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Cutting Edges: A Different Type of Violence

By Dr. Gennifer Brooks, Ernest and Bernice Styberg Professor of Preaching

In the months of January and February 2016, there were more than 100 murders in the city of Chicago. It was a significant increase over the same period in 2015 and of great concern to the interim police superintendent. In response, he promised to put more police persons on the ground in the areas of the highest crimes. My response upon hearing the statistics was to lament the establishment’s inability to address the real violence that is being done to these city residents who are mainly African American and to keep trying to put a plaster on virulent cancer.

I must confess, however, that until about two months ago, my response would have been much different. I might not have applauded the interim police chief’s solution, but I would most likely have agreed that the action of putting more feet to the ground was a good thing. Since then, I have come to believe that it is a waste of time, and that with the best of intentions behind it, such action will do nothing to get to the heart of the problem.

I owe my new vision to the work being engaged by Andrew Wymer, a doctor of philosophy student in liturgical studies and the work he has undertaken for his dissertation that is focused on the issue of violence and preaching. In discussion with him about the trajectory of his work, I was led to recognize that the general understanding of violence in the culture, and certainly as portrayed in the press, is erroneously limited to physical violence perpetrated by individuals or groups upon other individuals or groups. My conversations with Andrew have brought me to the realization that the physical violence is but a response to the deeper and more pervasive violence of spirit being suffered by the perpetrators.

Let me say immediately, that this is by no means an attempt to excuse the shootings and murders that are so prevalent in African American communities in Chicago, in urban areas across the United States, and in Black nations across the world. However, both the media and the authorities are myopically selective in their understanding of violence. For example, following the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, the report and condemnation of violence in that city dealt only with the looting and destruction of property. The shooting of an unarmed young man and the desecration of his body that was left in the streets for four hours was not considered a violent act.

The hegemonic systems that are symptomized by substandard education, food deserts, double-digit unemployment, inadequate housing, and poor health care result in violence that is cultural, political, social, and economic. All do extensive violence to the spirit with the result that these oppressed communities are marked by high murder rates, drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, and high drop-out rates. Certainly, it is a different type of violence, but while the harm done by physical violence is more visible to the naked eye, we need to recognize the spiritual violence that is never-ending and devastating to African Americans, regardless of their position in society.

These systems, which deny the full humanity of African Americans, are the real source of the physical violence that is too often a reaction to deep frustration that can find no outlet or resolution. While most of us in the church speak out against devastating physical violence, and rightly so, we remain silent about the destruction of spirit that does such lasting damage to individuals, families, and the African American community at large.

Jesus spoke out against the injustice in his society, including the power brokers of Roman occupation. In his name, we are called to speak out against all violence and the injustice it represents and work for real and lasting justice for the whole people of God.