Violence is not civilized, but Christians should be.


I have several quotes hanging on my refrigerator.  One of the shortest of these reads, “Civilization is just a slow process of learning to be kind.”  If this is the case, then recent evidence suggests that the people of the United States, unfortunately led by several individuals and groups of people calling themselves “Christians,” are rapidly becoming vastly uncivilized.

I think we always hope – and sometimes find- that tragic events bring out the best in people.  This idea, which is popular among the religious, proposes that suffering is emotionally educational for the individual; it helps us to grow in self-understanding and grace.  It is also unifying for the community, bringing shared values and basic human impulses like compassion and generosity to the forefront.  It doesn’t seem to be happening right now, however.  In reality, what is occurring in the world this week is the exact opposite of nobility in the face of tragedy.  Recent tragic events instead appear to have made us more ignorant, less graceful, extremely narcissistic, and spiritually miserly.

Since the Paris attacks last week, the racist and anti-Islamic rhetoric that has been gradually increasing in this country since the 9/11 attacks fourteen years ago has been legitimized by the openly irrational and hateful responses by numerous government officials and presidential candidates.  The governors of several states have said they will not accept Syrian refugees for fear that such individuals are terrorists in disguise.  Donald Trump has supported this notion, providing it with an air of rationality by calling it a “Trojan Horse” strategy.  Despite the fact that President Obama clearly stated that movements to inspect Mosques, allow only Christian refugees, and track the activities of Muslim individuals are “shameful” and do not represent who we are as a nation,[1] and the President of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission described himself as “shocked” by them, they are being supported by many Americans.[2]  Other incidents – like the recent vandalization of  #blacklivesmatter signs at predominately white churches and the increasing anti-immigration rhetoric on the U.S. political stage, demonstrate a deeply antagonistic and paranoid stance against anyone perceived of as “other” by Americans.

This observation is supported by a recent study that found that Americans feel besieged by anxiety-provoking circumstances and are nostalgic for an idealized version of America past.[3]  A majority of participants across cultures said they believe the values of Islam are contrary to those of America.  Thirty-five percent of those surveyed identified racial tension as a significant issue in the United States, although, unsurprisingly, this opinion was much more frequent among minority respondents.  Evidence of unfocused free-floating anxiety is demonstrated by the number of people who feel that most people are not given a fair chance to succeed in the U.S. (65%) but also have issues with immigrants (48%).

All of this defies logic and factual evidence.  As President Obama stated, there is no proof that America has anything to fear by providing the possibility of simple survival to the widows and orphans who make up the vast bulk of Syrian refugees.  There is no evidence that being Muslim makes an individual more likely to be violent.  In fact, a recent review of terrorism indicates that the vast majority of terrorist acts carried out on American soil since the 9/11 attacks were not perpetrated by Muslims.[4]  And there is plenty of evidence to indicate that Muslim people are not exempt from terrorism; death tallies in France confirm that there were Muslims among the dead in Paris.[5]  So there’s a lot for everyone to be worried about and afraid of.

The question is whether we will allow that fear to rule us -because tragedy brings out the best in people only when they choose to allow it to.  Basic human neurobiology is actually on the side of panic and isolationism.  The limbic system, which controls emotion in the brain, is more developed and automatic than the frontal lobes which house judgement and rationality.  Ideally, our frontal lobes can mediate the wilder instincts of our limbic systems – but such mediation is learned.  The same is true of community behavior.  While banding together is a natural human impulse, it is at base a selfish instinct because it serves to protect the individual.  Gathering in community to promote higher-level ideals like sacrifice, compassion, and love is the action of a rational, self-actualized society.  In other words, kindness in the face of tragedy is the hallmark of civilization.

That is why many Christians find value in suffering, because it forces both individuals and societies to develop the capacity to deal wisely with events and attitudes that trigger our most base emotions and savage instincts – and Christian thought offers a pathway for that kind of growth.  David Brooks has suggested that all great religions are founded on love, but also demand justice.[6]  Love is instinctual; it is based in the limbic system.  Justice is not.  Justice is a frontal lobe function.  It requires learning.  It requires effort.  It requires faith.  I believe that there is a great deal of violence perpetrated in the name of religion, but I do not believe, as many do, that religion causes violence.  Rather, I believe that religion can solve violence.  But only if we temper our passions with wisdom, if we fuse love with justice, and if we commit to the slow process of learning to be kind by being civilized.


[1]Kimberly Winston (November 16, 2015), “Obama denounces religious test for refugees: ‘That’s not who we are,’” Religious News Service,

[2]McKay Coppins (November 19, 2015), “Conservative Christian Leader Blasts Anti-Refugee Rhetoric, Calls For Compassion,” Buzzfeed News,

[3]Cathy Lynn Grossman, (November 17, 2015), “Americans fret about Islam, immigrants, the future – and each other,” Religious News Service,

[4]Scott Shane, (June 24, 2015), “Homegrown Extremists Tied to Deadlier Toll than Jihadists in U.S. since 9/11,” The New York Times,

[5]Reuters, (November 19, 2015), “Muslims also killed in Islamic State attack on ‘Crusader France,’”

[6]David Brooks, (November 17, 2015), “Finding Peace within the Holy Texts,” New York Times,;nlid=20621639&tntemail0=y&_r=1.

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