No Innocent Use of Violence

“Peace?  I hate the word, as I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee!”

– Tybalt, Romeo & Juliet, by William Shakespeare.

I’ve spent the last couple of months trying to find something to believe in, so to speak, writing-wise.  It struck me so hard that not only was there a problem with the ultimately nihilistic take-away message of Blood for Blood but with its casual acceptance of violence.

One thing I took (and still take) pride in was Blood for Blood’s very human portrayal of vampires, their complex society, the steps they’ve taken to tame their violent urges, and the costs they’ve paid for that.  The flip side of this is that killing them is morally no different than killing a human; they’re not the monsters of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, not subhuman or demonic.

Something I learned from reading Laurel K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake stories was that you can always write a character into a situation where brutality, even torture (or whatever else you feel like writing), is the “only way out” or “the right thing to do.”  Inside a book or story, the writer is, effectively, a god, and holds a god’s responsibility for the situations his or her characters find themselves in.

So, no, I won’t fall back on the tired excuse that Benedict’s use of violence was necessary in the situations I put him in.  From his perspective it was … but I wrote him into those situations, and so the word “necessary” hardly applies to me.

Miroslav Volf said, “One could sketch scenarios where I very clearly wouldn’t think that it would be morally responsible not to deploy violence. Nonetheless, repentance for violence would be in order even in those situations; in my view there is no innocent use of violence.

My friend Billy said much the same thing some time earlier (we were talking about World War II and personal self-defense), but I wasn’t ready to hear it then.  Sorry, Billy.  You were right.

To clarify, I’m not a pacifist, and I even worry about parents who are totally nonviolent.  Adults can consent to a friend or lover or spouse who won’t lift a hand to defend them, but children can’t.  I mean, I respect their conviction, but I do worry about the unintended consequences.

And I don’t believe it’s right to call yourself a pacifist and then dial 911 so the police will protect you.  That’s just passing the buck to someone else.  If you’re unwilling to fight to defend yourself, then fine, but don’t ask someone else to do it for you, and then call yourself non-violent.

No, I’m not saying you shouldn’t call 911 in a violent situation; you should.  But if you do, you should own up to the fact that you’ve just responded to violence (the assailant) with violence (the police and their guns).  A bullet wound bleeds just the same if it was a cop or a civilian’s finger that pulled the trigger.

And if you do have to defend yourself, I believe in using the most effective means available to you.  For me, in the US, that means firearms … but I pray that I never have to so much as point one at another human being, much less pull the trigger.

I don’t believe in letting violent aggressors have their way, to let Genghis Khan kill his 40 million, in the name of nonviolence.  Are we really to be so Kantian that the consequences of our action and inaction don’t matter, so long as our means are pure?  Surely not.  Just as the ends don’t justify the means, neither do the means justify the ends.  We are responsible for our actions and inactions and their consequences.

But I don’t believe in looking for trouble, either.

I don’t believe in using verbal violence and expecting the situation not to escalate to physical violence.  If you want to have peace, you must speak peacefully.

I also don’t believe in going into dangerous situations unnecessarily.  I keep away from places where I’m likely to fall into violence – you can call this personal security, cowardice, or peacefulness if you like: perhaps it’s a bit of all three.

Oh, yeah, I don’t believe in shooting someone over property, either, whether you’re a homeowner or a government.  My TV is not worth killing over.  Nobody’s is, even if it’s 52 inches.

So why was I so fast to write, and effectively, glorify a character who hunts and kills people (vampires, but people-vampires, not rabid beast-vampires) as a vocation?  Looking back, I can think of   reasons:

  • I accepted the cultural acceptance and glorification of “good guy” violence.  It’s there in American, Japanese, Hong Kong/Chinese, and at least some European media (media being the main cultural transmission means), and I pretty much grew up surrounded by it.  Kurt Willems has a great series on nonviolence.  Part 7 addresses “The Myth of Redemptive Violence.”
  •  When my Granddaddy, a World War II veteran, was still alive, I didn’t read the subtext in his conversations about the war.  I knew he only told stories about supply runs and flight-testing repaired airplanes, and virtually none about his combat sorties (and those only in the vaguest terms, as compared to the vivid detail of his other stories).  It never penetrated my soul that the reason he didn’t talk about the combat missions were because they were the worst thing that he’d ever experienced, even though he’d volunteered for the Army Air Corps and volunteered for the combat missions after he’d been in the Air Corps for over two years.  I completely missed the point.
  • As I’ve mentioned before, I really wasn’t paying much attention when I wrote Blood for Blood.  I was just so glad to be writing that I planned a basic Algis Budrys-style 7-point story outline for each section and bulldozed ahead.  There is a lot of good stuff in there, but I was pretty much driving blind.  “Without a vision, the people perish,” as King Solomon said … or, as my friend Nathan says, you have to have intentionality if you want to make something good.

Don’t get me wrong: I like adventure stories.  I like action.  But as my friend Nathan said, “there’s a difference between action and violence.”  It’s always easier to put them both together, but easy isn’t necessarily good.

Stumble Inn

Looking back on how Blood for Blood went sideways, I am struck by the fact that it ended up with a nihilistic “message” because I had no clear, overall vision in mind when I started writing it.

What a shock!  You mean how something begins affects how it ends?  Who’d have known?

Seriously, though, I found that I stumbled into a nihilistic worldview by not having a clear vision for the novel as a whole when I started.  I was just so glad to be writing something that I didn’t exercise any intentionality when creating the work.

And it occurs to me that I live my life that way, too, sometimes.  I get going, doing my job, doing the work for my classes, hanging out with my wife and friends, going to church on Sunday (and sometimes on Wednesday), writing my aimless fiction, paying my taxes, living respectably … and utterly selfishly.

I never meant to be the kind of person who’s only worth a damn to his friends and family (okay, students and coworkers, too), whose goodness is measured primarily through not causing disruptions or unpleasantness for those around him.  Sure, I’d give a dollar or two to homeless people when they asked, but if I could make it across the parking lot before they got within earshot, I would.

As humans, we are, by nature, selfish creatures.  The vast majority of our time, thought, and energy, by default, turn towards meeting our own needs and avoiding pain and loss.  We are, to borrow a concept from Henri Nouwen, addicted to ourselves.

Without an intentional vision, Blood for Blood stumbled into a nihilistic, even cruel ‘message.’

Without an intentional vision of how to live beyond the four walls of my life, I stumble back into the small circles of my consciousness, myself, my closest friends and family, and the rest of the world fades to gray.

So I’ve started to move beyond this a little bit.  My wife and I volunteered at a local charity that does Angel Food Co-op distributions (and we’re on their list to contact every month to help) and we’ve started making Kiva microloans every month.  These are small things, baby steps, hardly Mother Theresa stuff, but I believe small, systematic changes can add up over time, both in changing myself and helping other people.

As far as writing goes, I’ve written a lot of what could best be described as journal entries, essays to self, or pensees.  They’re not really worth publishing at this point, even on a blog. Every time I sit down to write fiction, I freeze, which sucks.

I think I’m going through a bit of a paradigm shift, personally (a needed one), and I’m trying on my new ways of being.  I may not be able to write fiction until I settle back into my skin.  But I have confidence that I will get started again, and this time, I won’t let myself stumble into writing something that so diametrically opposes everything I actually believe.  And I’ll be writing from a slightly different perspective, one that is, I think, more mature, thoughtful, and empathetic.

And I, for one, am looking forward to it.