When I was a kid, I gave an opposing player some lip on the rugby field and he punched me in the face so hard and so quickly I didn’t even see it coming.
One minute I was trash-talking him and the next minute I was on my butt, my head spinning, watching him run back to join the flow of the game.
It was embarrassing.
I remember how for weeks (months?) later I kept fantasizing about how I could have got back at him. I imagined clobbering him, humiliating him in front of others as he had done to me.
The impulse to respond to violence with violence is primal. It’s almost involuntary.
When we feel personally assailed we want to return fire, to make our attackers suffer as much, or more, than we have. It’s a very human, visceral reaction.
Even when we see horrible acts of terrorism perpetrated in cities like Paris or London or Nairobi, that same impulse rears up. We feel threatened, and we clamor, “Do it back to them. Return violence for violence. If they’re trying to kill us we should kill them.”
Whole nations can become inflamed by this hunger for revenge. After the September 11 terror attacks on New York and Washington, the US responded by bombing Afghanistan and invading Iraq. Whole nations were made to pay for the humiliation and grief experienced by America.
And yet we know that violent reactions to acts of violence not only don’t resolve the issue, they make it much worse. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 exacerbated sectarian divides in that country, which in turn laid the groundwork for the rise of the Islamic State and other extremist groups.
As Rachelle Lyndaker Schlabach writes, “We rightly respond with dismay and horror to violent actions. But responding with violent actions will not make things right. It will only continue the spiral of violence.”
We can view Donald Trump’s recent decision to bomb targets identified as chemical weapons facilities in Syria in this same light. Of course, Mr Trump made the attacks sound almost reasonable:
“The purpose of this military action was to degrade the Syrian military’s ability to conduct further chemical weapons attacks and to dissuade the Syrian government from using or proliferating chemical weapons.”
But there have been nearly 75 chemical weapons attacks launched in Syria since 2012, ten of them since Mr Trump assumed office. The two occasions the President has ordered the bombing of Syria have both come immediately after the release of heart-wrenching video footage of women and children suffering from the effects of either a chlorine or sarin attack.
Mr Trump’s desire to respond to the violence of the Assad regime seems to have been motivated by the kind of moral outrage I was referring to earlier. When we see or experience a violent attack, our knee-jerk reaction is to inflict violence against the perpetrator.
This impulse is so strong, and considered so reasonable in our society today, that if you question whether this latest round of bombings is justified you get characterized as a leftie or an idealist or a pacifist (as though that’s a dirty word).
For the record I’m a contingent pacifist at best. But what I’m more generally concerned about is our refusal to even question whether responding to violence with more violence is a good thing.
When I posted a comment on Facebook and Twitter recently calling on the US, the UK and France not to bomb Syria, it was met with some resistance. One friend asked me how I’d respond if I saw an old lady being beaten by a thug. Surely, my interlocutor suggested, I would inflict violence on her attacker in order to protect her.
This proposing of overly dramatic scenarios to undermine a call for peace is pretty common. Whenever I raise the issue of gun control I’m often asked whether I’d be willing to shoot an intruder who was raping my wife. It’s like these horrific situations are the first thing people go to. The assumption is that we have to be violent when people are being violent toward us or others.
Leaving aside weird fantasies about shooting your wife’s rapist, even the example of responding to an old lady’s attacker assumes there are no other options than the inflicting of corresponding levels of violence. Can you imagine a world in which we all did that?
As Martin Luther King famously pointed out, “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.”
As a follower of Jesus I can’t ignore his calls for us to “turn the other cheek” (Mt 5:39) and “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Lk 6:27-28).
Neither can I overlook his example. When I got punched in the face as a kid I turned scenario after scenario over in my mind as I imagined multiple ways to inflict similar suffering on my attacker. Jesus submitted himself not merely to a punch in the nose, but to hours of abject humiliation and torture. And he still prayed, “Forgive them Father, for they known not what they do.”
Jesus’ extraordinary work involved absorbing hatred and violence and converting them into grace and peace.
And he calls on his followers to do the same, to be peacemakers, not participants in a never-ending spiral of violence. If I followed Jesus’ call to always respond with love, not hate, then I would be concerned for both the old lady and her attacker. It’s true I would want to end the violence immediately, but there must be a number of ways to achieve that without the need to start attacking the attacker.
If I think of what Jesus would do in this scenario, I can’t see him inflicting violence on the attacker. In fact, I can more easily see him stepping in between the old lady and her assailant and absorbing the blows that were intended for her. Why isn’t this the first place Christians go when thinking about responding to violence?
If Mr Trump’s primary concern is for the innocent victims of the civil war in Syria then there must be myriad diplomatic responses that could be made, as well as the offer to provide them safe passage out of Douma and an increase in the US refugee intake from Syria.
Whether it’s a kid on a football field or the President of the United States, the primal response to lash out at those who hurt us or others is understandable. But it never works. Never.
“Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” – Martin Luther King