One in mission | Linda Valentine
‘Under the radar’ violence
Tough questions and a holistic approach can help the church transform society
Highland Presbyterian Church, which I joined shortly after moving to Louisville, regularly welcomes a variety of outstanding guest preachers both from within and outside the community.
One memorable speaker was Susan Ellison, a church member who is currently a doctoral student in sociocultural anthropology at Brown University. Her sermon two years ago during the Christmas season powerfully and poignantly illustrated the concept of structural violence. Susan and many others believe that addressing structural violence—a term attributed to the Norwegian sociologist Johan Galtung—is an important way for Presbyterians to think about, pray about and act to transform violence more broadly.
“The concept is a way to get us to think beyond the most visible, overt forms of violence and engage the less visible and more pernicious forms of violence that people experience on a daily basis,” Susan explains. “Structural violence tries to get people to trace the historical roots of social, economic and political inequality in the world and to ask the tough questions about less obvious forms of violence that often go under the radar.”
Preaching on Herod’s slaughter of the innocents in Matthew’s Gospel, Susan drew an alarming contemporary parallel from her four years of experience as a mission co-worker in Bolivia with the Joining Hands initiative of the Presbyterian Hunger Program.
In Matthew’s account, Herod—fearing for his reign—ordered all the infant boys in the area around Bethlehem killed, prompting Matthew to quote the ancient prophet Jeremiah, “A voice was heard in Ramah, . . . Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they were no more.”
In Bolivia—as in other countries in the developing world—innocents are also dying. In her sermon, Susan cited unsettling statistics from the United Nations Development Program, which estimates that worldwide 15 million children die each year from diseases related to contaminated water.
“Most of these deaths are avoidable,” Susan said in a later conversation, “but too often the kinds of social and economic changes that are required to address them are politically unpopular, because they demand more from us than mere charity.”
Susan cites the Joining Hands initiative as one example of the ways that Presbyterians are confronting structural violence. Joining Hands organizes with marginalized people in both the Northern and Southern hemispheres to “ask questions, to take the time to really listen and from that build campaigns to help Presbyterians to be part of the solution.” Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) is another example. Both initiatives meet people’s immediate needs in addition to thinking more long term.
“PDA doesn’t just swoop in and rebuild following a disaster,” Susan says. “They also ask important ‘why’ questions. Following the earthquake in Haiti, PDA examined the devastation and didn’t just say that lives were shattered and buildings destroyed. They also traced the historical roots of Haiti’s social, economic and political inequality and asked questions like why those buildings were in such poor shape in the first place.”
Susan knows that using such an approach can be hard and uncomfortable, and the progress slow. “Presbyterians often feel a powerful impulse to help,” she says. “This approach is not saying to stop doing hands-on projects but rather to see them all as part of a bigger effort.”
We pray regularly to God that “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it in heaven.” We are called, therefore, not only to alleviate the consequences of poverty and violence but also to address their root causes.
Quoting slain Salvadoran archbishop Oscar Romero, Susan says, “We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.”