It’s time we rethink our definition of violence. As the war rages in Ukraine, many people’s attention this past week shifted to the moment of violence at the Academy Awards.
I understand why the incident is captivating people’s attention. In an evening of gowns and decorum and all our favorite famous people, an unscripted slap between Hollywood royalty is unexpected. It’s like a car crash, a bar fight or that moment in a horror movie where the girl slowly opens the door she’s not supposed to open and everyone in the audience knows something is about to jump out — we simply can’t look away.
And I admit there are dynamics at play at the Academy Awards incident that are interesting to consider — the line between humor and offense, toxic masculinity, the spectacle of violence, the inaction of the bystander. And put simply, perhaps cynically, it’s a more palatable topic of conversation than the violence in Ukraine.
There are no role models in this story
I care very little about the slap, so I won’t spend much time on it. In short, I think the joke was in poor taste at the expense of a woman with an autoimmune disease. And a Black woman at that. Black women’s hair is too often at the center of social constraint, judgment and oppression. And I wonder, how would the reporting of this story be different if either Will Smith or Chris Rock were white? Or if Jada Pinkett Smith were white? Would there have been a joke? Laughter? A slap? Silence from the Academy’s producers?
Then there’s the simple bottom line that physical violence is always wrong. Period.
People are taking sides on the issue, but many agree that everyone was at fault. The joke shouldn’t have been told. The audience shouldn’t have laughed. Smith shouldn’t have slapped Rock. The producers shouldn’t have remained silent and inactive in the moment when the physical violence occurred.
There are no role models in this story.
‘Does not condone violence of any form’
I’ve been thinking about the tweet from the Academy posted a little after midnight the night of the slap. “The Academy does not condone violence of any form.” It’s a PR tweet, little more. In an attempt to redirect a captivated society, the tweet continues, “Tonight we are delighted to celebrate our 94th Academy Awards winners, who deserve this moment of recognition from their peers and movie lovers around the world.”
I can’t stop thinking about the first half of the tweet’s careful wording, “does not condone violence of any form.” There’s an incredibly profound nature to such a phrase, which covers a multitude of violence. In the Academy’s case the wording was merely a way of covering all its bases. But what if the Academy really meant those words? What if anyone really meant those words? Refusing to condone violence of any form is like building a road to a peace-filled society.
As it stands, we live in an incredibly violent culture. Over this past weekend there were 251 incidents of gun violence in the United States, resulting in the death of 97 people. As of March 27, the United Nations said 1,119 Ukrainian civilians have been killed, and an estimated 7,000 to 15,000 Russian soldiers have died.
These are clear and horrific examples of physical violence that resulted in the loss of lives. However, I would like to propose that perhaps violence is not always physical.
“Violence is not always physical.”
Research on intimate partner violence has long claimed that abuse constitutes more than physical harm. IPV is a pattern of abuse including violence that is physical, sexual, emotional, spiritual, financial and/or psychological. Each type is considered abuse and violence.
In the same way, social violence is not merely physical. While it’s natural to think of physical harm as the ultimate form of violence, it’s the mere tip of the iceberg bobbing clearly above the water in society.
Three types of violence
Norwegian sociologist Johan Galtung conceptualized three types of violence: direct, structural and cultural.
Direct violence is the harm, often physical harm, committed against another person or people. Direct violence is most recognized as true violence, but it is sustained through structural and cultural violence.
Structural violence is the systemic exclusion and oppression of specific people groups by limiting their access to basic human needs. For example, sexism and racism are forms of structural violence enacted through practices such as limiting access to education, jobs or health care.
Cultural violence happens when a society supports or accepts structural violence as the natural order of things. A famous example is when the African slave trade was defended as ethical by white scientists’ false claim that Africans were intellectually and morally inferior to people of European descent.
Physical violence is perpetuated through these three forms of violence. Structural violence leads to direct violence and is justified by cultural violence.
“Structural violence leads to direct violence and is justified by cultural violence.”
For example, the direct violence of police brutality against Black bodies is fueled by the structural violence of over-policing in predominantly Black and brown communities and is justified by cultural violence founded in the lie that Black men are a threat to society.
How these forms of violence connect
I want to return briefly to the conflict at the Academy Awards because it is a microcosm of these forms of violence. Chris Rock’s joke at the expense of Black women’s hair, especially a woman with a chronic disease, plays into forms of structural violence. The laughter from the audience and inaction from the producers is cultural violence. And Smith’s slap is direct violence.
The sequence of events, while contained and not very serious on the grand scale of violence, portrays the cycle Galtung described. And it begs the question, if one of these three forms of violence was removed, how would the outcome change?
The cycle of physical harm is intrinsically connected through complicated webs linking the three types of violence. It is impossible to eradicate one form while the other two exist.
While physical violence is not the only form of violence, it certainly is the most abhorrent. Regardless of political alignment, everyone wants less deaths and incidents of gun violence in the United States. And no matter what side of the aisle you find yourself on, you probably want a peaceful end to the war in Ukraine — and probably a peaceful end to all wars. The details of how to make peace a reality is where the complication arises.
In a violent world that yearns for peace, we must rethink our definition of violence and recognize that while ending physical violence is the ultimate goal, it is impossible until we live into the claim that we do “not condone violence in any form.”
A Lenten challenge
As we near the end of this Lenten season, what are the forms of violence from which we need to repent?
It’s likely that no one reading this article was directly involved with the violence at the Academy Awards or is directly victimized by the war in Ukraine. And it’s likely that very few people reading this have been the victim or perpetrator of gun violence. But each of us live in societies that systemically create structural and cultural violence.
We need to consider the times when words are violence, laughter is violence, silence is violence, social media is violence, legislation is violence, and religion is violence.
There are plenty of horrific examples in Christian history of physical violence committed by the church. I don’t think we could ever stop repenting from the horrors of the crusades or colonialism. But what would it look like for our local churches to repent from our present acts of violence? How are our religious institutions contributing to the cycle of structural and cultural violence?
“Churches commit structural violence when we fail to honor the divine image alive in each individual.”
Churches commit structural violence when we fail to honor the divine image alive in each individual. Churches commit violence when women are treated as inferior to men and excluded from participation in religious acts and leadership roles within their congregations.
Churches commit cultural violence when we fail to speak out against acts of violence — accepting them through our silence as the natural order of things. We commit violence when we silently accept racial injustice or gun violence in our congregations and communities.
Some churches already are doing anti-violence work by refusing to remain silent and refusing to accept violence in their communities. Old Cambridge Baptist Church in Cambridge, Mass., constructed a “mass shooting cross” on their church lawn. A few years ago, the church began the practice of nailing small placards to a simple wooden cross. Each placard lists a city, state and number, which represents the location of a mass shooting and the number of people who were killed in the shooting.
In front of the cross are the words, “It is our sign of protest against the love of money and guns being valued over human lives. This death-dealing evil must end. Resurrection of peace and justice must persist.”
As we look to the Cross of Christ and the resurrection of Easter, let us not rush through these final days of Lent. Let us consider how we need to repent from our collective contribution to violence and work toward ways we can bring about the resurrection of peace through our refusal to condone violence of any form.
Laura Ellis is the project manager for Baptist Women in Ministry. She is a former Clemons Fellow with BNG and previously served in ministry with Safe Havens Interfaith Partnership against Domestic Violence and Elder Abuse. She lives in Waco, Texas, and earned a master of divinity degree from Boston University School of Theology, where she studied religious conflict and theories of violence and peace.
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