Gangs, Empires, and the Cycle of Violence Gangsters are everywhere.

In different times and places, they steal different things, fight for different causes, and go by different names. We call them thugs, bandits, Zealots, gangbangers, insurrectionists, insurgents, mobsters, warlords, terrorists, or just plain criminals. Gangsters are people who for one purpose or another have decided that they can get ahead by holding people up, and they’ve been around since the beginning of time. Almost daily on the news and in our movies and music, we are confronted with images of ambush and bloodshed. We see a smoldering car in what had been a crowded marketplace. We see the aftermath of a roadside bomb or insurgent attack. We see a terrorized family recounting the horrors of a home invasion. We see amputees in West Africa, victimized by bandits seeking diamonds and political power. Or another video emerges from the world’s most notorious gangsta, Osama bin Laden. Many parents, both in our cities and in suburbs and rural communities, live in daily fear that their kids will become victimized by violence, or even worse, sucked into violence themselves. One mom and dad in the Bible shared this worry. In Proverbs 1:19, they warn us that those who seek profit by violence will themselves fall victim to violence. “Such are the ways of everyone who pursues profit by violence; it takes away the life of its possessors.” Or, those who cap, get capped. Watch Out for Gangs I can imagine these words coming from the lips of any inner-city single mom. They describe in poetic imagery the powerful pull violence has on kids. For teenagers who see no future for themselves in the regular track of study and hard work, who are angry about their poverty, evious of the wealth they see around them, and needy for the group identity they never found at home, the lure of gangs is often too strong. In 1999, the Surgeon General released the results of a massive study into youth violence. It identified several factors that often lead to youth violence, such as poverty and broken homes. Society needs to do everything in its power to aleviate these problems. However, the same study also found that even when these factors are present, kids who have “an intolerant attitude toward deviance” are much less likely to fall into violence. How kids think has a significant impact on how they behave in whatever environment. Kids desperately need to hear the second half of the mom and dad’s warning in Proverbs 1, “Even though the temptations are strong, don’t give in to gangs!” If you walk in the street with gangsters, you’re going to go where they go and do what they do, and in the end they will hurry you to your grave. Watch Out for Empires Later in the Old Testament, the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel and Habakkuk borrow from Proverbs’ language about “profit taken by violence.” Everywhere this phrase is used outside of Proverbs 1, it clearly refers to either Israel’s ruling princes or the violent

2 Babylonian Empire. These passages, and maybe even Proverbs 1 too, were originally written primarily for rich kids, Israel’s princes and future generals, who would be tempted to use their strength to build little empires for themselves. Beethoven’s Third Symphony was originally named for and written in celebration of Napoleon Bonaparte. Beethoven admired Napoleon for his military brilliance and his enlightened, though dictatorial, rule of France, which ended years of violence following the French Revolution. Beethoven hoped that Napoleon’s military strength would help spread the principles of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution to Germany. In 1803, after finishing his symphony, Beethoven learned that his hero had just crowned himself Emperor of France. In rage he tore Napoleon’s name off the manuscript, but Beethoven’s disillusionment couldn’t stop the bloody decade that followed. Napoleon dreamed of a united Europe ruled by the enlightened principles of the French Revolution; this utopian vision joined with his immense pride and insatiable greed to destroy six million Europeans. Beyond the foolishness of any inner-city gangbanger, Napoleon made the irrational calculation that war was in his and the world’s best interest. Somehow he thought that humanity as a whole would profit by the violence of his empire. In the two hundred years since Beethoven and Napoleon, utopian visions and insatiable greed have led to hundreds of pointless, violent wars. Land and property has been stolen and blood has been shed all because one empire or another imagined that the world as a whole would be a better place if only they were in control. Philosophers of history from Hegel to Marx to Sartre, to Fukuyama, have taught us that violence is what drives human progress forward. If only they had listened to their mothers! If you think that you can extend your empire by ambushing the innocent, don’t you know that you are only ambushing yourselves? If you think that you can profit by violence, that very profit will take away your life. We are living in the strongest and most influential empire of our day. Some of our leaders have called our military the “greatest force for freedom the world has ever known.” This can’t be true, not if Proverbs is right, not if wisdom teaches that violence can’t get you ahead in life. In warning us against gangs and empires, the wise parents of Proverbs 1 recognized a fundamental principle about how the world works, a law of history that too many philosophers miss and so many of our youth need to learn: violence begets violence. Violence always leads to more violence. War isn’t the Mack Truck of history racing forward; war is history spinning its wheels in the mud. Watch Out for the Cycle of Violence Consider Genesis 9:6, a verse often used to justify the death penalty: “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed.” The content of this verse, as well as its poetic structure, make it sound a lot like Proverbs 1.19: “Such are the ways of everyone who pursues profit by violence; it takes away the life of its possessors.” It means that

3 God himself will punish violence by making sure that throughout human history, violence will lead to more violence. Wise parents can say, “Such are the ways of everyone who pursues profit by violence; it takes away the life of its possessors,” because God himself has said beforehand, “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed.” Some of you might be thinking right now, “What kind of cruel God would condemn the world to a vicious cycle of violence?” But God doesn’t want humanity to stay stuck in this cycle. He has told us that violence begets violence because he wants us to profit by wisdom, not by hurting others. You might not believe me, but the single most important thing that Jesus tried to convince people not to do had nothing to do with sex or drugs or rock and roll; but it had everything to do with violence. In Matthew 26:52, Jesus says something that sounds a lot like Proverbs 1:19 and Genesis 9:6: “Those who draw the sword shall perish by the sword.” Today we might say, “Those who draw the gun shall perish by the gun,” or more colloquially, “Those who cap get capped.” Jesus gave his poor fellow countrymen the same warning the wise parents of Proverbs 1 gave their son. He said that if you seek profit by violence—even if that profit is something good like liberation or salvation—if you seek profit by violence, you will fall victim to violence yourself. As a messiah who came not to kill but to die and rise from the dead, Jesus broke the vicious cycle of human violence. The New Testament teaches that Jesus was God himself, in the flesh. While he hung on the cross, God turned against himself the violence that human violence deserves. When Jesus rose that first Easter morning, he proved that God’s love and grace, rather than violence, would have the last word in history. Jesus died and rose to take away the little gangbanger, the little imperialist that lives inside each one of us. There is a biblical ground for limited violent force when legitimate governments enforce civil justice within their proper spheres of authority. However, violence is never a legitimate means of gaining or expanding our political power and influence, and it is never the right way to fight our way out of poverty. Our lives are not condemned to endless cycles of violence. We’re not condemned to life as a gangster or imperialist. We’re not condemned to placing our hopes in violence to liberate us from cycles of violence. There’s another way to look at history than as a story written by warlords and crusading militaries. Those who shed men’s blood, by men shall their blood be shed. Those who profit by violence will fall victim to violence. Those who draw the sword will perish by the sword. Those who cap get capped. But the cycle can be broken.

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