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7 Ways for Churches to Address Culture of Violence

In a previous column, I suggested that an assumed culture of violence prevails among many of those who are most vocal in defense of gun ownership.
They are not alone, however. Even many non-gun owners live in fear, mistrust and suspicion.

Therefore, I urged that addressing our assumed culture of violence should be on par with discussions about guns.

I now offer my ideas about the sources of this violence along with ideas on how the church might respond, in hopes that the reader will enter the conversation and offer even more ideas on both topics.

I begin with what I perceive to be the sources of the assumed culture of violence.

An entitlement attitude

I believe that 21st-century NRA members misinterpret the Second Amendment as guaranteeing that they should be able to buy any kind of gun they want anywhere, anytime.

The Second Amendment preceded the establishment of the National Guard, which now provides the armed (and regulated) citizen defense contingency of the Second Amendment.

As far back as 1967, President Johnson’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice reported, “The U.S. Supreme Court and lower Federal courts have consistently interpreted [the Second] Amendment only as a prohibition against Federal interference with State militia and not as a guarantee of an individual’s right to keep or carry firearms.”

Thus, the report asserted, “The argument that the Second Amendment prohibits State or Federal regulation of citizen ownership of firearms has no validity whatsoever.”

Media

Either through participation or apathy, our culture supports the violence depicted in video games, movies and television shows.

In the wake of Newtown, Conn., “Django Unchained,” basically a movie about mass murder, grossed $125 million in three weeks.

The next time you see a movie, count the number of previews for violent movies. You’ll realize this is not an exception.

In 2008, the Pew Research Center reported that 97 percent of youth age 12-17 played video games.

The report also noted, “Two-thirds of teens reported playing ‘action’ or ‘adventure’ games, some of which contain considerable violent content.”

Other research found that half of all video games rated by the Entertainment Software Rating Board had violent content.

The effect of video game violence is hotly contested, with some experts suggesting that personality, situation and motivation are the determinants in how such violence impacts the individual.

Do violent video games lead players to assume that the world is potentially as violent as the games they play? Though the debate continues, research suggests that there is a connection.

There is also plenty of violence on television. As Pediatrics journal recently reported, a study in New Zealand found that the risk of criminal conviction by age 26 increased by 30 percent for every hour of TV watched by children.

Finally, media coverage of political vitriol often has the subtle effect of making people angry.

In fact, certain talk radio hosts get rich by making people suspicious and angry! Perhaps there is a link between the fear-based rhetoric used by these radio hosts and the enacted violence of individuals.

Lawyers help companies hide behind a broad interpretation of the First Amendment to defend the presence of violence in video games, movies and television. They also cite the First Amendment to defend the vitriolic rhetoric of talk show hosts and others. But what are the limits?

Poverty

In some cities, such as Chicago, it has been reported that gun violence is concentrated in the most impoverished communities. This suggests that poverty is a strong contributing factor to violence.

Reporting on Chicago’s increase in violent crime, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor notes, “Crime and violence are … the predictable outcomes of the economic violence that provides the ravaging context within which the gun violence and murders are happening in Chicago. When people have no realistic possibility of meaningful employment … then joining a gang becomes a viable alternative, if not a necessity, for economic survival.”

Taylor continues: “Where is the demand … for meaningful jobs in these economically depressed communities, full funding for all public schools, a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures, and the restoration of budgets for the array of social and welfare services that have made poverty much harsher in the U.S.?”

Consider this: does any other developed country have the economic disparities between the haves and have-nots as the U.S.?

The evidence of violence and proposals as to its sources are seemingly endless.

Yet, while it is true that a real culture of violence exits in some quarters, to assume that our culture is generally violent and threatening is to ignore the peaceful existence most Americans enjoy daily.

Peace is not the exception. Violence is the anomaly.

In response to this assumed culture of violence, here are a few ways churches can help.

1.      Hold civil conversations about the issues. “Town meetings” and small groups, book studies and guest speakers provide opportunities to explore values and opinions, as well as valuable education and perspective. These are opportunities to explore the question, “What is the norm: violence or peace?”

2.      Engage civic leaders to identify issues and brainstorm solutions. Many public officials are happy to converse with concerned citizens about improving the community. Consider investigating the prevalence of gangs in your area (you may be surprised), and ask officials how you can help.

3.     Urge civility among public leaders.

4.      Engage with other congregations of every stripe on civic projects, including, perhaps, conversations with theater owners and anti-drug officials.

5.      Engage with community organizations that focus on combating poverty and help develop cooperative anti-poverty strategies.

6.      Talk more about “we” than “me” to emphasize the communal instead of individual. Our country has gone overboard in our emphasis on individual rights. We need to hear again the old song, “No (wo)man is an island.”

7.      Urge responsible care and security of guns with gun-owning members. Teach the importance of gun safes, trigger locks and the proper handling of firearms.

These are a few suggestions, now it’s your turn.

Mike Harton is a former seminary professor and dean as well as a former board member of the Baptist Center for Ethics.