Theology and Peace: Part 4, The Lord's Prayer and Cycles of Violence

During dinner on the first day of the Theology and Peace conference my table was having a conversation about how victims tend to create more victims. I talked a bit about this in my post on Monday when I pointed to James Hunter's analysis regarding narratives of injury in American political discourse, how everyone is rushing to claim the position of victim in order to use moral leverage against opponents. In short, victims create more victims.

This is the argument made by social psychologist Ray Baumeister in his book Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty. In this book Baumeister takes on what he calls "the myth of pure evil." According to Baumeister we tend to think that evil is produced by sociopathic sadists. But if you really look at the violence in the world you quickly realize that very little of it is caused by purely evil people. The vast majority of violence comes from normal people like you and I. Consequently, if we stay fascinated by the myth of pure evil, and Hollywood helps greatly with this, we'll never come to grips with where violence comes from.

So where does violence come from?

Well, one of the places violence comes from is from victims. Again, victims create more victims.

Take, as the paradigmatic case, Nazi Germany. No doubt Hitler was a sadist. But Hitler couldn't kill six million people all by himself. Hitler needed the cooperation of his Christian nation. How'd he get that cooperation? Well, he got it because Germany felt victimized in the aftermath of World War I. That narrative of injury, to apply James Hunter's term, allowed for the rise of the National Socialist Party.

Take, as a second example, the Rwandan genocide. The majority Hutu had a longstanding grievance of injury toward the Tusi who had ruled Rwanda for many centuries (backed, in the modern era, by Germany and Belgium). That narrative of injury drove many to the Hutu Power ideology that fueled the genocide.

And the examples can get more local. Take, as a third and final example, the research Baumeister cites in regard to domestic abusers. Why do these men beat their wives or girlfriends? Shockingly, these men tell narratives of injury. They, and not the one they abused, are the real victims. Think about that: abusers think they are the real victims. How so? The stories vary. Maybe she was flirting with a guy. Maybe she disrespected or demeaned him. The point is, even if we see all this as self-serving and ridiculous, the guy sees himself as having a reason, a reason that comes from a sense of perceived injury.

In sum, a great deal of evil in the world comes from feeling victimized. And these narratives of injury allow us to aggress against others in a way that feels right, moral and justified.

And if that's the case, how are we escape this cycle of violence? That is what we were talking about over dinner.

During this discussion Michael Hardin made a comment about the Lord's Prayer that really grabbed my attention. Specifically, he said this: The only way we can stop this cycle of violence, a cycle driven by our experience of being a victim, is to first recognize that we are perpetrators. As it says in the Lord's Prayer, "Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors."

The first move is to recognize my own violence. The first move is to see how I victimize others. The first thing I confess in the Lord's Prayer is my own sin.

And in making this confession in the Lord's Prayer, in facing our own violence before anything else, we step away from narratives of injury and the cycles of violence they perpetuate.

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14 thoughts on “Theology and Peace: Part 4, The Lord's Prayer and Cycles of Violence”

  1. This is so true. Every time I treat someone poorly it comes out of some sense of personal injury.  My options for reaction really make me think of the contrast between acts of the flesh and fruits of the spirit in Galatians.

    Side note: Is Michael Hardin as much fun in person as he sounds in interviews?

  2. There's a lot in here that is challenging and helpful, but I also find it a bit troubling. My question is this: what happens when people really are victims, but are already blaming themselves for their victimisation? To take your example of domestic violence, women in abusive relationships tend to blame themselves for the violence that is visited upon them, and in that context, the message that we are all always already victimising others isn't necessarily liberating or transformative. You're right, obviously, that feeling victimised can lead to victimising others; but can't it also lead to empowerment in the struggle for liberation? I have found feminism incredibly liberating in that sense: it offers an alternative narrative than the one prevalent in society, such as that if men shout at me in the street it is *not my fault*. The biblical narrative of exodus seems to me to have been a trope of more than one movement which has been politically or socially liberating; and it's central to that narrative that people are able to identify themselves as oppressed, as enslaved by unjust systems, and to seek liberation. Is it there a difference between being a victim and being oppressed? 

  3. Most of the time these people really are victims in every sense of the word.  The message here is when you are a victim, don't turn and then become the perpetrator.  The right response to being a victim is probably different in every situation.  Yes you truely are a victim when a man shouts at you in the street.  That is him in the wrong in every way.  BUT if you turned around and punched him in the nose, you are now the perpetrator and he the victim.  Now what?  He feels justified in hurting you.  The cycle continues.  What can we do to end the cycle?  Yes, Seek Liberation without violence!  That is the message of Exodus, Jesus, Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr.  Yes? 

  4.  Speaking as someone who lived through a number of years of being on the receiving end of sexual violence in childhood and adolescence - this: The first move is to recognize my own violence. The first move is to see how I victimize others. The first thing I confess in the Lord's Prayer is my own sin. - doesn't help AT ALL, and is actually a VERY destructive message, and is one of the main reasons I left Christianity.  It makes God say the same damn thing as the abuser.  Please, please, please - do NOT say this to anyone who is working through the effects of being a victim of violence or abuse. (We've already got the self-hatred thing down, thanks.)  Save the therapist some time.

    The single most helpful thing in my healing was to realize that my own sin was NOT my primary problem, that what happened to me was NOT my fault, and that it was my choice to forgive - or not.

    There is a huge difference between an abuser who has constructed a fictional narrative of injury to rationalize violence and someone who is actually a victim - and I think it is tremendously dangerous to conflate the two. (Feeling victimized is not necessarily the same thing as actually being victimized.)   Sometimes the narrative of injury is true.  At some point, you have to realize it's not the ONLY thing that's true, and that being a victim is not the sum total of who you are, and it certainly does not absolve me of my responsibility to act compassionately and ethically. But if you have, in actual fact, been a victim of violence, it is more than a bit crazy-making to be told that that experience and its after-effects are not the actual problem, and that good theology requires that I view myself as an abuser, when the facts of the matter say otherwise.

    I will agree with Marika - I'm with the feminists on this one.

  5. Well said, Christy. Children have no voice when violence is done to them in families. It doesn't mean they will grow up to abuse others. It does, however, often take a long time for that child, after becoming an adult, to recognize that what was done to them WASN'T their fault. The narrative fed to them all their formative years was a lie. And calling out the truth DOESN'T make them an abuser.

  6. Seems to me the first thing to do is - not hit back. Turn the other cheek, walk away, think, act from center. Be angry - it's normal, inevitable, and not evil to be angry when somebody busts your chops or your butt - and Do Not Sin. Suck it up. That's what Jesus did for us. 
    That's what will let violence leak out of the world. The buddhists call it "cleansing karma": let it end here. The Boy Scouts say, "Leave the campsite neater than you found it."

  7. Excellent point. It is satanic when the victim is asked to internalize the narrative of injury of the perpetrator. Nothing keeps the cycle of violence more firmly in place.

  8. "The first thing I confess in the Lord's Prayer is my own sin. - doesn't
    help AT ALL, and is actually a VERY destructive message, and is one of
    the main reasons I left Christianity."

    Me too, Christy.  I understand.  It is not "sin" if you are in no way either responsible or culpable. Peace to you.     Sam

  9. Richard-
    I'm curious, does Baumeister talk at all about the impact of injury narratives in political dialog? For some time, it has struck me that much of the metaphorical hyperbole you hear in political discourse ("war on women," "attack on religion," etc.) is framed in such a way where members of an interest group will view themselves as victims of the opposing party.

  10. I heard it put this way, "Hurt people, hurt people." The trick it not to be hurt.

  11. I think this is a great post Richard, thanks. I just love how you continue to probe the psycho-social mechanisms of our everyday and reveal how things work, and sometimes highlight the cogs in the machine that keep us in neurotic cycles.

    "The first move is to recognize my own violence." I love this and I agree with its importance in taking the next step towards empathy of the other rather than sympathy to the self. (Obviously, as described in the other comments, if you actually are the victim, this advice doesn't apply during that time of victimage and some other method of liberation and empowerment is required.)

  12. Thanks Bruce. When we were speaking at the dinner table I in NO way was saying that those who have been victims (as I also have) of traumatic abuse should confess their "persecutorhood" as though their victimage wasn't real and life-changing. Mine certainly was. What I was referring to was that I must acknowledge that I have victimized others (even as a victim) and through receiving forgiveness then learn how to pass on that forgiveness to those who have victimized me.  It isn't easy but for me has been necessary.  Peace.  Michael Hardin

  13. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire, made a similar observation.
    "The oppressed, instead of striving for liberation, tend themselves to become oppressors""The oppressed find in the oppressors their model of 'manhood.'""The oppressed want at any cost to resemble the oppressors." It is perhaps of interest to note that Freire expected his work to be well received by Christians...

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