How do you define violence? What violence are you exposed to in your community?
Until very recently, I did not think much about violence. I was confident that my only exposure to it came through the occasional act of violence I saw in a movie or television show.
Then in a girls’ discussion group I was leading, the topic of sexual harassment came up. The young women told stories about having crude things yelled at them by strangers when they were out for a jog; answering the phone, only to hear heavy breathing on the other end; avoiding the hallway at school where a few popular boys would sit and “grade” the girls’ looks as they walked by; and being touched inappropriately at school, church, and parties by boys they thought were their friends. As the stories gushed forth, the young women were amazed that they were not the only one who had faced harassment. Many had never talked about these incidents, afraid that people would not believe them or that they would be blamed for what had happened to them.
Then one young woman said something I will never forget: “I would rather have someone hit me than harass me like this. Bruises heal, but it is hard to feel good about yourself when someone treats you like an object, not a person. Plus, if there was a bruise, then people would believe I was being bothered and might even help me do something about it.”
These young women’s stories helped me realize that physical violence is not the only kind of violence. Anything that demeans another person, that denies their human dignity as made in the image of God, is violent. If this is the definition of violence, then all of us encounter a lot more violence that we might think. If this is the definition of violence, then it is harder to separate “violent” people from the rest of us. Let those among us who have never taken away the humanity of another person through rude comments, tasteless jokes, or simply staying silent while others behave this way, throw the first stone.
This is not to excuse violence because everyone acts this way at times. Rather, it is to sound a call for all of us to be more aware of our involvement in cycles of violence. Violence does not just happen in “bad neighborhoods” or countries half-way around the world. Violence happens everywhere, thus it is the job of everyone to think creatively about and to act courageously for promoting peace between people of different ages, races, nations, religions, sexualities, and political persuasions.
This is at the heart of our lives as Christians. In this week’s Gospel (Matthew 22:34-40), Jesus teaches us that the most basic laws are to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself, two forms of love that are integrally connected. The more we love God, the more we are able to see the humanity in others, even those who are radically different from, even those we do not like. The more we are able to love our neighbors, the more we know and love God, as we encounter God through them. This journey of love is truly a journey of a lifetime.
What is one thing you can do this week that demonstrates your:
- love for God?
- love for someone radically different from you?
- love for yourself?
What one thing can you do this week to make sure that the human dignity of others is not compromised?