This thousand pager by Steven Pinker is one of the more challenging, yet illuminating, books I’ve read. As the title suggests, it’s a book about violence and why the world is actually becoming less violent.
I don’t think that I would recommend it for everyone. But I would encourage anyone who can get a snapshot of the ideas within it, to do so.
Why it’s challenging
Steven Pinker is quite vocal about his criticism towards the Bible, and Christians. Some of the arguments are fair; the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition are the top examples of our faith’s use of violence. Yet, I felt that there were places where his critique was delivered from a place of misunderstanding, or even hate.
There are also sections in the first quarter of the book, where he explains methods of torture and execution in graphic detail. For anyone who thinks in pictures, or has a modicum of empathy, it can become overwhelming in its brutality. I understand why he included it. But there were a couple of times where I skipped ahead thinking, “Ok, thank you. I get it.” with a bit of bile in the back of my throat.
Why it’s been enlightening
The book opens with, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” Pinker takes the reader through a few millennia worth of violence to illustrate this point. I’m not going to divulge the details of the violence, because I believe I can share the ideas without it.
Slavery is still a problem, but we all agree that it is wrong
Owning another person as property is a practice as old as civilisation. Where agriculture and surplus existed, slavery existed. It was such a part of life that the Bible describes it as an established institution, with instructions on how to treat your slaves. (Exodus and Deuteronomy).
Yet here, in the 21st century, we’re not having conversations about how we should treat our slaves. Instead, we’re raising awareness about, and support against, human trafficking, debt bondage and the forced labour of a small percentage of the global population.
Capital punishment shies away from being cruel (and widespread)
Throughout recorded history, mankind has come up with creative ways to execute people for various infractions, like helping a slave escape or adultery. Leviticus holds a few clues to how the ancients dealt with moral blunders.
However, in the modern world, only 56 countries retain capital punishment. 106 countries have abolished it for all crimes. 8 have abolished it for ordinary crimes (while maintaining it for special circumstances), and 28 are abolitionist in practice. (Wikipedia)
Public execution was a way government that flexed its muscle to discourage insurrection and unwanted behaviour. As such, they were incredibly brutal in their methods to drive the point home. In modern times, it is done behind closed doors with a small number of witnesses to keep the executioners accountable.
Genocide is a modern word for an ancient practice
Before the Holocaust, the word for the systematic murder of certain peoples didn’t have a word. It wasn’t considered an atrocity, but a part of life. If a certain tribe, or group, threatened your livelihood, or occupied a piece of land you wanted, exterminating that group was par for the course.
It was only after World War 2 that genocide was coined to describe the atrocities practiced against the Jews. It was also only after World War 2 that international courts prosecuted these as crimes against humanity.
The world isn’t perfect, but it is a better place in many ways
I’ve mentioned before that Christians don’t look at the world with blind optimism. I am not saying that things are perfect. The economic systems that have injustice built into it breaks my heart. I worry about the environment, the shortage of food and the wars that rage because of it.
We need to have a realistic view of what is going on, and groan within ourselves when we see the broken bits. But that realistic view should include some facts of things that have changed for the better.