Considering the prevalence of violence in the world today one cannot help but wonder if we have made any progress toward living together in peace since the Ice Age. We have evolved from a time in which violence was the norm in the human effort to survive in a hostile world. Violence seems to be genetic. Progress toward civilization has been slow and uneven. Sigmund Freud in his "Civilization and its Discontents" opined that "The first human who hurled an insult instead of a stone was the founder of civilization". But it is obvious that civilization has never entirely given up hurling stones. Peace and civility are fragile conditions. We revert to earlier levels of development with disturbing frequency. C.P. Snow said that there is not much "between us and the terrible underneath, just about a coat of varnish". Scratch the skin of any of us and there is a savage underneath, ever so near the surface.
We have developed new and sophisticated weapons of violence. And it is not just better guns and bigger bombs, there is the more elusive systemic violence, often in the form of governmental tyranny. The violence of verbal and emotional abuse is sometimes more damaging, and far more difficult to identify, than physical violence. The rhetoric of violence can be heard on the street corners, in the interaction of family members and even in popular songs. Children learn violence early. Psychologist B.F. Skinner said, "Society attacks early, when the individual is helpless". The loss of civility, a growing disrespect for the law, and the weakened influence of religion have left us without some of the most essential boundaries for human behavior. In the absence of effective restrains to the dark underside of human nature incivility and antisocial behavior become the accepted norm for society and civilization is diminished.
There has always been mind-numbing violence, but it has never been so palpable. And violence appears to be attached more and more to vengeance. Every act of violence as revenge for some past act of violence becomes the excuse for the next act of violence. It is an endless vicious cycle until someone stops it by refusing to retaliate.
In his book, "The Immense Journey", Loren Eiseley has an interesting suggestion for taming the violence in us:
"The need is not really for more brains, the need is now for a gentler, more tolerant people than those who won for us against the ice, the tiger, and the bear. The hand that hefted the ax, out of some old blind allegiance to the past fondles the machine gun lovingly. It is a habit man will have to break to survive, but the roots go very deep."
Eiseley then relates a scary experience he once had:
"I once sat, a prisoner, long ago, and watched a peasant soldier just recently equipped with a submachine gun swing the gun slowly in line with my body. It was a beautiful weapon and his finger toyed hesitantly with the trigger. Suddenly to possess all that power and then to be forbidden to use it must have been almost too much for the man to contain. I remember, also, a protesting female voice nearby - the eternal civilizing voice of women who know that men are fools and children, and irresponsible. Sheepishly the peon slowly dropped the gun muzzle away from my chest. The black eyes looked out at me a little wicked, and a little desirous of better understanding.
"'Thompson, Tome'- son', he repeated proudly, slapping the barrel. I nodded a little weakly, relaxing with a sigh. After all, we were men together and understood this great subject of destruction. And was I not a citizen of the country that had produced this wonderful mechanism? So I nodded again and said carefully after him, 'Thompson, Tome' - son', Bueno, si, muy bueno.' We looked at each other then,smiling a male smile that ran all the way back to the Ice Age."
Will we ever be able to tame that propensity to violence which runs so deep in human nature? Perhaps not - at least not until we hear, understand, and begin to live by the philosophy taught by an old friend of ours in what is called "The Sermon on the Mount". (Matthew, chapters 5-7) Let us pray for that understanding of reality to become increasingly known and followed by individuals and nations. Our lives and the existence of civilization as we know it may well depend upon it.