On the heels of recent high-profile outbreaks of violence around the world, researchers have released a report in the journal Science arguing that "the best model for violence may be that of a socially infectious disease." So says Felton Earls, at Harvard Medical School, who led the study.
In Grand Rapids, officials are investigating a fight at the Ionia Skate Park, which was videotaped and posted on the Internet. "I think they were fighting just to fight," Department of Public Safety Director David Bulling. According to reports, Bulling also said police found a Web site where viewers can watch videotaped fights at skate parks across the country.
These skate park fights are representative of a growing trend combining violence and technology. The phenomemena of "Happy Slapping," when "attackers beat their victim while accomplices film it using a video mobile phone," have swept the UK, and numerous websites profit from setting up taped fights between homeless people or other vulnerable populations.
Such sites show the commercial appeal of these kinds of activities, and this intersection of technology and violence is deeply disturbing. Where do we place the blame for such things? Of course a great measure lies with the individuals who participate and facilitate such acts.
The Systems and Structures of Violence
But this underscores a deeper question: What motivates such violence? Clearly there is an economic interest at stake for some, but this is based on the entertainment value that others place on such fights. Our culture is becoming increasingly immersed in violence through various forms of popular entertainment: video games, movies, music, and television.
This illustrates a truth about the market: the system itself is neither virtuous nor vicious, but every activity conducted within the market is directed either at virtue or vice. The market is simply a tool for the efficient distribution of goods and services, whose merit lies in its efficiency. But the market makes no necessary judgment about the moral value of what it distributes.
And the fact that morally reprehensible things can be channeled via the market shows us that the market itself is not enough for a vigorous and healthy society. It's a necessary but not a sufficient condition.
The market must be supported and bounded by moral norms, guides for appropriate conduct and behavior. Where the market brings people into contact and relationship, it will also reflect the disruption of sin in the human community.
So when the culture supports and promotes violence, it should be no surprise that the market efficiently distributes products that reflect this corruption. The two mutually reinforce one another, sending things into a degenerating spiral of violence.
The Sociality of Sin
Dr. Earls' study of the social implications of violence, in his words, "clarifies doubt that exposure to community violence is indeed part of the contagion process." This view of violence as a disease or contagion is one that fits well with a traditional Christian view of sin.
For example, Cornelius Plantinga Jr., president of Calvin Theological Seminary, writes that an important recognition of sin is that it is "a dynamic and progressive phenomena. Hence, its familiar metaphors: sin is a plague that spreads by contagion or even quasi-genetic reproduction. It's a polluted river that keeps branching and rebranching into tributaries. It's a whole family of fertile and contentious parents, children, and grandchildren."
The kinds of violence we see so often today are particular cases of a kind of sin with much biblical precedent. From the days of Cain, the world's first murderer, the instances of violence have only increased in frequency and depravity. The book of Genesis contains the words of Lamech, a descendant of Cain, who says, "I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for injuring me. If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times" (Gen. 4:23-24 NIV).
What is the cure for such ills? The state plays an important role in the restraining of sin, and those who violate the law rightly ought to be punished. The enforcement of law by the government can act as a deterrent to various forms of unrest. But the external power of preservation can only function as a check on sin and violence, not as an ultimate solution.
The character of King Dahfu in Saul Bellow's Henderson the Rain King tells us about the cycle of violence perpetuated after the Fall. He says, "Brother raises a hand against brother and son against father (how terrible!) and the father also against son. And moreover it is a continuity-matter, for if the father did not strike the son, they would not be alike. It is done to perpetuate similarity...man cannot keep still under the blows."
Dahfu continues and describes the essence of virtue in this fallen human condition: "A brave man will try to make the evil stop with him. He shall keep the blow. No man shall get it from him, and that is a sublime ambition. So, a fellow throws himself in the sea of blows saying he do not believe it is infinite. In this way many courageous people have died."
The Solution in Suffering
And so for the answer of redemptive suffering, we must go to Jesus Christ, the Good Physician, who shows us through his life, death, and resurrection that the response to violence is not an increase in violence in the style of Lamech. Instead, we are called by Jesus to forgive each other "not seven times, but seventy-seven times" (Matt. 18:22 NIV). The earthly reversal of the escalation of sin and violence comes in the Christian life of forgiveness and reconciliation.
A good society is characterized by freedom, but it is freedom exercised toward virtue. This biblical teaching to do good even to our enemies gets at the root of virtue, the renewed heart capable of something far greater than a mere public morality.
All human structures are ultimately inadequate in the face of human sin. No government, economy, family, or society can survive if a critical mass of citizens do not exercise a particular level of self-government and restraint. If you change what people desire, you will change what the market tends to offer.
The words of eighteenth-century preacher Samuel Cooper ring true, "Virtue is the spirit of a republic; for where all power is derived from the people, all depends on their good disposition. If they are impious...all is lost."
Jordan J. Ballor is associate editor with the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Read this article on the Acton Institute website (new window will open). Reprinted with permission of the Acton Institute.