Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Where Do Wars and Violence Come From?

"Peace and Security, Number 2" (2018, digital)
We live in a "Global Village" that is growing smaller, in a sense, as the 21st Century moves forward.

When Marshall McLuhan, the noted philosopher of media, coined this term over fifty years ago, he was well aware of its ambivalence.

It certainly was not meant as a guarantee that we were all going to become one big happy family on planet earth. Indeed, it doesn't require much consideration to recognize that the smaller the village, the easier it is to burn the whole thing down. As for being one big family, well... families have fights too.

Will we ever get this business of "being human" right?

I have been thinking about all this while pondering some of the readings from the liturgy this week. The Letter of James is a particularly challenging text in the New Testament. James's exhortations are blunt, direct, and sometimes have a bit of a sting to them.

He's not trying to be rude. Rather, he's hitting hard because he wants to puncture our bubbles of self-deception. He's trying to tell us things we'd rather not hear.

James shines a revealing light on the places in our lives where we tend to feel 'good' about ourselves. He shows us sins where we think we have virtues, pettiness and weakness where we feel great and strong.

James aims at our pride, and its external expressions of arrogance, envy, oppression, and the illusion that we are masters of reality by our own power.
"Where do the wars and where do the conflicts among you come from? Is it not from your passions that make war within your members? You covet but do not possess. You kill and envy but you cannot obtain; you fight and wage war. You do not possess because you do not ask" (James 4:1-2).

Certainly we have the right (even the duty) to defend ourselves and our civil communities from violence perpetrated against us, if necessary by means of physical force.

But it's so easy to rationalize the degeneration of legitimate force into violence. Even when we have good reason to defend ourselves and protect our communities, how often we end up pursuing revenge or taking advantage of the opportunity to plunder, degrade, and dehumanize the aggressor and everything associated with them.

Thus instead of seeking justice and reconciliation, we respond to aggression with force beyond the bounds of reason and honor, forgetful of the dignity of persons, and without mercy. We turn conflict toward our own selfish advantage and to the pursuit of power.

Violence begets more violence.

The wars that nations fight against one another correspond to all the "less political" kinds of violence that divide peoples, communities, families, and all kinds of relationships.

James tells us that war is rooted in our own hearts, in our "disordered passions," our envy, and our self-aggrandisement.

It's important to remember that human passions—the spontaneous inclinations that arise within us—are not bad in themselves. They belong to the fullness of being human. But our instincts and drives come to fruition only insofar as they are shaped to respond according to the goodness of reality, and integrated within our intelligence and freedom as guided by the wisdom and grace of God.

When we neglect to live in the freedom of God's children, we can become slaves to the powers of this world. The drives, urges, and fears of our frail humanity are so easily manipulated. We find ourselves caught up in the rivalries, the lusts, and the confusion of narrow and superficial spectacles of power that are unworthy of our humanity and that ultimately oppose us to one another.

We fall apart in dissipation and we tear each other apart in pursuit of ideologies and illusions.

This does not bring us freedom. It brings us violence. It always leads to violence.

The violence is only more destructive when we don't see it, when we ignore it, when we become accustomed to it.

We should remember that it's easy to trick ourselves into thinking that we have life "under control." We think we live reasonably contented, disciplined lives and that we are disposed to be benevolent or at least tolerant of others.

We are surrounded by humanly constructed environments that meet our physical needs and comforts in a way that almost seems spontaneous. We think we are peaceful people, when in fact most of us are merely distracted or shielded from the conflict that rages around us and in us.

It's difficult to believe that we are part of this "war." After all, we don't hunger for power. We think we have all the power we need. We presume on the solidity of all the unprecedented power within our reach as we proudly and calmly map out the course of our lives.

James has another reminder for us about this. To all of us who think we have power and boast about our big plans for the future, he says:
"You have no idea what your life will be like tomorrow. You are a puff of smoke that appears briefly and then disappears. Instead you should say, 'If the Lord wills it, we shall live to do this or that'" (James 4:14-15).
Of course, it's reasonable to plan, to dream, to aspire to accomplish things in the future—according to God's willaccording to the wisdom and love that has created and redeemed us.

This is neither a superstition nor a mere manner of speaking. It is the perspective of faith that lives by hope and love—the perspective of living our lives in relationship with God. He is the only source of the peace, confidence, and strength that endures and prevails.

His power is the power of Eternal Love. He has come to share life with us so that we might be empowered to love Him and one that we might be free.