Children are not exposed to enough violence. Yes, I know the grim statistics, how a child who enters middle school has already witnessed 8,000 murders and 100,000 other violent acts on TV. As he and his friends enter adolescence, they take up first-person shooter video games. In college, he becomes a connoisseur of gory new shows, inviting his girlfriend over to watch prestige dramas that are not much less pornographic or more violent than what he watches when she isn’t there.
Children arrive at adulthood by wading through a river of pixelated blood. Rape, murder, assault: The violence we see on screen exists outside and against civilization. No less remarkably (and perhaps not coincidentally), we have been insulated from a different kind of violence—the ordered bloodletting of the butcher’s shop, barnyard, and hunting field. Without the lessons these practices teach, we tend to approach violence either with naive squeamishness or with a cruel indifference to savagery.
I will never forget the first time I saw a cow hanging in my grandparents’ barn, half butchered, its tongue placed in a bucket. I was a four-year-old who loved science fiction. The characters on my favorite show lived in a society without money, pollution, or violence—a rare steak emerged from a swirl of particles in the starship’s “replicator.” Here on the farm, a steak came from a cow. Death was part of life. Violence was part of order.
When I was six years old, I got a BB gun for Christmas. My father had already given me a toy gun to carry when he took me hunting. Whenever I got out of the truck or crossed a fence, I was to avoid pointing my harmless firearm at myself or other people. While handling that BB gun and the guns that followed—the .410, 20 gauge, and 12 gauge, the .30-06 and .243—I was taught that there were right and wrong ways to use violence.
Whatever I killed, I had to clean. One November Saturday, I shot my first pheasant and brought it home, its oriental plumage flashing in the sun. I learned how to pluck, dress, and clean the bird before placing the meat in the fridge to cool. Years later, I crouched over my first deer with a hunting knife, trying not to puncture the bladder as I cut through the skin. No amount of gore seen on screen could have prepared me for the flesh’s smell and heat.
Where I grew up, in rural Nebraska, we all had to learn these lessons. Ranchers kept rifles hanging in the back windows of their trucks, ready to be pulled down if they saw a coyote stalking the herd. In my home, guns were piled in a corner beside the toys, and shells accumulated on a nearby bookshelf. Some would call this irresponsible. In fact, it was one of the ways my parents taught me what responsibility was. Danger cannot be excluded from life, so one had better learn early how to handle it.
The summer after my junior year of college, I joined an electrical crew that was rewiring the feeder motors in a hog confinement. Thousands of animals lived there, packed into tin sheds laid out like barracks. They were so crowded that the slightest infection could wipe out the herd in a matter of days. So each morning when my crew arrived, we drove our van through a carwash and then walked through a shower house, entering a locker room on one side of the building, stripping down, going through a bank of showers, and coming out on the other side. We wore specially sanitized company clothes until we walked back through the showers at the end of the day.
No matter how much I scrubbed that summer, I could not get the smell of manure out of my hair. Go downwind of that place, or see the conditions inside, and you will suspect that this is not how animals ought to be raised. We intuitively feel that it is unnatural to keep pigs packed together on hard concrete—but we do not see that there is something equally unhealthy about human lives that have no contact with husbandry and hunting. Pigs, kept in close confinement, bite off each other’s tails. Humans, freed from all contact with regulated violence of farm life, become squeamish savages.
It sometimes seems to me that pacifism, veganism, humanism, nudism—all the –isms—only push violence out of view, where it becomes even crueler. We got rid of the stocks and flogging but replaced them with solitary confinement. We have reduced the number of executions but only by filling supermax prisons. Bloody punishments strike us as unacceptable, even when we know a convict would prefer it. And who wouldn’t prefer five lashes to five years?
A society that knows violence only in the form of lurid entertainment will lack moral balance. We are unable to distinguish between proper and improper violent acts, and so we tend either to approve or to condemn all violence under the same standard. Often enough, we fall into both errors, becoming sentimental about animals and cynical about men. It is no accident that the Holocaust was perpetrated by a vegetarian.
Hard-headed realists justify torture and atomic warfare under a theory of “dirty hands” because they know that violence cannot be avoided and despair, like the pacifists, of making it moral. This is the point Elizabeth Anscombe made in Mr. Truman’s Degree when she blamed a partial acceptance of pacifist arguments for the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Anscombe believed it was possible to distinguish between right and wrong uses of force—the same distinction I was taught to make while hunting.
In Matthew’s Gospel, Christ tells the multitude that “the Kingdom of Heaven suffers violence, and the violent bear it away.” St. Thomas finds in this statement a truth about the spiritual life: “It is necessary that the sinner rise up to spiritual things, and struggle greatly, so that he can arrive at the kingdom of heaven.” Spiritual struggle pits father against son and mother against daughter, demanding that we respond to Christ’s sacrifice with sacrifices of our own.
We tend to resist this hard truth. The Protestant reformers and the fathers of the Second Vatican Council alike sought to play down the sacrificial element of the Eucharist and present it instead as a communal meal. Whatever the merits of their particular theological and ecumenical concerns, their innovations obscure the fact that violence is necessary for sustaining life in this world and achieving it in the next.
Faced with the changes in the liturgy that came out of Vatican II, Cardinal Ottaviani, secretary of the Holy Office, complained that “the mystery of the Cross is no longer explicitly expressed. It is only there obscurely, veiled, imperceptible for the people.” We can no longer see the mystery of Christ’s blood poured out for many, for the remission of sins. Common experience once presented many analogies for this truth. When I saw a cow being butchered in the farmyard, when I learned how to clean a bird or dress a deer, I saw in simple ways how violence can be made to serve the purposes of life. I saw in the natural order, however indistinctly, a reflection of Christ’s sacrifice. This truth is now veiled in our lives and in our liturgies, but one day there will be a great unveiling.
Matthew Schmitz is literary editor of First Things.