Violence is a hot topic these days. But one aspect doesn’t get discussed much. It’s an aspect of violence that can affect us no matter where we live—from the inner city to the countryside. We are all exposed to violence through the media, and that exposure promotes dangerous attitudes that can harm us whether or not we are ever physically exposed to violence itself.
Can’t you almost hear your mother’s voice? You were playing too rough, or in a dangerous place, and you heard the warning from the doorway: “Somebody’s going to get hurt!”
Now you look around and see a world that seems to be filled with violence. People are getting hurt, and you don’t want to be one of them. But how do you avoid it? When you were sword fighting with sharp sticks, or walking the edge of the garage roof, it was easy to avoid the danger. You just stopped what you were doing. But now, it seems as if danger can seek you out. You may even feel threatened, knowing that there are people in the world who do bad things to other people.
The obvious threat is physical. Face it, violence hurts. We have these physical bodies that can suffer injury and pain—even death. And we want to avoid those things—and the bullies and gangsters and muggers, etc., who might hurt us.
But there is also a hidden danger. It comes from the fact that we are also spirits. And there are ways in which violence can injure us spiritually. To understand why, we need to take a quick look at history.
When Cain killed Abel, it was the first recorded act of violence in human history (see Moses 5:13–33). And Cain didn’t do it only because he was impulsive, or because he was jealous. Cain loved Satan more than God (Moses 5:28), and when Satan tempted him to kill, he did (Moses 5:29, 32).
As time went on, the scriptures tell us, “Satan had great dominion among men, and raged in their hearts; and from thenceforth came wars and bloodshed” (Moses 6:15).
Finally, when the Lord spoke to Noah just before the flood, He said, “The end of all flesh is come before me; for the earth is filled with violence” (Gen. 6:13; italics added). The Lord seems to use that one word to sum up all of the wickedness. In fact, throughout scripture, the word violence is associated with wickedness.
So, violence can harm us spiritually because it is essentially Satan’s tool. It is the opposite of the Savior’s gospel of peace.
Now, because violence is so obviously wrong, Satan doesn’t have much chance of getting most people to go around killing and maiming. That’s why you could argue—and maybe you have—that seeing violence in movies isn’t going to make you take a gun and go on a rampage.
But suppose Satan could persuade you to believe lies and myths about violence. Suppose he could make violence seem even more common than it is. And suppose he could portray it vividly in books and on the screen so that you become desensitized. What if he could bend your attitudes so you might react in the wrong way in a pressure situation, where you don’t have time to think things over? Then suppose Satan could tempt you to get into one of those situations.
In fact, those are precisely some of the myths and methods he uses. Have you been affected? Let’s look at some of those dangerous myths about violence. Then you can decide for yourself.
We need to be absolutely clear that there is such a thing as justified self-defense. You have the right to protect yourself against physical harm if you are attacked. You have a right to use physical force to protect virtue, family, freedom. But—
One of the lessons we learn from men like Nephi, Moroni, and Mormon is that the righteous only fight as a last resort. They do it reluctantly and never enjoy fighting. (See Alma 46:11, for example.) That great fighter Ammon? The Nephites urged him, “Let us take up arms against [the Lamanites] that we destroy them and their iniquity out of the land, lest they overrun us and destroy us” (Alma 26:25). In other words, “Hey, enough’s enough. Let’s get ’em before they attack us again.” But what did Ammon do instead? He went on a mission to the Lamanites. He preached the gospel, while the Lamanites spit on him, and stoned him, and threw him in prison.
One of the biggest myths about violence is that “good guys” can use violence against the bad guys casually, with no regrets. This myth is taught in every action adventure movie on the screen today. The hero—let’s call him Arnie Sly—blows away one bad guy after another, steps over the bodies, and goes to lunch as though nothing had happened.
The truth is this: Even police officers who have had to kill a criminal in the line of duty may struggle with their feelings afterward. According to Sergeant Jim Faraone, a 20-year veteran with the Salt Lake City Police Department, “It is hard on a person emotionally.” In fact, he says, “we’d be concerned if it didn’t affect them. They are going to see it again in their sleep, and play it over and over again [in their mind]. I think many officers probably put themselves in greater jeopardy, realizing the finality of letting a bullet go. It could not be a casual thing.”
A person who can casually take the life of another—even that of a violent criminal—is not the kind of person you want on your police force. And it is not the kind of person a follower of Christ would want to be.
Consider the experience of Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve. Some years ago, Elder Oaks was living in Chicago when one night he was confronted by a young robber with a gun. Elder Oaks had no money to give him, no watch, nothing of value except his car—and his wife was in the car. Both Elder Oaks and his wife were at great risk. During the encounter, Elder Oaks had an opportunity to grab the gun without the likelihood of being shot. “I was taller and heavier than this young man,” Elder Oaks explains, “and at that time of my life was somewhat athletic. I had no doubt that I could prevail in a quick wrestling match if I could get his gun out of the contest.
“Just as I was about to make my move, I had a unique experience. I did not see anything or hear anything, but I knew something. I knew what would happen if I grabbed that gun. We would struggle, and I would turn the gun into that young man’s chest. It would fire, and he would die. I also knew that I must not have the blood of that young man on my conscience for the rest of my life.” (See New Era, Mar. 1994, 4.)
How should you react in a similar situation? Who knows? It would be a different time, a different robber, a different place. The point is that Elder Oaks had not conditioned himself to automatically react violently. But he had conditioned himself to listening to the still, small voice. So when the idea of grabbing the gun came to him, he was willing and able to be guided by the Spirit.
It’s also important to note that Elder Oaks had ended up in a dangerous area because he and his wife were taking another sister home from a Church activity. He certainly wasn’t looking for trouble. He had taken reasonable precautions, such as leaving Sister Oaks in a locked car and later making sure the street was clear before going back out to the car.
But Satan promotes a very different kind of attitude—the idea that protection comes from having bigger muscles, faster fists, maybe even a weapon. Go wherever you want, because anybody who messes with you will pay the price. The scriptures call it putting your trust in the “arm of flesh.” And it can lead you into the very violence you wanted to avoid in the first place.
Take the case of a gang member, “Steven,” who talks about carrying a gun: “You feel like you’re on top. You think that, like, if you had this gun and somebody else had one, you’d think you could take him on, no matter what.” Would Steven use the gun? “If I had to,” he says. Would he be the first one to shoot? “If I had it, I’d probably be the first one to do it.”
A bad and dangerous attitude? Of course. But it’s not limited to gang members. There’s the experience of author Geoffrey Canada, who grew up in a violent neighborhood in New York’s South Bronx. As he reached college age, he saw the increasing viciousness of the gangs in his area. Out of fear, he bought a gun. He describes the feeling of power it gave him, a feeling that would cause his behavior to “become more and more reckless every day. … I knew that if I continued to carry the gun I would sooner or later pull the trigger.” He got rid of the gun.
Guns are an extreme example. Most places have strict laws about carrying weapons, and you don’t want to break those laws. But that same “don’t mess with me” attitude can extend to things like being trained in the martial arts. There’s nothing wrong with the training itself. The danger comes when people develop an “attitude,” when they place their trust in themselves and their abilities. If you let cockiness lead you into dangerous situations you could have avoided, can you be receptive to the Spirit as Elder Oaks was?
One of the most dangerous myths is that you must respond with violence if someone insults you. This attitude is straight from the Middle Ages: “You have insulted me. My honor demands satisfaction. Choose your weapon and meet me at dawn.” (Say it with a thick foreign accent, like from some old movie, and you get an even better sense of how ridiculous it is.)
Talk about a twisted sense of honor! Nothing could be further from the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Savior taught us to be meek, to turn the other cheek. “Love your enemies,” he said, “bless them that curse you” (Matt. 5:44). The Son of God was mocked, struck, spat upon, and he bore it with silent majesty. We as sons and daughters of God can surely overlook insults. True honor comes from honoring the covenants we have made at baptism to follow in his footsteps.
There is another dangerous myth about violence. Some people claim that we have a genetic tendency toward violence that comes from animal ancestors. The truth is that our ancestors were Adam and Eve.
We are also spirit children of God, with agency, the ability to choose how we will act. We have the capacity to control our emotions—including anger. It is not true that some people have such naturally hot tempers that they just can’t help themselves. If you had enough bread to go with that much baloney, you could open a bakery. Anger doesn’t justify violence any more than driving drunk excuses hitting someone with a car.
Violence has been a problem in the world since the time of Cain. And it seems to be increasing as the end time approaches. You become part of the problem if you fall for one of Satan’s lies. You become part of the solution by living—and spreading—the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The greatest danger from violence is the spiritual harm that comes from getting involved with it. And getting involved with violence means more than physically getting into a fight. It also includes a diet of violence in your entertainment—movies, TV, reading materials, and even music. The things you put into your mind shape your attitudes and condition the way you will behave in a stressful situation.
Your real protection is spiritual also. It comes from living in such a way that you can be guided by the Spirit, as Elder Oaks was.
“Peace I leave with you,” the Savior said, “my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid” (John 14:27).
That kind of peace does not come from being tougher, stronger, better armed. And it is difficult to find if our minds are constantly filled with violent images from movies, video games, or music. But that peace is there for everyone who will follow the Savior.