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The Taproot of Violence

by Fr. Vincent P. Miceli, S.J.


In this article Fr. Vincent Miceli, S.J. offers a philosophical-theological reflection on the nature of violence, what its roots are and how it can be countered.

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Homiletic & Pastoral Review



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Ignatius Press, December 1982

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He (Satan) is your father, and your will is to do your father's desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and was never grounded in the truth . . . for he is a liar and the father of lies. (John 8:44)

We are living in an era whose atmosphere is saturated with the flames of hatred. It is an age of violence whose tempo of disruption is so rapidly escalating that there is scarcely a city anywhere in the world where humans can be assured of normal, physical security. In an age of irrational aggressivity Pope John Paul II, a spiritual leader dedicated to peace, was gunned down in Rome and nearly killed; in Washington, D. C., the newly-elected president of the United States of America was felled by gun fire; in Cairo, a presidential statesman, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for his successful efforts in attaining peace between Egypt and Israel in the inflamed Middle East, was assassinated. Within the totalitarian nations the litany of the liquidated has risen to such astronomical figures that only God knows the exact number. Within the so-called "Christian" nations of the West the myriad millions of helpless, innocent children murdered in their mothers' wombs boggles the imagination. The violence-explosion at present is so horrifying that it is stupefying the minds of men all over the world. Indeed hundreds of thousands have already constructed underground survival hideaways to escape what they see will arrive in the near future, the Age of Violence Unlimited.

Future historians will be sorely taxed to explain the unparalleled international crescendo of savage assaults in all forms of intimidation, vandalism, kidnapping, bodily brutality and guerrilla massacres against persons and institutions. For the explosion of violence represents a demonic reality similar to a Hydra-headed serpent. It is a persistent, ever-increasing plague with many sources and causes. Indeed the apologists for the new barbarism are not merely, nor even primarily, demonically sick individuals, but rather organized groups who have raised nihilistic anarchism to the status of a religion whose fundamental dogma seems to be: "I kill, therefore I am."

Inspired and sustained by this metaphysic of murder, centers of organized revolution have mushroomed in every nation. They seem bent on demonstrating the truth of Oscar Wilde's aphorism: "Moderation is a fatal thing. Nothing succeeds like excess."1 Moreover, they enthusiastically strive to experience both the subject and the object of Shakespeare's truism: "Violent delights have violent ends. "2

"New" Immorality Proclaimed

Nietzsche is the prophet who foresaw and foretold the coming of the beast of violence. Indeed, he proclaimed its greatest commandment whose faithful practice would create a society of savages. "The time has come," he wrote, "to oppose morality with immorality, to call what priests call good, evil and what they call evil, good. The time has come for the transvaluation of all values."3 This prophet of modernity, of revolutionary society and radical thought was a champion of extremes. He also wrote: "We moralists do not even need to lie… We would come into power without the truth… The magic that fights for us is the magic of extremism."4 Nietzsche, who accepted with pride the description of himself as an "aristocratic radical," was used by Marx and his followers to create citadels (Russia, Red China, Cuba, Nicaragua, the Eastern Satellites) as camps for the training of armies of proletarian radicals. These centers of organized revolution radiate out to the whole world the call for violence and rebellion. This call is beamed everywhere twenty-four hours a day, for these centers, and their apostles of hatred everywhere in the world, effectively, ceaselessly and secretly work, like the law of gravity, to pull down to destruction every civil and religious community striving for social justice and peace. Now both Nietzsche and Marx foresaw the public victory of the extreme side of their thinking. This gave them both the experience of triumphant power. There is a hypnotizing fascination in their fanaticisms. Their chaotic excesses, their iron wills, their high voltage writings have attracted millions over the last hundred years to fly with suicidal enthusiasm and madness into their incandescent ideologies. Nietzsche was forever knocking down things and taking wild delight in their destruction:

O My Brothers, am I cruel? But I say: What is falling we should still push. Everything today falls and decays: Who would check it? But I—I even want to push it. Do you know the voluptuous delight, which rolls stones into deep depths? These human beings of today— Look at them! How they roll into my depth! I am a prelude of better players. O My Brothers! A precedent! Follow my precedent! And he whom you cannot teach to fly, teach to fall, faster! …To this mankind of today I will not be a light, nor be called a light. Those I will blind! Put out their eyes, O Flash of my Wisdom!5

We are living in the days of Nietzsche's better players who, ecstatic with "the voluptuous delight, which rolls humans into deep depths," keep pushing society to the brink of social chaos and suicide. Yeats in his poem "The Second Spring," reveals the murderous zeal of Nietzsche's modern ideological offspring:

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold
the blood-dimmed tide is loosed and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.
The best lack all conviction, while the worst are
Full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.6

The word violence is derived from the Latin verb violare, which means to use force so as to injure an innocent person in his physical and spiritual welfare. To be more specific, this force is often used to subdue, dominate, rob, rape or kill, the innocent, perhaps too even his family, friends and properties. When such attacks of force were made against institutions, then the violence engendered took on more heinous proportions because of its social and religious aspect. For the Greeks and Romans, and for us their cultural heirs, violence against sacred persons was a sacrilege, against temples a profanation, against the state treason, against oaths perjury. Such violent acts were seen as acts of irreligious contempt for law, a dishonoring of the gods, barbarian attempts to overthrow religion, the holy empire and its emperor gods. Though used today more often in its first, predominantly secular meaning given above, violence still retains its profane, sacrilegious dimension especially when sacred persons, places and things are the victims of its onslaughts. And this onslaught on sacred beings is occurring more frequently today as violence becomes a worldwide, universal phenomenon. Popes, ministers, rabbis, nuns, priests, temples, mosques, synagogues and churches have been frequently and flagrantly assaulted within the last fifteen years. And there is no end in sight for today's violent offspring of Nietzsche, Marx and the atheist humanists are determined to destroy not merely the secular but, above all, the sacred.

It suffices to look at some of the ruins. The universities, once centers of Christian wisdom, are now very often training grounds for post-Christian pagans. In the cities mass confrontation has degenerated into guerrilla warfare. In the Churches clergymen and clergywomen, seeking notoriety, proclaim the "new morality" of hedonism and engage in the burning of property, the supplying of rebels with lethal weapons. In the media, under the rubric of liberty and reform, the role of traitors and violent protesters is romanticized. Thus, factories, schools, theatres, civic halls and chapels have become launching pads for the projection of violence into the surrounding peaceful communities.

Our Laws Are Under Siege

Concerning television as an agent in the spread of violence we now have a scientific report that proves this to be true. On May 6, 1982, the National Institute of Mental Health published a Federal Report, the result of 10 years of careful research, on the relationship between violence in everyday human behavior and violence on the television screen.7 The report concluded that there is now "overwhelming" scientific evidence that "excessive" violence on television leads directly to growing aggression and violent behavior among children and teenagers. The report states: "In magnitude, television violence is as strongly correlated with aggressive behavior as any other behavioral variable that has been measured." Children, teenagers and even adults who heavily viewed violent programs were found to be often in conflict at home, fighting on the streets and in aggressive delinquency at play. "Television has become a violent form of entertainment." Why? There are at least four reasons. 1) Frequent visual violent behavior rubs off on youngsters the way language, cultural and social skills are learned and imitated from parents and friends. 2) Violent attitude postures and changes are induced by the heavy violence witnessed on the screen. Viewers become distrustful, suspicious, unruly, and antisocial after the characters they are constantly viewing. 3) Violent episodes often arouse physiological reactions leading to violent deeds. 4) The too frequent viewing of violent scenes is often used by viewers to justify their own aggressive conduct, especially when these viewers eagerly identify with their favorite television stars on violent programs.8 Because violence has been idolized, romanticized, fantasized, viewers want to participate in it. Thus television has become an occasion of violent sins for the unwary, untrained, easily seduced youth of the nation, while the channels, the producers and actors of the programs rake in millions from the unconcerned advertisers who could care less what happens to the nation's youth as long as they rake in their multimillions too.

In politics, ideological sloganizing develops the proclivity for violence in the intellectually rootless and spiritually depersonalized masses, fashioning them into willing storm-troopers bent on overturning legal and peace-keeping institutions with neither thought nor care about what to put in their places. And the courts, having usurped legislative power and become sociological agents bent on advancing the general will for corruption disguised as progress, deliver the worst blows against man's civil and religious liberties. For the Justices seem to consider themselves as movers and shapers of the country's destiny rather than as impersonal spokesmen for the law. The decision in Roe v. Wade converted the crime of murder against innocent, helpless humans in the womb into the folly and madness of a permanent law. British historian Edward Gibbon wrote in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire that, "the discretion of the judge is the first engine of tyranny."9 This is especially true today when judges see themselves not as faithful interpreters of the law but as social reformers who make the law mean what their own sociological prepossessions want it to mean. Is it any wonder that today the courts are coddling criminals while betraying the fundamental rights of innocent victims? For they who do violence to the law perpetrate violence against the citizenry that must be judged by the law. The Justices, the judges and the courts may be today the greatest agents of violence against the greatest number of helpless, innocent American children who should be the greatest resource that the nation has for its future. A nation under judgment by Justices, judges and courts that have slipped their legal moorings in order to usurp legislative power is headed for shipwreck on the shoals of legalistic imperialism. Such is the violent, tragic state of affairs in the United States at the present moment.

The West Has Opted For Sin

What is the taproot, which is causing such growth in the delirium for violence, which is rampant today? It is the attack against God. It is hatred of the truth. Behind the metaphysic of murder lies the metaphysic of hatred of the created order. "I refuse to accept this order of things. I will not serve, therefore I am." Refusal to serve God was the cry under which Satan brought violence and rebellion among the angels as they stood trial in the vestibule of heaven. Christ told his apostles: "I saw Satan like lightning falling from heaven."10 Elsewhere, we read: "Satan and his wicked demons were drawn down by infernal ropes into the depths of hell."11 Christ himself testified that this "father of lies was a murderer from the beginning," thus making the connection between hatred of the truth and the lust for violence. He warned the Pharisees that men who reject God's plan for their salvation will imitate Satan's deeds.

As a matter of history, the religious leaders of the Jews were looking for a Messiah who would be a conquering hero, a military Savior who would subject the Gentiles to the service of the Chosen People and thus usher in that worldly, materialistic Utopia which the leaders had falsely fabricated from their misinterpretations of the Scriptures. When king Herod heard of the birth of the king of the Jews in Bethlehem, he sent soldiers to seek him out and kill him as a threatening rival in political power. So secularized had the notion of the Messiah become among the Jews. But God, ever faithful to the revelations he gave his prophets, sent his Son as the Suffering Servant to save all nations through his humiliation and death on the cross. Instead of a terrestrial kingdom of pleasure and power, the Son of God established a supernatural kingdom of sacrifice and sanctity. This plan of God, this humble Messiah scandalized the Pharisees. They rejected Christ, fought against his kingdom, and plotted his death. If they could not have their own type of Messiah, neither would they accept God's. To make sure the Jewish people would not be seduced by Christ, they plotted the death of Christ and trapped the Romans into doing their dirty work for them. And then, as if this hatred of God's truth were not bad enough, in the presence of their Roman masters, whom they despised, they justified their violence against Christ by shouting out, in a frenzy of mob madness, this sacrilegious lie: "We have no king but Caesar!"

We live in an age of violence because we live in an age of organized and spreading atheism. In the West, nations that have rejected absolute Christian values and truths, that have dissolved God into a series of harmless abstractions, that have disestablished and secularized religion, that have fostered permissiveness and favored heresy, are living lives pleasing to that "murderer from the beginning." Such a pseudo-Christian civilization is trying to live off the vanishing perfume of Christianity, having abandoned its substance long ago. In coming to terms with lying, fornication, adultery, divorce, sexual perversion and mass abortion, the West has opted for a life of sin—the source of every violent way of life. Such a decadent civilization cannot any longer attract its citizens to work for the ideals and virtues it has long betrayed. On the contrary, corrupt nations inflame men to violent rebellion because of their betrayal of these values and of their hypocrisy in still posing as champions of Christianity.

Betrayal Arises In Man's Heart

Our modern atheistic Leviathans with their amazing advancement in technical progress have, nevertheless, turned men into machines, destroying their sense of personal dignity and responsibility. True, they have afforded man much upper middle class affluence. But even this, because it lacks religious roots, has only excited the passions of greed and pleasure, has riveted man to an earthly, ruthless competition for more wealth and power and has suffocated his spiritual, humane aspirations. The revolutionaries of today are striking in blind hatred against this system of post-Christian hedonism. For nations that have nothing to peddle but facts and things, that attempt to solve social problems with an anti-life policy of legalizing and financing contraception and abortion, that can no longer throw light on the spiritual dimension and destiny of man, are being violently vomited out of the stomach of an enraged mankind.

Falsity is the heart of immorality, and hatred of truth is the taproot of criminal violence. Unfortunately, men take violence for granted as an ugly fact of life and seldom attempt to plumb the metaphysical and theological roots of its nature and existence. We are all aware of the tremendous role of violence in the unfolding history of human events. But what is not realized is that the apparent arbitrariness and haphazardness of violence can be and ought to be seriously and precisely analyzed from the philosophical and theological point of view. The need for a thorough-going treatise on criminal aggressivity is testified to by the rising flood of objective evils perpetrated by individual and organized agents of violence.

Many Are Tempted To Be Untrue

As we saw earlier, violence entered creation from the rebellion of Lucifer. This rebellion arose from the heart of pride. But the sin of pride is the offspring of the vice known as hatred of truth. Hatred of truth is the result of the creature's attempt to rearrange God's hierarchy of beings and values into an order, which the creature prefers to the plan of God. This attempt immediately produces the violence of disorder, the chaos of falsity and immorality. For hatred of truth is really hatred of God who creates all things wisely and governs them lovingly. Lucifer, the Morning Star, was instantly deformed into the Prince of Darkness because he attempted to live a lie. He wanted to dethrone God and become God himself. Here is Scripture's account of the event:

How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, who did rise in the morning? How are you fallen to the earth, that did wound the nations? And you said in your heart: I will ascend into heaven; I will exalt my throne above the stars of God; I will sit in the mountain of the covenant, in the sides of the north. I will ascend above the height of the clouds. I will be like the Most High. But yet you shall be brought down into hell, into the depths of the pit.12

And St. Peter relates the divine vengeance that hatred of truth drew down upon demons and evil men alike:

For God did not spare the angels when they sinned, but dragged them down by infernal ropes to Tartarus, and delivered them to be tortured and kept in custody for judgment. Nor did he spare the ancient world, but preserved (with seven others) Noe a herald of justice, when he brought a flood upon the world of the impious. And he condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to destruction, reducing them to ashes, thus making them an example to those who in the future should live impiously.13

St. John the Evangelist in his Apocalypse sees in a flashback vision the violence that broke out between the demons and the holy angels:

And there was a battle in heaven; Michael and his angels battled with the dragon, and the dragon fought with his angels. And they did not prevail, neither was their place found any more in heaven. And that great dragon was cast down, the ancient serpent, he who is called the devil and Satan, who leads astray the whole world: and he was cast down to the earth and with him his angels were cast down . . . Woe to the earth and to the sea, because the devil has gone down to you in great wrath, knowing that he has but a short time.14

St. Thomas starts with the truth taught by Christ to his apostles that all evil issues forth from an evil heart and bad will. "But the things that proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and it is they that defile a man. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, immorality, thefts, false witness, blasphemies. These are the things that defile a man …" In his discussion of violence St. Thomas lists five elements that constitute the nature of violence and describe its context. 1) Violence is that which causes any being to act contrary to its nature or natural inclination. 2) The agent of violence is always extrinsic to that which is violated. 3) The natural inclination of a being is always prior to the violence and is presupposed by an act of violence. This constituent of violence recognizes the fact that man as an agent or efficient cause cannot strictly speaking create anything, but always presupposes the existence of that with which he works. Man, at best, is the cause of becoming, never the cause of being. In fact it is precisely the existence of natures with their intrinsic inclinations that renders the violent act possible by the extrinsic cause. 4) The intensity of the violence is in proportion to the severity in which a being's natural inclination is removed from attaining its natural end. 5) Evil is always related to violence and vice versa.15 In this connection power must not be confused with violence, for power —physical or spiritual—is morally neutral, not evil in itself and becomes evil only when used for evil purposes or under evil circumstances, e.g., in acts of aggression.

In summary then, violence is an attempt by an external agent to force natures to perform actions contrary to their intrinsic, essential inclinations. Although these essences with their inclinations are conditions without which violence itself would be impossible, the intensity of the violence and of the evil effects produced by it are in proportion to the severity in which the natures are rendered incapable of attaining their ends. Thus violence can be understood as a creature's attempt to rearrange, redefine, indeed, almost recreate, a being and direct it away from its divinely appointed end towards an arbitrarily selected end that leads to the convenience, the pleasure and even self-glorification of the violent agent.

Firm Convictions Needed

We can imagine the tremendous violence that must have burst forth in the war between the faithful angels and the demons. Being pure spirits, far more intelligent and powerful than men, that war in heaven must certainly have dwarfed all the most violent wars in human history taken together. Scripture relates that just one angel, passing over the sleeping army of the Assyrians who were besieging Jerusalem, killed in one night one hundred and eighty thousand soldiers. Moreover, an indication of the power of the angels is suspected when one realizes the enormity of the act of violence, which Satan and his demons planned to perpetrate in heaven. They were to dethrone God and become God with their own power and on their own terms. They were to demote God from Creator to creature and advance themselves to Almighty power and honors. Such was their hatred of God and the order of creation that Satan and his demons would have destroyed both if they could. Indeed in their attempted violence Satan and his demons even violated their own natures, chose for themselves a goal contrary to their natures and a destiny that has made them eternal failures hardened in iniquity. And when Satan and his devils were "cast down to the earth," Scripture tells us that they continued their violence by being the agents "who lead astray the whole world." "Woe to the earth and the sea," a voice from heaven cries out in the vision seen by St. John in the Apocalypse, "because the devil has gone down to you in great wrath, knowing he has but a short time."16 That "short time" is the last days, or the time between the Ascension of Christ into glory and his Second Coming. St. Peter tells mankind how these demons are using this short time. "For your adversary the devil goes about like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour."17

From the above study we must conclude that violence involves one in a special metaphysics whose first principle is this: To be is to be willed or to be is the effect of a creature's free decision. The real is what a creature wants it to be. Truth is what men want truth to be. We have here the philosophical attitude of violence known as subjectivism, i.e., a personal hatred of existing truth posing as the creator of new truth, a world of lies fabricated in the fantasies of aggressively rebellious creatures. Because this voluntaristic, irrational intentionality nurtures irrational violence it is intrinsically evil even before the external act of violence is committed. Eve sinned before she took a bite out of the apple; she sinned when she took the word of the serpent over the word of God and decided the serpent's version of reality was the version she wanted to experience—to become godlike on her own terms not on God's terms. And so she chose death instead of life. "In the day you shall eat of that fruit you shall die." Thus arrogant voluntarism is the mother of criminal violence, for it proclaims the lie that the creature's whims take precedence over the divine natural law, which is incarnated in creation and stamped on the conscience by the God of creation.

Shakespeare, with a poet's profound, prophetic vision, demonstrates in the tragic destiny of Macbeth that, when hatred of the existing order of truth is incarnated in voluntaristic attempts to change that truth, such hatred produce bloody deeds which create that murderous nothingness known as sin, that working of the mystery of iniquity which would destroy God, but succeeds only in destroying sinners, in this case Lady Macbeth through madness, Lord Macbeth by the sword. Macbeth himself, in a profound soliloquy, sensed the tragic finale of his violence as he nurtured the temptation to rearrange the order of kingship in the kingdom of Scotland to his own and his wife's aggrandizement:

This supernatural soliciting
… cannot be good; …
If good, why do I yield to that suggestion
Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair,
And make my seated heart knock at my ribs,
Against the use of nature? Present fears
Are less than horrible imaginings: My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical,
Shakes so my single state of man, that function
Is smothered in surmise; and nothing is
But what is not.18

In our endeavor to disclose the intelligible features of violence we have restricted our scrutiny to the taproot of violence—hatred of truth. There are other roots of violence, which can be studied in relation to other relevant attitudes of the person, such as, pride, vanity, covetousness, distrust, suspicion, infidelity, envy, revenge, lust, anger, and greed. The study of these relationships to violence would help to sharpen and deepen our insights into the nature of the abyss of violence. An investigation of this sort would involve us in a discussion about the cure or treatment of this curse of criminal aggressivity, which constitutes a terrible plague in our times.

An allied, though external reason for the escalation of violence today is the failure of authority—that spiritual power—to exercise itself as a bulwark against criminal violence. This failure is due to the weakened adherence to truth and the loss of faith of both civil and religious authorities. The poet Yeats so well expressed this problem endemic in our days. "The best in society lack all conviction, the worst (the criminals) are full of passionate intensity." For violence proliferates with the breakdown of authority. And authority breaks down when Christian convictions are denied in theory or betrayed in cowardly conduct. When governors, superiors, lawmakers, administrators and teachers cease to believe that they have a body of truth to teach and a code of Christian holiness to live up to, inculcate into others and, yes, even die for, then the community is abandoned by its leaders and left a prey to professional inciters of murder and rapine. For once bereft of effective Christian leadership, the masses are pathetically prone to heed the siren call to revolution. When authority is confused, apathetic, fearful of performing its duty, then society falls into the hands of the most cunning and powerful who are usually organized and proceed to amalgamate ruthlessly communities into communes. When authority is weak it often succumbs to blackmail, thus becoming a catalyst to fiercer attacks of the revolutionaries. For successful violence inevitably calls forth greater, bolder, more frequent violence. What civil and especially religious authorities must realize is that the apologists for organized violence know no loyalty, reverence, reality but their own selfish goals. They are neo-nihilists, spiritually famished, deprived of mature person-hood by self-idolization. They are the waifs of a materialist, godless civilization that seeks a Utopia here and now. What they need is not coddling but discipline. What they admire and respond to is not capitulation but firm convictions and adamant enforcement of doctrinal, moral and civil laws. When authorities, civil and religious, are eaten up with a zeal for truth and holiness, when they show a courage that is the fruit of deep Christian convictions and conduct, when they demonstrate a love for wandering souls that stops at no sacrifice to bring them back to the Good Shepherd of all souls, then the rising tide of criminal violence will begin to fall to a low ebb. Then the spiritual starvelings who are fascinated with the violence of gangsters and of hucksters of false ideologies may be won back to the violence known as intensity of love, that zeal which conquers the kingdom of heaven and leads to a life of truth, holiness, peace and joy with God and man. "The truth will make you free," says Christ. And to be sure a society founded on adherence to truth and holiness will enjoy a peace and a freedom that are immune from the plague of criminal violence.


1 Oscar Wilde, quoted in Roget's Thesaurus under violence.

2 Shakespeare, Romeo And Juliet, Act II, scene 6.

3 Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra, p. 144.

4 Karl Jaspers, quotes Nietzsche thus in his Nietzsche and Christianity.

5 Nietzsche, ibid., p. 321.

6 Yeats, The Second Spring.

7 New York Times, May 6, 1982, "An Overwhelming Violence-TV Tie."

8 Ibid.

9 Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

10 Luke, 10:18.

11 2 Peter, 2:4.

12 Isaiah, 14:12-20.

13 2 Peter, 2:4-7.

14 John, Apocalypse, 12:7-9.

15 St. Thomas, Summa Theologica, Par. II, Q. 6, a.5; Contra Gen. 1, 13, 19, 39. Cf. article by J. J. Califano in Divus Thomas, 1975, a. 78, "Technology and Violence."

16 John, Apocalypse, 12:7-12.

17 1 Peter, 5:8.

18 Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act I, Scene 3.

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