Hour after hour, television news highlights the violent episodes of our day: Police murder George Floyd. The nation and world erupt in protest and rebellion. Many are fearful, even in their own homes. Politicians proclaim their toughness against crime in our streets. The police, national guard and military are called in to restore order. But what are the roots of violence?
In his little book Spiral of Violence, Helder Camara, former Bishop of Recife, Brazil describes violence for us in its many forms.
First, he reminds us there is the violence of oppression such as hunger, poverty, racism and the domination of the many by the few. This is systemic violence, that is, socially accepted patterns of relationships which favor some groups at the expense of others. Carefully constructed, all pervading, supported by ideology, culture, religion and politics, this stage of violence remains hidden for the most part. In this way, oppression is upheld by the dominant culture as peace and most accept it as such.
One need only pick up a newspaper and read that the U.S. consumes well over 30% of the world’s resources and that the disparity between rich and poor, even in the U.S., is growing with leaps and bounds. The COVID pandemic sheds light on this extreme disparity: U.S. Billionaires increased their wealth by $434Billion during COVID while, during the same period, 30 million persons sought unemployment aid and many go hungry and without health care. Personally, we see this violence in our ministries, neighborhoods, in our own families. Meanwhile, the earth itself is subject to pillage resulting in the ever growing global climate crisis and conflict over diminishing resources such as land, fuel, food and water. This is not God’s world.
The second stage of violence is rebellion against the first stage. It may be planned, as in the Civil Rights movement or protests against corporate interests at home or abroad or the climate crisis. It may also be unplanned and spontaneous, as in the response to cases of police brutality such the murder of George Floyd. The powers and their minions in the media brand this rebellion as riots, violence, brutality, terrorism and like. They would have us believe that this is the beginning of violence, the disruption of peace. And we usually accept it as such. Even if we understand the causes of the rebellion, we tend to say things like, “Violence will not solve the problem,” and “Arrest the looters and rioters.” But we ignore or forget the root of the problem: Oppression, in which the few loot poor and marginalized communities daily and Trillion dollar bailouts go to the 1% while 99% get little.
The third stage of violence, Bishop Camara instructs us, is known as repression when police or military force is called out to restore peace or, as the powers say, “restore order.” In reality, this is a negative peace. It is not the peace of the Gospel which is built on justice. Since this “peace” is built on a lie, ultimately it must be maintained by force. In our neighborhoods and streets, that is the principle role of the police. Internationally, that is the role of the military with its absolute force of nuclear weapons.
If we are honest, many of us give a sigh of relief when this state is completed. The status quo is resumed but on a different footing because the escalating violence of militarized police or massive military operations is ever ready. Deterrence it is called. The message is loud and clear: domination by any means necessary is the order of the day. And the young hear it loud and clear. As do those we brand as rioters, demons or terrorists. It is their singular acts of violence, however repugnant we may deem them, to which all of our attention is focused today and from which many reap enormous political and economic profit.
One need only realize that the U.S. criminal justice system consumes $80 billion each year just to keep roughly 2.3 million people behind bars and the military budget is now $1.6 Trillion. And so the spiral of violence continues.
If we truly want to honor the George Floyds of our world, the words of Pope Paul VI are crucial: “If you want peace, work for justice.”
Some reflection questions
1. What struck you in this article and how did it make you feel?
2. Why do we act so strongly to the violence in the stage of rebellion but, for the most part, ignore the violence in the stage of oppression?
3. What do you think we are called to do to change this spiral, that is, what are we called to begin doing? Stop doing? Continue doing with a new intention?