The Adventure of Living in the Kingdom of God

Thursday, May 9, 2013

What is Structural Violence?

'Structural violence' and 'structural sin' are relatively new additions to my vocabulary. I first encountered the concept in a book by Dr Paul Farmer (Pathologies of Power, Univ Calif Press, 2005) who sought to provide insight into the causes of global poverty by using first-hand accounts from his trips to Russia, Mexico, and Haiti as concrete case studies for such exploration. Having spent over two decades of intentional and thoughtful work among the poorest people in the western hemisphere, Dr Farmer's words have a poignant quality lacking in many textbooks and other treatises who seek a 'neutral' and objective place from which to write. Farmer makes no such claims.
I am openly on the side of the destitute sick and have never sought to represent myself as some sort of neutral party. Indeed, I have argued that such 'neutrality' most often serves, wittingly or unwittingly, as smokescreen or apology for the structural violence described here. (p.26)

Via a hopeful anger and a fierce loyalty to the poor, Farmer exposes the far-reaching impact of abuses of power and the pathologies it spawns - poverty, disease (HIV, TB, cholera, etc.), deprivation, economic despair, lack of health care, and injustices ad nausea. These 'human rights violations', he argues, are not the problem but rather symptoms of a deeper and more sinister problem rooted in the human heart - the belief, whether conscious or not, that some people in the world matter more than others. Such a belief creeps into our hearts, our interpersonal interactions, our language, our social and political systems, our international policies, and so on creating systems, governments, and structures than enable such 'structural violence' to thrive with the poor and powerless seeing more than their share of negative consequences.

The biblical narrative names this fundamental problem as 'sin.' First encountered in the Genesis story, humanity's insistence on self-rule and refusal to see itself in its appointed place in the community of creation shatters the harmony, joy, and inter-dependence of the creator's design exposing everything and everyone to the effects of 'sin.' No part of creation was spared sin's pathologies and since then, our systems and structures at every level have been vulnerable to the selfishness and greed so deep within the human soul. 'Structural sin' remains, however, a difficult notion to grasp in large part due to the western influence of individualism. Sin (and spirituality as a whole) is viewed as a private matter to be handled in solitude and its effects therefore are perceived to be limited to individuals involved. 'Structural sin' casts a much larger net over our families, our communities, our churches, and our governments acknowledging that sin has spared no corner of creation. Yet the effects of sin are felt more harshly by those without the luxury of spiritualizing their situations. Dr Farmer defines the poor as "those whose greatest task is trying to survive." Such poverty means death, often an early death, for far too many. Sin means death and it is not simply a problem for the individual but a cosmic, permeative affront to the Creator that has managed to infiltrate every nook of our social, political, and economic systems.

Thankfully, the biblical story offers hope in face of seemingly impenetrable darkness. Jesus' most famous prayer - "...may your kingdom come. May your will be done on earth as it is in heaven" - points to the good news of a new way of life found in surprising places such as prostitutes, terrorists, tax collectors, lepers, poor widows, and simple fishermen. Within this kingdom, the rich and poor, powerful and weak, sick and healthy, male and female, popular and marginalized are equal. This is why they call it good news for the world. In this new reality, 'structural sin' is exposed by an inextinguishable light within a community committed to justice, love, and peace. And little by little, Jesus' prayer comes true - heaven is found here on earth and God's purposes are accomplished.  

I am still wrestling with this idea and above are my preliminary ramblings on the matter. Does the idea of 'structural violence'/'structural sin' make sense? If so, where have you seen this play out? What concrete examples of 'structural violence' do you see and what examples of 'structural redemption' (i just made that term up) have you seen? How can we become more attune to such injustice in our midst and have more honest discussion? Would love any thoughts, critiques, or further conversation. 


No comments:

Post a Comment