As an active participant in popular culture, I am constantly barraged by violent images. From “humorous” cartoon fights to domestic abuse, violence pervades popular culture and sparks heated religious debates about spectatorship and the effects of pop culture on our physical, spiritual, and emotional well being. Far from avoiding popular culture or justifying it on the other hand, what takes place is, perhaps, a process of negotiation by which I place my religious or theological beliefs in conversation (critical) with the images that often contradict these beliefs. Moreover, I must also reckon with real-life violence in domestic and foreign relations that inspires or mirrors virtual violence. Beyond all this, I have to negotiate images of violence in my Christian faith. In scripture, I encounter a God that is at one and the same time brutal and gentle, forgiving yet destructive.Needless to say, I was eager to read and review Cheryl A. Kirk-Duggan’s Violence and Theology. However, in the introduction to this extended essay, she quickly dispels any hopes I had for “how to” advice on reconciling my participation in a violent popular culture with my religious beliefs. In her analysis of violence in the Bible, she writes, “[…We] cannot begin to grasp violence in the Bible without asking a lot of questions” (25). She rightly claims that after her sketches, we will be left with more questions than answers. Despite a plethora of unanswered questions that remain after reading Kirk-Duggan’s text, we can still walk away feeling as if we have begun an important journey of understanding and critique.
Kirk-Duggan begins by defining the scope of violence so that we may better understand it in order to counter it. She writes, “Violence is so present that we often do not see it, for we have become immune” (viii). Thus, one of her main goals in writing this book is to invite her audience to “become more cognizant of the many interactions of violence in [their] lives, with the hope that awareness can lead to acceptance of the reality of this violence and action on [their] part to help transform the violence” (xi). She is driven by two questions: “What is violence? What is the connection between violence and theology” (viii). To answer these, she undertakes three critical tasks: (1) the exploration of the dynamics of violence from a critical, Womanist perspective; (2) a theological reflection on both religious and secular narratives that “privilege violence;” and (3) an analysis of systematic theological categories that involve violence (xi).
In the first chapter, Kirk-Duggan loads her text with statistics of violence around the world. These are staggering indeed. She defines the scope of violence so that we may better understand it in order to counter it. Kirk-Duggan understands and critiques violence from a Womanist perspective which, she argues, is most effective given its emphasis on “societal and personal injustices and oppressions that affect those who usually matter least in society, as symbolized by poor Black women” (21). She asks, “What is violence” (2). She responds, “Violence is that which harms,” and then proceeds to outline its complexity: blatant and subtle, individual and communal, relational (affecting our entire being), with intended and unintended consequences, ubiquitous (we all participate), and often self-imposed (2-3). She then outlines several explicit forms of violence: terror and terrorism, natural disasters, racism, sexism, war and colonialism, and classism (8-19). She does not contribute anything new to the discussion of racism, classism, sexism, etc., yet she does show just how effectively and deeply they bore into and influence social structures. She concludes by briefly reflecting on the antithesis of violence: justice. Like the forms of violence it is to encounter, justice comes in many forms through which to work transformation.
When Kirk-Duggan’s text moves to an analysis of Biblical violence, we find little in the way of unique contributions to Biblical exegesis. Her Womanist reading of Scripture only briefly emerges in a few places. However, she does do a great service by reminding us of the violence that fills scripture and encouraging us to take it seriously. On the other hand, she thankfully adds, “The seriousness of this work (biblical exegesis) calls for a sense of the comedic that reminds us not to take ourselves so seriously that we fail to grow and to respect other ways of seeing” (26). Unfortunately, I fear this might be lacking in certain Christian circles today. In the Old Testament, Kirk-Duggan looks at the violence that defined, in part, the covenant between God and Israel, recounting depictions of violence in Genesis, Exodus, and Judges. Her main focus on New Testament violence involves Jesus’ passion and crucifixion. She concludes these sketches, in part, by adding, “[…It] is important not to deny the violence or forget that the biblical sociohistorical, cultural context is different from our reality” (44).
In the third chapter, Kirk-Duggan reveals just how pervasive violence is in our cultural narratives. She briefly examines Othello, Hansel and Gretel, Tony Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, CSI, Silence of the Lambs, and the video game Grand Theft Auto for their uses of violence and their theological implications. These reflections seem hurried and the theological conclusions almost trite, given the severity of violence they portray. Thankfully, however, this chapter does serve as a wake-up call for us to pay closer attention to our cultural narratives. Kirk-Duggan argues, “Heightening our awareness to violence requires we become more mindful” (57). Though this question could apply to all cultural narratives, she specifically asks of CSI, “What do we learn theologically about ourselves and life through this dramatic series? We human beings have created copious ways to destroy each other, showing a distinct disregard for human life. The notion of humanity created in God’s image becomes irrelevant” (54).
In the fourth chapter, Kirk-Duggan enters a comfort zone, analyzing violence and systematic theology from a Womanist perspective. For her, soteriology and theodicy are the key components of systematic theology that have violent implications. Throughout this chapter, she outlines the history of various atonement theories from Anselm to Rauschenbusch and theodicy theories from Augustine to Kenneth Surin. She then turns to a Womanist perspective that highlights the shortcomings of these mostly male theologies. Turning to the work of Delores Williams and Karen Baker-Fletcher, Kirk-Duggan shows the diversity of Womanist theology that emphasizes the ministerial vision of Jesus Christ and the erroneous claims that God owed a debt to Satan that Jesus’ death fulfilled, respectively. She also references Black theologians like Martin Luther King Jr., Howard Thurman, and James Cone and the influence of African American spirituals on their theologies.
To conclude Violence and Theology, Kirk-Duggan offers a host of practical responses to stop the cycle of violence: we must become better students of history, geography, and culture; remain aware of current events; instill conflict resolution classes as early as elementary school; employ a more wholistic view of our lives; become more sensitive in reading Scripture; recognize white, male power at the expense of women and people of color; view everyone as created in the image of God (82-83). However, her most significant response might be in her understanding of scriptural interpretation. Kirk-Duggan claims that many modern Christologies emphasize violence and suffering rather than transformation. She adds, “Jesus does not say remember my death, he says remember me” (72). Our obsession with violence even influences our interaction with religious symbols. What, then, are we to make of the Christian obsession with the cross, a symbol of unthinkable violence? She provides one option: “[We must] recognize the historicity of Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection, while focusing on the dynamics of love and justice that Jesus taught” (73). Only then can we break the cycle of violence and transform individuals and communities.