If Violence Begets Violence, What's Our Escape?

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Violence begets violence.

Three Bilboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a study of violence. When Mildred's teenage daughter is murdered on the side of a highway, her rage and grief results in more violence.

So it's war: Mildred vs. The World.

Violence has always begotten violence. It’s an ancient theme, old as history itself.

For those who know the Bible (or Boney M), Psalm 137 is perfect example. After the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem, they took back with them the temple singers and musicians for their entertainment. And sing they did. But with such bitterness and rage that millennia later, it's still a harrowing cry of pain. It starts off with the question of how to be happy when everything that they cared about is dead or destroyed. Then the psalms declares that they will never forgive and never forget. Finally, it becomes a celebration of revenge. The last line is:

Happy is the one who seizes your (the Babylonian's) infants and dashes their heads against the rocks.

It's doing unto others as others have done unto you.

And then there's the Ancient Greeks. Remember what happened after the Trojan War? The women of Troy were taken to Greece as slaves; Agamemnon had his throat cut by his wife, Clytemnestra; Aeneas landed in Italy and guess what – he ended up starting another war.

So the war ended, but the violence didn't.

Claret Press will soon be publishing Lorna Oakes’ next book: Women of the Ancient World: Leaders, Lives and Legacies. In it, we hear the story of Lysistrata. This was a woman who wanted to end the Greeks’ perpetual war. So she gathered the community of Athenian women together and convinced them to refuse to sleep with their husbands until the men had brokered a peace with the other Greek cities. It works – but only in the story. In reality, war raged until all sides were utterly ruined. The Greek soldiers might have preferred that their women really had refused to sleep with them until they brokered peace.

Greek war painting

Lorna Oakes, previously a lecturer in Egyptology at Birkbeck College and the British Museum, examines the story of the Women of Troy after the Trojan War has been lost. Hecabe was the queen of Troy, mother of the respected and heroic Hector. She then became a slave to the Greeks, her children and grandchildren killed. In one lament, she says,

Here near Agamemnon’s tent,

Prisoner and slave I sit,

An unpitied exile,

Old, my grey hair ravaged

With the knife of mourning.

Come you widowed brides of Trojan fighting men

Weeping mothers, trembling daughters,

Come weep with me while the smoke goes up from Troy!

Hecabe's grief is a mirror to Mildred's. Heartbreak turns these two characters into vessels of hate. Violent action is met by violent reaction.

But this cycle of violence is not inevitable. Stephen Pinker, professor at Harvard University, in his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, shows that our species is inching towards non-violent solutions to our problems. The movie suggests that thoughtfulness, calmness and clear rationality are paths out.

The literature from Ancient Greece offers us a different solution. Euripides, a Greek, wrote Women of Troy for a Greek audience at a Greek competition for best new Greek play. By showing the human costs of the Greek triumph against the Trojans from the Trojan perspective, he invites our compassion. It is our ability to see ourselves in everyone else, including our most terrifying enemies, that is the starting point of ending violence.

Violence begets compassion.

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Violence Begets Violence

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