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Responding to violence

publication date: Jul 3, 2008
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GunWe live in a violent world. This is obvious. What is less clear, and yet crucial for young people and those of us who care about them, is how we respond to the violent world in which we live. Every youth worker has listened to young people talk about their personal experiences of violence, and has experienced the reality of conflict (which is not always negative) and violence (be it physical or verbal and is generally a negative way of dealing with conflict) between and towards young people.

This article explores what the implications of violence are on young people and those working with them. It will also look at ways in which we can challenge the assumption that violence is an acceptable element of our culture, and at creative ways of approaching the subject of non-violence and peacemaking within youth culture. Some of what is written may seem controversial and idealistic. I accept this, but hope to start a dialogue between youth workers and young people. After all, who said we all have to agree?


Violence is often defined as the use of physical force directed at someone or something that will cause that person or thing damage in some way. It is generally regarded as destructive and unpleasant. However we simply have to look at our TV or cinema screens, play computer games, listen to certain artists or bands, read books or newspapers, or observe the playground or town centre on a Saturday night to realise that, much more widely, we are constantly bombarded with violent images of some kind. Research has shown that children’s TV programmes (particularly cartoons) have more violence in them than most adult shows. Violence has become an accepted part of the world we live in. It would be very hard for any of us to imagine a world without violence.

When you take the definition of violence further, and acknowledge that even words and attitudes can project violence on to others, we begin to realise how normal violence is for us. The social system we live in is founded on violence; power struggles that push some to the top, while keeping others ‘in their place’ - where too often the ‘bullies’ dominate the weak. This ‘social system’, Michael Warren wrote in Youth Gospel Liberation,, is ‘the water in which we swim.’ The problem is that we are unaware of the environment - the factors that influence our lives. As youth workers it is easy to describe young people’s behaviour. What is harder, but more important, is being able to recognise the influences on them.

If youth work and ministry is really about empowerment then surely it is about helping young people ‘out of a childhood naiveté about social reality and inviting them to a lifetime journey to social awareness’, including the recognition of the influences of violence on them, and ways of responding to it (Warren, Youth Gospel Liberation). In other words youth workers should help young people to think politically, in personal, social and global ways, about their own behaviour (ethics) and how to present a Christian response to their world.

There are many types of violence, including physical, emotional, verbal, psychological and sexual, and many forms of these types of violence. There is then the scale on which the violence takes place, i.e. personal or social and national or global. Recent trends within UK youth culture have included ‘happy slapping’ for example, when someone is recorded using a videophone slapping or beating up a victim. The physically violent image is then sent to others, doing further psychological violence to the victim as they become humiliated further. There have also been increased sexual attacks on young girls by young boys, more muggings for mobile phones or trading cards, and an increase in knife-crime. What appears to have become a prevailing and dominant undercurrent of culture is based on violence.

What these examples show is that although young people are often shown in the media as violent and abusive, they are also likely to be victims of violence. This is the face of unacceptable violence. What is less clear is how to respond to the violence that society regards as acceptable, such as parental punishment using smacking or state sanctioned violence in war.


The consequences of violence

There has been much research into the effects of violence on individuals. Exposure to violence can be stressful and can lead to behavioural change. Exposure to violence, observed and experienced, has also been a factor in increased levels of aggression in males and females, and of depression in females. Young people have said that seeing and experiencing violence made them depressed, angry, and often violent themselves, and research suggests that ‘previous exposure to violence and victimisation were the strongest predictors of adolescent’s own violent behaviours.’

Young people can become indifferent to violence, unless it is directed at themselves, family or friends. They see it all the time, and may feel the need to project a violent persona towards others as a form of defence (‘if people think I am “hard” they are less likely to pick on me’). A young person may also view violent behaviour as an adult characteristic, which can be copied as an attempt to show maturity. When they see adults acting violently (particularly role-models like football heroes, musicians, and parents) they assume that it’s okay to be violent themselves. This demonstrates an acceptance of violence towards ‘the other’ – a lack of compassion, due to the acceptance of violence as a part of life. They become desensitised to violence, and unless it directly affects them it no longer has an impact. This is very unhealthy!

Victims of violence may become withdrawn, depressed and even suicidal, due to fear and lack of self-worth. Perpetrators and victims of violence can become dehumanised as a result of violence. There is a lack of acceptance that all are created in the image of God, and as a result equally valued by Him.


Why is it important for youth workers to reflect on non-violence?

Violence is a real issue. It affects all young people. Yet in my experience it is often only the immediate consequences of violence that youth workers concentrate on. This is of course necessary. However, if we worked with young people to consider the wider implications of violence, maybe they, and society in general, would benefit in unimaginable ways.

How can we work with young people regarding violence and non-violence? On an individual and small group level, we can obviously discuss the nature and implications of violence in their experience. This could include violence they have been involved in or witnessed, feelings associated with images of violence, reflections on Biblical passages and their understanding of God’s nature. It is also worth exploring with young people their potential responses to violent situations. Asking ‘what would you do if…?’ questions, asking for justifications to answers, and providing a safe environment to talk honestly about how they think they would act in the face of violence can be very helpful. The following questions are just some examples.

What would you do if…?

  • You witnessed a young person being beaten up by two older young people?
  • Your next-door neighbour was regularly violent towards his wife?
  • Your government declared war without international authority being given?
  • Someone in the street tried to grab your mobile phone from you?
  • Your daughter was being bullied at school and when you challenged the bully’s mother she got aggressive towards you and threatened to punch you?
  • Your four-year-old son disobeyed your instruction to stop hitting his little sister and poked her in the eye?

Recognising that throughout the course of history to the present day there have been examples of individuals and groups of people who have succeeded in overcoming violence by not responding violently. Learning about these people and groups can be inspiring and help demonstrate the alternatives to violence.

It is important to help young people think beyond their immediate context. Exploring situations of violence and conflict on an international scale will help gain deeper understandings of how the world works. This will help inspire them to be proactive prophetic voices that challenge injustice. One way to be involved is through campaigning and consciousness-raising. Young people can be politically motivated about issues of injustice.


Your beliefs

The issue of whether, and to what extent, a violent or non-violent response to conflict is acceptable and justified is controversial and complex. People have different views on what is acceptable when faced with violence. Most people think there are two options when faced with conflict - either fight back or run away. One option involves violence, the other fear and cowardice. What is clear is that for the majority (individuals and governments) violence is generally viewed as an acceptable response to violence. In other words, violence is normally seen as a legitimate way to ‘resolve’ conflict. People use examples of violence in the Bible as justification that God accepts violence as a legitimate tool for His people. Others say that sometimes the ‘only way’ to stop an oppressive regime is by violent means, and that if someone attacks you, you are justified to fight back. These are commonly held views that say that ‘violence works as a means to bring peace’ and therefore that violence works to solve problems.

The term ‘peace keeper’ is one that is well known. However, is using or threatening force actually a way of bringing about a sustained and peaceful resolution in most conflict situations? Does it resolve issues, or simply bury them? This question is for national and personal conflict or aggressive situations. Walter Wink suggests that the idea that violence can solve problems is a myth. If we consider the damage violence does to both the perpetrator and the victim, it is easy to see that peace is not a result, as no one wins. The search for revenge does not bring peace; if anything, it eats people up, and causes more violence.

When I talk to young people about the latest fight at school, there generally seems to be a recognition that violence does not bring an end to conflict. Often what starts as an argument between two people ends up involving friends, brothers, cousins, and gangs etc. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘the ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy.’ Maybe there is a ‘third way’. A way to confront violence creatively that seeks not to use violence or to run away, but to stand up to the situation, in a loving way.


Is there another way?

On a global scale, Wink asks the question ‘what would happen if countries spent as much money on non-violent approaches to other countries as they do on their “defence” budget for warfare?’, if there was as much commitment to peace as there is to violence and war. Maybe the world is in the state it is in because violence has generally been accepted as legitimate and justified. Gandhi made a profound point regarding human nature when he said, ‘It has always been a mystery to me how men can feel themselves honoured by the humiliation of their fellow beings’.

Rather than talking about non-violence with young people, maybe we should be exploring the nature of ‘the peace that goes beyond all human understanding’ (Philippians 4:7). A fuller understanding of this peace includes wholeness, wellbeing, righteousness, restored relationships, love, and compassion. Jesus was the perfect example of a man who demonstrated this ‘peace’ towards those he came in contact with. He said ‘love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who ill-treat you’ (Luke 6:27-28). There is a sense in which the phrase ‘love your enemy’ does not make sense. If we really love an enemy, then they stop being our enemy, at least in our mind. If we love the person that seeks to hurt us, then we will not wish to hurt them back. Jesus then says in verse 29, ‘If someone strikes you on one cheek turn to him the other also’ and in verse 31, ‘do to others as you would have them do to you’.

These are all difficult teachings, but if we took them seriously how different would our world be? Jesus is not advocating doing nothing in the face of conflict. Turning the other cheek was an act of defiance in its own way and God does not want oppressors and perpetrators of violence to continue their actions. However He does not want people to stoop to their ways by reacting violently. Deciding to react in loving and creative ways is an act of bravery rather than cowardice.

Jesus was not a passive character. It was a direct result of his subversive teaching and life that led to his violent death - the death of a political and social revolutionary. While Jesus remained non-violent in his actions, he did not remain passive. If Jesus is ‘the image of the invisible God’ (Colossians 1:15), and ‘our attitudes should be the same as those of Christ Jesus’ (Philippians 2:5), what can we learn about God and about how we should live our lives towards others?

Maybe I am being too simplistic and unrealistic. Maybe Jesus sanctions violence. Maybe His teaching is only for individuals and not countries. Many others share these sentiments. However, if we can be part of helping young people see an alternative to the norm, maybe they can become a voice of protest against the culture they are being taught is normal.


Keeping the peace

Seeking peace and non-violence as a life choice will involve much consideration, commitment and practice. It is an ongoing process. Certain values are important. There is the need forhumility and the valuing of others, being willing to suffer in order to demonstrate Christ’s unconditional love; then there is a commitment to the safety and welfare of others - loving each other as ourselves. The entire law can be summed up in a single command: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ (Galatians 5:14). Then comes the acceptance of conflict as a part of the human condition, with a commitment to face it with love. And finally the need for hope; hope in others, hope in self, and ultimately hope in the work of God through the Holy Spirit.

The reality is that we have all been socialised into the acceptance of violence and will find it hard to imagine non-violence as an option in all circumstances. People are practicing non-violence in all sorts of contexts, including home, school, college, and work. Maybe your youth work setting is a place where young people can begin to imagine and work towards a peaceful and non-violent life, develop strategies and responses to situations, practise their responses in role-plays and discussions, and begin to challenge the accepted norm.

Arthur Brown is a Youth Specialist living in Beirut with his family.