“Why?” Many a parent has struggled to answer this question from a child seeking understanding about either the hard happenings of life or some fact about the world. The question is not restricted to the young.
Adults also try to figure out why things happen. Given our tendency to want an untroubled life, we may especially wonder about violence and its causes. In a violence saturated world we struggle to figure out why people commit violent acts. The late Jesuit Fr. Vincent Miceli (1915-1991) in The Roots of Violence had this answer: “[Violence] is the attack against God, as demonstrated far and wide in a hatred for the truth” (16, italics in original). Throughout this book Fr. Miceli repeatedly returns to the theme of hatred of God and hatred of the truth.
Miceli was a student of the well-known philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand, who in turn studied under pioneering phenomenologist Edmund Husserl. Husserl’s other famous student was Edith Stein, in religious life Carmelite Sister (now Saint) Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. Fr. Miceli’s earlier book, The Antichrist, is an investigation into evil and its infiltration of our world.
This edition of The Roots of Violence is abridged and lightly edited to reflect developments during the past three decades. For instance, on page 186 editors have added that terrorist Abu Daoud lived until 2010. I found this a perceptive book but marred by an unevenness of style and content. There is much to ponder here, but the reader may sometimes find it a struggle to get to the good stuff.
First the good. Miceli’s strength is getting to the “taproot” of the problem and prevalence of violence. To illustrate these insights he makes frequent use of stories from scripture; and, as any student of the Bible knows, there are numerous examples of violence contained in its pages. Here we need to remember, as Miceli points out, that violence is not restricted to assault and murder. It can include other fallen human actions such as rape and enslavement. He is also good at helping us distinguish between violence and force. Force is action in the service of justice. In the 21st century, pundits and commenters seem to have difficulty distinguishing between the two, to the detriment of discussions about public policy on policing, riots/demonstrations, and the legitimacy of authority.
Fr. Miceli looks at violence in interpersonal relationships and its connections to the sins of lust, envy, anger and avarice, as well as a topic he spends a great deal of time exploring: terrorism. The final chapter briefly lays out the Christian response to violence, and an appendix features the words of Pope John Paul II and his teaching on violence. Miceli also astutely points to our human institutions as, if not purveyors of, then enablers of violence. One example is the university. “Once centers of secular and Christian wisdom, are now very often training grounds for militant revolutionaries” (15). Our culture and our media are saturated with lying and rejection of objective truth. “The more unrelentingly an age is addicted to falsehood, the more the life of man and the being of all sacred things are held in contempt—indeed, exposed to the threat of murder and destruction” (57). Miceli argues that “violence appears to be a function of contempt. It removes all preciousness from a person, situation, institution, etc.” (81). Years before we found ourselves in the midst of a cultural and moral crisis stemming from distorted views of sexuality and the body, Miceli calls out sexual license, abortion, homosexuality, and pedophilia for the ravaging curses on society they are. He is proven right many times, as for example he decries the rise of homosexual activism. “They are confronting the churches, the government, and the law to put their stamp of moral approval on a sexual lifestyle to which they claim to have a right” (98). He denounces pornography as well as the modern materialistic cult of celebrity, the destruction of the traditional family plus the use of violence against non-combatants in time of war. “There is no neutral ground, no no-man’s land between Christ and Satan” (205).
But now for the less-good. At times Fr. Miceli lapses into philosophy-speak, which makes for an uneven text. It would be untrue to paint these patches as dense philosophy impenetrable to all but the academic elite, but they do require extra effort of the reader and might be seen as detracting from the core message. There are also occasional factual errors. For instance, he asserts on p. 226 that Hitler’s ordering the Luftwaffe to bomb indiscriminately was provoked by a small British air raid. That neglects the tactics used against the Poles in September 1939 as well as the German aerial attack on Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. On p. 210 he conflates the Frankish conquest of Gaul at the end of the Roman Empire with the conquests of Charlemagne in the ninth century. He excessively cites and quotes Henry Fairlie’s book The Seven Deadly Sins Today. Fr. Miceli, while prescient about the trends of violence and correct in using scripture with its timeless quality for examples, is less-successful in choosing evidence from his part of the 20th century. His chapter on “The Violence of Vengeance” is particularly affected by this tendency. He piles on example after example of terrorism—especially as it involves Israelis and Arabs—without providing accompanying analysis on the strands of violence winding through these incidents. That criticism can actually be extrapolated to the entire book, because Miceli provides multiple episodes of violence and some insights into it but little remedy for the problem.
But this is not a book without hope. Fr. Miceli always points us back to God and the truth. Each of us must take responsibility for our life, first by placing it in God’s hands. “Man must give up his absolute self-assertion; he must seek utter selflessness. For the peace he seeks is impossible to achieve by himself” (246). The message of Christ on attaining purity of heart applies here. “The root of all evil action is seen to be in the attitude of heart” (247). Thus, making sure our heart and mind are bathed in God’s truth and keeping us navigating the right path will not eradicate violence in its totality, but it might be the contagious method of making a small change in ourselves and those around us.
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