Our Culture of Violence

To be sure these are difficult days for our culture and for our society. The escalation of violence towards innocent bystanders has grown to be a week by week thing that is repugnant, yet one wonders with a certain amount of cynicism how could it be possible for a week to go by without there being some new horror in the news.

 This past fall has seen its share of bad things happening to good people. There was hurricane Sandy that left many devastated and homeless. Shootings in Clackamas Oregon; Coudersport, Pennsylvania; and Newtown Connecticut all have caught our attention as devastating news this season No it’s not that we have become callus or indifferent to the plight of suffering humanity. It’s just the scope of it. How many times do we have to see it on our television sets those candlelight vigils and scenes of weeping mourners before it eventually occurs to us that there is something drastically wrong with our culture and society as we know it?

 Of course it is a simplistic and rather knee-jerk reaction that somehow as a culture we should eliminate the accessibility to weapons of violence. And if you watched the news at all this week you know the topic on everyone’s mind was a very deep and heated debate over that sensitive area where our second amendment rights clash with the society’s duty to protect its citizens. To what extent does a free society have the duty and obligation to protect its citizens? After all until recently this did not seem like the Wild West wherein we live. Is it not a failure of free society and civilization that it cannot protect its citizens? What it citizens be safer if all were routinely armed? These are of course all difficult questions for debate in the times in which we live, and I have no illusion that we would be able to solve them this morning. But what I found really fascinating was that no commentator was interested in looking at the underlying causes of violence in our society. After all taking away one’s arms is not necessarily a way to reduce the overwhelming violence in society. Ancient Roman society was a very violent society and they didn’t have hand guns. And therein is a certain fallacy of reasoning. Banning certain types of weapons might reduce certain types of violence but it will not eliminate violence unless our culture is willing to address the underlying cause. 

Addressing those underlying causes is not a thing that our culture is very good at doing, especially when those causes are complex. In this instance, the underlying causes include the ways in which children and youth in our country are enculturated into a culture of violence. 

That may start at an early age, especially among young boys, but it is escalated about the time that they get old enough to watch TV, where most of the shows portray violence in one sort or another. Even the cartoons that they watch portray scenes of violence. Who among us has not laughed when the Acme safe comes crashing down on the head of Wiley Coyote? 

I’ll admit that I find it entertaining even at this late date. But then most of the youth these days enter a phase that most of us did not in our youth or childhood. Where you and I would go out to play, they are shortly engulfed into the culture of the video game.  The typical child in the ‘tween years spends approximately between 8 and 13 hours a week playing video games. The average time spent by youth is approximately 10 hours a week in using video/multimedia media. Most of those games have themes of explicit violence, and the tamer ones generally have a subtext of violence. 

The results are that children and youth become desensitized to violence. When they are gaming, they are operating at a level of sensory-motor skill attentiveness. This means that the more time they spend gaming, the more they are being trained in reactivity to stimuli. Most of the games, at least the popular ones are games that are unwinnable; they usually end in the death of the character the child is controlling in the game. These games do not encourage children to do other than behave reactively. And, choices have no consequences. After all, if you died, you can just restart the game all over again. Some children become addicted to the use of video games. 

Well, if the message of late Advent and the coming of Christmas mean nothing to us, it should mean something about the value of life. The Epistle to the Hebrews puts this to us in shorthand this morning, “you take no pleasure in burnt offerings and sacrifices, but a body you have prepared for me. If we pride ourselves on the progress of humans over the last 20 centuries, well and good. But if we persist in the trends in which our culture is going, what different does that make us from the ancient cultures who crucified the Lord of life?


Canon Greg+




About canongreg

I have been Rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Wellsboro, PA since 1994.
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