The Expository Files.


Modern Controversies #10   


Gangsta rapper Tupac Shakur dies after being ambushed on a Las Vegas street--a violent end to a life that glorified violence. A rural couple are shot to death by a couple of teenaged burglars, while the couple's three small children sleep in nearby rooms. Their 8-year-old daughter discovers the bodies the next morning. A father comes home for lunch to find the body of his 16-year-old daughter dead on the floor--the victim of multiple gunshot wounds to the head.

These incidents were taken from a single issue of a newspaper in a small Midwestern city. And these were just the ones that made the headlines. Dozens of assaults, rapes, drive-bys, gunshot wounds, domestic fights, bar room brawls, and other assorted mayhem were buried in the weekly police report.

America is being swept by a rising tide of violent behavior. Since 1960, crimes of violence have increased by 560 percent. We lead the industrialized world in murder, rape and violent crime. And the violence is as shocking as it is common. Pre-teens are committing atrocities today that sicken even the hardened old-timers in state penitentiaries. Clearly, violence in America has reached a dangerous new level.

What has brought the most prosperous nation in history to such an appalling condition?

Like most of her social ills, America's brush with self-destruction is not unique in history. The Bible describes a number of ancient civilizations that passed through the same phase. Some survived it; most did not. But the lessons they hold for our nation are worth studying.

The Antediluvian World
Although we do not know the graphic details, violence was the predominant factor in God's decision to destroy the pre-flood world. He told Noah, "The end of all flesh has come before Me, for the earth is filled with violence through them" (Gen. 6:13; cf. v.11). The only clue we are given regarding the reason behind this social collapse is found in an earlier verse: "The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually" (6:5). It's a simple statement with significant implications, as we shall see shortly.

Northern Israel
The ten tribes that severed themselves from the throne of David lasted barely 200 years before disintegrating in chaos. Near the end of Israel's history, one of her prophets painted a bleak picture of what ailed the nation: "There is no truth or mercy or knowledge of God in the land. By swearing and lying, killing and stealing and committing adultery, they break all restraint, with bloodshed after bloodshed. Therefore the land will mourn . . ." (Hos. 4:1-3). Even as the nation was doing itself in, nobody seemed to have a clue what the problem was.

Having the Levitical priesthood and the temple gave the southern kingdom a more stable foundation, but even these advantages could not protect the people from consuming themselves. To one observer, social conditions in Judah's later years were beyond repair: "O Lord, how long shall I cry, and You will not hear? Even cry out to You, 'Violence!' and You will not save. Why do You show me iniquity, and cause me to see trouble? For plundering and violence are before me; There is strife, and contention arises. Therefore the law is powerless, and justice never goes forth . . ." (Hab. 1:2-4). The lawlessness became so bad, it finally overwhelmed the nation's judicial system.

Clearly, the judgment that finished off each of these societies was preceded by an internal rage that fed upon itself, consuming everything that was good and productive, until there was little left to save. If history is any example, the violence that is currently sweeping our nation could very well be the signs of an empire in its death throes.

Root Causes
What causes nations that are apparently secure and blessed to implode in this fashion?

Some argue that this is proof of the inherent depravity of man, that all humans are inwardly savage beasts whose violent natures must be caged by force of law. But this contradicts both the Bible and experience. Dave Grossman, a former U.S. Army psychologist and now a professor at West Point, did an exhaustive study of soldiers in battle conditions from the Civil War until the present. He found that almost universally, men in the heat of battle tend to avoid killing the enemy. "At the decisive moment, each man became, in his own heart, a conscientious objector who could not bring himself to kill the man in front of him," the professor wrote in his book, "On Killing." Even in its rawest form, humanity seems to recoil from harming its own kind. This seems to confirm Solomon's observation that "God made man upright" (Eccl. 7:29).

Violence, therefore, is not an innate part of man. It is a learned behavior that originates, as all behaviors do, in the heart of man. This link between moral education and violent behavior is outlined in detail by Paul in Romans 1. Notice the progression:

Whatever their background or training, Paul argues that all men know at least something about God (v. 19-21) and His moral law (v. 32).

At some point in their lives, men make a deliberate decision to reject God from their knowledge. They "suppress the truth" about God in their own minds (v.18). Recall Hosea's lament that "there is no knowledge of God in the land" (Hos. 4:2). Nature abhors a vacuum, so something must take God's place. Paul introduces the new deity three times with the statement, "God gave them up . . . " to the lusts of their hearts (v. 24), vile passions (v. 26), and a debased mind (v. 28). All three statements emphasize hearts that are actively devoted to doing evil. This echoes God's description of antediluvian man, that "every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually" (Gen. 6:5).

The fruit of this deliberate anti-God mentality is inevitable: "sexual immorality, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, evil-mindedness; they are whisperers, backbiters, haters of God, violent, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, undiscerning, untrustworthy, unloving, unforgiving, unmerciful" (v. 29-30). The stench of violence saturates this list of anti-social behaviors.

This progression away from God has been documented often before. But there is another element in these verses that is often overlooked. Notice that Paul speaks of evil-doers who not only choose to practice these things, they also "approve of those who practice them" (v. 32). We refer to this social approval by other phrases: peer pressure, media influence, or worldliness. The power of our social environment to shape our thought processes cannot be over-emphasized. It is, in fact, probably the single most significant contributing factor to how we think--and thus, how we act.

That our modern culture contributes to the spread of violence in this country is beyond debate. The most significant predictor of abusive behavior in adult family members, for example, is abuse suffered as a child--and domestic violence is shredding America's families. Hundreds of studies have documented the correlation between the mindless violence portrayed in many movies, television shows, popular songs, and video games, and the violence that is acted out in the lives of those who immerse themselves in it--especially children. (For an excellent summary of these studies and case histories, see Bob Waliszewski & Jerry Melchisedeck, "Bringing Out the Worst in Us"; A Focus on the Family Culture Report, 1995). It's a vicious cycle: prolonged exposure to violence spawns violent behavior, which contributes further to the environment of violence, which spawns more violence, ad infinitum. At some point, a society literally reaches the point of no return. It becomes so saturated with violence that it self-destructs in a meltdown of the social order.

What To Do?
What can Christians do to combat the spread of violence in our society? How can our influence as children of God have the greatest impact for good?

Some seek to organize boycotts, letter-writing campaigns, political movements, or other formal efforts to mold national destiny. These devices may accomplish some short-term success, but in the long run they are usually ineffectual, and sometimes even counterproductive. Jesus and the apostles did not resort to such techniques to change the world of their day; they knew that forcing people to act against their will (the basis of all such activities) does not attack the root cause of the problem.

If the fundamental cause of violence is a rejection of the knowledge of God, then the only way to stem the tide is to restore the respect. People must be enabled to see a real alternative before they will be willing to change attitudes and behaviors. To that end, we must concentrate on two activities:

Teach the love of God. In all the annals of human history, no greater story can be told than that of the One who "so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son." Granted, the story has been dissected, recast, repackaged, and encumbered with so much baggage that its real message has been badly distorted. But if there is ever a force that can melt a heart of stone and restore peace to a tortured soul, this is that force. Jesus said, "And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself" (Jn. 12:32). Let's stand aside and let the world see Him for themselves. Live lives of peace. "He Himself is our peace," Paul wrote of Jesus (Eph. 2:14), and our lives must reflect that peace in all our relationships. Beginning in the home, we must build harmonious marriages and happy families. Hate, malice, and anger cannot dwell in a home where Jesus rules the hearts. In our jobs and communities we must earn a reputation as peacemakers--or to borrow a phrase from modern management, team-builders. And above all, we must be at peace among ourselves as brethren. "By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another" (Jn. 13:35).

Has America reached a point of no return in her descent into lawlessness? I don't know. But whether she has or not, we can look forward to the future with hope, knowing that a home of eternal peace awaits us. "Though the fig tree may not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines; though the labor of the olive may fail, and the fields yield no food; though the flock be cut off from the fold, and there be no herd in the stalls--yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation" (Hab. 3:17-18).

 By David King  
 From Expository Files 3.10; October 1996