One of the Barna Group's most recent projects is FRAMES, an attempt to engage in many important aspects of culture and their intersection with Christianity. In light of our culture's growing inability to focus and read anything of any significant length, each FRAME is a concise reflection based both in the author's personal experience and recent research done by the Barna Group. I had the pleasure of attending Barna FRAMES Live recently and will be working through the material presented for each FRAME in the live discussion, the book form, and the short film. I will continue my exploration into these FRAMES with Fighting For Peace: Your Role in a Culture Too Comfortable with Violence by Carol Howard Merritt and Tyler Wigg-Stevenson.
While this FRAME features a controversial and often contested topic, regarding which I have written on in terms of my own attempts to grapple with the subject elsewhere (The Christian and Violence, I: Christians, the Government, and Military Participation, The Christian and Violence, II: Violence for Protection?, and Violence), Merritt and especially Wigg-Stevenson approach the subject at such a fundamental and primary way that it becomes quite hard to disagree with their premise while still affirming a Biblical worldview, and for that perspective I am quite thankful.
On one hand, as Merritt and Wigg-Stevenson discuss, many Americans have done well at keeping themselves away from actual violence. Wars are being fought, but they are "over there." School shootings take place, but we watch them on television, and thus establish distance between ourselves and the events; coverage of violence on the news also tends to be sanitized, further masking the ugly reality. I, personally, have often commented on how "sanitized" modern Western existence is and how our forebears were much more attuned to the natural violence and despair of life: if they wanted meat they would have to kill an animal, while we get wrapped meat from a grocery store counter. Actual violence and death are not day-to-day realities in most of our lives, save those who are unfortunate to live "across the tracks" and/or in abusive relationships. Yet while we have sanitized actual violence out of our lives we seem to maintain a primal desire to see it, and thus we have such great amounts of violence in our entertainment.
Wigg-Stevenson goes on to spend much of his time discussing violence in entertainment mostly because, I imagine, that's the kind of violence that most of his readers are participating in more actively, and it no doubt helps fuel and is fueled by our culture saturated by violence. There is some unease about it: 33% of practicing Christians polled felt that violence was one of their top two concerns about entertainment, and 69% believed some connection existed between playing violent video games and violent actual behavior. Nevertheless it seems that "everyone" participates in some sort of violent entertainment, and most do it as a form of escapism. Wigg-Stevenson then focuses on two myths of violence which allow its justification in our culture; these two myths prove quite pervasive and extremely hostile to the Christian message.
The first myth involves the dehumanization of a person necessary in order to "enjoy" their destruction: in order to watch a movie and be able to get a rush from a person's injury or death, that person or person(s) must, at some level, be reduced to the body parts being injured and cease to be a real human, otherwise there would be at least some guilt in watching the person or people die. Wigg-Stevenson invites us to imagine a gory scene from Braveheart, to use one example, of a British man having his head smashed in by a Scottish mace. If the movie first told this British man's background story, how he was born, his love, his aspirations, how he was conscripted for war, and then his gory death scene, it would be much harder to stomach his death, let alone cheer it on. In order to enjoy violence the person must be distanced from his essential humanity as made in God's image (Genesis 1:26-27); since it would deny the value of the human as made in God's image, Wigg-Stevenson sees this myth as perpetuating an atheistic view of the world: people are just bodies to be dispensed with for our entertainment, a piece of meat. Wigg-Stevenson also identifies this as the essence of pornography as well: the object of lust is truly de-humanized, their background, their hopes and dreams in life, their emotions, etc., are all not only irrelevant but distractions from the opportunity to satisfy desire by looking at their body parts. To that end pornography is its own form of violence: "holes are to be filled just as meat is to be butchered."
The second myth is perhaps even more pervasive: the myth of redemptive violence. This is its own form of worldly wisdom: violence is the answer to the world's problems. This is the code of ethics of all violent movies and video games: someone has to use "legitimate" violence in order to stop others from committing more "illegitimate" forms of violence.
As Wigg-Stevenson notes, Saturday Night Live has showed us what the Gospel would look like if it conformed to this myth of redemptive violence in its mock movie teaser for "DJesus Uncrossed" (warning: some cursing and much graphic violence):
Such is the inverse of the Gospel of Christ. Jesus gained His victory precisely by suffering death without retaliation (Romans 5:6-11, 8:1-4). The Apostle Paul explicitly charges Christians to not seek vengeance but to overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21). Yet the myth of redemptive violence is pernicious, and many seek to hold on to it with a Christian veneer, justifying it by images in Revelation, yet not noticing that it is precisely in Revelation where we see Jesus as the conquering Lamb, having gained His victory through humiliation and sacrifice, and overcoming His foes with the Word of His mouth (Revelation 19:15, 21). There's no Rambo in Christianity.
For her part Merritt focuses on the violence all around us that we often ignore or neglect: the violence in the inner cities and domestic violence, and offers encouragement regarding how we can "fight" for peace in our daily lives. Stephan Joubert, in the Re/Frame, provides touching examples from South Africa regarding the healing power of reconciliation in the wake of violence.
So all of this leads to application: should Christians seek to live in a violence-free bubble? In the FRAME Wigg-Stevenson endeavors to carve out a place where some violence may have to take place for justice's sake, relying on Romans 13:1-7 and the need for some to uphold the rule of law, but even then counsels about the effects of violence and exhorts toward caution regarding such matters. In terms of entertainment he did best in his FRAMES Live talk by declaring that "good art does not titillate," in terms of either violence or sexuality. We live in a world full of violence; we cannot shrink away from it, and we must come to grips with it. But violence is not something in which to glory.
Perhaps the most powerful illustration made by Wigg-Stevenson is the appeal to Jesus on the cross. There He is the object of violence, publicly humiliated to display ungodly power, a proclamation of a lack of belief in the God of Israel and the Christ whom He sent. To some level He was crucified for the entertainment of many: the Roman soldiers mocked Him, as did many among the Israelites, making fun of Him and taking pleasure in His execution (cf. especially Mark 14:64-65, 15:16-19, 29-32). How can we claim to serve Christ crucified yet "enjoy" dehumanizing violent entertainment making sport of the sufferings akin to what Jesus experienced? And how can we declare Jesus the Crucified Lord yet still hold on to the idea that violence can indeed lead to redemption?
In the end, it is one thing to learn about and be transformed by the sufferings experienced by others. But it is quite another to find refreshment, escape, satisfaction, or any other pleasure in the dehumanizing violence so often displayed in movies, video games, and their ilk. Such forms of entertainment perpetuate and are fed by a culture of violence, and we as Christians are called to not be conformed to such but be transformed by the renewing of our minds according to the Christ who experienced suffering and identified with the victim and was glorified because of it. Let us "fight" for peace and resist the dehumanization of violence and pornography in entertainment!