2 October 2005: 27th Sunday of the Year
Matthew 21:33-43 On Violence
Today’s gospel can be interpreted on many levels, but today I want to focus on the violence it contains. This is, as you sadly know, a timely topic. Violence forms the subtext of our daily lives. Nations, peoples, individuals of all ages–even kids–are routinely hurting, damaging, and killing one another. It has all become so commonplace that we hardly pay attention anymore.
What is behind this proliferation of violence in our world? I want to suggest that part of it is a shocking lack of empathy for other people, for the victims, an inability to feel what those who are hurt or dying are feeling. We lack empathy and we hurt and kill others because we have divided the world into “us” and “them”–a distinction that is high on Jesus’ list of what is horribly and terribly evil in the world.
For Jesus, there was no “us” and “them,” no blacks and whites, no gay and straight, no Jew and Samaritan. Jesus taught that our neighbor is everyone–especially everyone who is hurting. We must understand and appreciate his or her pain. Yet more and more, especially among the young, a sense of empathy is evaporating. With this loss comes an inability to be compassionate. And when there is no empathy and no compassion, there is easy violence.
So, here is a question: where does this lack of empathy come from, people doing horrible things? First, there is the pervasive philosophical vacuum in our society, which has its origin in the universities. The university professorate is largely agnostic, and so what is their message to students? That there is no truth. Nothing can be known. There are no objective standards, only culturally conditioned attitudes. All institutions, the places that used to mediate meaning, are corrupt. Religion is slavery. Lacking any objective standards, the only way left to decide right and wrong is by one’s own personal criteria. “If it feels good, do it. You do your thing, I do mine. Who is to say who is right? Don’t impose your morality on me: we are all equally right.”
The second reason for the lack of empathy today is because of the media, which is, as you know, a powerful influence on how kids develop empathy as a basis for morality. We see this most prominently in the message of most advertising: anything goes. And if anything goes, then nothing counts. We see this attitude everywhere; “whatever” is its common expression. The media celebrates being “cool.” You are in control. You show power. You don’t show emotion when someone is riddled with bullets or the life blood is draining out of him or her. You’re cool. In promoting this type of attitude, the media consistently and routinely promotes desensitization, the opposite of empathy. After the umpteenth murder, how much can you feel for the victim? It is estimated that the average child witnesses over 200,000 acts of violence on television by the time he or she is eighteen years old.
Here is something to attend to. Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman is an Army expert on the psychology of killing. Throughout his Army career, Grossman’s job was to condition soldiers how to kill. He said that killing is a learned skill because there is an innate resistance to it. How did they do it? Grossman outlined the process. In the first step, the men are brutalized at boot camp. Their heads are shaved and they are herded together, naked. Then they are all dressed alike. In this way, they begin to lose all individuality and become desensitized to violence. In student organizations, initiations look like this: they are whipped by a paddle, so that in the end when they become officially members, they do it to the new ones.
The second step used by the Army is classic conditioning. Grossman pointed out that our kids watch vivid pictures of human suffering and death. They see graphic depictions of stabbings, kicking in the groin and head, vomit, blood, and decapitations and they learn to associate all this with their favorite soft drink or candy bar which immediately pops up on the TV screen during the endless commercials. The success of this conditioning can be observed when you go to the movies. Listen to the young people laugh and cheer when there is bloody violence and someone is painfully hurt or gruesomely dying. They keep right on eating popcorn. Empathy, feeling for the victim, is a non-issue, a non-emotion.
The third step in making soldiers killers is deploying what is called “operant conditioning.” This means that one no longer shoots at a bull’s-eye in a neutral round paper or straw target, but at realistic, human-shaped targets. Now think about this: in the video games, the kids do exactly the same thing and therefore get the same “operant conditioning.” They shoot at lifelike figures. Grossman commented, “It came as no surprise to me when I read that the two shooters in the Littleton massacre had allegedly been avid players of Doom slayers, two popular computer games full of realistic violence in which players stalk their opponents through dungeon-like environments to kill them with high-powered weapons.” One video game has the player kill children. The only way to exit this game is to put the simulated gun in your mouth and pull the trigger.
The fourth and last component in training killers is role models, that is, the drill sergeant who personifies violence and aggression. And who are the role models for our young people today? Clint Eastwood, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, and Jean Claude van Damme.
We, as a culture, are conditioned to violence. Our children are conditioned to violence. What it needs is a return to Jesus’ teaching: there is no “us” and “them.” Put into the words of his disciple, St. Paul: “There is neither male nor female, Gentile nor Jew, slave nor free. All are one in Christ.” When we, like Mother Teresa, can look into the face of a victim and see Christ, violence will cease. Bear with me as I close with the words of the great Russian poet, Yevgeny Yevtushenko:
In 1941, Mama took me back to Moscow. There I saw our enemies for the first time. If my memory serves me right, nearly 20,000 German war prisoners were to be marched in a single column through the streets of Moscow. The pavement swarmed with onlookers, cordoned off by police and soldiers. The crowd was mostly women. Every one of them must have had a father or a husband, a brother or a son killed by the Germans. They gazed with hatred in the direction in which the column was to appear. At last we saw it.
The generals marched at the head, massive chins stuck out, lips pursed disdainfully, their whole demeanor meant to show superiority over their plebeian victims. The women were clenching their fists. The soldiers and policemen had all they could do to hold them back….All at once something happened to them. They saw the German soldiers, thin, unshaven, wearing dirty, blood-stained bandages, hobbling on crutches or leaning on the shoulders of their comrades. The soldiers walked with their heads down. The street became dead silent. The only sound was the shuffling of boots, the thumping of crutches.
Then I saw an elderly woman in broken-down boots push herself forward and touch a policeman’s shoulder saying, “Let me through.” Something about her made him step aside. She went up to the column, took from inside her coat something wrapped in a colored handkerchief, and unfolded it. It was a crust of black bread. She pushed it awkwardly into the pocket of a soldier so exhausted that he was tottering on his feet. And now, suddenly from every side, women were running towards the soldiers, pushing into their hands bread, cigarettes, whatever they had. The soldiers were no longer enemies. They were people.
When the women saw the men hobbling through the streets, they were no longer the enemy; they were no longer those who killed their relatives. They were just victims, and the women felt for them. There was an outpouring of empathy and compassion. The violence they intended was no longer in their hearts.