The curious among us have assuredly asked: what is violence? Is it an obvious thing requiring no deep thinking to define it? Or is it more complex than that — more like an ideology marked by intractable worldviews, group histories, differing perspectives or the source of disparate social and political hierachies?
Some argue that violence is embedded in our DNA. Others contend its a learned behavior. The political philosopher, Reinhold Niebuhr, in his classic text, Moral Man and Immoral Society, has said that the quest humans have for elite status motivates violent propensities, contending also that: “The moral attitudes of dominant and privileged groups are characterized by universal self-deception and hypocrisy.”
The answer to the enduring problem of violence may be that it is not the result of just one cause; it is not the product of a singular foundation.
Violence can — and does — exist in the physical realm. It occurs when inappropriate force is placed upon a person or a thing. This type of violence is often grounded in some form of hatred that is rooted in personal or group dissonance. Rape is a form of violence. So is shooting someone with a gun in the middle of 5th Avenue in New York City. We all denounce violence on our nation’s playgrounds, when the local bully subjects another child to the unprovoked and cruel fate of a bloody nose.
But violence also has its ephemeral — or spiritual — forms. It can be reflected through words, policies and symbols that negate human flourishing or the abilities for individuals to achieve conditions of spiritual wholeness, a roundness of mind, body and spirit.
Over the past few years, I ve been thinking about the nature of spiritual violence in Boston as it relates to enduring racism in the city. Spiritual violence is found most clearly in those actions that individuals, groups or civic institutions do and say to those whom they perpetrate violence upon. Those individuals, groups or institutions shape the intensity of violence with words and symbols. The perpetrators of spiritual violence consciously, and sometimes unconsciously reduce the capacity of others.
Such is the case with Faneuil Hall in Boston, a three-century old iconic building bequeath to the city — even before the nation was conceived as the United States. Faneuil Hall was named after Peter Faneuil, who was an inveterate white supremacist and who owned and actively sold African slaves. Upon his death, at 42, Faneuil left in his will instruction to have his slaves given to family members. It was his personal commitment to the practice of human bondage.
As the Black Lives Matters Movement continues its roll forward, activists across the nation have been confronting the spiritual nature of racism through interrogating the meaning of monuments stand prominently in civic spaces, and are querying who we have name our streets and schools after as it relates to racial violence. In recent years, universities such as Princeton, Georgetown and Harvard have been evaluating how symbolic representations in our society matter. This debate has been at the center of numerous public discussions now roiling across the nation. Its why there is a push to rename Mt. Rainer to Mt. Tacoma in Washington state as homage to indigenous people. It is why voters in Rhode Island in November decided to strip the word plantation from its official state name.
Spiritual violence is found most clearly in those actions that individuals, groups or civic institutions do and say to those whom they perpetrate violence upon. Those individuals, groups or institutions shape the intensity of violence with words and symbols.
This accounts for why Americans are increasingly understanding the nature of white supremacy as in grounded in spiritual violence, and as a willing interest in subjugating the identity of people groups in order to exalt themselves as superior. It is also a reason why Americans are realizing that spiritual violence is incompatible with forging a true multi-racial democracy where the rights of all people groups are respected within the long narrative of our nation.
In her stunning book, These Truths, Jill Lepore, the Harvard historian, updated what Howard Zinn, a Boston University professor, had done a generation before in his book A Peoples History of the United States. Lepore and Zinn outline American history as possessing distinct themes of racial and gender violence across its history. The summation of American history is coded with symbolic or spiritual violence of epic proportions, they both might contend.
For these reasons, it is important that we confront our history through addressing spiritual violence in the form of changing the name of Faneuil Hall. It is among the few pathway forward toward racial reconciliation and making our democracy new.