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Violence transformed

The waves of generosity from individuals, governments and corporations in response to victims of the recent tsunami bring to light a real strength in modern culture. We have high standards of compassion.

Certainly you would hope that devastation on such a scale and the plight of the survivors would move us, but the full-hearted response should not be missed. Of course, our generosity suffers from the usual human limitations and hypocrisy: our focus is selective and our motivation mixed. Yet to my mind, the significance of the response was captured in a television interview with a New South Wales surgeon working in Aceh in the first few days of the relief effort. He felt compelled to help, he said, because of the ‘inalienable dignity of every human person’.

The response to the tsunami bears out the argument of cultural theorist René Girard that modern culture has a ‘concern for victims’ to a degree with no precedent in history. The values that consciously shape modernity—equality and mutual respect among them—move us to seek out and care for those who are victims. This concern for victims obviously has its roots in the Christian command to love of neighbour but it finds a much wider application today than it has previously. ‘Our world did not invent compassion,’ says Girard, ‘but it has universalised it.’

The modern concern for victims also has a dark side, according to philosopher Charles Taylor. Paradoxically, it has the capacity to mutate into the logic of both terrorism and the violent response to terrorism. When concern for victims is such a cultural value, we can come to see ourselves as victims and therefore pure, and the other as victimiser, deserving of punishment and vengeance. As Taylor puts it, we believe that ‘our cause is good, so we can fight, inflict a violence that is righteous: a holy violence’ (‘Notes on the Sources of Violence’, in Beyond Violence, ed. James Heft [Fordham, 2004], p36). The result is obvious in terrorist struggles today and even in the violent response to terrorism: each side claiming the status of victim and the right to mete out punishment as the spiral of death-dealing violence escalates.

The commemoration of Jesus’ death in Holy Week offers a vision and pattern of action that transform violence. It does not provide a general political remedy for terrorist conflicts but offers insight into the spiral of violence and the means of turning it inside out. With his words from the cross in Luke’s narrative—‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing’ (23.34)—Jesus renounces the will to wreak vengeance on his executioners. His forgiveness of them acknowledges their flawed humanity, a humanity that he shares, and that finds its meaning in the God whom he knows is bent over the world in love. No simple solutions are provided for complex political problems, but the crucial concern shifts from revenge to healing.  

James McEvoy teaches at Catholic Theological College, Adelaide.



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