Romney and Obama Agree: Peace and a Culture of Violence
We’re going to hunt down those who committed this crime. – Barack Obama
The definitive renunciation of violence, without any second thoughts, will become for us the condition … for the survival of humanity itself and for each one of us. – René Girard, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, 137.
Mitt Romney and Barack Obama will duke it out in another debate tonight, this time on foreign policy. Each candidate will attempt to make distinctions between his foreign policy and his opponent’s, and each will accuse the other of being a threat to our national security. Each will claim that his foreign policy is uniquely capable of make the world more peaceful. But don’t be fooled by their claims to be distinct or their claims to peace. The fact is that both Romney and Obama fundamentally agree on foreign policy. And, tragically, they are both a threat to our national security.
Mitt Romney used a phrase in last week’s presidential debate that is central to our pursuit peace both in the United States and in the world. That phrase was “culture of violence.” Romney and Obama, along with the vast majority of Americans, agree that we have to “change the culture of violence that we have.” The goal, of course, is to change our culture of violence into its opposite – a culture of peace. But there is a crucial component to making this change that neither candidate will debate tonight: Our methods for changing our culture of violence.
There are primarily two methods that people use to change a culture of violence into a culture of peace. Romney and Obama believe in the same method – there is no distinction between them. They believe that to change a culture of violence into a culture of peace we must use violence. Paul Ryan summed up this belief during the Vice Presidential debate when he said, “Look. Do we believe in peace through strength? You bet we do.” The “strength” Ryan was referring to was strength in military violence. Obama agrees with Romney and Ryan, and he continues to remind us about his violent strength in hunting down our enemies.
If using violent methods with the hope of changing a culture of violence seems like an absurd contradiction to you, that’s because it is. As the anthropologist René Girard has warned, violence is supremely imitative. This is why Romney and Obama are threats to our own national security. Violence as a means to achieve peace will only lead to cycles of violence with our enemies. And we will each commit acts of violence in the name of peace. Humans, whether on a national or individual level, always think that the “other” is the violent aggressor who made the first blow and that peace can only be achieved if we rid ourselves of our enemies. “No one ever feels they are the aggressor,” Girard stated, “people always have the impression that the other is the first to attack” (Battling to the End, 18).
Adding to the problem of a foreign policy that is based on peace through violence is our violence at home. Violence is interconnected. Our violent foreign policy infects our national identity with violence. The belief that violence can defeat a culture of violence has infected our nation. We are taught that if someone uses verbal, physical, or emotional violence against you, peace requires that you use violence in return. We are thus infected by a culture of violence on a national and global scale. The infection of violence will continue to have disastrous consequences unless we find alternatives. Girard warns that the imitative “character of violence is so intense that once violence is installed in a community, it cannot burn itself out” (Violence and the Sacred, 81). Violence cannot burn itself out, and so everyone near violence will get burned. Unfortunately, neither presidential candidate is serious about offering an alternative means to peace. Until they do, we will all continue to get burned.
Fortunately, there are alternative means to peace. Ryan is correct that peace will come through strength, but it will never come through a violent strength. True peace requires the strength to renounce all forms of violence. We must have the courage to become anti-violent – not in a way that leads us violently over and against others we think are violent. Rather, we need to become anti-violent in a way that fosters a new identity within ourselves, within our communities, and within our world. This new identity has the courage to recognize that the only way to transform cultures of violence into cultures of peace is to use peaceful means. This new identity doesn’t seek to hunt our violent enemies down. Instead, it takes responsibility for our own violence and seeks to change our ways of violence into ways of peace. Many will accuse the “peaceful means” method as a sign weakness. That accusation is false. Confronting violence with imaginative forms of nonviolence takes great courage and strength. And it’s the only hope for our future. We are coming to a crossroads in human history – the point where violence will burn us all in a hell of our own making if we don’t find alternative, peaceful means of creating cultures of peace. Those alternatives involve forgiveness, reconciliation, and love.
But, tonight you won’t hear our presidential candidates inspiring us to create peace through peaceful means. Tragically, our candidates are enslaved to a culture of violence that attempts to use violence to create peace. It’s time we offered a different vision – the vision of peace through the strength of peaceful means.