The lie of violence

  • February 27, 2013

Visiting a friend, I picked up a handsome book, a collection of Icelandic Sagas to pore through. They were wondrous, and not just because some of my ancestors were Vikings. The stories led from Denmark to Iceland and on, to the land they called Vinland, our Newfoundland. There Eric the Red and company arrived in 1001, the first Europeans in the New World. During their second spring there, birch-bark canoes landed near them: their first encounter with native inhabitants. They killed them. The next spring, the natives’ kin found the Vikings and, in their turn, killed as many as they could.

The first meeting in history between these two human tribes, and the instant response is mutual killing. They are Cain against Abel, brother against brother. Rather than delighting in each other, both react with fear and dominance. Eventually the Vikings sailed away never to return, and the European/North American encounter had to wait another five centuries.

Is violence imprinted in our genetic sequence? It seems to invade everything we are and do.

Sometimes it seems the best we humans can do is contain or re-direct violence — if we’re very good, add love and dignity, but never really overcome it.

We’ve produced coping strategies, laws, prisons, gymnasiums and athletic games to channel our violent energies, disguises such as lethal injection rather than firing squads, medication, armies and peacekeeping forces. But they’re not a cure. We haven’t vanquished violence.

Yet it’s not at the root of us. We are created good, which means, of God. Is there violence in God? We can interpret the passion of Christ that way, and at times we have. In Christ suffering on the cross, is God offering a violent act in response to human evil, like execution for murder?

St. Augustine gives us a guideline. If, in trying to understand, we reach a conclusion which suggests that God is not good, then we’ve made an error in our reasoning and must go back and fix it. There can be no evil in God. Can there be violence in Him?

Christ on the cross isn’t a witness of God using violence justly. On the contrary, it’s the undoing of what’s at the heart of human violence. The Father doesn’t crucify His Son; it’s the human being who crucifies God.

The cross simultaneously reveals the depths of human violence, and reveals that in God there is no violence. The moment the soldier pierces Jesus’ side with a spear — an act of aggression against innocence, showing us the worst we are capable of — is already the moment of God’s love poured out upon us, even in our sinfulness, poured out in water and blood on the cross, in baptism and eucharist in the Church.

So how, as we accompany Christ into Lent and Holy Week, do we respond to violence? Do we use it ourselves, in a futile effort to overcome it, like the “war to end all wars”? Do we do nothing because we don’t want to use such tools?

St. Irenaeus traced the Old Testament history of violence not to invite despair, but to show how God loves. For God invites Himself into this violent history, to encounter humanity even in our sinfulness. Thoroughly, and completely. God meets us in all these places, in every part of us, to rework them, transforming hurt into wholeness, death into life. That’s the offer He makes on the cross. Will we let Him in, into the hard parts, the shameful, the cruel, the despairing? Our answer is urgently awaited.

St. Paul calls it “crucifying the old self.” It’s difficult to understand. It’s different from using violence to counter violence, hiding in fear, condemning ourselves, condemning others or running from the cross (all of which the disciples did, as do we). We can’t, on our own, put to death our violence. That’s the desperation of the human situation, unless God encounters us in it and makes a way.

God gives Himself over to our violence. If there’s any way out of human conflict, it’s only here, in the divine self-gift, and our reception of it. We follow the Passion, not to re-live a long-ago event, like a historical re-enactment at a museum. Rather, we invite the living, crucified-and-risen Christ into our own crucifixion, both personal and collective. The lie of violence is answered by God on the cross.

(Marrocco can be reached at


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