view of man and a judicial punishment of the offender, the human society can still be decently livable even in the presence of the violent. God Himself gives the means of checking violence.
Unfortunately, on both these counts, human society is in retrogress. Claiming progressive views, many have espoused ideas of humanity that see man basically as biological, or at best, a social function. A happenstance in a story of survival and evolution. The view that man is basically religious and made for God is now branded as crude and fundamentalistic – equivalent of extremist. No wonder that out of the same progressive views the implementation of justice as God required has been softened. Punishment is now too strong a word. Everything is now remedial and corrective. Nothing about just vindication. It is a world that has departed from God, and reshaped justice into a soft mould. In that world, violence thrives.
Violence is part of the depravity of man. In Paul’s catalogue of human sinfulness, he quotes from the Old Testament to describe sinners: “Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery mark their ways” (Romans 3:15, 16). That violent nature led those terrorists in the horrific sequence of September 11. But in a much smaller scale, we see the violent nature in daily occurrence. Murder. . . Cursing. . . Inflicting injuries.
The church is sent to such a violent world with a gospel of peace and reconciliation. It is a call that is first and foremost Godward before it is social for man’s original alienation is from his Creator and God. Only in the restored relationship with God will the wall of partition that exists between men be broken down. The Church is the manifestation of this new humanity reconciled to one another because they are reconciled to God. For as long as the Lord preserves a faithful church on earth, there is hope for the prophetic vision: “They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4).
- This article does not intend to treat crime in its legal framework, but to focus on the act of violence
- Colin Wilson, A Criminal History of Mankind (Mercury Books;2005): p. 106
- Abraham Maslow, Motivation and Personality (1954)
- John MacArthur, Jr., The Vanishing Conscience (Word Pub.; 1995):pp. 21ff
- MacArthur, 29
- Paul Vitz, “Leaving Psychology Behind” from Os Guinness & John Seel (ed.), No God But God: 97
- John Stott, Issues Facing Christians Today (Marshalls; 1984): p. 218