Violence Unveiled, Humanity at the Crossroads by Gil Bailie (Crossroad, New York, 1995 ISBN 0-8245-1464-5) 288 pages, $24.95
One thing we all dread is an act of violence whether against our own person or someone we love. At the same time violence holds a fascination as is evident from what makes up much of our news reports. And a certain type of violence has become the theme of movies. They depict a hero (Schwarzeneger, Bronson, Stallone, etc.) who experiences such outrages that he is justified in taking the law in his own hands and bringing a wrongdoer to a violent end.
It is that last type of violence that Gil Bailie takes up in his book Violence Unveiled. He argues that identifying a victim who deserves a violent death brings about social cohesion. In fact he attempts to demonstrate that such acts are foundational to societies and even religions. It is a remarkable thesis and in that context he also discusses Christianity. He argues that Christianity is different from other religions in as much as its followers identify not with the executioners, but with the victim himself.
I was intrigued enough with Bailie's thesis to re-read his book. I have to admit that on second reading what impressed me most was not his over-all thesis (altho I am convinced he is on to something important) but his insights about envy which is often a prelude to violence. Envy of course is wanting what someone else has. In fact we often desire things simply because someone else possesses them. Baile uses the example of a child who has a bunch of toys. A second child picks up one of them. "That's mine," says the first. The toy which had been long ignored suddenly becomes valuable. This dynamic, which affects adults as well as children, is referred to as mimesis.
But Bailie does more that analyze our inclination toward envy; he describes how we have developed an entire politics of envy. It explains a lot of what has been going on not only in U.S. society, but in the Catholic Church. Let me get personal. When I was ordained in 1971, the priest was still seen as a gift to the Church, not an object of envy. Folks admired the priest and were grateful for the sacrifices he made on their behalf. But over the years there has been a growing envy by lay ministers of what they regard as the priest's special status and more recently by women because only men can be ordained.
This kind of envy has resulted from deep changes in our culture. Bailie, who as a professor knows the university scene very well, talks about how our society encourages young people to seek a victim status. That status pays economic, but most important social benefits. It seems to drive many people's lives. I have had conversations with young men who have "come to terms with" their homosexuality. They were seeking my sympathy and understanding, but also some kind of moral acceptance from me as a priest. In seeking that acceptance, their victim status served as a kind of lever. I am not saying they are insincere, but as healthy white middle-class males they otherwise would not have qualified as victims.
Violence Unveiled provides a framework for understanding why the victim has such a powerful place in our society as well as the explosive force of his (or her) envy. Baile also shows a way out. I don't think it would spoil the plot if I hint that what he offers is a new way of identifying with the Crucified One. This is a book worth reading and re-reading.
Thinking About Violence In Our Schools by Barry Kort, Ph.D.
Homily on Envy
Envy and the question of Women Priests
Hitler's Pope: Comic Book Approach to Church History