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?
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.
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.
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?
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.