Grace Vis-à-vis Violence

Violence permeates existence. I offer six studies from my life to disclose and unpack what I mean. I came to this project because of the amount of internet chatter (and I mean this in the most warm and Heideggerian sense) about grace and mercy and other such positive attributes of the Divine. Three things helped crystallize my need to say something about the place of violence in LDS thought. The first was from a segment on the Diane Rehm Show on PPR radio in which Katty Kay hosted a discussion with Lesle Morgan Steiner (of Mommie Wars fame) on domestic violence. I would recommend this show to everyone, but especially those who are experiencing this horrifying kind of psychological and physical torture. The second was an internet discussion on Grace and where it might be situated in the uberverse. The third, a statement by a woman at church who said that when she meets Jesus in the next life, He will take her into his arms and all her sorrows will melt away forever.

Study One: My brother and I are walking back from a small store in Winton California. Suddenly, someone yells, and approaches us from a pool hall across the street. Motorcycles line the front entrance. We’ve been warned not to go near it. An older boy approaches and says, “Do you want to fight?” I’m in seventh grade. He looks like a ninth grader. “No,” I say. He calls out to a biker going into the pool hall. “There is going to be a fight!” Then without warning he balls his fist and with great speed and force strikes me brutally on the nose. It breaks in three places and blood sprays everywhere. I run. I run and run and run through the peach and almond orchards that craft the patchwork landscape of our agricultural community. I go home panting and terrified. I am cleaned up. My eyes wide, like a cornered fox, I don’t stop panting for a long time after I’ve recovered from my run. For the next year I see him everywhere—no, I think I see him. He is not really there, but my brain is wired for fear so completely it creates him in every dark corner, looking out of every classroom window I walk past, sitting in every car that drives by. I kneel and pray every morning under the almond trees that God will protect me from this kid who is everywhere and is always, always looking for me.

Study Two: High School in Moab. Someone is shouting angrily in the Hall. A teacher comes in and locks the door. “It’s Silas [not real name],” he says. The teacher is afraid. Silas is large. Violent. Goliath-like. And dangerous. He is drunk and shouting for a teacher who he intends to harm. In today’s world, SWAT teams would have been called, neighborhoods locked down, but at this moment in small-town-time no one seems to think of getting the police involved. We all know Silas. Silas and I are not friends as such. He is a redneck and I am a longhaired doper with hair that falls between my shoulder blades, but we are in the same Ward and I used to date his little sister and he likes me because I treated her well—so he’s told me several times. He would not hurt me I think. “I’ll talk to him.” I say, and the teacher unlocks the door and I go out. Silas is standing alone in the locker-lined hallway. The students have all gone for cover. He is silhouetted against light shining through the main entrance doors—out of sight to the left, behind him, making of him a large shadow and I can’t make out the details of his face. He is staggering drunk and shouting the teacher’s name and making threats. He has a bottle of something in his hands and he takes a drink and falls back awkwardly a few steps, almost tripping but not quite. As I walk down the hall toward him it never occurs to me to be afraid. He stops shouting as I approach and stares at me. He is a foot taller than me and strong as an ox. He has a three-county reputation for uncontrollable violence and, when provoked, giving a disproportional response of conscious-less brutality. There is no one that could take him on in a fight. No one. I reach him and take him by the arm and say, “Common Silas, let’s go home.” He lowers his head and I lead him out and take him home. He says, “Thanks,” pats me on the shoulder and melts out of the car.

Study Three: Cob [Not real name] and I have wrapped towels around our fists and are fighting. He is an Apache from Idaho who was given the choice: go to prison or join the Army. He joined the Army. We are inseparable friends and troublemakers. Our Sergeant hates us; as does our lieutenant. We get all the s**t duty. But now we are in the barracks fighting—no rules. He is slower than me and I hit him in the face hard three or four times for every one he lands one on me, but he outweighs me by 30lbs, all muscle, and when he connects I feel it. We are both high and after our match we stand shoulder to shoulder in front of the bathroom mirror, blood running down our faces, laughing our heads off at what a mess we’ve made. A fellow soldier walks in and sees us and says, “You guys are Freaks.” We laugh even harder.
That night Cob gets in an argument with someone in a bar. It escalates and he goes outside to fight him. The man’s friends and I go out with them. There is a lot of verbal posturing, but finally Cob and his interlocutor go at it. His friend and I stand watching. We look at each other and size each other up to see if their conflict has become ours. It has not. We both go back to watching the fight. No one wins. In the end they are both standing with their hands on their thighs breathing hard blaming each other for the fight. Cob says something sort of funny. The other guy snorts and follows with a quip. They laugh and decide to go back in for a drink together. I’m tired. I go back to the barracks.

Study Four: I am standing at the top of the steps near the Spencer Kimball Tower at BYU. I am using crutches to move forward. A few months before, my wife and I had been in a head-on collision with a drunk driver while on our honeymoon. Among other wounds, my front teeth and part of my maxillary were smashed out by the steering wheel—I feel hideous and self-conscious. Both of our injuries where extensive and we spent several days in intensive care. They warned our families to prepare for our deaths. We both survived and were healing physically, but now there in front of the Tower a crush of strange fear and anguish has overwhelmed me. I stop walking and gasp for air. I can’t see and I feel as if my mind is being crushed out of existence. This is happening more and more frequently. I’m sure I am loosing my sanity. It was, of course post-traumatic stress syndrome, but such a diagnosis was not around then. I just thought it was me, dying slowly, darkly, crazily. I try to move forward but the sorrow and anguish overwhelm me again, the mental suffering is fiercer than anything suffered physically in the wreck. I thought, this is what Jesus suffered in the Garden. This is that kind of mental anguish. Then I think, something unthinkable. I thought, He could not have suffered this much. Now, long after, I find that I want to put an adverb in front of ‘thought.’ I want to put: “inappropriately” or “stupidly” or maybe “arrogantly.” But at the time I thought what I thought. And that is what I thought. And the reason it entered my mind was because I honestly believed that if it were any worse I would be crushed out of existence. And how could Jesus suffer more? If He were a God, he could endure more. Big deal. If one suffers to the limit of one’s being, isn’t that as bad as it gets?

And.

I was mad at God. Disappointed in God. Maybe I wanted to belittle his suffering because he had not protected me. He was not coming through for me the way I had been taught he would. He had left me alone. Hadn’t I served a mission? Married in the temple? Wasn’t I doing all that I should? Why then was this happening? How could this happen on my honeymoon? We’d prayed for protection that morning. Why this? Why was my bride torn in pieces? Why was I broken and battered? And why, after it all, why could not God stop the waves upon waves of panic, horror and fear that were crushing the life out of me? Cycling through my day like a monster. Priesthood blessings did not work. Prayer did not work. Why was I being made to drink the bitter cup? That was HIS job. NOT MINE!

Study Five: Timothy has been horrible. We are vacationing in the Great Smoky Mountains and we are driving on empty roads to a trail we want to hike. Our six year old has been picking on his brothers, back-talking, being disobedient, and we are at our wits end. He is mocking our two year old and gotten all three of his brothers crying. He just said something smart to his mother and I snap. We are on an vacant road and I tell him to get out of the car. Get out. He starts to beg. I say, I’ve had it, get out of the car. He does. I tell him to close the door. I pull away. I of course just mean to scare him. I look in the rearview mirror and see him running behind us as fast as he can. His face is contorted in fear, panic and sorrow. His eyes are wide and his mouth is twisted in anguish. Tears and running down his face and he is screaming for us to stop. His face in the rear view mirror shatters me. I’ve never seen anything like it. His face. I’ll never forget his face twisted in terror like that. I can’t even type this without tears running down my cheeks. I slam on the breaks and run back to him and swoop him up in my arms and hug him and tell him I’ll never leave him. Never. He hugs me back and says, I’ll be good now.

Study Six: My daughter and I are watching great machines tear down the apple orchard across the street. The trees are easily knocked over by the remorseless metal and pushed over into a pile. We watch in silence. There can be no other response. It’s not ours. It is owned by another. They will build just a few big houses. How can I complain? Was not an orchard removed for my house long ago?

We’ve walked in that orchard many times. It harbored deer, pheasants, many song birds, and occasionally something rarer and more transient like weasel or a hawk. There were snakes and toads, but we loved mostly the insects. Butterflies swung over the irrigation ditches with abandon. It’s just a manmade orchard. Still, mostly it was an inviting, pleasant place. Shady and quiet. Unnatural, but capturing many of the good things about wild places. Life was very present there. It was a favorite place for my daughter and I to walk and observe the world. The old apple trees gave a sense of security. For some reason I thought of Tolkien’s shire when I walked there.

I am surprised how quickly the apple trees are uprooted and removed. They seemed so permanent just yesterday.

Later.

Not many of the houses have sold. The economy collapsed just after being built and many stand unfinished in silence. Raw dirt, piled up here and there, is still standing waiting for some action. Naked earth where the trees once graced the landscape.

Violence

So you see. I have been the victim of violence and I have participated in violence both as actor and spectator. And I don’t understand it. It puzzles me. Why is it so? Why is it written into the deep fabric of the universe?

The atonement.

Back to the woman giving a lesson in my ward, who said that when we met Jesus in the next life he would take us in His arms and our sorrows would melt away. I can picture this in a painting by Greg Olsen. But I rage against such a depiction. Is my life nothing more than a boo-boo to be smoothed away with a kiss and a Band-Aid?

When I meet Him. I hope he lets me feel His wounds—I want to push my finger into the holes made by the nails, and feel, and assure myself, that they go all the way down to the bottom of existence. And I hope he reciprocates that intimate touch and reaches up with his hand and puts his fingers on my mouth presses down to feel where the teeth and bone are missing. Not to heal them. But somehow acknowledge them. And I hope he takes my broken nose into His hands and reads the anguish written in the lines of my face, and makes something good out of the violence, which I’ve received and given. And I hope He can explain to me why the graceless universe demands so much pain from both Him and me. For it seems odd to me still, that we live in a universe that demands that its God suffer violence, deep, unimaginable violence, not just on the horrors of the cross, which many have suffered, but that he took upon Himself violence of the most existental kind? A suffering, that Eugene England points out, the remembrance of which keeps Him from finishing the sentence in describing it (D&C 19: 17-19). Why did the universe, or some aspect of the universe demand such costs? Why does it demand its payment in violence? In torture? In horror of a kind I don’t understand? Why is this the price? No wonder, grace and mercy lie at the heart of our Gospel when violence exacts such a toll and seems to undergird our universe in relentless and unfathomable ways.

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Comments

  1. I wrote a thing about this once:

    Here it is.

  2. Thanks. Maybe I’m part of this internet chatter. This post was timely.

  3. Thank you.

  4. Well done! Except for the auto accident, I have lived these kinds of events.
    Your post is a question for which I have no answer. Why is volence and suffering part of ” the deep fabric of the universe?”.
    I know the answers we will be given. But they don’t seem to give me comfort I long for.

  5. I think that grace exists in a context. That context is not simple, and usually “prevents” grace from being extended. There are many overlapping goals in this existence, and extending grace will rarely be the highest priority. (Think of a child asking for “grace” to be excused from 3rd grade lessons.)

    As distasteful as it may be, there are lessons embedded in violence. Aren’t we here to be exposed to things that will help us learn? For some of us, those lessons may involve exposure to violence.

  6. Beautiful.

  7. Larry the Cable Guy says:

    Elder Holland’s recent address, among other things, reminded me that Christ not only overcame the second death — spiritual separation from God — but that he also experienced it as profoundly as anyone ever has.

    It is difficult to understand whatever machinations the Fall included to introduce that kind of spiritual distance and entropy to cloud our mortal experience.

  8. Well done. For me it’s not so much a question of why but a question of how we respond to it. From the moment of our arrival on earth, whether primordially (in the persons of Eve and Adam whose birth into humanhood is marked by the pledge to crush the head of the serpent and to sweat and die) or biologically (as we depart the womb in a painful mess euphemistically called labor), we are surrounded by violence of one sort or another. There is something about the muffled terror of existence, as attested by most religious traditions, that is integral to our experience of mortality and humanity. Perhaps the presence of this violence sharpens our moral clarity, quickens our lives, or serves as a foil to comprehend the rich beauty of the divine.
    I think the Catholics have embraced this vision of the violence inextricably at the center of life in their sacred heart devotions, though we have our own way of dealing with this through martyrology of 19th-century LDS.
    I can see why various Gnostics and “pagans” would have posited malevolent forces as ancient as God, the inhabitants of the meta-divine realm.

  9. Steve–this is so well-written. And touching.

    The story of your accident is so overwhelming to me. I never would have gotten over the anger and sadness of that happening to me. I don’t know how you deal with it now, but the loveliness of your life (and your family’s) seems so graceful.

  10. I’m drawn to think about the power asymmetries in the various case studies. In One, Two, and Three, it seems that asymmetries, while real, are nonetheless relatively modest. In Four, I suppose the asymmetry involves you and God, and is thus the biggest and least manageable there is; the problem of evil is about the least manageable idea in religious thought, I think, especially when it is felt in the flesh, as it were. In Five, the asymmetry is probably comparable with that in Four, although the roles are reversed. In Six, the asymmetries are complex and reciprocal in ways that don’t seem to apply to the other situations.

    In offering these distinctions, I suppose my point would be to suggest that “violence” is too homogenizing a category. When we hurt those who can in principle hurt us back (as in 1, 2, 3, and 6), I think the issues are fundamentally different than when we hurt those who lack any realistic power to respond in kind (as in 4 and 5). Killing Isaac is different from, and I think more deeply and lastingly evil than, killing Abel…

  11. Latter-day Guy says:

    Thanks for this, SteveP. That was wonderful. Not many answers, but the questions were all touching and instructive.

  12. I loved your Study Three. Right before high school, I had a nemesis at school and we had a hatred for each other that simmered for months until finally one day we went out and brawled at lunch recess. We beat each other to a pulp, fighting to an exhausting draw, and after a week or so we struck up a conversation and ended up being good buddies from then on. It was like we had left all our anger out in the schoolyard, so there was no reason to dislike each other anymore.
    Ah, to be 13 again…

  13. Entropy — things falling apart — is inherent in the structure of the Universe. I think it may be inherent in the nature of intelligence as well (cf. 2 Nephi 9).

    I used to feel slightly patronizing towards Lehi when he says that without opposition (including good vs. evil) there would be no existence or creation. Now I think that he was onto something deeper than I was willing to grant. Whatever you want to call it — violence, entropy, opposition, evil, suffering, pain — it is eternal and integral to existence and agency, and asking “Why does violence exist?” is the same as asking “Why do I exist?”

    I think we knew pain before this life, and I think we will know it after this life. I think the same is true for violence (however one cares to define that) as well. We tend to think of the pre-mortal and post-mortal lives as being orderly and free of conflict; I think that’s wrong.

    If intelligence and agency are eternal and pervasive, then there is evil, pain, and violence in the eternities that we cannot begin to imagine. Indeed, I suspect we are sheltered in this life (cf. 2 Nephi 2:21); God may well be recruiting us to help Him in the eternities in protecting, saving, and exalting others. ..bruce..

  14. Obviously heartfelt and beautifully written. The difficult subject makes this one of those posts that, no matter how significant and well done, you wouldn’t expect to get much comment. I’m glad you’re getting responses, some of them more valuable than just my simple thanks.

  15. Mark A. Clifford says:

    SteveP:
    That was very beautiful, very painful.
    I do think that God has an enemy, I do think that. I know that it is strange to think this, and not authorized. I cannot believe that God contains or causes evil, and I cannot believe that evil is nothing. I know that Mormons are not supposed to believe that God has some kind of cosmic enemy, or to reify evil as a thing-in-itself. But I do, and I am sorry for that, please don’t tell my home teacher.
    I have to believe that God is saving us away from that enemy, who is powerful enough in own domain – that is, here on earth.
    Mormonism has an incipient dualism, and I get it, I feel it.
    If God is to blame, or arranges, or tolerates, or uses to test us, or participates in any way in the kind of visciousness and violence that goes on here then I have no need for him.
    Jesus provides, for me, an alternative to this mess, the mess of a God who harms. Jesus does not seem to participate in that. He does not seem to harm, unless you are a recalcitrant fig tree. If it its true that Jesus is God’s perfect self-disclosure, then what are we to make of God?

  16. Is my life nothing more than a boo-boo to be smoothed away with a kiss and a Band-Aid?

    Yes.

  17. sigh. That’s what I was afraid of.

  18. This is a seriously great post. It poignantly captures much of what I hate about life and existence. Study five is particularly hard to read.

  19. Thanks for the comments one and all. I had to give a final today and I’ve been distracted with that. I just discovered this was the anniversary of the Columbine shooting, maybe a good day to discuss this topic.

    I think Ardis is right and I worried this might be too personal to generate discussion and debate. It was hard to post.

    I appreciate John your link. Very nice. Brothers Karamazov is one of my favorite books, but I haven’t read it for many years. Maybe it is time for a reread.

    smb, I’m working on a post that works off of a philosophical thought experiment (not mine, maybe it’s famous, but I just read it) about planet that has an alien race that believes it was created by a malevolent deity and their theologians wrestle with the perplexing problem of Good.

    J. Nelson-Seawright the power asymmetries breakdown was very interesting. And these do from that light seem all over the place. To me they were experiential categories of how violence has played out in my life in various ways. I’m going to have to think about how power plays into these, and in general how power plays out in violence.

    bfwebster I’m glad you brought up entropy. I see Violence as different in the sense that violence can be creative and add complexity to things.

    Mark A. Clifford. I wish I knew what to expect on the other side. But we do seem to be being prepared for something other than harps and clouds.

  20. Your observations seem to focus more on the problem of pain. I have really enjoyed reading CS Lewis’ book of the same name. When I look at my pain, I see a gradient of pain from slightly irritating to a near-Gethsemane experience. The one thing I have gained from it all is that it was the unpleasantness that pushed me to examine the purpose to my existence and gave me the opportunity to become closer to God or to distance myself from Him.

    My one near-Gethsemane experience forced me to also examine what “it” all was for and to question why me and why do I feel so alone. In the end, I feel that our pain opens our eyes and then by opening our eyes we have the chance to have a more personal relationship with Christ which then allows us to become more like Him. Our pain is the essence of life – without it, life would be meaningless.

  21. “But we do seem to be being prepared for something other than harps and clouds.”

    and therein lies the agony and the ecstasy of Mormonism – and the core difference between us and every other Christian denomination of which I am aware.

    Steve, please pardon the length of this comment, but I have been trying to figure out how to respond with anything of substance since I first read this post.

    One of the central concepts of Buddhism was immortalized in the swashbuckling tale of love and adventure with these words, “Life is pain, Highness.” Christianity in general limits that to this life. Mormonism allows for it to be true eternally – and that is hard to understand and accept.

    Have you ever tried looking at it in the following way?

    You can say you understand the allure of Satan’s plan in a very personal way – and, hopefully, that recognition makes you more understanding of and charitable toward those who seem to gravitate to his proposed philosophy here in this life. I also see in your words a movement toward a greater conviction of the goodness and graciousness of God, since the glimpse of one extreme necessitates a glimpse of the other extreme. Perhaps you haven’t yet recognized it as such, but it’s there in your words.

    In a very real way, those who had seen the most of God had to suffer the most with the removal of his presence. Joseph didn’t just suffer in the Liberty Jail; he broke. When his cup overflowed, he cried out asking where God was (just as Jesus himself did on the cross when His Father finally withdrew completely) – but he also set a condition on his and the saints’ future worship and praise. He asked for revenge; he begged for violent retribution.

    He said, “Let thine anger be kindled against our enemies; and, in the fury of thine heart, with thy sword avenge us of our wrongs. Remember thy suffering saints, O our God; and thy servants will rejoice in thy name forever.” (D&C 121:5-6)

    It is interesting to note that the Lord’s response was, essentially, to give him peace and remind him that it could be worse – and that the real issue was his commitment to endure pain and suffering to the end. The exact initial words were:

    “My son, peace be unto thy soul; thine adversity and thine afflictions shall be but a small moment; And then, if thou endure it well, God shall exalt thee on high.”

    I believe strongly that one of the central purposes of life is to learn to endure the negative in such a way that we endure it “well” (that it becomes a positive in the end by changing who we are at our core) – and I think that means that we reach the state where we accept pain and suffering as an integral and important component of growth to such a degree that we choose suffering over ease – the life of God over the alternative proposed by Lucifer. We learn to value GROWTH enough to accept growing pains, realizing that the taller we grow, the more intense those pains.

    That’s small consolation in the pain of the moment, but I think it’s important as we strive to continue to endure in hope and peace.

  22. Ray, thank you for your comment, you’ve added substantially to this topic.

    “I also see in your words a movement toward a greater conviction of the goodness and graciousness of God” And in a strange way it’s filled my life with a greater sense of gratitude for those things.

  23. SteveP, this was an excellent post that you wrote.

    Sorry my reply was so short. But think about what your perspective would be if you lived ten thousand years. Assume this life lasts for a hundred out of that ten thousand.

    How long, by comparison, is your experience? I’ve posted at length on the effect of perspective and time. I’ve been thinking about it since a friend of mine who is older remarked that washing her sheets once a week had gotten to feeling like she was changing them every hour and it seemed like Christmas was coming once a week.

    Well, for a four year old, Christmas comes once every 25% of their life. At forty, it comes once every 2.5%. At 80 it is coming around rather quickly.

    That, and Christ telling people that if someone wronged them and they did not forgive that person, in the victim was the greater sin. How can that be, unless the only true harm we suffer is emotional/spiritual harm that goes with us after we die and nothing much of this world is very important or significant?

    I’ve seen the lifestyles of the super rich from a hundred years ago. I vastly prefer my own right now. Is God a hundred years ahead of us in technology?

    Anyway, this jumbles things up, but in writing about the topic it took me several essays just to sketch things out.

    But there is more to it than my “yes” answer, but I do believe the answer is yes, once our perspective gets a little longer.

  24. I love how you express yourself, I can picture you in each situation, I have felt many of your same emotions. You make your sister proud!

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