A Brief (Catholic) History of Violence

7 09 2009


La Reja, Argentina, 2002

Around 6:45 a.m.

“Deus in adjutorium meum intende…”

In seminary, our day would always open with those words: “O God, come to my assistance”. In rapid succession, trying not to drag, we would chant the psalmody in recto tono. This was the office of Prime, the first office of the day for slackers who didn’t rise at three in the morning for Matins. After much back and forth, and after the last Gloria Patri, we would rapidly come to the part where we would finally be able to sit down on our cold, hard benches. A reader would come forth in the middle of the choir, and begin to read, in Spanish, from the Roman Martyrology. At this point, I would usually just space out. For even while trusting the wisdom of Holy Mother Church, the violence portrayed could be almost gratuitous. Yes, it is very edifying what the martyrs lived and suffered through, but there was only so much of stuff like the following that you could stomach before breakfast:

At Spoleto, in the days of Emperor Antoninus, the passion of St. Pontian, martyr, who was barbarously scourged for Christ by the command of the judge Fabian, and then compelled to walk barefoot on burning coals. As he was uninjured by the fire, he was put on the rack, was torn with iron hooks, then thrown into a dungeon, where he was comforted by the visit of an angel. He was afterwards exposed to the lions, had melted lead poured over him, and finally died by the sword.

Thus, the butt of all jokes amongst the more irreverent seminarians (the reader can guess if I was included in this category) was that everyone, in the end, had to have their head cut off, even after having suffered through mutilation of breasts, arms, ears or other members, being burned alive, eaten by lions, dying of exposure, and so on and so forth. Talk about losing your head…

All of these reminscinces came back to me when reading Taylor Marshall’s reflection on violence in the media, rather straightforwardly titled, Is it fun to watch people die? The greatest weakness of this reflection is that while the author admits to not actually having seen the films he seeks to criticize, he still finds it necessary to publicize his misgivings. I think that is his first problem: if you haven’t seen it, don’t write about it. Now, I am not going to go so far as saying that Tarantino films are moral tales or that they will help get you to Heaven, but I will say that if you can stomach that stuff, and you like watching movies, I find no harm in them. I keep in mind St. Paul’s admonition not to scandalize the brethren, and thus you will never see from me exhortations to boycott or watch such problematic works of art.

Mr. Marshall’s larger problem, in my opinion, is his latent cultural Calvinism. He asks if America is too obsessed with violence, and is this symptomatic of the culture of death that the last Pontiff spoke so much about. To answer Mr. Marshall’s question, the Church may not have thought watching people die “fun”, but it certainly thought hearing about it edifying, as the above cited early morning liturgical experiences show. Of course, in such things as the Spanish bullfight, Catholic cultures thought watching animals die entertaining. True, Catholicism began with the memories of the arenas where the first Christians died a gruesome death, but that did not mean that Catholics had the same sensibility of, say, the same people who censor our movies. Violence and religion have always gone hand in hand, and such a partnership has always sparked the imagination of the creators of the cultural ethos. What we now think edifying or scandalous may only be a result of our very sanitized culture removed so far from the reality of death and the ephemeral nature of our flesh.

Of course, in speaking of violence, we only need begin at the beginning itself, in the story of Cain and Abel, and the first poem recorded in the history of man:

…for I have slain a man to the wounding of myself, and a stripling to my own bruising. Sevenfold vengeance shall be taken for Cain: but for Lamech seventy times sevenfold.

-Genesis, chapter 4

The Bible itself is full of violent scenes of death, so it is best not to “use our imaginations” when reading certain passages. It is quite true that early religious art in Christendom lacked the realism of our good St. Sebastian being run through by arrows above, but by the baroque period, especially amongst the Latin cultures, it was deemed appropriate to represent the Passion of Our Lord in the most exquisitely disturbing details. This of course began with the piety of devotio moderna, and reached a point that such bloody prayers and private revelations became the common patrimony of devout Catholics everywhere. When many a now Catholic convert were hanging out in Bible college in the early nineties, old Catholic women and spaced out devout teenagers like myself were on our knees reading such descriptions as these, much to the chagrin of our “enlightened, progressive” pastors:

Be it known that the number of armed soldiers were 150; those who trailed me [Jesus] while I was bound were 23. The number of executioners of justice were 83; the blows received on my head were 150; those on my stomach, 108; kicks on my shoulders, 80. I was led, bound with cords by the hair, 24 times; spits in the face were 180; I was beaten on the body 6666 times; beaten on the head, 110 times. I was roughly pushed, and at 12 o’clock was lifted up by the hair; pricked with thorns and pulled by the beard 23 times; received 20 wounds on the head; thorns of marine junks, 72; pricks of thorns in the head, 110; mortal thorns in the forhead, 3. I was afterwards flogged and dressed as a mocked king; wounds in the body, 1000. The soldiers who led me to the Calvary were 608; those who watched me were 3, and those who mocked me were 1008; the drops of blood which I lost were 28,430.

Mel Gibson avant la lettre, ou avant l’image. Catholicism, at least in its Counter-Reformed avatar, was never afraid of the realities of human existence. This can be seen in building chapels entirely covered in the bones of dead friars, representing the travails of the martyrs in living color, or placing danses macabres all over churches in Europe. While the contemporary culture of death is condemnable because of its technocratic and utilitarian approach to human life, the old Catholic culture of death sought to remind the viewer and listener of the transient nature of our pilgrimage here on Earth.

There is really no way of diminishing the cultural gulf between our societies and those that came before us. AG and her sister were telling me once about the rather matter-of-fact way the older members of her family could recount tales of death and tragedy, as if merely reporting the nightly news. Coming from sharecropping families in southern Louisiana, I could not help but point out that it was probably only death and tragedy that would interupt the monotonous flow of their daily lives. One could imagine them descibing their lives today:

Monday: I got up at five, said my prayers, ate breakfast, worked in the fields until sundown, went home, ate dinner, stared at my family for an hour, and went to bed…

Tuesday: I got up at five, said my prayers, ate breakfast, worked in the fields until sundown, went home, ate dinner, stared at my family for an hour, and went to bed…


There were no occasions where they went to the mall to get a new stereo system, no interesting crime shows they saw on the television last night, and no immediate improvement in their material condition. So a lot of their stories probably centered on tragedy since that seemed to be something they had in abundance. Through the cathartic telling of such events, perhaps they felt they had at least a bit of control over them. In a society where death and blood were a way of life, it is no wonder that they could be the locus of a lot of storytelling and creativity.

In Mexico, this tendency was enshrined in the corrido, or ballad, usually about people dying very tragic deaths. This is by no means an isolated phenomenon, but in a lot of ways it has the most continuity with past forms of storytelling, having evolved, in its modern avatar, into the now infamous narcorrido or drug ballad. Below are two examples of such songs, one about martyrdom during the Cristero Rebellion, the other a foot-stomping narcorrido:

(In the last video, around the two minute thirty second mark, you will see an image of St. Jude with a machine gun.)

So without discounting the dangers of modern forms of entertainment, and not wanting to scandalize people with my more laissez faire personal approach to these questions, I will say that the problem of violence in the media will not be solved by “averting our eyes” to the realities of violence and death, nor by sticking to watching horribly formulaic films like Bella and Defilippis’ Therese movie simply because they have “Christian themes” and are “G-rated”. Until modern audiences can get beyond their own very technocratic, technicolor understandings of what life is supposed to be about, it will not matter what we watch or don’t watch. Our sense of irreality will remain the same.



3 responses

8 09 2009
Sam Urfer

Well, having seen the Tarrantino film, I have to say that its problem is that it, too, is detached from the actual realities of violence. It is noteworthy that when the Passion of the Christ came out shortly after Kill Bill: Vol. I, the same critics who had praised the latter as edgy, were horrified by the violence of the former. Films treating violence like a plaything are the other side of the same coin as the detachment from violence shown in an attempt to keep oneself ritually clean of violence. The same trend in modern culture, displaying itself in slightly different forms.

7 09 2009
Peter Escalante

Re: St Jude with a machine gun, there is a famous retablo, Mexican I think from the 17th c, which shows angels with muskets.

Re: “cultural Calvinism”- don’t blame us for everything, hermano. Our tastes haven’t always been for the tidy. Remember Foxe’s Book of Martyrs? Protestants used to have plenty taste for tragedy and grimness (within a more basically eucatastophic Gospel sensibility, of course)…in fact, speaking of grim, the tales of the Grimm Bros, Protestant moralists to their bones, are full of things shocking to the modern sensibility.


7 09 2009
Daniel A.

Is there any chance you could post the lyrics of those songs, perhaps in the comments? Of course if an English translation is readily available that would be great, but just the lyrics in Spanish could help me piece together what the songs are about (as if the pictures didn’t already give a lot away!)

Perhaps you would know better than I do, but the second song seems emblematic of a social problem I see in my students (98% of whom are of Mexican ancestry): the song sounds and feels so “Mexican” that many young people who hear such songs and experience (either first or second hand) elements of the drug trade begin to identify this with Mexican culture, and either embrace it, or reject it along with the rest of their heritage (including Catholicism).

I have many students, with great potential and intelligence, who will proclaim themselves to be “dumb Mexicans,” I believe because they have internalized the idea that Mexicans tend to be criminals, drug dealers, and gang members. Now whether they got these notions from their own culture or from the surrounding “anglo” culture I am not sure, but it is very hard for me as an “anglo” coming from a different background to convince them that there are good, positive elements in their own culture.

Also, I am interested in both songs because the pictures that go along with them seem to tell part of two possibly interesting tragic stories (perhaps confirming your thesis that people tend to be attracted by horrifying stories).

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