Violence and Theology



Many people of faith tend to say that they espouse peace and believe the essence of Micah 6:8, which states that we ought to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. Violence and Theology introduces the pervasive, stark reality of violence that weaves through general and religious culture in the West: including Scripture, classic literature, and nursery stories; history and politics; music, sports, television and video games; and even theology itself. From this...

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Many people of faith tend to say that they espouse peace and believe the essence of Micah 6:8, which states that we ought to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. Violence and Theology introduces the pervasive, stark reality of violence that weaves through general and religious culture in the West: including Scripture, classic literature, and nursery stories; history and politics; music, sports, television and video games; and even theology itself. From this persistently honest analysis, Kirk-Duggan then leads us to explore themes of justice, conflict resolution, holistic and cultural health, and spiritual and theological wellness, as ways to overcome violence today.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780687334339
  • Publisher: Abingdon Press
  • Publication date: 11/1/2006
  • Series: Horizons in Theology Series
  • Edition description: Trade Paperback
  • Pages: 92
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Cheryl A. Kirk-Duggan is Professor of Theology and Women's Studies and Director of Women's Studies at Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, North Carolina. She has authored many books, including Mary Had a Baby and Undivided Soul, both published by Abingdon Press.
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First Chapter

Violence and Theology

By Cheryl A. Kirk-Duggan

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 2006 The United Methodist Publishing House
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-687-33433-9

Chapter One

Landscape of Violence

Globally, violence is a major health epidemic: more than 1.6 million people die each year due to violence. Yet, many acts of violence go unreported. Further, millions more are injured and suffer egregious mental health, physical, psychological, and reproductive health problems due to violence. Violence, a complex, cyclical problem, shapes our families and communities. Many perpetrators have a faith practice, with an underlying theology. Violence is theological, personal and communal, external and internal. Silence is often a culprit. Statistically, youth violence has increased, and most violence to women includes sexual abuse. Often children suffer along with their mothers, and abuse to the elderly remains the most hidden form of abuse. We have a lot to atone for, to achieve prevention and holistic health. Before we can atone, we must identify the problem.

Why does any human being need to violate the person of another human being? Is this compulsion more about a lack of self-esteem and self-worth that needs to control others; is this about an abuse of power? To understand the actuality of violence and theology, how they connect with people's lives, we explore violence; that is, this section provides a working definition of violence and excavates forms of systemic violence more pervasive in United States culture than we like to admit, particularly because we think of this country as the "land of the free and the home of the brave." We even codify this sentiment in our pledge of allegiance: "One nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." Freedom does not come without cost, and bravery may not be all that it is set out to be.


Violence is that which harms. Violence can be blatant or subtle forms of aggression, hostility, cruelty, brutality, force, and the harsh wielding or misuse of power. Power is the capacity to be in a position of authority, or to have a position of strength to influence, control, or impose one's will on other persons, processes, institutions, and systems, with or without their resistance. Such a misuse of power unfolds through individual and communal behavior. At the level of community, violence can be systemic, where laws, rules, and legislative or bureaucratic bodies are intentional about keeping tight reins on those deemed other. The experience of violence is universal and complex. For some, violence is anything that hurts another sentient being or anything in creation. Violence may represent an infringement on human rights and the rights of creation. This dehumanizing action is intrusive, and it destroys creativity and one's inner essence as it disallows one's freedom. There are so many, almost mind-boggling levels of violence: the implied and actual; psychological, emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual; economic, religious, cultural; racial, sexual, verbal, and attitudinal—all of which are relational.

Violence is relational because it affects our entire way of being: whatever is meaningful, loving, and important to our vitality. To relate is to connect. Our earliest connections are through family systems. Family relationships affect all other relationships; we imitate behavior mirrored before us. Families and others who have an impact on our lives help us define what is meaningful, significant, and important. Within intimate relationships, we learn to love and hate. Karen Baker-Fletcher notes that our world contains hatred and unnecessary violence, or traumatically destructive action. Given that "creatures eat other creatures, whether plant, animal, insects ... we all participate in levels of necessary violence to feed and sustain our physical lives. A certain degree of destruction is part of the cycle of life." Our concern is unnecessary violence.

Acts of unnecessary violence involve more than the perpetrator and victim(s); they include their intended and unintended consequences, which affect individuals, communities, and systems. Systemic violence can occur because enough individuals and collectives or institutions made up of like-minded individuals embrace the beliefs, behaviors, customs, and rituals that support violence. We see such violence in legal, social, business, and religious systems. For example, those convicted of trafficking crack cocaine get a much stiffer prison sentence than those trafficking the same amount of cocaine. People who traffic or use crack cocaine tend to be poor and nonwhite, an instance of systemic legal violence that usurps an individual's rights.

Violence is often self-imposed and can have an inward or outward thrust—sometimes so extremely subtle that litigation would not be feasible. Internalized violence may not be apparent to the individual or to their immediate community; yet it is not any less deadly. People internally self-destruct; they commit slow suicide in many ways: alcoholism, drug abuse, overeating, compulsive spending, gambling, and staying in abusive situations. Violence external to an individual or group can also be subtle. If the violence is embedded in traditions and rituals, perpetrators and victims may not be aware of the ongoing wrongs. Elsewhere, the violence is so heinous, so blatant, it is inconceivable that one human being created by God could inact such acts on another. The horrors of war, sex trafficking, brutal murders, and domestic violence make plain the depths and scandalousness of violence, marked by horrific disregard and disrespect for God-created life.


God-talk and how human beings relate to God is the purview of theology. While many people pursue graduate study to hone their skills and understandings as "professional" theologians and scholars, people who have never critically studied theology and religion can be theologians. Theology is the study, contemplation, and conversation about who God is, how who God is relates to who we are, and what we believe because of our understanding of God. When and how we pray and how we live in light of those prayers imply a type of theology. When we take seriously our responsibility or stewardship for how we live in the world, this is theology. Whenever we think or talk about the impact God has on the world and our lives, we are doing theology. All religions that focus on a God, particularly the three Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) have a theology or set of beliefs and related praxis or ethics; that is, a set of doctrines or practices regarding how we ought to live our lives. Theology, however, is not stodgy and irrelevant. For Christians, theology is not just what the particular denominations say about who God is and how we ought to live in relation, theology pertains to how we embrace various belief systems as incarnated in Jesus the Christ, and how we then embrace Christ as model, for the church is the body of Christ.

Some people see themselves as more spiritual than religious, which begs the question "Can one have a theology related to spirituality for those who do not embrace formal, organized religion?" I believe the answer is yes. When one thinks and talks about God and orchestrates one's life around a personal understanding of God, then one experiences theology. We learn from others and construct a theology based upon what makes sense to us. Some people construct their theology focused on personal devotion and piety. Some construct their theology based upon a prescribed system of beliefs from church doctrine or a particular life philosophy. Others construct their theology based upon their understandings of what it means to be a person of faith who must respond to injustice. Latin American liberation theologians argue that God is on the side of the poor and work to change the injustice in their society. Thus, when the campesinos have home prayer meetings, they also create co-ops and make sure everyone has electricity.

Theology can help expose the nature and impact of violence on society. For example, Womanist theologians, generally women of the African Diaspora who are scholars of religion, intentionally name violence and oppressions of racism, sexism, and classism—anything that harms people. They do analysis of varied sacred texts, novels, poetry, music, and folk wisdom to name the violence and offer suggestions about how to transform and change this behavior. Womanist thought is theory and praxis, a way of life. Other scholars engaged in liberating God's people understand that anything that obstructs personal or communal well-being and communal development must be examined, and people must be encouraged to believe and act differently.

If we do not address violence, it will not disappear. People who do or cause violent acts usually have a vested interest in continuing their destructive behavior. There is a payoff. That payoff may be monetary, emotional, or social. Sometimes those who do violence have the authority of office or status behind them. Other times people who are oppressed take on the behavior of their oppressors and begin to destroy themselves and others who are most like them.

Theology asks us what it means to be human, what is the nature of society, and pushes us to examine the potential for justice and transformation of violence. Meanwhile, with augmented technology we have the capacity for increased violence with crimes such as identity theft, the disrespect of personal privacy, and more options for creating tools and devices of destruction. Violence places all in a survival mode and diminishes the inherent dignity of the created, denying the imago Dei in humanity. Violence displaces the role, holiness, and sacrality of God and of humanity. Violence also blurs the lines of reality and often exudes ambiguity. Sometimes the issues are massive and unwieldy so that it seems violence can never be transformed.


Scapegoat theory is a helpful theological lens for seeing some of the factors amid the schematics of violence. French literary critic and cultural anthropologist René Girard has a theory about violence used to create and control societies called "scapegoat theory," based on the idea of mimesis, or imitation. Mimesis, to imitate, is vital for our epistemology, the way we know and learn. With "good" mimesis, one desires to learn something from another. Mimetic intimacy, the resulting process and framework of "good" mimesis, involves nonviolence: imitation without conflict and without sacrifice. Mimetic desire concerns the experience where two or more people (the model and the subject; the latter learns from the former) desire or want or relate to the (object) same person, place, thing, or status. This framework of model, subject, and object is Girard's mimetic triangle, which illustrates his theory. This desire can lead to rivalry: several participants want the same thing, object, or opportunity. Girard suggests that mimetic desire and its resulting ritualized conflict involves the resolving and controlling of the resulting violence, or acquisitive violence. Negative or acquisitive mimesis, where subject and model desire the same object, occurs where the process can engage in rivalrous and destructive activity. Such activity requires a victim, a scapegoat, to allow culture to continue. In various settings, at work or at play, many of us wield power and authority, brilliantly or brutally. We use our power and authority to create a living laboratory of thought, experience, and erudition. Some micromanage, chide, and destroy. The scapegoat becomes the reprobate, which allows satiation of lust and thirst for calm.

Once a scapegoat is identified, the dominant group can release its rage and fear and violent sensibilities, and gain a sense of peaceful community. This shift invokes a sacred structure, rooted in a sacrificial sacred altar, the center of creating and recreating communal, social solidarity. The success of the scapegoating process often turns on the victim's invisibility or on being named and experienced as "other." This naming may help us hide our own collusion in the scapegoating process. In media and texts like opera, film, popular music, Scripture, and novels, we receive warnings about making victims perpetrators and feigning our own innocence. The question before us is how to resolve the conflict.

Those persons deemed "other," because of their embodied differences (gender, race, class, age, or sexual orientation) must be recognizable and vulnerable. Increased violence occurs when one names someone(s) other. Girard names these conflictual rivals as monstrous doubles. Creating differences, or being aware of particular differences, creates a distinct kind of social order. Girard claims that, culturally, human beings imitate the desire of another, because when they come together around the same thing or object, they use one another as models and begin to resemble one another. Unfortunately, this imitation can also produce abnormal greed or acquisitive mimesis. Increased similarities create societal confusion. Ultimately, individuals and groups engage in violence as they struggle to be different. Yet through their struggles they end up looking and acting more and more like one another, and they focus on a person or group of persons who look, behave, or think differently. These kinds of differences often make the person or group of persons vulnerable, and that difference often makes them the target of a particular group's united effort to define themselves and those deemed other, by focusing their own thrust for power against those who cannot react. By psychologically or physically eliminating or purging the ones who are different, a group establishes itself. Lynching, for example, is the classic act of collective violence. This group execution or ritual assumes the victim is guilty and creates the opportunity to kill, without guilt to members of the in-group. Everyone participates, and the execution takes on a festive air.

The Girardian scapegoat mechanism, then, helps us see that mimetic rivalry shapes human behavior, and provides a way to rationalize violence via religious rituals and myth. Scapegoat theory helps us see theologically as we discern how people interact in the context of their faith, as they blame something or someone else for the particular crisis they are facing. People tend not to need a scapegoat when all is going well. Girard argues that the scapegoat mechanism has been exposed and made ineffectual in the Gospels, through the passion and resurrection of Christ: I disagree. Girard claims the scapegoat mechanism works because the scapegoat is hidden, for people do not overtly say a particular person or group is the scapegoat, rather they act that way. If the birth, life, death, resurrection of Christ exposes the scapegoat, then there should be no more violence and no further need for scapegoats. History proves this to not be the case. When we do not or cannot see our own complicity in scapegoating, the problem of violence remains. If we see our complicity, then we can no longer feign ignorance of the victim's innocence and theologically must reflect on diminished right relations.



The following statistics about violence from the the World Health Organization, are astounding. More than 1.6 million people a year experience violent, preventable deaths globally; 35 people every hour through strife and war; 1,424 people are killed in acts of homicide every day—almost one person per minute. Experts report that millions more suffer in silence as they continue to experience gross neglect and abuse at home, school, work, even in religious or faith communities, where they should be safe.

The report delineates the statistics of violence: many women fall prey to intimate violence, where one in two women murdered are the victims of their husbands and boyfriends or former husbands or boyfriends.

Young people, who often have just begun to grow and think for themselves, are frequent victims of violence. Seven percent of deaths among females and 14 percent of deaths among males, ages 15 to 44, are caused by violence. The World Health Organization reports that "drunkenness is one of the situational factors found to precipitate violence."

Up to 6 percent of the elderly say they have been abused—one of the most hidden faces of violence, according to the document. Roughly every 40 seconds, one person commits suicide. Among those aged 15 to 44, suicide is the fourth leading cause of death. Suicide is the sixth leading cause of disability and ill-health in this age group.


Excerpted from Violence and Theology by Cheryl A. Kirk-Duggan Copyright © 2006 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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