A Culture of Violence (Violence Warning)

I must admit that the preeminent reason that I stay on “the straight and narrow” is the deterrent effect of prison. There have been times when I have considered actions that might be illegal, but the thought of going to prison slowed me right down!

I wish that I could say that I am a non-violent individual, but I cannot. I often think about doing really bad things to people; but I don’t because … well, I don’t want to be incarcerated.

Over the last several weeks there have been many conversations about what is, and is not domestic violence. Some folks reference their families of origin as a rationale for their behavior. This has caused me to think about this thing called “a culture of violence”.

My mother would relate the following story to me as I was growing up: My Great-Aunt Bess was often abused by her husband. She lived next to her mother (my great grandmother). One day after observing her bruised and battered daughter, my grandmother stabbed her son-in-law with a butcher knife. Reportedly, she was asked if she was sorry. Her reply, “I’m sorry I didn’t twist that knife and gut the bastard!” (She did not go to jail.)

My mother was a slight woman married to a robust construction worker weighing almost twice as much as she. Occasionally she would make the following statement in my presence: “Joe may lay his hands on me, but he has to go to sleep and I keep my kitchen knives sharp!” Then she would make the motion of a knife slitting a throat. I must hasten to add that Joe never laid his hands on her and she never resorted to attacking him in any physical way.

I must also admit that I related these two stories to my three children as well. Growing up, I thought that these stories showed how powerful these women were. I am not so sure any more.

As a child, if I misbehaved, I would have to go and cut a willow switch with which to be disciplined. My mother did the disciplining in our family. Early on, I learned that my father was too fearful of physically hurting me to spank me. When I was quite small, he would threaten to take his belt off; but he never did.

For the most part, I was a well-behaved child. Many people attribute the good behavior with the spankings. I know that I did for a long time. When my children came along, I too physically disciplined them because I thought that it worked. I also confess that most of the time this was as a result of my anger or sense of frustration with many other factors. Child abuse is child abuse. In hindsight, I would try to do much better if I had to do it over again.

I tell you these stories so that you can contextualize my experience. As a lawyer, I often represented people who suffered from domestic violence. Understanding the dynamic of each client’s situation was challenging. I remember one woman who contacted me. Her ex-husband was incarcerated, but would be released soon. She was terrified! She showed me the letters that he had written from prison about what he would do to her when he got out. If the words were not enough, he drew pictures on the envelopes in graphic detail of what she would look like when he got finished. We went to court to get an order of protection knowing only too well that a piece of paper would have little deterrent effect upon him.

Shortly, after his release from prison, someone tried to kick my front door in. My client relocated and I never heard from her, but I did have time to think about his rage that was so virulent that it potentially jeopardized not only me, but my family as well.

I remember filing for divorce from my children’s father. Some of his behaviors were erratic and I knew that he would be extremely angry about the divorce. I asked my lawyer to request an order of protection because I was worried about potential violence. My attorney assumed that I was only asking for it as a strategy. I tried to explain that there was good cause to worry, but the judge refused to enter it. Shortly afterward, in a fit of rage, he grabbed a nurse around the throat in the operating room.

Even with all of this, domestic violence always seemed to be what happened to other people. All my conversations were on an intellectual level until I moved to Muncie, Indiana as a pastor. We had this really great women’s Bible study that met each week. As we studied the Bible we related it to what was going on in our lives and on our past experiences. One evening someone talked about playing outside the house during the summer. They described hearing the screams and beatings of neighbors. As she spoke, others who lived in that neighborhood identified other persons who were abused regularly with the entire community listening in. We talked about how that shaped our expectations as women. Do we expect violence? If we are attacked, who might intervene – police, family neighbors?

I am not sure why that particular conversation touched me after years of acceptance; but it did.

Twenty years ago, The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was passed. It was heralded as a comprehensive federal approach to hold offenders accountable and to provide services to those abused. Claims are made that since its passage, fewer people are experiencing domestic violence, more people are reporting violence with more arrests, and states have reformed their laws to take violence against women more seriously. I really appreciate the gains made by this legislation but I know that a more systemic approach needs consideration.

Culturally, I am a violent person. I choose, day by day, to be less violent in my thoughts and my actions. As a child of the 1960’s, I thought that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had it all wrong. Over time, I have come to better understand that as I continue to strive to be less violent; I do less and less injury to society as a whole. Let us all take inventory of our own violence and its effects as we consider a more global strategy.

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