As I write, the United States is angry, anxious, saddened and split over the shooting of a young, unarmed black man by a white policeman several months ago. At the same time, another, younger black child has just been shot because he was at a playground with a toy gun which closely resembled a real weapon. We live in the midst of a stew of fear and violence. News outlets headline stories about scary epidemics, war, mass executions. Social media memes—cleverly chosen images and sayings propagated over the internet—cater to stereotypes, polarization and fear. Popular culture promotes the myth that violence can solve almost any problem and protect individuals as well as nations from any threat. As theologian Walter Wink wrote in Engaging the Powers, “Violence is the ethos of our time. It is the spirituality of the modern world. It has been accorded the status of religion, demanding from its devotees an absolute obedience unto death.” Violence and threat breeds fear, fear of others, fear for our safety, fear that we will not be able to stand against the threats screaming from headlines and television news and talk shows.
To climb out of the morass of violence in which we live requires courage, creativity, effort, persistence, personal integrity and a sense of humor. We must start by honestly examining and healing the violence within ourselves. The first step is cultivating awareness of how we have internalized the violence we experience daily and inflict it on ourselves and others.
The violence we experience is not confined to news headlines or fiery talk show panelists. We also hear threats and violence daily from our families, our friends, our teachers, our supervisors and from our co-workers. The myth that violence solves problems, that a kind of purification or even redemption comes through violent behavior dominates our attitudes and behavior. Over time, we internalize the messages of threat and violence and speak harshly to ourselves. To be sure, often the violent words we hear are not intended to threaten or induce fear, they are simply the consequence of the “ethos of our time” described by Wink. For example, an exasperated parent seeking some support for housecleaning might say to his child, “Pick up your toys!” in a tone of voice that the child hears as an implicit threat to withdraw love or impose punishment. Over time, we impose limits on ourselves in anticipation of others’ disappointment, disapproval or withdrawal. As we do so, we also strive to earn approval and love and to exceed what we think others expect of us….