Humans have always had a mean streak. Sometimes it is evident even in little children. It is even more obvious in their parents. Though spanking a child is illegal in 44 countries, it is not in France, where two children die every day from parental violence. For all sorts of reasons – and often for no apparent reason at all – we practise violence against others, from the brawls in the schoolyard to the riots in the streets with strikers confronting the police, to the front lines of the wars raging permanently around the world.
Such statements could lead us to discussions ranging from the right to self-defence to the approval of “just” wars, from the components of human nature to the identification of primitive peoples as “noble savages”, from the biblical accounts of violence since the creation of our First Parents “in the image of God”, to the religious wars with which history is filled. Our Judean-Christian tradition portrays a God even more violent than His children, capable of commanding the indiscriminate slaughter of the enemies of His supposedly “Chosen People”, and even the quasi-total annihilation of the human race in the Deluge. It should therefore be little surprise that Christian history has been filled with the torture and atrocious execution of heretics and bloody Crusades against the infidel, as well as wars between nations, all convinced that God is on their side.
For the nonce, I want to reflect on just one manifestation of violence, “Made in France”. Recently, as so often in this blessed country, people have been out in the streets hurling rocks, garbage cans and paving stones conveniently available in the street beneath their feet, at police and gendarmes, protected by masks and shields and perhaps bulletproof vests, and armed with stun-guns, water cannon and tear-gas. For good measure the “casseurs”, masked hoodies, hoodlums, bearing iron bars and baseball bats, delight in smashing shop-windows, parked cars and surveillance cameras. One even threw a cocktail molotov into a police car with two officers inside. Because this is France and not the U.S. they left their guns at home, but they succeed in doing considerable damage to property and inflicting serious physical injuries on the forces of law and order.
I first witnessed such street violence in May 1968 when Paris and the whole country staged yet another French Revolution. Others, in 1830 and 1848, were outright battles at the barricades with firearms on both sides. General Bonaparte, during the original French Revolution of 1789, did not hesitate to use heavy cannon against his fellow-citizens in the streets of Toulon.
Why is it that in other countries trade-unions and governments can manage disputes about social justice in discussions that are often vociferous but never violent ? Dissenters prefer sitting around a table to negotiate, rather than become a mob in the streets demanding their rights by physical violence. I identify myself as “Frank O’Phile”. I am proud to have become a French citizen, though the cost was the sacrifice of my Australian nationality. But I am not proud of this Gallic recourse to . . . civil violence, whatever the pretext.
One could ask what rôle religion has played in our habitual practice of violence. One should not be surprised at the violence of Daech directly motivated by the Koran, when our own Bible is full of it. Even the Prince of Peace was known for His violence in the Temple, for His declaration that He had come to bring not peace but the sword, and for His threats of sadistic punishment for those who did not believe in Him.
I have never killed or injured anyone, have never initiated a fight even as a kid, never threw rocks at police or even taken to the street to defend a cause. Call me a wimp if you like. I was, of course, totally non-violent as a practising Catholic and as a Franciscan priest. Become an atheist I may be militant but would never express my opposition to religion by physical violence. Fortunately my Christian adversaries, for the most part, are likewise non-violent, as are the vast majority of Jews and Muslims. But we are all threatened by an Islamist violence directly inspired by the vicious incitations of the Koran to destroy us. I have just discovered that in the Middle East, at the beginning of the 20th century, Christians – notably Copts but also Maronites, Chaldeans and Syriacs – represented 25% of the total population. Christians in those countries now number only 11 million compared to 320 million Muslims. Religion is not part of the solution for ending violence; it is part of the problem.