Thursday, October 05, 2006

Violence and Identity and America: an e-mail exchange

My dear friend, R, has sent me some thought-provoking e-mail following up on some of what I wrote Tuesday about violence in America. (There have also been some helpful comments to the post itself -- q.v.) His thoughts and my thoughts, when they came together, seemed to throw off some sparks, and so (with his permission) I reproduce, with some editing, our exchange with the hope that the sparks might shed some small light for other readers as well. (I should have divided it up into three parts, as it seems overly long, but Blogger wouldn't let me keep the formatting if I cut and paste. Perhaps it will be better digested as bite-sized morsels rather than a long several-course meal, so you can pick it up and put it down again. Or maybe you should just run and get the Alka-Seltzer right now before you dig in.)

Hi Jay, I hope all is well.

Regarding your blog on guns, I have a few comments:

1) Even with all the school shootings, most of the focus right now is on yet another House page scandal -- how many times does this bipartisan molestation event have to occur before they end the program -- Butts, Reynolds, Crain, now Foley?? Apparently who controls the House is far more important than the general safety of children.

2) Good night -- if you're not safe amongst the Amish, where are you safe??

3) I have the sense that these seem to come in waves, but this is just a sense, not a fact.

4) Last, I've been told by Europeans who now live in the U.S -- but this is purely anecdotal -- that this type of thing happens across the pond, but generally gets buried by the government/law enforcement. Same thing for serial killers -- that they are there and active, but not generally publicized. I know there was a school shooting in Scotland years ago and what happened in Russia, was more terrorist related, but any sense to whether these anecdotes are true? Of course I'm asking you to generalize for 40 plus countries/cultures on an entire continent, but hey, why not?


Hi R,Thanks for your thoughts. I have a sense that it might be a wave as well -- we've had a bit of a lull before now -- but the fact is it is still a moral horror. Violent crime, particularly gun crime, here in the UK is microscopic compared with the US, particularly Chicago. Here's what Wikipedia says (with external support):

Britain remains one of the countries with the lowest murder rate in the world per capita, accounting for 853 murders in the reporting period 2003/04 accordingto the Home Office's Crime Statistics, which at a population of more than 60 million that translates into less than 1.3 murders per 100,000 residents in the UK.[6] By comparison, in 2000, police in theUnited States reported 5.5 murders for every 100,000population.[7] In addition, 70% of murders in the United States involve firearms compared to 6% in theUnited Kingdom.[8] Both New York City and London haveover 7 million residents, with New York reporting 6.9murders per 100,000 people in 2004 to London's 2.4 per100,000, also in 2004.[9] [The brackets are footnotesin the article that I quoted.] {The article itself is here.}

The fact is, I am against private gun ownership, but that wasn't my point in the blog post, and I hoped I wouldn't lose readers because of that, that even if they differed from me on that issue, we wouldn't get distracted by it. The larger issue -- which doesn't mitigate my anti-gun feeling but contextualises it -- is a cultural identity that is bound to violence, and expression of our identity through gun ownership. You could imagine another nation, culturally different than ours -- say, Switzerland, which I understand does have legal private gun ownership -- which nevertheless has vastly less gun crime. And yes, I don't doubt that there is in fact gun crime in other nations as well: there is gun crime here in the UK where gun ownership is illegal. But I strongly suspect that the rates are much lower than in the US.

I blogged sometime last spring about the murder rate in Chicago. For thirty-five years, the annual murder rate never went below 600 people, and a large percentage of that is gun crime. Only recently has that figure dipped below that. Comparing that with Toronto, which is roughly the same size (~3mil.), we find that Toronto typically has around 60 per year, about one tenth of Chicago's. That is startling.

I can't speak in great detail about crime reporting on the continent, even anecdotally. But I do know that the tradition here in the UK is for the tabloids to pick up on anything even slightly sensational, and they like to talk in grand terms about the awful crime that goes on here. I usually look at the headlines and chuckle, thinking 'shucks, that's nothing: I've lived in Chicago, man.'


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Thanks for the quick response and the Wikipedia reference.

If I'm following, I agree with you that the frequent use of guns is symptomatic of the violent leanings of our culture, of course this isn't the only thing that represents our violence, -- spousal abuse, child abuse, rape, child sexual abuse, 2 million abortions per year, pornography could be construed as violent, our "entertainment" and on and on-- but I wonder why this is?

What are the cultural foundations that led us to violence as Europe seems to have moved away.

From the Roman Empire to W.W. II, Europe has a demonstrably violent history, and yet the two cultures have moved in different directions. The answer is probably complex.

Hope your family is well and has adjusted to the resumption of life in England.


Dear R,

Yep, that's exactly right, the violence in America is a broad phenomenon. It really struck me over the summer how we claim to be a 'Christian nation' -- a claim worth contesting, of course, but a claim widely made -- and yet we are so incredibly violent, in many many ways.

You are correct to say that Europe has a violent history, and indeed there is still violence in pockets. The 'Troubles' in N. Ireland seem mostly to have settled, but continued for around 30 years. There is also the Balkans, etc., so there are contemporary examples.

I'm certainly not making the claim that Europe is uniformly nonviolent. But why is it that it seems less violent than the US?

Honestly, I think one major factor in it is WWII and the Holocaust and the determination never to have it happen again. It was sobering when Kristen and I were in Paris last December to realise that we were walking on streets which had been occupied by Nazis, had been goose-stepped over by Nazi boots, run through with German tanks. Of course, the streets of Paris have run (quite) red before, too. In the US, we have never had anything like the wars that they have had here, in our own land. (The Civil War gets close, I suppose, although they do not have weekend re-enactments of WWII battles here.)

But to have seen the widespread destruction and to have had to rebuild one's country, must be quite sobering. The biggest reason that America became a superpower postwar was because Western Europe had been so devastated -- for example, in the UK there was rationing of certain goods well into the 1950's. Italy, France and Germany all took even longer to rebuild -- and the Eastern bloc nations lagged even further behind. I can only imagine the generation of misery and privation that these people have endured has given an edge to the determination: never again. (France, we quickly forget, jumped from the fire into the frying pan, to coin a new turn of phrase, as it reeled not only from WWII, but shortly thereafter the war in Algeria and the war in French Indochina, which became our conflict later.)

Some of our best friends here are Germans, from Heidelberg. They are a couple years younger than us, but it is striking how much of their identity is formed by what happened with the Third Reich, that their nation committed such atrocities and are determined never to let it happen again. When they show me pictures of Heidelberg they always tell me that it escaped bombing in the war because the Americans loved the town and wanted to put their base there. But they are very torn about this, because they love their city (and they are justly proud, it is quite beautiful), but they also say that because it escaped destruction it also harbored Nazis and horrors in a way that other places-- Hamburg, or Dresden, e.g. -- no longer did.

The comparison with America is striking, not in terms of actual history so much as cultural identity, mythology if you will. We do not identify ourselves, ever, by a military loss; we have for 30 years been struggling with what to do with Viet Nam. And we do not identify ourselves with an atrocity. Not that we have anything like the Holocaust on our hands, but we don't allow ourselves to see lesser atrocities and say 'never again' in a serious way, and here I mention our treatment of Native Americans and the interment of Japanese Americans in WWII as two possible examples, though certainly not the only ones.

And so there is something present that I see here -- wisdom? chastening? -- that I don't see in America. Our legacy from WWII is of glory, of stepping into the breach and making sacrifices on behalf of our friends and on behalf of justice, etc. And we certainly did make sacrifices. But when it was over, we could go home. They couldn't. Even the Brits, who had it rough (but nowhere near as rough as the French, and vastly better than the Germans -- we often forget the privations of war for the civilians on the enemies' side), staggered under the effective loss of their empire, their power, their status in the world. One could no doubt make the case that the war only hurried that loss, rather than caused it, but it was still quite a blow.

And now, in retrospect, there is not only the humility of having lost that prestige associated with the empire, but also shame at having had it in the first place, as they come to terms with the moral and human costs of having dominated so much of the world. (Not to say that there might not have been some good that came with it -- most here would not deny that -- but they are wrestling deeply with guilt over the empire, and I think that is a good thing.)

You're no doubt right, the answer is quite complex. But I suspect this might be the beginnings of an answer. Anyway, I've gone on a fair bit, but I wanted to respond to your thoughts. Thanks again for your note and the pleasure of such exchanges with a friend!

Best, Jason

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I think you're on to something with W.W. II taking place on their soil, where-as we could return home. I'm remember being struck by the still visible devastation in London, and throughout Italy when we were there. This theory probably works well for Japan.

Another factor has to be our strong sense of individualism and our ability to extricate ourselves from our culture. ( e.g., how many times has an American said "my ancestors didn't have slaves!"). Slavery is probably our closest thing to a Holocaust and many extricate themselves from this. Just because one's ancestors were from Poland, and lived in Chicago, doesn't mean you have no part in institutionalized racism.

Regarding Christian nation, I recall your discussion previously, the only comment I have is that we are Christian, in the sense that we are Jewish, Greco-Roman, English, etc. These cultures and religions are all foundational to who we -- as the United States are, etc. -- but I don't think this is the point you were addressing.

So how does the church transform American culture?? Do we need to study the early church of Ancient Rome? Did the church change Rome for the good? Can it be replicated today? No answers, just questions I've been pondering about lately.


Dear R,

Yes, I think because we have more or less settled the question of individualism vs. community in our nation (the question, not the answer), that also contributes to the situation.

What I mean by the question not the answer is that generally we opt for a sort of strong atomic individualism; but in America we also have an amazing history -- a sort of counterpoint to the melody of individualism -- of Utopian movements which are quite deeply communitarian. Sometimes these are quite interesting and healthy, but perhaps just as often they are sick: Jim Jones and the People's Temple, for one example, David Koresh and the Branch Davidians for another. The negative examples, I think, reinforce the individualism -- we don't want to be like that, after all. But we've identified the question -- radical individualism or radical communitarianism -- and that tends to determine our options.

And you are right on about slavery, another prime example. I think we are quite uneasy about admitting any sort of collective responsibility, collective guilt about these things. I suspect that part of it is that the identity of America has so long hinged on 'the American dream' which fairly explicitly discounts what your previous history or culture is: "no matter who you are, or where you come from, if you work hard enough you will make it here!" And so this sort of'negative identity' based solely on opportunity discourages (I think) a larger social/cultural identity that can sustain the chastening of guilt or shame in history.

How does the church transform American culture? That is the $50,000 question, and one I've been thinking about, too. I don't have an answer, either, but some thoughts:

It will involve us being honest about ourselves and our own history, how far we've fallen from the example Jesus set for us, and how much we've disregarded other good examples found in the church and ignored (and allowed to persist) the bad examples. (This isn't in any way to reduce Jesus to merely example, but to say he isn't less than example.)

Perhaps we need to get over/ get around the notion of repentance and forgiveness making us 'alright', as if we have a clean slate again. Maybe meditating on the fact that Jesus still bore the scars of the nails when he was raised -- the evidence of wickedness done to him -- rather than just being fine and whole as if nothing happened might help us in this. What might it look like for us to still bear the scars of our wickedness done (and suffered), and how might that then influence how we are shaped in our discipleship?

Put another way, what does it mean that God forgives but does not forget? How can we imagine a remembering of our wickedness and sin which is not also a simmering anger and thirst for revenge (which it isn't, in the case of God), and also does not hinder or mitigate God's love or grace?

What does it look like to own ourselves not merely as broken, as victims -- which is popular in some parts of the church these days, and not unhelpful, I am informed -- but also own ourselves as perpetrators, as sinners. Sinners who are forgiven through Jesus Christ, certainly, but sinners who are forgiven rather than people who are fundamentally okay and not really sinners, just misunderstood (or what have you).

Thanks again for this. I have some more to say but much else to do right now. I look forward to your thoughts on my suggestion, and your own ruminations on your questions as well.

Best, Jason


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