On Giving Up Violence: A Meditation during Holy Week

Several years ago, Robert and I went to see The Dark Knight in the theater. We both liked the film, but there was a moment near the end that haunted us for quite a long time: Harvey Dent taking Commissioner Gordon’s young son hostage, threatening to execute him based on the flip of a coin.

“Man, children in peril,” Robert said as we drove home to relieve the babysitter. “I can’t look at that stuff like I used to.”

Children in peril. I’ve used that phrase to explain why I’m not interested in watching Breaking Bad, despite its reported brilliance. I was open to it initially—the show appears to address issues of morality in a very interesting way, so maybe I could go with it. Then I heard a spoiler about an episode last August and said, “Nope, that’s it.”

Friends say in response, “Well, it’s not like children are singled out. Pretty much everyone is in peril on that show.”

Just so you know, that doesn’t help your case.


Fast forward from Harvey Dent to Aurora. I still haven’t seen The Dark Knight Rises. I would have, before. I like good action movies. They can be fun, even cathartic. The Dark Knight series is rich. And the word “rises” is right there in the title, beckoning this Christian minister who likes to sleuth around for Jesus hiding in unlikely places.

But I can’t see it now. I won’t. In my mind, knowing that the gunfire in the film provided auditory camouflage for actual terror and death puts it two degrees of separation away from a snuff film.

(This isn’t about the culture wars, by the way. I don’t happen to agree that violent video games and movies turn people violent. After all, other countries consume the same media that we do and don’t have nearly the talent for killing each other that Americans do. I will leave it to you, Gentle Reader, to ponder just what it is that allows Americans shoot each other with such alacrity.)


Then, Newtown.

Something broke in a lot of people that day in December, but it broke us all in different places. One of the things it broke in me is an ability to see extreme violence on the screen and put it in a different cognitive location than where I put the knowledge of what eleven bullets do to a first grader. I’ve waited to see whether that fracture would repair itself with time. But no, the limp remains. 

Other people are having similar discussions. Linda Holmes writes on pop culture for NPR and recently explored this topic in a post, “The Spatter Pattern: Does All the Good Television Have to Be So Bloody?”

It’s like we have an army of dazzlingly fluent poets who all write in one language. That doesn’t, of course, make all the poetry the same, any more than all English-language poetry is the same. These shows are varied in many ways: The Wire is not the same show as The Walking Dead just because people get shot and otherwise brutalized, and American Horror Story and Boardwalk Empire are hardly identical twins. But they share elements, one of which is that the stakes involve — not solely but largely — avoiding being violently killed. And for that reason, they ask the viewer to want to watch people being violently killed now and then, and sometimes now and then and then and then, because otherwise the threats are false.

This blog post is not a line in the sand, by the way. It’s not an announcement: I don’t consume violence for entertainment anymore. It’s also not a judgment on others who make different choices. Rather it’s an opportunity for self-examination, to explore how the choices I make define who I am. Where are the boundaries in the stands we take? What’s in and what’s out?


Is it gratuitous violence that’s the issue? Many people I respect say that Django Unchained was the best movie of the year, but I can’t do Tarantino. Except I don’t want to see realistic violence either. Robert and I were trying to make a plan for date night last weekend, and he didn’t have “Zero Dark Th—” out of his mouth before I said “No.”

But wait. Wasn’t LOST one of my favorite TV shows of all time? And wasn’t it pretty violent? Yes. I’m pondering what makes that show OK, or whether I’m just hypocritical on the point.

Second, didn’t I just re-read The Hunger Games? And doesn’t that book consist of children in peril (and children causing peril)? But the book is a critique of that violence. In fact, the heroic acts in the book are those that demonstrate forbearance and restraint. (The second and third books chronicle the insurrection against the Capitol and tell a more traditional war story, which is partly why I don’t like them as much.)


I’m thinking about these things this week, this Holy Week, as Christians prepare to come together on Thursday and Friday to tell an incredibly violent story, a story that we strain to find redemption in. And maybe that’s another word I’m looking for: redemptive. Maybe it’s the idea of redemptive violence that I can’t be a witness to: Revenge. Ends justifying means. Might making right. 

It’s not the violence against Jesus that’s redemptive. In fact, there’s something thuggish about a God who would send His [sic] son to die on a cross to provide payment for our sins:

born to die_t_nv


As I said from the pulpit two weeks ago, I’ve gotta think that an infinitely creative God could’ve come up with myriad ways of bringing reconciliation and shalom. No, it was the powers and principalities, not God, that sentenced Jesus to death. And it’s Jesus’ incomprehensible posture of forgiveness (Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do) that gives the story its power.

Where do you land in these things?

Followers of Jesus, how are you telling the story? And how are you hearing it?


16 thoughts on “On Giving Up Violence: A Meditation during Holy Week

  1. Andy Acton

    Good post. I’m still chewing on things. One quick thought in relation to Hunger Games. The last book Mockingjay offers a strong and powerful commentary on how war and violence dehumanizes, manipulates young people and children and uses them as pawns, i.e. Peeta Mellark’s brainwashing, Snow using children as a barrier which prompts Resistance, Gale and Beety to drop the bombs that end up killing Katniss’ sister Primrose. Mockingjay ends with Katniss still wrestling with nightmares from the hunger games days, the war, the violence and death and is comforted in those moments by Peeta’s love for her.

  2. Deborah

    Thanks for this post. I don’t have a substantive response but this has been a helpful moment in my Holy Week and I’m thankful for some of your language here (“incomprehensible posture of forgiveness” for one). This can be a long week, especially for clergy, so thanks for this moment of clarity and expansiveness.

  3. Keith

    I’m big on BREAKING BAD, but I know what episode you’re talking about.

    I won’t try to talk you into anything. I will say that there’s never any doubt that we’re watching the bad guys. The violence done by the protagonists is always self-protective (and That Epsisode was no exception; the protagonists didn’t do it), but never cheered for. It’s a show that, from the beginning, was pitched as “Mr. Chips becomes Scarface,” and that’s what it is: One man’s descent. Each violent act, even those that he does not commit, is a clear result of his increasingly psychopathic decisions.

    I find it cathartic. When times get dark, so does the drama of that time. With the dystopic staples of recession, war, and oligarchy having turned into everyday life, there are two functions of drama: Escape and giving eloquent voice. For me, BREAKING BAD does both. It’s “I could take care of my family that way if I weren’t such a rule-following drone.”

    1. MaryAnn McKibben Dana Post author

      Yes… based on my limited knowledge of the show, I know you’re right. Which is why I felt compelled to write about this matter of consuming violence in entertainment. Why is one thing in and another thing out? The violence on Breaking Bad isn’t redemptive violence, as far as I understand. So what’s the deal?

      I think what it is for me is a big stew that contains various ingredients and if you get the proportions right, it’s something I can eat, and even enjoy. But you get the proportions wrong and it makes me sick to my stomach. And some things I know I never want in the stew.

      And it could be a simple matter of aesthetics, interest, and available time. Which is fine and nothing that needs justifying. But you know me… I do like to ponder.

      1. Keith

        Part of the interest of BREAKING BAD is the way our natural empathy for a protagonist (and, in this case, his initially defensible motivation) battles with revulsion over the increasingly destructive things he continues to set in motion.

  4. Pingback: More on Violence and Holy Week: Breaking Bad, Hunger Games | MaryAnn McKibben Dana

  5. Ted

    I am still in contact with a friend I met in 2nd grade. We were in homeroom together for the remainder of elementary school and stayed in some classes in junior high. We were both cut-ups in class and in fact for years we each described the other as “he was the funniest kid, and I was second funniest”. Lately our email exchanges have been about the state of humor today and his ‘hot button’ is the use of profanity by comedians. We eventually settled on the idea that the profanity usually isn’t necessary to get the laugh – it’s not central to the joke – but that it can sometimes get an audience reaction that makes a weak joke seem funnier than it fundamentally is…..

    I was reminded of this discussion as I read your post – I wonder if the how graphically the violence is portrayed might give us a clue to how moving the story really is? ….or perhaps how much confidence the writers and producers have in how well they are telling the story?

    My example for an underplayed but moving act of violence is the final sword fight between Inigo Montoya and the six fingered man in “The Princess Bride” – it is at the core a scene that ends in a death of a very bad guy, but the violence act itself is underplayed, the blood is minimal…and yet it is satisfying to the viewer.

    I have not yet seen either of the Dark Knight movies you mention, but I wonder if they would ‘hold up’ if the more horrific parts were toned down.

      1. Keith

        My instinct says profanity in comedy isn’t the same as graphic violence in drama. Profanity isn’t humor, so the question is how much you can add without detracting; violence is story, so the question is how much you can remove without defanging.

        i’m oversimplifying, but I have to make dinner.

  6. Camille

    I appreciate this.
    There was a time when I really enjoyed Tarantino. I could easily put the violence of Pulp Fiction into some other compartment in my brain where it didn’t hurt. I could watch ER and simply be fascinated by the drama as parents and children suffered and died.

    I can’t do that anymore. I’m not sure how it has changed. In the past 10 years I have become a pastor, fallen in love and gotten married, watched my dad die from cancer, become a mother, and been a long-distant witness to this horrible real world violence of which you speak. When my husband rents one of those movies I go to the other room and catch up on wedding shows on TLC or catch up on my scrapbooks. I just don’t need to subject myself to more of that. I can’t choose to compartmentalize that pain in real life, so I won’t add any imaginary pain to my emotional load. I can get through medical dramas (Grey’s Anatomy) or even Parenthood, but often they bring on tears.

    I’m in a book club (non-church related) with other moms of young children. For a while there we kept drawing titles out the hat that were so heavy. Every now and then we veto something pulled out of the hat and pick Jenny Lawson’s (@TheBloggess) “Let’s Pretend This Never Happened” because we can’t take any more tears and we need to laugh out loud some.

    In the context of Holy Week and the greater good news of God’s redeeming and transforming love…
    I know we can’t stick our heads in the sand and only watch silly movies or read books with happy endings. That is not at all the message of the Gospel. There is brokenness and pain in the world and God does not turn away from it or leave us alone in the midst of it. When I don’t know anything else, when I don’t have the words to answer the questions, when I can’t stomach another real life bit of bad news, I know for certain that death and darkness don’t get the last word. And sometimes that’s about all there is to say.

    1. MaryAnn McKibben Dana Post author

      I remember when Schindler’s List came out, my father-in-law, a mental health professional who deals with a lot of dark stuff in his job, said that he had no desire to see it. I was surprised at the time, because it was supposed to be such a good movie, and edifying movie. And the Holocaust is something we should never forget. But of course, there is a difference between not forgetting and sitting through a very graphic movie about it.

      There is a tension in all of this. Do we really understand the Holocaust without immersing ourselves in real stories about it? Can we understand such an event in the abstract? On the other hand, I resonate more and more with my FIL’s perspective.

  7. Bob Braxton

    not just violence consuming as entertainment but “church” consuming as entertainment, too. Liturgy is the work of the people and no wonder a clergy person (and family) gets so worn down by this week and beginning of the next — unless “lay” people are invited to do a lot more – ringing bells (loud and not), tossing scarf – and despite Braniff Airlines, dance in the aisle (if there is one). Maybe even get baptized sans clothing as in the olden days of the Church!

  8. Cara

    I am reading Rita Nakashima Brock’s book Soul Repair and one of the vets that is interviewed for the book shared that when he goes on public speaking tours about vet issue he does not talk about the violence vets witness during active combat because he believes that we have turned violence into it’s own brand of pornography and he want to help vet but not feed that terribly distorted thing in our culture. Or even to have people show up to his talks to engage in the pornographic nature of violence.

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