Violence in American Popular Culture
COLLECT FOR LIFE TOGETHER
O God, who binds us together and orders our shared life: Quell the hatred which enslaves us; forgive the violence we embrace and portray; and summon the better angels of our nature to reflect the image of the God who made us; through our Redeemer, Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
Explore the ways in which violence has been portrayed in American culture
Examine the interaction between various cultural expressions of violence and America’s history
Discuss opportunities for faith communities to shape public perceptions of violence and its cultural expression
Exodus 21:12-27 Whoever strikes a person mortally shall be put to death. If it was not premeditated, but came about by an act of God, then I will appoint for you a place to which the killer may flee. But if someone willfully attacks and kills another by treachery, you shall take the killer from my altar for execution. Whoever strikes father or mother shall be put to death. Whoever kidnaps a person, whether that person has been sold or is still held in possession, shall be put to death. Whoever curses father or mother shall be put to death. When individuals quarrel and one strikes the other with a stone or fist so that the injured party, though not dead, is confined to bed, but recovers and walks around outside with the help of a staff, then the assailant shall be free of liability, except to pay for the loss of time, and to arrange for full recovery. When a slaveowner strikes a male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies immediately, the owner shall be punished. But if the slave survives a day or two, there is no punishment; for the slave is the owner’s property. When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman’s husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine. If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. When a slaveowner strikes the eye of a male or female slave, destroying it, the owner shall let the slave go, a free person, to compensate for the eye. If the owner knocks out a tooth of a male or female slave, the slave shall be let go, a free person, to compensate for the tooth.
Nahum 1:2-11 A jealous and avenging God is the LORD, the LORD is avenging and wrathful; the LORD takes vengeance on his adversaries and rages against his enemies. The LORD is slow to anger but great in power, and the LORD will by no means clear the guilty. His way is in whirlwind and storm, and the clouds are the dust of his feet. He rebukes the sea and makes it dry, and he dries up all the rivers; Bashan and Carmel wither, and the bloom of Lebanon fades. The mountains quake before him, and the hills melt; the earth heaves before him, the world and all who live in it. Who can stand before his indignation? Who can endure the heat of his anger? His wrath is poured out like fire, and by him the rocks are broken in pieces. The LORD is good, a stronghold in a day of trouble; he protects those who take refuge in him, even in a rushing flood. He will make a full end of his adversaries, and will pursue his enemies into darkness. Why do you plot against the LORD? He will make an end; no adversary will rise up twice. Like thorns they are entangled, like drunkards they are drunk; they are consumed like dry straw. From you one has gone out who plots evil against the LORD, who counsels wickedness.
Mark 15:16-32 Then the soldiers led him into the courtyard of the palace (that is, the governor’s headquarters); and they called together the whole cohort. And they clothed him in a purple cloak; and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on him. And they began saluting him, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ They struck his head with a reed, spat upon him, and knelt down in homage to him. After mocking him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him. They compelled a passer-by, who was coming in from the country, to carry his cross; it was Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus. Then they brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means the place of a skull). And they offered him wine mixed with myrrh; but he did not take it. And they crucified him, and divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take. It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him. The inscription of the charge against him read, ‘The King of the Jews.’ And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, ‘Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!’ In the same way the chief priests, along with the scribes, were also mocking him among themselves and saying, ‘He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.’ Those who were crucified with him also taunted him. When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, ‘Listen, he is calling for Elijah.’ And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, ‘Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.’ Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’
Revelation 16:1-21 Then I heard a loud voice from the temple telling the seven angels, “Go and pour out on the earth the seven bowls of the wrath of God.” So the first angel went and poured his bowl on the earth, and a foul and painful sore came on those who had the mark of the beast and who worshiped its image. The second angel poured his bowl into the sea, and it became like the blood of a corpse, and every living thing in the sea died. The third angel poured his bowl into the rivers and the springs of water, and they became blood. And I heard the angel of the waters say, “You are just, O Holy One, who are and were, for you have judged these things; because they shed the blood of saints and prophets, you have given them blood to drink. It is what they deserve!” And I heard the altar respond, “Yes, O Lord God, the Almighty, your judgments are true and just!” The fourth angel poured his bowl on the sun, and it was allowed to scorch them with fire; they were scorched by the fierce heat, but they cursed the name of God, who had authority over these plagues, and they did not repent and give him glory. The fifth angel poured his bowl on the throne of the beast, and its kingdom was plunged into darkness; people gnawed their tongues in agony, and cursed the God of heaven because of their pains and sores, and they did not repent of their deeds. The sixth angel poured his bowl on the great river Euphrates, and its water was dried up in order to prepare the way for the kings from the east. And I saw three foul spirits like frogs coming from the mouth of the dragon, from the mouth of the beast, and from the mouth of the false prophet. These are demonic spirits, performing signs, who go abroad to the kings of the whole world, to assemble them for battle on the great day of God the Almighty. (“See, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake and is clothed, not going about naked and exposed to shame.”) And they assembled them at the place that in Hebrew is called Harmagedon. The seventh angel poured his bowl into the air, and a loud voice came out of the temple, from the throne, saying, “It is done!” And there came flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, and a violent earthquake, such as had not occurred since people were upon the earth, so violent was that earthquake. The great city was split into three parts, and the cities of the nations fell. God remembered great Babylon and gave her the wine-cup of the fury of his wrath. And every island fled away, and no mountains were to be found; and huge hailstones, each weighing about a hundred pounds, dropped from heaven on people, until they cursed God for the plague of the hail, so fearful was that plague.
In his magisterial work, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (2011), Steven Pinker argues convincingly that lethal violence has dramatically decreased over the course of recorded history. The evolution of the world’s population from prehistoric to hunter-gatherer and, eventually, hunter-horticulturalist societies marked this decline. Throughout this lengthy transition, tribal warfare was frequent but small in scale. However, while the absolute number of people killed in battle was (by contemporary standards) few, the proportion who died in wars was extraordinarily high – on average in excess of 20% of the population and, in several societies, as high as 60%. The impact of warfare and the deaths which it produced cannot be underestimated and severely impaired the development and growth of many of the civilizations that pre-dated the emergence of organized states. Were the United States, for example, to experience a similar percentage of war-related mortality, our population would be reduced by 65-196 million people – a truly staggering number with unimaginable consequences.
The organization of clans and tribes into political states was accompanied by a generally consistent decline in the rate of death from wars. To be sure, these governmental entities fostered new forms of tyranny and oppression, but they also focused and limited the use of societies’ resources in battle. Compared to the (often high) double-digit proportion of deaths attributed to warfare among tribal civilizations, the percentage of such deaths in organized states is markedly less: 5% in pre-Columbian Mexico; 2% during the 17th century European Wars of Religion; 3% worldwide from 1900-1950; and 1% of Americans throughout the 20th century. Pinker’s point is simply that the world, including the United States, has become far less violent (as measured by combat deaths) with the evolution of nation-states and the discipline they have imposed (2011). His conclusion is further reinforced by the sharp decline in homicides and other forms of violence in this country in recent decades documented by Patrick Sharkey (2018).
However, despite the objective decline in the rate of violence in The United States, we remain a country in which images of violence dominate our politics, entertainment, personal behavior and national consciousness. From the dime novels of the 19th century to the sophisticated videogames of the 21st, virtually all forms of communication and art have embraced violence as a distinct genre and advanced its prominence in American life. Not surprisingly, the increasingly violent depiction of the nation’s culture has been met with strong opposition across the ideological spectrum. From Tipper Gore’s 1985 campaign to mandate warning labels on records containing violent language to more recent calls by the National Rifle Association (NRA) to further arm the population in response to the purported threats portrayed in popular culture, powerful forces have staked out the debate. Critically important in this ongoing national conversation is the need to examine the ways in which violence has been appropriated by and described in various forms of popular culture – literature, music, film, television and videogames – and to assess their impact on society.
Cleary, the portrayal of violence has been a literary staple since the advent of written communication – from the works of ancient Greece and Rome to the Biblical authors and Shakespeare. Although these materials circulated among social elites and were even more widely available in the oral traditions shared among the general population, the genre of literary violence truly entered the realm of popular culture with the invention of the printing press, advances in public education and an increasingly literate population. In the United States, Victorian Age dime novels fostered the true crime magazines and books of the mid-20th century and, ultimately, the “non-fiction crime novel” inaugurated by the publication of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1965). Perhaps most telling about American popular culture and its literary fascination with violence is the extent to which race and slavery have provided a distinct context for exploring its dimensions. From Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) to Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (1936) and Kyle Onstott’s Mandingo (1957), the depth of human cruelty and depravity have been portrayed in increasingly tortuous detail. However, few (if any) literary works more completely brought the history of slavery and racial violence into America’s consciousness than the 1976 publication of Alex Haley’s Roots: The Saga of an American Family and the airing of a television mini-series based on it the following year. While violence is expressed in many different ways in this country and around the world, the “peculiar institution” of slavery and the racism it embodied and propelled throughout American history have offered unique insight into its nature and causes.
As Erica Ball (2016) recently observed, popular music also has been shaped by the violence of racism and the social institutions which suborn it: “… it was the figure of the enslaved man (represented by a white actor in blackface) that was both inspiration for and mainstay of the minstrel show – the first and most popular form of mass culture in the nineteenth-century United States.” However, it was the emergence of hip-hop culture in the 1970’s and subsequent rise of “gangsta rap” in the decades that followed that vividly propelled an especially violent depiction of the urban Black experience – grounded in “misogyny, homophobia, and the glorification of gangs, drugs, and senseless violence” (Cosimini). No doubt, any number of artists appropriated these stereotypes and infused them with gratuitous violence. And, in no small measure, they fed the longstanding racism imbedded in American society. However, too often neglected by those who decry “gangsta rap” is the extent to which it accurately captures the anger, hopelessness and alienation of a significant number of Black youth and its ability to rally them in opposition to various forms of institutional racism, including police brutality.
Although movies and television offer a uniquely broad palate for the exploration of violence in American culture, race remains a ubiquitous subtext. From D. W. Griffith’s profoundly bigoted film, The Birth of a Nation (1915), to the cinematic adaptation of Gone with the Wind (1940), the Blaxploitation films of the 1970’s and Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman in 2018, race has been used as a vehicle to intensify the perception and experience of violence, especially among white Americans. While sanitized, television also has regularly set violence in the context of a single dimension of urban Black life – the cocaine dealer, the pimp, the enforcer. Hill Street Blues, Law & Order and Blue Bloods all perpetuated these stereotypes. Regardless of other 20th century cinematic and video portrayals of violence in which race was not the dominant theme (e.g., the films High Noon and The French Connection and the television series E.R. and Chicago Fire), violence and race remain inextricably linked in the visual media we consume.
The proliferation of video games and the extent to which they have become imbedded in American culture is a relatively recent development. Nevertheless, their influence has been profound. In their book, Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill: A Call to Action Against TV, Movie & Video Game Violence, Dave Grossman and Gloria DeGaetano (2014) reported that 97% of children ages 12-17 and 90% of those 8-16 play video games – 89% of which are violent. And as a $14.2 billion a year industry in the United States alone, there seems to be little economic incentive to restrain it. Furthermore, these games engage three immutable dimensions of the psychological development of young people: the increasing need for personal autonomy; the challenge of achieving competence and mastery over situations; and the desire for relatedness and meaningful relationships with others (Rigby and Ryan).
That images of violence are deeply imbedded in the private and public lives of Americans is clear. From daily encounters with the evening news – “If it bleeds, it leads” – to the sports we watch, violence is ubiquitous. The larger question, however, is the extent to which this violence impacts human behavior, especially that of children whose psyche, sense of self and world view are not fully formed.
In perhaps the most powerful indictment of the effects of media violence, six prominent national medical organizations issued a joint statement in 2000 which concluded, “At this time, well over 1,000 studies … point overwhelmingly to a causal connection between media violence and aggressive behavior in some children” (Cited in Grossman and DeGaetano). And, the more accessible the medium, it would appear the greater the likelihood of an adverse impact. Thus, for example, while a number of studies point to aggressive behavior evidenced in response to various literary and musical genres, they are less convincing than those which have consistently documented the negative consequences of violent television, movies and video games, which include: (1) increased aggression; (2) increased fear; (3) desensitization to real-life and screen violence; and (4) increased appetite for violence (Grossman and DeGaetano). Although none of these studies rightly claims a causal relationship between media violence and acts by specific individuals and groups, the correlation between them cannot be ignored.
To be sure, the various forms of media are only single sources of the collective sense of violence in American society. The actual experience of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, as well as domestic abuse and anonymous criminal victimization provide even more vivid and personal portraits of it and its effects. And while the purpose of this discussion is not a comprehensive review of all the many ways in which violence intrudes on our lives and shapes our behavior, it hopefully serves to surface serious questions for the church and people of faith to consider.
The Rt. Rev. George Wayne Smith,
10th Bishop of Missouri (Retired)
Do you believe American culture is significantly shaped by violence? If so, how is your perspective informed by actual incidents of violence (which have markedly declined in recent decades) or its fictional depiction in various forms of popular media? If not, what are the prevailing forces that continue to mold our national identity?
Do you enjoy violent literature, music, films, television and video games? If so, why? If not, why not?
What depictions of violence especially trouble you? Why?
How might the church and people of faith respond to the violence portrayed in popular culture, as well as the reality of actual violence?
THE REV. ANNE KELSEY
Here in North America, many of us hang various kinds of wreaths on our doors during Christmastide. Traditionally, they are formed with pine branches or greens and decorated with holly or pine cones. But, I had never imagined that one could be made of shotgun shells until we arrived at the door of a home where we had been invited to a Christmas party. The host was an avid hunter, and the wreath was a gift from a friend. Depending on your point of view and circumstances, it can certainly be interpreted in many different ways.
COLLECT FOR THE HUMAN FAMILY
O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer).
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Cosimini, S. “AmeriKKKa’s Human Sacrifice: Blackness, Gansta Rap, and Authentic Villainy” in Violence in American Popular Culture: Volume 2 (Schmid, D., Ed.). Santa Barbara, California: Praeger, 2016.
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Sharkey, P. Uneasy Peace: The Great Crime Decline, the Renewal of City life, and the Next War on Violence. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018.
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