Friends’ Peace Testimony may be wishful thinking if violence is an innate human trait. As evidence for our violent and warlike nature, we have Ukraine in the 21st century, World War I and II in the 20th, the Medieval Crusades, and the ancient wars of conquest by Rome, Egypt, and Babylonia (not to mention the internecine fighting of the Ancient Greeks or the invasion of Canaan by the Israelites). Of course, I’ve left out thousands of other wars in the history books.
Pre-historic humans also fought battles as witnessed by archeological finds where spear points are embedded in skeletons. Then there’s the 7,000-year-old mass grave containing neolithic individuals whose skulls had been crushed or legs broken—evidence of a Stone Age massacre. (See photo above.) And there’s the evidence of evolutionary biology that traces violent behavior back 5 or 7 million years ago to our common ancestor with chimpanzees, who organize “war parties” to invade the territory of other chimp groups, killing isolated enemy chimpanzees.
Of course, so far, I’ve concentrated on war, but there are many contexts for violence: mass shootings, domestic violence, political assassinations, crimes of passion, and murder for profit—think insurance policies or drug dealers. No doubt the reader could add numerous categories to this list. While human beings are not intrinsically evil and usually quite peaceable, the hard facts prove that that violence is part of human nature.
There is, however, hope. Human behavior—including violent behavior—can be modified by culture. For example, small, nomadic groups are more peaceful than agrarian or industrial societies. Europe is less violent than the United States, and murder is almost unheard of in Japan.
In general, societies in conflict are more violent than those without internal divisions. Thus, the violence here in the United States is at least partly the result of our polarization along class, racial, and political lines. When a small elite controls the wealth of a country, as in the United States, the cry for justice and equality will be accompanied by violence. When people of color are systematically oppressed, as here in the United States, that oppression may take a violent turn. When political compromise is difficult, as here in the United States, violent solutions may be sought.
Religion is often part of the problem. A fanatical religiosity can be used as a justification for violently attacking another religious or secular group. Religious true believers think that God is on their side and that it’s okay to see the other “godless” group as an enemy to be opposed by any means possible, including the physical destruction of that enemy. Thus, it was possible for the January 6th insurrectionists to think of hanging Vice-President Pence out of loyalty to Jesus and Donald Trump.
On the other hand, true religion can be part of the solution. A spirituality suffused with the ethic of love will seek a non-violent resolution of conflict, and that approach is precisely the Quaker way. As Quakers, we have the obligation to resist being corrupted by American culture. We should follow St. Paul’s advice in Romans 12: 2 when he says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind….” (ESV) So, any aggressive impulses we personally have should be channeled into actions for social justice, into changing the culture that encourages violence. We should work to transform our culture of violence while recognizing that there are innate, biological limits to what can be done.
Let us not be discouraged.
(This blog post was partly based on Joe Phelan’s Nov. 20 article, “Are Humans Inherently Violent,” published on livescience.com)
~ Richard Russell
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