Looking back on last week, the best that I have seen of television has invariably majored on violence.
Human beings have a fatal attraction to violence, and to its seductive power, an attraction that is outside their control and of which they are therefore afraid. As I look back over the past week in which violence, both fictional and real, has figured quite significantly, I wonder whether this state of denial of our fear is really a healthy approach to the reality of a violent world and of our own violent inclinations. Take the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s death. For one thing, it is hard to separate the reality of an event like the shooting of a President from the reality of the films which have been made about it, some of which were also shown last week.
Which of the two categories falls under the heading of ‘entertainment’? Entertainment helps to take us out of ourselves and to draw a line between reality and fantasy. We need films, as well as documentary drama (and how are we to tell one from the other these days?), to help us understand ourselves better and to come to terms with the ‘real’ violence on the evening news. Films take us out of ourselves long enough to test the boundaries, and reinstate them if necessary, between fantasy and reality. But we also have to face the reality.
Put in the simplest of terms, we have to separate the ‘good’ from the ‘bad’ while remaining as far as possible objective and unbiased. Pre-digested news, as well as films and drama, help us to do this. Quality news reporting and intelligent drama oblige us to look for motive, as well as meaning. The motive for violence, on whatever scale it is occurring, is tied to what a person or ethnic community holds to be right and important, so there are layers and categories of good and bad in all violent situations and these can change as circumstances develop. Things are seldom simply good or simply bad, simply right or simply wrong.
Fictionalised violence can make it difficult to move away from an over simplification or abstraction of this reality and to know how to think about it, how to judge it and then confront it in such a way as to effect real change for the good. The reality of violence in places and situations of conflict is happening to real people in real time. But this is also where film is helpful.
Facing violence in different contexts, both real and fictional, is essential to collective self understanding. It is the collective, and not just the individual, which makes it possible to make sense of the violence we see all around us, because we are in it together. We are all perpetrators and victims of the human tendency to violence. Perpetrators are those who are caught up in the violence done in their name to others, even if they are not actively engaged in it. They are also victims of the hatred which that violence perpetuates. But hatred can ultimately be defeated by the collective will, as the city of Dallas, once known as a city of hate, demonstrated on Friday.
When it comes to the reality of violence, and all violence is real, being in it together makes it harder to go on hating. It makes it harder to allow hatred to poison human relationships between faith communities, across the barriers of gender prejudice, between generations. These are all potentially violent contexts. They are contexts in which human sin operates in generating hatred in all its nuanced manifestations. This is a reality which has to be faced privately by every human being in whatever context a person exists, but it also has to be faced together.
We can only face the reality of violence and human sin by being in relationship with a loving and merciful God who embraced the human condition as a victim of violence from the moment of his Incarnation. We face it with him, and he faces it with us, in our individual lives and as members of the human race, as perpetrators and as victims. In the coming weeks of Advent we might begin to face this reality while watching the news or a film.