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Terrorists not solely responsible for violence

  • 02 April 2007

Lily Brett’s writing is often autobiographical and reveals a life shaped by the profound injustices visited on her parents. She was born to Holocaust survivors in a displaced persons’ camp in Germany. The family migrated to Australia in her second year. Her poems and stories portray incidents such as: childhood scenes in a sad, darkened house in suburban Melbourne, as well as her struggle to come to grips with her emotional scars in middle age.

Brett’s story gives us insight into our own. This picture of violence or evil as having its source outside of us, but at the same time shaping our self-understanding, reflects a deep theme of each of our lives. Attention to the dynamics of cultural violence bears it out. It is this dimension of human life that the Christian doctrine of original sin articulates.

When rid of gross misinterpretations, the doctrine of original sin can powerfully illuminate the human predicament. It does not mean that humans are inherently evil, although it is often understood in such a way; nor does it mean that we are individually responsible for the broken situation in which we find ourselves. In broad terms, there are two dimensions to a contemporary reading of the doctrine. First, that every person is born into the long history of human sinful choices. And second, that this history of brokenness enters into and is an inner determinant of each person’s situation. American theologian Stephen Duffy sums it up in these words: "Before being able to choose, one is, merely by being historically situated, inextricably caught in an immense web of reciprocity in evil that one cannot escape and that has forming power."

From my reading, these dynamics are also found in a recent book by Indian-born, New York-based social theorist Arjun Appadurai. In Fear of Small Numbers: An Essay on the Geography of Anger (Duke 2006) he explores the shape of culturally motivated violence. He asks: why should the 1990s, a decade dominated by globalisation, have produced a plethora of examples of both ethnic cleansing and extreme forms of terrorism?

Appadurai argues that the social structures and understandings that brought about globalisation, like all social arrangements, have a dark underside. The massive changes in global finance, transport, work and consumption produce uncertainty in the lives of the common people, and in turn this uncertainly "produces new incentives for cultural purification as more nations lose the