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Does the Bible Make Americans More Violent?

Americans can be notoriously prudish about sex, yet our entertainments are stuffed with violent acts. Could this go all the way back to the Bible?

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Our peculiar hierarchy of priorities may be due in part to the influence of Abrahamic religion on Western Civilization and the unique standing accorded to the Bible in American Christianity specifically. The Bible amalgamates the mythology and legal codes of a specific kind of culture: a clan-based tribal society in which herdsmen struggling for survival in an arid and increasingly denuded environment. Males competed to control females and territory while maintaining the purity of bloodlines and inheritance; gods that were modeled on warlords competed for fealty. Consequently, while codes governing sexuality and blasphemy were strict, codes governing violence were complicated.

Yahweh himself  originated as a war god. Non-Hebrews were regarded with hostility and indeed, much of the founding story of the Israelite people comprises tales of triumphal genocide. The violence in in the Bible is so extreme that it  defines vast portions of the book:

[Edmund Leach] looked at the Bible through the eyes of a communications engineer and asked: what message are these authors trying to get through to the reader? The answer, Leach thought, was that they were trying to obscure the fact that mankind began through incest (Adam and Eve) and so the strategy was to compile a list of atrocities so heinous that, in the end, the original incest would come to look like a harmless act.

Whether history or mythology or some fusion of the two, the Bible stories,  when tallied, include an estimated 25 million violent deaths. And yet, like any people, the internal narrative of God’s Chosen Ones is one of yearning for peace and prosperity, the dream of an idyllic past in which the lion lay down with the lamb; an idyllic future in which men will beat their swords into plowshares and the lamb and lion will lie down together again.

Like the ancient Israelites, we Americans see ourselves as peacemakers. During the midwinter holiday season,  Peace on Earth is sung from choir lofts and hung in shopping malls. We complain about our role as “policeman to the world.”  And yet, if we could see ourselves  as others see us, we would see a people who, like the ancient Israelites have created unparalleled archetypes of violence: the Rambo, the mushroom cloud, the Tommy Gun, the Cowboy. Hollywood ensures that, even independent of the world’s best funded military, violence is one of our top exports.

I once rode a bus to a then small town in Mexico called San Cristobal de las Casas. The ride was my introduction to a new phenomenon that would become a bane during subsequent budget travel: video on buses and trains. It was also my first awakening to the level of violence we Americans export to the world as storytellers. Real dialogue can be hard to translate; psychological or social nuance almost impossible. But sex and violence are universals, which means they are even more ubiquitous in the movies that cross cultural and economic lines than those that don’t.

On this particular bus ride, the gratis entertainment was about a serial killer who was making snuff films. As we swayed around mountain switchbacks, the sound blared. Men, traditionally clad women, and small children pressed against each other, with no option but to face the screen depicting death scene after death scene. My savage hope was that the other passengers were motion sick like me and that the pairing of the film and switchbacks was conditioning a permanent visceral aversion to sexual violence.  Later that year, on an all-night bus, I would find myself assaulted by my first movie about people hunting people. The male lead was a hunky white supremacist, a farmer by day who secretly liked to hunt Blacks.

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