So far, in these meditations on violence, I’ve not actually defined the word. We probably imagine a violent act to be one done intentionally, likely by a person with power who willfully injures or destroys one with less power. How much more specific can we be? Consider whether violence can ever be just. Is a destructive act against another technically violent if done in self-defense or at the command of a military superior? We Christians have our own histories to contend with when it comes to understanding the place of violence within our story: I recently heard a theologian differentiate between the terrible-seeming acts commanded by God in the Old Testament and actual violence; the latter, asserted the theologian, is something God never participates in. (Whether or not he’s correct isn’t the point. I mean simply to acknowledge the difficulty of this word, a difficulty that isn’t easily simplified by Christianity.)
I wonder if the slipperiness of the word makes my earlier point that violence is less a moment in time and more the ground on which we walk. On June 19, 1968 Coretta Scott King addressed the Poor People’s Campaign in Washington DC and described the pervasiveness of violence.
Poverty can produce a most deadly kind of violence. In this society violence against poor people and minority groups is routine. I remind you that starving a child is violence; suppressing a culture is violence; neglecting schoolchildren is violence; discrimination against a working man is violence; ghetto housing is violence; ignoring medical needs is violence; contempt for equality is violence; even a lack of will power to help humanity is a sick and sinister form of violence.
Context always matters, no more so than in the case of Mrs. King’s remarks. Less than three months earlier her husband, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., had been assassinated in Memphis. His was an especially violent death, captured in images and eye-witnesses accounts that still register in our national consciousness. Yet, when describing the toll of violence, Mrs. King pointed not to her husband’s spectacular and undeniably violent death but to the millions of accepted and overlooked acts that take place every day.
Making the shift toward Mrs. King’s view of violence leaves us with a dilemma far more significant than a murky definition: such a view implicates not a few violent actors but most of us, most of the time.