Facing Squarely the Spiritual Roots of Contemporary Violence

Whenever we undergo another mass shooting or terrorist attack, I am struck by the stampede of blame that ensues in the media. The question that always surfaces for me in these moments is this: do we know how to make sense of such evil acts in this age of relativism? It has become commonplace to be outraged by seemingly random acts of violence, and cast blame all around, and yet not have any clue how it is that our world has come to such a point as this.

Events such as the church shooting in Texas or the recent terrorist attack in Manhattan are shocking and terrifying because of how random they appear to us. They fill us with great fear because it’s so easy to imagine ourselves caught in such events. Yet we live in a society ripe for these kinds of acts, such that they shouldn’t really surprise us, especially at this point.

Our tendency is to assume that violence begets violence, which is really an explanation that explains nothing. Control the violence and we will have less violence. This is why the solution is always gun control. I don’t doubt that this would curb the problem to some degree but it seems to miss the deeper root of the problem. If history is any indication, violent societies are typically sensual ones. Where liberality of pleasure prevails, particularly in the arena of sex, violence is pervasive. At any rate, the root of violence is not what many might think. Violence is symptomatic of a deeper problem, not the root problem itself.

The Christian moral tradition teaches us that our passions are remarkably integrated. Behind every excessively irascible feeling of anger, hate, and contempt, lurks a profoundly disordered love for something that has become to us an idol of sensual desire. Sensual desire does not need to be sexual in nature, although it is usually part of a package deal. It can also attach itself to wealth, drugs and other objects of pleasure and addiction. In older days, sexual lust was thought to be a kind of insanity. Hence, one could say that behind these excessive acts of violence lurks some form of lust that literally renders a person mentally ill or unstable.

And yet that designation in no way diminishes the moral significance of what is occurring more and more frequently in our society. The problem is not fundamentally identifiable as a “mental” one, but should be associated with an inward depravity of desire and will, of which the perpetrator is just as much a victim as those they harm. That is, people don’t become like that on their own. The problem is how our society, beginning in the family, cultivates the kind of inordinate desires which seriously impair the faculty of reason and distort our capacity for right relationships.

Thus, that a man, entirely beholden to the addiction of gambling, likely abused and neglected as a child, would turn his own moral emptiness against others shouldn’t really surprise us. I’m not ascribing a logical necessity to violent behavior, for certainly lots of licentious people never become violent. Rather, there is a logical consistency in it. The interior violence of inordinate passion can become violence against others quite easily. The reason for this is that indulging in the pleasures of the body does not fulfill the deepest needs of the heart. Lust of any sort creates a profound conflict within the soul and, correspondingly, in our capacity to relate to others in a just manner.

In the same week as the Vegas shooting, we had the passing of Hugh Hefner. I’m not suggesting that the Playboy mansion was a violent place. Rather, one cannot explain the plague of sex trafficking today without Hugh Hefner and what he advocated. The violent abduction of young girls is directly linked to pornography addiction for which Playboy and pornography in general is responsible—not to mention the inordinate love of money these industries instill. Yet it would seem that many are utterly blind to this connection. We condemn trafficking and defend Playboy.

In recent weeks, we have seen a tidal wave of sexual misconduct allegations against numerous individuals among political, entertainment, and media elites. What is surfacing is what could be called an epidemic of sexual violence. These acts are coercive and harmful to victims, even while they don’t inflict any physical pain. Yet notice the relationship between an overly sexualized elite sub culture and the violation of personal boundaries. The cultivation of lust leads directly into coercive acts. I think we are seeing only the tip of this iceberg.

Another historical example that comes to mind is the infamous return of slavery to the West, which in this country led to civil war, all because of tobacco, tea, sugar, and coffee addiction and the decadent lifestyles these industries produced. It’s not that these natural goods are evil. It’s rather that we ought to be struck by what we were willing to do in the Christian West to obtain and profit from these goods. Today, in a similar fashion, gang violence and the power of drug cartels is inexplicable without sex and drug addiction. Police brutality cannot be explained, either, except by its association to these modern forms of trafficking, which is not localized to urban centers, but is truly a society wide occurrence that knows no color or ethnicity. Sensual addiction and violence are siblings.

The energy and resources we deploy in pursuit of bodily pleasure is always directly proportionate to the inordinate value we place on pleasurable experiences. So where the consumption of pleasure has become cultic and even diabolical, it is inevitable that we will see a proportionate, breakdown in healthy relationships, and a corresponding rise in violence and unrest. Despite the fact that heinous acts of violence are irrational—truly insane—it does not follow that such acts defy logic. Lust of any sort requires force to fulfill itself. Conversely, the more properly integrated passionate desire is, the more one is able to resist violence in witness to the truth. The latter is fully manifest in the death of Jesus Christ. What is true of the individual is just as true for any society. It’s not that pleasure is evil in itself; it’s that we become evil when pleasure becomes a god. The worship of God is replaced by bodily sensation. The ancient world experienced the fertility cults, which often involved various forms of human sacrifice.

Moral integrity is the foundation of peace in society. History proves this over and over again. Moral integrity is ultimately about healthy relationships, however. Right relationships of love with God, the self, the world of sensible goods, and our neighbor are what create the conditions for the proper psychological health and stability of each and every human person. When one of our fellow citizens is deprived of those relationships they are susceptible to becoming a monster. Our outrage should not be targeted at the perpetrator so much as the society that increasingly produces monsters.

Addiction cannot exist without violence, and neither can societal peace be attained without cultivating peace within the soul. Morality is not relative; it is relational. What we see out there is a reflection of what we cultivate within and among each other. If we learn to order our loves properly, we will come to appreciate the true meaning of liberality and see a long desired cessation to violence.

(Photo credit: Fox News)

Michel Therrien

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Dr. Michel Therrien is President of the Institute for Pastoral Leadership and Director of Evangelization for the Diocese of Pittsburgh. Previously he taught moral theology at the Augustine Institute in Denver. He also taught at St. Vincent Seminary in Latrobe, PA for seven years, serving there as Academic Dean for four years. His areas of scholarly interest are Thomistic virtue ethics and Catholic social teaching.

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