Understanding Violence: The New Copernican Revolution


Charles K. Bellinger

Houston Baptist University, Jan. 31, 2003



In the Middle Ages, virtually all people, from the least to the most educated, believed that the earth was flat. School children now know that it is round. This major change in the structure of human thought was brought about to a large extent through the efforts of the early modern astronomers Nicolaus Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, and Galileo Galilei. They can fittingly be described as light bringers. In an age when people lived in the dark, they brought true enlightenment and insight.

            Copernicus, who lived from 1473 to 1543, was able to imagine that the planets are actually spheres revolving around the Sun, even as they rotate around their own axes. He realized that this scenario effectively accounts for the various appearances offered by phenomena in the heavens and on the earth. The seasons, for example, could now be understood by combining the idea that the earth’s axis is tilted with a yearly transit around the Sun, placing the Northern hemisphere closer to the Sun in the Summer. Around 1510, when these concepts were coming into focus in Copernicus’ mind, they were radical and bizarre. A heliocentric perception of the cosmos was such a major upheaval for customary thought that Copernicus was most likely wise to delay the publication of the full version of his theory until 1543, the year in which he died.

            Kepler, who lived from 1571 to 1630, developed Copernicus’ insights further by discovering certain laws of planetary motion that explained even more precisely the data provided by astronomical observations. He realized that the orbits of the planets were not perfect circles but ellipses and he was able to specify certain mathematical relationships involved in arcs, areas, and orbits. Kepler’s added insights revealed a dynamic universe in which the Sun is actively moving the planets around in their orbits.

            Galileo, who lived from 1564 to 1642, is perhaps the best known of these three astronomers, because of the Inquisition’s dramatic proceedings against him. He continued to refine and develop the insights of his predecessors regarding inertia, parabolic trajectories, and other basic laws of motion. He was a major force in transforming the study of nature from a qualitative, philosophical enterprise into a quantitative, mathematical, and experimental process. He used a homemade telescope to confirm and develop Copernicus’ view of the solar system by noticing that there were moons orbiting Jupiter. It was this activity in particular that got him into hot water with the Inquisition. Defenders of the traditional Ptolemaic worldview rightly saw the developing heliocentric astronomy as a fundamental threat to their belief system. Galileo was tried and convicted of heresy in 1642. He was allowed to “recant” his views and live out the rest of his life under house arrest. He has become a symbol of the honest seeker after truth who is persecuted by fearful and small-minded authorities. In 1992 he was officially pardoned by the Vatican.

            To describe the intellectual situation before these astronomers as "darkness" is a metaphor with substantial weight. Those who think that they understand the world correctly when they are actually misconstruing it in fundamental ways are truly in the dark. They cannot see the world in which they are living clearly, just as a blindfolded person cannot see a pi˝ata. They are living in a fog—a veil of illusions generated by their own minds. They have naively accepted their own perceptions of the world as correct interpretations of the nature of things. The light that shines upon them reveals their  anthropocentrism and its inadequacy as a basis for thought. What is needed for a clear perception of reality is a way of seeing that is not trapped by na´ve egocentricity—one that allows for a higher, transcendent point of view.

            The irony of this situation is clear to us now. When the Inquisition placed Galileo on trial, the Inquisitors thought that they were defending the Christian tradition against the appearance of new and heretical ideas that foreshadowed a departure from faith and the advent of secularism. In hindsight, we can see that it was Copernicus and Galileo who were truly opening the door that leads into a higher, theocentric way of perceiving reality, as opposed to the na´ve view which was truly anthropocentric and thus secular.

            The central idea that I hope to communicate here is that we are today walking in a kind of darkness that is analogous to the darkness of the Middle Ages. I am speaking of violence. Violence itself, as the reality of human evil, is a form of moral and spiritual darkness, and it is doubly compounded by the intellectual darkness apparent in the fact that we do not understand why we are violent. We human beings not only do evil things, but we are also ignorant about why we do them. This is the case with all of us, from the least to the most educated, though there are certain exceptions to this generalization.

            Recall some event of violence that was the lead story on the evening television news within the last ten years. Almost inevitably, a reporter will be speaking with a school principal, or a mayor, or a pastor, or a grieving person, and they will say something like: “We don’t understand why senseless acts of violence like this happen.” They are speaking quite truly when they say that. Or think of an article in a major news magazine discussing such an event and perhaps even going beyond mere reportage to attempt some sort of explanation or consideration of what this event teaches us about “human propensities for evil.” If you have ever read such an article and found it unsatisfying and unenlightening you know what I am talking about. And if we rise above the level of journalism to consider the writings of psychologists, philosophers, historians, and so forth, who have reflected on these questions, we are likely to find more self-confidence, but also a bewildering variety of explanations of violence that point in many different directions. This variety, which is helpfully charted in a book such as Explaining Hitler by Ron Rosenbaum, reveals another dimension of the intellectual darkness that envelops us. If even those brilliant minds who have reflected on human violence for years cannot progress beyond the scenario of the blind men and their elephant, then the true dimensions of the problem begin to loom even larger.

It is my view that our modern age is not entirely lacking in authors who are similar to Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo. Just as these light bringers performed their service in revealing the shape of the outer world, we also have light bringers in the task of understanding our inner world, our spirit and its malformations. In this context I will consider S°ren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), Karl Barth (1886-1968), and RenÚ Girard (1923-     ).

Kierkegaard was widely read in the twentieth century, but it is far from clear that he was widely understood. In most cases, his interpreters and critics laid over his writings a heavy layer of their own biases, preoccupations, and jargon. This resulted in a phenomenon which I refer to as Kierkegaard Graffiti. Just as the vandal who spray paints a building hastily in the dark and then runs away has no real appreciation for the architecture of the building he is defacing, so also did Kierkegaard’s deep and complex authorship become the victim of misconstrual and slander by people who did not expend the time and effort required for developing a clear understanding of his central concerns. Just one example of this graffiti is the phrase “the leap of faith” which is considered by many authors of encyclopedia articles to be the perfect summary of  “Kierkegaard’s philosophy.” It turns out that he never used that phrase anywhere in his writings.

A more accurate summary of Kierkegaard would proceed along these lines. Kierkegaard understood the world as the sphere of the creative activity of God. He took very seriously the fundamental biblical theme that God creates the universe through speech. Everything that exists does so because God is speaking it into existence. The human soul is that unique place in all of nature where the voice of God can be heard and responded to consciously. The animals, vegetables, and minerals are simply given from God’s hand without self-consciousness; but human beings are able to be aware of their divine source. We are not only spoken into existence, but we also have the ability to be hearers of that speech. This is our transcendent nobility as human beings, but it is also our peril.

Just as we are superior to the lower animals because we can respond to our Creator consciously, so also can we sink below them into the abyss of sin. The psychology of the animals is set, determined. But our psychology is rooted in freedom. Another way of putting this is to say that we do not simply exist; we are coming into existence. Our character is not set in stone; our character is shaped by our experiences, our fears and anxieties, our relationships with other people and with our Creator. We have the ability to shape our own character (and to be shaped) through our response to the voice of creation that is speaking us.

The fact that we are not determined means that we can experience an emotion that is unique to us: angst. Angst arises out of the ambiguity of our future. There are various possibilities open to us if we choose to allow our self to develop in this direction or that direction. The most basic choice which presents itself to us at all times concerns our response to the divine call of creation.  We can respond positively to this call and allow ourselves to be drawn forward into the fullness of selfhood that God intends for us, or we can attempt to deafen ourselves to God’s voice and seize control of our selfhood. This is precisely what Adam and Eve did, and what we all do as their children. They sought to “become as God,” to usurp the place of God as the shaper of their future. In the same way, human beings down through the centuries have tried to manage and contain their angst by turning away from God in an attempt to avoid the pain of personal growth. We find it easier to reinforce the status quo of our souls and our societies than to allow the continuing process of creation to make, unmake, and remake us.

When we start down this path of deafening ourselves to the voice of God, we quickly develop a psychological inertia. Our commitment to avoiding the pain of growth is so strong that we organize our character and our societies around that commitment. When we cut ourselves off from the fullness of what the future could hold for us, we inevitably become stunted and misshapen as persons. Instead of living creatively in the tensions of existence before God, such as freedom and necessity, the eternal and the temporal, we careen in one direction or the other, seeking then to fortify ourselves within one of those poles of existence. What we are seeking to evade above all else is the possibility that we could actually become ourselves before God. Instead of moving in faith into the fullness of life that God calls us to, we choose to follow the pathway that Kierkegaard calls “the sickness unto death.”

When God comes to us in the person of Christ, what do we do? We could allow him to heal us of our sickness and lead us back into the process of creation. But we don’t do that. We are enraged by the voice that judges our smallness and choice of mediocrity. We must silence this voice in order to protect ourselves from its disturbing call. We stop up our ears and rush upon Jesus to kill him. Kierkegaard is pointing us in the direction we must look if we seek to understand the violence which erupts from the depths of human soul. Violence is not “senseless”; it has a purpose. It seeks to fend off the possibility that always lies before us—the possibility that we could become the mature, loving human beings that God wants us to be.

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Karl Barth’s theological vision arose out of his reflections on the killing fields of World War I. He was appalled by how easily the progressive Protestant culture in which he had been educated became a culture of death and destruction on a huge scale. Many of his favorite professors, who had spoken eloquently about the advance of Christian civilization and the gradual development of the kingdom of God on earth, had suddenly become militaristic warmongers. He realized that something was terribly wrong. The problem was the vague, nominal, cultural Christianity that Kierkegaard had attacked so vehemently at the end of his life. Barth's commentary on Romans picked up where Kierkegaard's attack left off, blasting and exposing the illusion of a triumphantly advancing Christian world in Europe. Barth was avidly reading Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard at this time, and the influence of the Danish thinker upon Barth continued to be strong throughout his career.

When Naziism came to the forefront in Germany in the 1930s, Barth was well prepared to theologically analyze and denounce it in the Barmen Declaration and other writings. He realized that the illusion of Christendom had been dissolved, leaving in its wake a revival of neopaganism that was animated by a hatred of the divine revelation that had been communicated through the experience of the Jewish people, Jesus Christ, and the apostles.

At the heart of Barth's mature thought as a theologian we find a clear echo of the central theme in Kierkegaard: God's speech which brings us into being. The structure of the Church Dogmatics is built on the foundation of "The Doctrine of the Word of God." God has spoken the creating word in bringing the universe into existence; God spoke the redeeming word through the prophets and the apostles; and God is living and speaking in the present moment in time. Reading the Bible opens up our hearing so that we can be awake to that living speech in our time and place.

Barth understands God as "the One who loves in freedom." God's love for us is not bound within any structure of metaphysical necessity. God's love for us is always greater than our ability to understand it or rebel against it. God's grace precedes us and comes after us. God's patience waits for us to end our self-imposed choice of flight and death. In the final analysis, evil in the universe can be nothing other than that which is opposed to God's grace; as such, it does not have a divine origin or a coherent and necessary place in God's providential ordering of life.

Barth was always a very politically oriented theologian. Toward the end of his life, he reflected on the Lord's Prayer: "Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come." In this context, he spoke of the root cause of human hatred and violence. When people act toward human beings more as wolves than as neighbors, it is due to a colossal ignorance of God, as God's nature is revealed through Christ.[see The Christian Life, 131-132] Ignorance of God works itself out in an ignorance of one's fellow human beings that expresses itself in caprice, hatred, rancor, and duplicity.  If human beings truly knew God, then their relations with others would express faithfulness, love, and peace, just as God has reached out to us with precisely those attributes. When we see the neighbor as a creature of God, then we will live not against but with and for one another.

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RenÚ Girard is another light bringer in our world. I am comparing him to Galileo because he has made a great impact on the academic world through his writings and lectures. He has almost single-handedly turned the attention of hundreds of scholars and thinkers to the task of reflecting on violence and the roots of human culture. He is a wide-ranging historian who brings together in remarkable ways the study of modern European literature, ancient Greek tragedy, social science, and biblical studies. His comments on scapegoating, human sacrifice, lynch mobs, and related phenomena have been so thought-provoking that a huge literature of response has already come into existence, and many scholarly conferences discussing his ideas have been held around the globe.

Girard begins with the concept of mimetic desire. We human beings have a natural tendency to look to others as models of success. We think that by imitating others we deem to be successful, we will come to share in their greater fullness of being. We want to have what they have so that we can be as important as they are. This basic driving force in human affairs, mimetic desire, can be seen in the psychology of small children, in advertising, in romantic relationships, in fashion, in economics, and on and on. But if I am copying the desires of others, wanting to possess what they possess, then by definition I will create a rivalry with those others for the possession of those things. And if those others are creating a rivalry with me, then we have the recipe for a war of all against all for possession of the idols of our desire.

How does human society prevent itself from degenerating into a chaos of violence driven by envy? “It is expedient that one should die for the sake of the people.” The idea of channeling a society’s violence toward a scapegoat is the solution to the problem, according to Girard. Killing a scapegoat, or attacking a minority group within society, provides an outlet valve for the build up of hatreds, resentments, and violent impulses that are generated by mimetic desire. Killing the scapegoat is a cathartic event that creates a new sense of social unanimity that did not exist before. Sacrifice becomes salvific for the society, and it becomes the cornerstone of both religion and culture.

But this cultural answer to the problem of possible social collapse is false because the problem should not exist in the first place. In other words, deceit becomes the one thing needful for society as it must not become aware of the injustice involved in its destruction of arbitrary scapegoats. Society must lie to itself about its foundation, because the mimetic desire at the root of the social system is itself a falling away from God; Girard calls it an “ontological sickness.”

This is the point at which Girard’s vision of human culture leads beyond the narrowness of secular social science to a broader theological anthropology. Girard clearly states that we can only articulate this understanding of human culture because our eyes have been opened up by the Bible. It is the cumulative effect of divine revelation in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures that has exposed the ontological sickness of mimetic desire and the scapegoating mechanism. The high point of revelation is the Gospels’ depiction of the crucifixion of Christ, which tears the mask off of culture’s insistence that it is in the right when it executes people. The Gospels expose this lie by clearly showing that Christ is innocent and that those who are killing him are in the wrong. In that revelation God triumphs and Satan is defeated. Girard understands Satan to be that principle in human psychology and culture that cries out for bloodshed, for violence, for revenge, for destruction.

Girard speaks primarily about a crowd attacking a scapegoat. In the news recently, we have heard about teenage boys walking into their high schools and turning them into shooting galleries, or Timothy McVeigh blowing up a federal building, or terrorists attacking buildings in New York City. In situations like this, an individual or small group of individuals is attacking a large crowd rather than the other way around. Girard's theory is not as helpful in understanding situations like this as it is in understanding the psychology of the lynch mob. This is the case because Girard’s forte is social psychology, not individual psychology. I suggest that here Kierkegaard can take our understanding to a deeper and more fundamental level.

            Aristotle said that “all action intends a good.” In other words, whenever human beings act, they think (in some ambiguous sense of the word think) that they are doing something good. The Nazis thought they were making the world a better place by killing off as many Jews as possible. President Truman thought he was ending World War II sooner by dropping atomic bombs on two Japanese cities. Timothy McVeigh thought he was striking a dramatic blow against a tyrannical federal government. In other words, human action is always either directly ethical in the eyes of the actors, or it is a kind of “teleological suspension of the ethical” which amounts to the same thing. Timothy McVeigh could admit that killing innocent people is not in itself a good thing, but the badness of the act is outweighed by the goodness of the prophetic statement, in his mind. Similar thoughts run through the minds of Islamic terrorists. Everyone is innocent in their own eyes, because everyone is intending a good.

            From Kierkegaard we can gain a better understanding of the phenomenon of human evil. From him we can learn that in the case of the most twisted psychologies the self is so filled with rage toward God and the ongoing process of creation that the person’s actions no longer make any sense in terms of this world. I am thinking of how the Columbine shooters killed others and then committed suicide. They had already checked out of this world. I am thinking here of the way we search in vain to find any shred of rationality in the actions of the World Trade Center terrorists. When terrorists cold-bloodedly board airplanes and suicidally guide them to a murderous apocalypse, their actions can aptly be described as expressing a “transcendental rage.” The object of this rage is God. The human self has become so twisted and malformed that the only good it can aim at is the affirmation of the self in utter defiance of God and the goodness of creation. The self’s desire to avoid the pain of growth is so strong that it has declared war on God and God’s creatures, which includes the self itself. Thus we can understand the very close relationship between the suicidal mentality and the homicidal mentality. Ultimately, the most effective way for the self to prevent itself from growing psychologically is to end its own existence as a self.

            It is sometimes said that self-righteousness is at the root of violence. This is true, and Kierkegaard, Barth, and Girard help us to develop a nuanced understanding of the truth at work here. The most basic root of violence is the self not wanting to become an other to itself, the self not wanting to die and be reborn in a more mature form. The self-righteousness that leads to violence is the attempt of the immature self to fortify itself in defiance of the call of creation. We insist that we are in the right in relation to others, because we want to be in the right in relation to God. We want to be as God, knowing good and evil, so that we can avoid the pain of creation.

H. Richard Niebuhr once said this: “The cross in history may be compared to the kind of an event which an astronomer means when, having computed the positions of the planets with the aid of his excellent Ptolemaean wisdom he discovers a planet in a position that does not fit into the scheme. His whole wisdom is called into question, and eventually the Copernican or Einsteinian revolution of his science may result. So the cross as a simple event calls into question the foundations of our worldly wisdom.”  From Kierkegaard, Barth, and Girard the full ramifications of this insight can be drawn out. From them we can learn to know the shape of the self, the mechanisms of fallen society, and the heart of the God who calls us all into a new world of grace and truth. I am drawing an analogy between the astronomers and the religious thinkers because there is a real, substantial parallelism at work here. The astronomers broke down the na´ve egocentricity of human perceptions of the physical universe, so that we could begin to see the world from a higher, theological point of view. Kierkegaard, Barth, and Girard have also succeeded in breaking down na´ve, anthropocentric, and simplistic ways of thinking about human behavior. They have led us out of the darkness in which violence is incomprehensible, into a new place where we can begin to understand human actions from a transcendent point of view rooted in divine revelation.

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In my experience, the psychological approach to thinking about violence that I have been outlining is not a very popular approach. There seems to be little interest in reflecting on the roots of violent behavior, whether we are considering the popular level of discourse or the scholarly level. People tend to be much more interested in thinking about the ethical dimensions of violence than the psychological dimensions. In other words, people are much more concerned about how violence should be responded to, with pacifism or with justified use of force, than they are with understanding where the violence comes from in the first place. I will turn my attention briefly to this aspect of the problem.

            I’m sure that most of you are familiar with the general outlines of the traditional debate between the just war theory and pacifism. The just war tradition has been dominant in Christian thinking from Augustine’s time up to the present. The pacifist position has been the view of a small minority, though it has been a very dedicated minority, with a strong sense of mission growing out of a careful reading of scripture. The pacifist cause has been gaining strength in recent years, to such a degree that its arguments are taken very seriously in the academic teaching of ethics and in the drafting of official statements on war and peace by denominations in the just war tradition. Some of those denominations burned pacifists at the stake during the Reformation era, which lends further gravity to those occasions when Christians confess corporately that they have strayed from following Christ in various historical situations. The pacifist cause has also been strengthened greatly by the remarkably powerful vision and intellect of John Howard Yoder. His masterful interpretations of scripture, commentary on the history of Christianity, and articulation of the Anabaptist position in a modern context have justly earned the respect of the theological world. Even those who disagree with his conclusions, as I do, recognize in Yoder a commitment to Christian discipleship and an intellectual talent that was genuinely a gift from God to the whole Church.

            As I see it, the debate between the just war position and the pacifist position can be distilled in this way. A pacifist is mainly concerned with having the right subjective principle of action. He wants to know what he should do. But you can also take as your starting point the neighbor, which we can call an objective principle of action. To put it in plain English, the pacifist motto is: “I should not kill.” The non-pacifist phrase is: “People should not be killed.” It isn’t the case that the pacifist says that killing is a bad thing and the non-pacifist says it is a good thing. They both agree it is a bad thing. But the focus of their attention is different. Because the non-pacifist is concerned about others, not just himself, he has a longer motto: “People should not be killed; therefore, in some circumstances, the use of deadly force to protect the innocent from being unjustly killed may be the correct course of action.”

            This argument can be illustrated by a scenario. Let’s say there is a terrorist who goes into a restaurant where a group of children is having a birthday party. He blows up himself and the children. Of course, that is an atrocious, heinous crime. But in scenario B, a police detective has been on the trail of this terrorist for several months and he finds out about the plan to blow up the restaurant. The detective finally catches up with the terrorist just before he enters the restaurant, pulls out a gun and shoots him just before he goes inside. The children’s lives are spared. I don’t see how the pacifist statement “The detective’s actions are against God’s will” can win out in a battle with the statement “God does not want those children to be murdered.” This is where I prefer the non-pacifist motto to the pacifist motto. “It is wrong for people to be killed” is better than “It is wrong for me to kill” as a categorical statement that allows for no exceptions.

            The pacifist camp is on more solid ground, in my view, when it presents itself as a program for proactive peacemaking. The book Just Peacemaking: Ten Practices for Abolishing War edited by Glen Stassen, is an example of this trend. This book works with the assumption that pacifists and just war advocates can do many things together in an attempt to diffuse conflicts before they erupt, and to work for changes in the world that will create a more peaceful atmosphere in general. The book argues, for example, that the “war as a last resort” element of the just war doctrine opens up a rich field of activity for practical efforts in peacemaking. What are the resorts that should be tried before the last? We can do such things as organize boycotts, marches, and acts of civil disobedience when doing so can bring about positive social change, following the example of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. We can use techniques of cooperative conflict resolution that have already been employed effectively in various parts of the world. We can support those social trends that advance democracy and human rights. We can encourage and facilitate interreligious dialogue in situations where religious tensions are contributing to conflict. We can support efforts to assist the economically disadvantaged, acknowledging that systematic patterns of injustice lead to a subtle daily violence under which the poor suffer and are often driven to despair. We can support international criminal tribunals and the peacekeeping work of the U.N. We can seek to reduce the international weapons trade that bleeds away such a large portion of the budgets of third world countries, contributes to the oppression of the poor, fosters conflicts between nations, and makes those conflicts more deadly. All of these are practical ideas that can be worked on by people of goodwill from various walks of life, who can organize at the grassroots level or use their influence in the halls of government.

            I would like to turn my attention once again, however, to the psychological approach to violence that I developed earlier. What I find missing from the concept of just peacemaking, as it has been articulated thus far, is the idea that we could actually use knowledge as a weapon in the struggle against violence. This can be another aspect of the “arsenal” of approaches to making the world more peaceful. I have been arguing that violence is a kind of willfully reinforced psychological stupidity. Therefore, we can fight this stupidity with knowledge and insight, just as belief that the earth was flat was attacked with genuine insight into the physical world.

I need to expand on what I mean by the concept of psychological stupidity and moral idiocy. There are different dimensions of a person’s intellect. There is basic brilliance of mind, or I.Q. How capable is the person in comprehending and working with ideas? There is erudition. How well-read is the person? There is originality of thought. Does the person always let others set the agenda for what he or she is going to think about, or do they have genuine ideas of their own? And there is also an element that I like to call the ability to discern what is important. A person can be very brilliant, and yet if he lacks the ability to discern what is important, he will waste his time on trivialities. These different elements of a person’s thought are somewhat independent of each other. A person can be very brilliant, but not very erudite. They can be very brilliant and erudite but utterly unoriginal in their thinking, and so forth. It is rare for all four of these elements to be strongly developed in a particular person. Such people are usually the big names in intellectual history, like Plato, Aquinas, and Kant. But there’s a fifth element of the human intellect, which enables us to see moral idiocy. As soon as I mention the names Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche you should know what I’m talking about. They were strong in the four most obvious elements, but utter failures in the subtle fifth area, which I call “attunedness to truth and love, attunedness to God.” By this concept I’m suggesting that if a thinker is not rightly related to God and their neighbor then their thought will likely become pernicious. Instead of contributing to the betterment of the human race they will harm it, if they don’t have the quality of spiritual openness. People who are spiritually open will allow the Creator to draw them forward into a life of genuine concern for their neighbor, instead of using people as pawns that can be destroyed as part of their small-minded plans for control.

This is the point at which people who accuse Kierkegaard of being radically individualistic show how inept they are as readers. Because it is precisely in Kierkegaard’s thought that we can see this fifth element, attunedness to God, and how it leads people out of solipsism and into love for the neighbor. That is the central message of Kierkegaard’s Works of Love, in which he shows that “love is the fundamental revolution” in a way that Marx and Nietzsche are completely clueless about.

But what does this have to do with fighting against violence in the world, you may ask. A violent person is one who is spiritually immature and wants to remain that way. They are trying to fight off the possibility that they could become attuned to life and love and goodness. Their motto is: “Evil be thou my good!”, or “I’m going to kill people and justify it in my own mind!” They are morally retarded. What I’m arguing is that the reason why the world has so many morally retarded people in it is because the average people who just want live in peace with their neighbor don’t understand what is going on. They don’t have enough knowledge to effectively counter the rampages of the violent people. In other words, the actions of the violent ones are like a bacteria that grows very well in the right kind of Petri dish culture. And as long as the world remains the way it is, it will be just the right kind of atmosphere for cultivating violence. Violence is spiritual ignorance and it is allowed to grow by the intellectual ignorance of people in general.

            Most of the human race are people of goodwill who understand and want to live by the commandment “Thou shalt not kill.” They aren’t lacking moral knowledge in that sense. When people like Osama bin Laden come along and reject the commandment, it isn’t that people aren’t able to denounce it as a crime. They can do that, but what they can’t do is really understand violence. They lack the intellectual ability to make sense of what they are seeing. What they need is the kind of tools that Copernicus and Galileo gave us for understanding the shape of the earth.

Right now, people like Osama bin Laden are able to recruit at least some followers from within the Muslim world by preaching a message of hate. What would have to happen for a message such as that to be met with rejection by everyone within the Muslim world, so that the group of followers of a terrorist leader would dry up and wither away? What would have to happen; what would have to change, to bring that about? We are talking about a change in the way people think, and in their emotions as well. It would be a mental, psychological, and spiritual change. It would be a “paradigm shift,” akin to figuring out that the earth is round. (I’m not suggesting that this is only something that needs to happen in the Muslim world, and not also in the Christian world. It needs to happen for everyone in all societies, but I’m just using the Muslim world as an illustration.)

Well, you might say, what if all Muslim clerics and teachers and professors were to denounce violence at every opportunity? That’s on the right track, but more is needed than simply denouncing violence, which is easy to do. What we need is a real unveiling of the falseness, the pathology, of the way of thinking that justifies violence for a warped cause. What if every Christian and Jewish and Muslim religious leader all over the world didn’t just denounce violence but could actually speak very articulately about the psychology of violent people? What if every history and social science teacher on the planet could do the same thing, and every politician, and every journalist, and every engineer, and every medical worker, and every accountant, and every soccer mom, and every …. If all of these people could not just denounce, but actually explain the nature of the mental distortions that lead people to commit acts of unjust violence, and if they actually did do so on every appropriate occasion, I think you can imagine how the atmosphere would be changed dramatically.

Another image that we could use along those lines is that violence thrives in the darkness. If the light of knowledge were to shine brightly in more and more people, then the kind of moral retardation that we are familiar with will start to retreat into the shadows more and more until it is all gone. I realize I sound a bit optimistic when I say this, but I’m not saying this is going to happen in five years. It may take hundreds of years, but eventually violence will be defeated by being understood. Violence can’t stand up to knowledge in the long run, because the engine driving it is moral idiocy and fear of self-knowledge.

So what are the practical implications of what I’m saying? In high school, the students study subjects such as math, biology, English, history, P.E., and woodworking. But do they study violence? They may, in indirect ways. They may talk about violence a bit in history courses, but it isn’t really a standard subject. What if all high school students had a one semester required course in which they were exposed to various theories about violent behavior? Even if this course just scratched the surface of an obviously very complex subject, it would still be excellent if the students could start thinking along these lines, if they could just start asking the right questions. The problem with education is that it often assumes that you need to give people the right answers, when it is really giving them the right questions that is crucial. We live in a world in which the adults have not been raised to ask the question: Why are people violent? That is why events such as 9/11 leave people stunned and speechless. What would it take to have a society that would comprehend events like that? It would take a long, patient, generational process of education.

A course such as this could also be offered at the college level. A long time ago it was a tradition for college seniors to take a course in moral philosophy that was a capstone of their education. That idea has fallen into disuse, but it could be revived with a focus on violence. Even if it were an elective, rather than required, a course on violence could get ideas circulating among the students and faculty in a positive way. Colleges are supposed to give people the tools they need to be productive citizens in their society and ethical participants in the human race. But does that actually happen? How will it happen if something as important as violence isn’t a part of the curriculum? After everything that has happened in the past century, the world wars, the Holocaust, Hiroshima, Stalin, Rwanda, Bosnia, and so forth, is it really the case that the college experience is just a glorified trade school? Is the academic world helpless and unable to come up with a plan for what needs to be taught to make things better in the future? I don’t think so. I think we can educate people to become citizens of the planet who are capable of knowing what is involved in living in peace with one’s neighbors. If all people of goodwill were thinking about violence in new and creative ways, I think the ferment would be very beneficial. But for that to happen, the higher education culture needs to say clearly that reflecting on violence is an important part of the curriculum. There needs to be a realization, in other words, that knowledge can be used as a weapon in the struggle against violence.

*          *          *

            But it would be na´ve for us to think that knowledge by itself is the solution to our problems. I have been arguing in this paper that the roots of violence are found deeper than knowledge, in the emotional core of the human self. It isn’t the case that human beings are violent simply because their thinking is warped. We need to see that the reason why their thinking is warped is because their emotions are disordered. They are filled with rage when they should be filled with love for their neighbors. And their emotions are disordered because they are not in right relationship with God, their divine source.

            Let me summarize once more the theory of violence that I’m arguing can be drawn from the writings of Kierkegaard, Barth, and Girard. Violence is, at the most fundamental level, a war carried on by human beings against God, who is calling them forward into spiritual maturity. The other way of expressing this is to say that violence is a war carried on by human beings against their own freedom. Violence is the self’s war against the possibility of the self’s development, which is to say it’s freedom from the past and from disordered emotions. Violence says: “I’m going to kill this person I hate because I don’t want to go through the pain of self-development and discovery that would be required for me to become a person whose emotions are free from the past and from my tribe. I prefer to remain trapped in unfreedom and to impose this trappedness on others.” Of course, you can’t force people to be free. The very idea is a self-contradiction. But by explaining what is going on as clearly as possible, you can at least give freedom a fighting chance to become attractive to people. Becoming a mature person can never be forced; it is always a free response to an invitation. But the call of freedom doesn’t even have a chance of being heard where the intellectual horizons are so narrow that the true dimensions of the problem of violence can’t even be seen.

            Rebellion against God, resistance to spiritual growth, and hatred of other human beings are the three sides of the triangle that is violence. Therefore, the most effective, and also the most difficult, pathway in struggling against violence is to demonstrate in one’s own life the opposite movement of the soul. To love God, to be open to spiritual growth (even though it is painful), and to love one’s neighbors on this planet is the best way to be a witness for peace.

The new Copernican revolution we need is not just a matter of intellectual knowledge, it is truly a spiritual revolution. The message that needs to be heard is that God, our Creator, is a God of infinite love and grace. God is calling us forward into a new way of living that has learned from the past that we need to freed from the dead hand of the past. When we allow the deepest level of our emotions to be shaped by God’s love and grace, then we will relate to our fellow human beings in a way that differs from the dictates of hysterical rebellion. Rebellion against God causes people to come unhinged and lose control of their emotions and their reason. It turns people into puppets for demonic forces that seek to destroy life. If human beings are simply puppets manipulated by the strings of emotions they have no control over, then they are not truly free. I refuse to believe that, because I believe that we are creatures of a loving and gracious God. God has given us the gift of freedom, meaning that we can rise above our circumstances. We can think thoughts we haven’t thought before. We can use our will and reason to shape our emotions in constructive directions rather than destructive ones. We can choose to relate to people in ways that are morally superior to the ways they are relating to us, instead of letting ourselves be dragged down to their level. We can grasp and hold fast the insight that genuine love, which flows from relationship with God, makes civilization possible by giving us the strength and flexibility to live with the ambiguities of existence in a fallen world.[see Tinder’s essay] Our openness to receive God’s love for us, and our willingness to love our neighbors in response to God’s command, constitute our true freedom and humanity.

This moment in history provides a great opportunity for people of religious faith to speak to the problem of violence. It is people of faith who have the ability and the responsibility to speak a message that flows out of their love for God, which is itself a fruit of God’s gracious love for them. This is what God would have us do today, following in the footsteps of Jesus, who said that loving God with all our heart and soul and mind, and loving our neighbors as we love ourselves are the two great commandments, on which hang “all the Law and the Prophets.”(Matt. 22:37-40)



Barth, Karl. The Christian Life. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981.

______. Church Dogmatics. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1936-1960.


Bellinger, Charles K. The Genealogy of Violence: Reflections on Creation, Freedom, and Evil. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.


Girard, RenÚ. I See Satan Fall Like Lightning. Trans. James Williams. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001.

______. The Scapegoat. Trans. Yvonne Freccero. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986.

______. Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World. Trans. Stephen Bann and Michael Metteer. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987.

______. Violence and the Sacred. Trans. Patrick Gregory. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977.


Kierkegaard, S°ren. The Concept of Anxiety: A Simple Psychologically Orienting Deliberation on the Dogmatic Issue of Hereditary Sin. Trans. Reidar Thomte in collaboration with Albert B. Anderson. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980.

______. The Sickness Unto Death: A Christian Psychological Exposition for Upbuilding and Awakening. Trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983.

______. S°ren Kierkegaard's Journals and Papers, I-VII. Ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, assisted by Gregor Malantschuk. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1967-1978.

______. Works of Love. Trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995. 


Niebuhr, H. Richard. “The Logic of the Cross.” In Theology, History, and Culture: Major Unpublished Writings. Ed. by William Stacy Johnson. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996.


Rosenbaum, Ron. Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil. New York: Random House, 1998.


Stassen, Glen, ed. Just Peacemaking: Ten Practices for Abolishing War. Cleveland, Ohio: Pilgrim Press, 1998.


Tinder, Glenn. “Augustine’s World and Ours.” First Things 78 (December 1997): 35-42.

Voegelin, Eric. Passim, on the concept of “attunedness to God.”