The Violent Heart

Woodrow Wilson, the 28th president of the United States, was perhaps the most idealistic of modern American presidents. Though he led his country against Germany toward the end of World War I, he did so only after resisting war as the preferred option. He then developed his famous Fourteen Points, which convinced the German government to lay down arms without admitting defeat.

At the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, Wilson worked for the creation of the League of Nations to promote peaceful international relations. For his efforts he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize later that year.

A highly intelligent, devoutly religious man, Wilson devoted himself to the cause of peace. But he could not achieve his goal. Not only did the Senate reject U.S. entry into the League of Nations, within 20 years of the war’s end the entire world was in the grips of terrible violence again. “The war to end all war” proved to be a forlorn hope, and the League of Nations a failed instrument. Though a subsequent generation of leaders was able to forge the League’s successor, the United Nations, the goal of preventing war remains unfulfilled to this day. It seems that no matter the highest of ideals set forth by leaders, humanity has never succeeded in overcoming what appears to be a death wish.

You may not have thought of it in such stark terms. Yet can any of us deny the legacy of violence that defined the last century?

The means for expressing cruelty and carrying out mass killing have been fully developed. It is too late to stop the technology. It is to the psychology that we should now turn.”

Jonathan Glover, Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century (1999)

This is the subject of Jonathan Glover’s Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century. Glover is a professor of ethics at King’s College London. His book focuses on the violence of the past 100 years, dealing in particular with “the psychology which made possible Hiroshima, the Nazi genocide, the Gulag, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and many other atrocities.”

While this appalling list reminds us of how much mass violence has dominated the modern world, the purpose of the book harks back to the perhaps paradoxical desire humans have to overcome the violence within us. The book’s message, writes Glover, “is not one of simple pessimism. We need to look hard and clearly at some monsters inside us. But this is part of the project of caging and taming them.”

But while we may know the problem, the cure for the disease is far from us.

Violence From Beginning to End

There is much more than the last century to consider when it comes to the history of violence, of course. According to Glover, “it is a myth that barbarism is unique to the twentieth century: the whole of human history includes wars, massacres, and every kind of torture and cruelty.”

In light of that statement, it is significant how often violence is referenced in the Bible, literally or conceptually, at critical junctures in earth’s history.

The prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel both tell us of an angelic being who became corrupt before the arrival of humans on the earth. Isaiah refers to this being with the Hebrew heylel (“shining one” or “morning star,” unfortunately translated in English as “Lucifer” or “Light Bearer” from the Latin lux, lucis, “light”). No longer an angel of light, he had become an agent of darkness. Thereafter he is identified in the Bible as the Accuser or the Adversary (in Hebrew, satan). Ezekiel shows that violence became one of the tools of his trade. As a result of his corruption, he became dominated by aggression: “Your great wealth filled you with violence, and you sinned. So I banished you from the mountain of God. I expelled you, O mighty guardian, from your place among the stones of fire” (Ezekiel 28:16, New Living Translation). Satan was consumed by a violent attitude.

Not surprisingly, his entry into the human world led to further corruption. The Genesis account of his deception of humanity’s parents is well known. By their actions, Adam and Eve did violence against their creator and suffered the penalty of banishment from Eden, the garden of God.

It wasn’t long before the first recorded murder occurred, the first act of violence against a family member. Adam’s son Cain struck down his brother, Abel. It was the beginning of a succession of violent acts. One of Cain’s descendants, Lamech, was also a murderer, the biblical record indicating that he showed less remorse for his sin than Cain did.

By the sixth chapter of Genesis, we read that early human society had gone far downhill in respect of violence: “Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart. . . . The earth also was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence. So God looked upon the earth, and indeed it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way on the earth” (verses 5–6, 11–12, emphasis added throughout).

When we come to the much later New Testament Gospel accounts, we read of Jesus looking into the distant future and warning of a time of ultimate violence. It will be a time of such catastrophe that it will never be repeated: “For that will be a time of greater horror than anything the world has ever seen or will ever see again. In fact, unless that time of calamity is shortened, the entire human race will be destroyed. But it will be shortened for the sake of God’s chosen ones” (Matthew 24:21–22, NLT).

This prophetic statement from Jesus accords with others in the book of Revelation, which says that, at the end of the age, Satan and his fallen followers will once again have their part to play in stirring up violence. Revelation 16:14 (NLT) tells of “miracle-working demons [causing] all the rulers of the world to gather for battle against the Lord on that great judgment day of God Almighty.” Thankfully, as we see in the above passage from Matthew’s Gospel, God will not allow the annihilation of humanity.

The Spirit of Violence

Though violence has stained human history from the beginning and, according to the Scriptures, will continue to mar it to the end of this age, Jesus proclaimed a very different world: a coming godly kingdom of peace. His message assures us that violence does not have to be an individual choice in today’s violent world. But it takes understanding and effort to take a different course.

Sadly, we do not always realize the impact that the world we inhabit has on us. On one occasion Jesus had to explain to his own disciples that their attitude was very far from His own. He was on His way to Jerusalem, passing through a Samaritan village en route. When the Samaritans spurned Him, two of His disciples offered to call down fire from heaven to consume them. “But [Jesus] turned and rebuked them, and said, ‘You do not know what manner of spirit you are of’” (Luke 9:52–55).

The disciples no doubt thought that they were quite right in what they had suggested, so Jesus’ response must have shocked them. But the solution that seemed right to the disciples would have been a violent act that showed neither mercy nor understanding.

What spirit were they of? The Bible shows that there is a spirit in men and women that makes us unique and different from animals. The human brain is qualitatively different from the animal brain.

But there is more to this spiritual equation. The Bible also reveals that there are two other spiritual minds with which the human mind can interface, causing us to think in varied ways—for good or evil, for right or wrong (1 Corinthians 2:12). One spirit, the apostle Paul said, is of this world; the other is of God. Paul also showed that the world in general falls under the influence of a wrong spirit: “You used to live just like the rest of the world, full of sin, obeying Satan, the mighty prince of the power of the air” (Ephesians 2:2, NLT). He mentions that this being is “the god of this age” (2 Corinthians 4:4) who blinds people.

From what we know already of the Adversary’s role in human history, we should not be surprised at the result when the human mind interfaces with the wrong spirit. Sadly, one of the depravities of the human mind when it combines with the spirit of the world, the spirit of disobedience, is violence. The disciples who wanted to call down destruction on others were operating according to that spirit.

A Line Through the Heart

Centuries later, recognizing the almost natural human proclivity for violence, Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote that “people sometimes speak of man’s ‘bestial’ cruelty, but this is very unfair and insulting to the beasts: a beast can never be so cruel as a man, so ingeniously, so artistically cruel.” His comment takes us to another level in our consideration of violent behavior.

People sometimes speak of man’s ‘bestial’ cruelty, but this is very unfair and insulting to the beasts: a beast can never be so cruel as a man, so ingeniously, so artistically cruel.”

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (1880, 1990)

For some reason, the glorification of cruelty and violence preoccupies this present world. Box office attractions center on unspeakable violence. Not so long ago, for instance, many people flocked to see the long-awaited sequel to a gruesome movie about a serial killer. Part Two revealed a sometimes sympathetic portrait of a sadist who ate parts of his victims while they were still alive. Film critics recommended that people not take their children to see the movie with its profoundly disturbing scenes. But did you ever wonder why so many are inclined to view such horror in the first place? 

Noting that “the festival of cruelty is in full swing,” Glover asks, “What is it about human beings that makes such acts possible?” 

Answering his own question, he says, “Three factors seem central. There is a love of cruelty. Also, emotionally inadequate people assert themselves by dominance and cruelty. And the moral resources which restrain cruelty can be neutralized. . . . Deep in human psychology, there are urges to humiliate, torment, wound and kill people.”

Glover notes that his assertion echoes the words of the late Russian author Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who wrote about his experiences in Siberian exile in The Gulag Archipelago. Reflecting on the slender difference between guards and prisoners, Solzhenitsyn said: “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. . . . It is after all only because of the way things worked out that they were the executioners and we weren’t.”

The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. . . . It is after all only because of the way things worked out that they were the executioners and we weren’t.”

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago (1973, 1988)

The Bible’s revelation about the hidden nature of man provides the answer to this age-old question of what it is that propels humans into shocking, senseless violence from time to time. In a powerful comment on the way we can become, Isaiah wrote: “They spend their time plotting evil deeds and then doing them. They spend their time and energy spinning evil plans that end up in deadly actions. . . . Violence is their trademark. . . . Wherever they go, misery and destruction follow them. They do not know what true peace is or what it means to be just and good. They continually do wrong, and those who follow them cannot experience a moment’s peace” (Isaiah 59:4–8, NLT).

In the Service of God?

Returning again to the New Testament, we find that even the most outwardly religious people can have a violent heart. After all, many of those who persecuted and plotted the unspeakably cruel death of Jesus Christ were devoutly committed to their religion. Clearly, religious belief is no indication of a right spirit.

In fact, Jesus said that the time would come when “whoever kills you will think that he offers God service. And these things they will do to you because they have not known the Father nor Me” (John 16:2–3). That is to say, such persecutors are out of sync with the mind of God but tuned in to another mind.

Even the apostle Paul took part in the persecution and death of Jesus’ followers before his conversion. Acts 8:3 tells us that “he made havoc of the church, entering every house, and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison.” Why did he do it? Because of entirely misplaced religious conviction.

Paul had to have it revealed to him that his violence was not something from the mind of God. Despite his religious zeal for God, he was as far from God as he could have been. He was under the influence of the wrong spirit.

And Now to You and Me

Quite rightly at this point you might be saying to yourself, “But I’ve never done anything like that. I’ve never assaulted or murdered anyone.” But violence starts somewhere short of the act of murder, sometimes a long way short of that final act.

Most people have never considered that violence isn’t simply attacking people physically. We do violence to each other when we allow Satan’s adversarial state of mind to become our own. Remember that he is the spirit being who is centered on doing harm to human beings in any way he can. Sometimes, therefore, we commit an act of violence simply by what we say to others, or do to them, short of the act of murder.

Paul described himself as having been “a man of violence” prior to his conversion (1 Timothy 1:13, New Revised Standard Version). Alternative translations say he was “insulting,” an “insolent, overbearing man” or “violently arrogant.” The result was that he engaged in the persecution to death of early believers. The point is that thoughts and attitudes precede action.

Jesus also had something to say about the state of mind that precedes physical violence: “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.’ But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca!’ [an Aramaic term of contempt] shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire” (Matthew 5:21–22).

Jesus was interested in the underlying attitude behind the final act of murder. It starts with things that are very familiar territory to us: insults, being “lightly angry” without a cause, calling someone an idiot, saying someone is worthless. It can end up in cruelty, terror, torture and murder.

There are other, more subtle ways in which we display a violent heart. We do violence to each other when we take up the sword of gossip. We can excuse ourselves by insisting we are only passing on information that someone else gave us. Yet the scriptural rules are quite clear: “Do not spread slanderous gossip among your people. Do not try to get ahead at the cost of your neighbor’s life, for I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:16, NLT). God says that “death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21). We do violence to a relationship when we spread gossip, even if it is true, or when we slander someone. Interestingly, in a clue to slander’s origin, the Hebrew for “slanderer” is also satan.

So we can define violence in terms of slander, gossip, insolence or anger. But in what might seem like a contradiction, we can even be violent by being passive. We can disrupt what should be a right relationship by failing to respond in a godly way. This means that the practice of passive resistance is very much open to question.

The Moral Core

How, then, do we begin to come to terms with the violence that seems so naturally a part of us? There is no question that understanding what we are up against in the spirit world is central. A strong sense of personal moral identity is also a key. Knowing who we are morally cannot be underestimated. This speaks to the early and continuous formation of character: knowing what is right and exercising the will to do it. Glover writes, “The sense of moral identity is one relevant aspect of character. Those who have a strong sense of who they are and of the kind of person they want to be have an extra defence against conditioning in cruelty, obedience or ideology.”

He continues: “Sometimes people’s actions seem to be disconnected from their sense of who they are. This may be because they slide into participation by imperceptible degrees, so that there is never the sense of a frontier being crossed. This gentle slide can be a feature of the training of torturers. It was what the Nazis aimed at in securing collaboration in occupied countries. With the atomic bomb, the slide was gradual from making it only as a deterrent against Hitler to making it for actual use against Japan.”

We must be careful that we do not become participants in cruelty or violence gradually. A well-formed personal moral identity should prevent it, but we sometimes allow ourselves to be compromised. Vigilance about our state of mind is essential.

A Violent World Comes to Rest

How can we become nonviolent people in the fullest sense? Hebrews 12:14 advises the followers of Jesus to “pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord.”

Part of pursuing peace is to treat people as people, not as commodities to be used up; to give people mental and spiritual space, just as we want it for ourselves. It is certainly to avoid coercing people in everyday life. The New Testament writer James said that “the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace” (James 3:18, emphasis added). Peacemaking is an active process. It requires action based on right principles. Living the right way and keeping God’s law in respect of human relationships leads to peace and reconciliation. These are actions we can take now as we endeavor to come under the direction of the Spirit of God—the Spirit that binds our human mind to the mind of God. Those who are willing to take up the challenge of living now under God’s rule experience peace as a foretaste of what is yet ahead for all of humankind.

God will set His hand to save humanity from its own ultimate act of aggression. At that time the violence of this world in all of its manifestations will end. The day is coming when, according to the book of Revelation, “the great dragon [will be] cast out—that serpent of old, who is called the Devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world.” Finally Satan will be restrained, his influence removed. A new chapter will be added to the history of violence, signaling its effective control. The world’s new condition will be peace and security through the practice of the law of God’s love on all levels.