In Violence We Trust?
In Violence We Trust?

In Violence We Trust?

Can we meet our desire for security with more than lamenting "senseless violence"?

March 23 rd 2017

Calling violence "senseless" is a lazy habit of speech and a dangerous habit of thought. Most violence is purposeful, particularly when perpetrators of violence often fear violence themselves. These perpetrators are often embedded in communities that share their fear, which is why the friends and family of a perpetrator will remain silent despite the other costs that "senseless" violence might bring. If we do not appreciate the human need for security and consider how disenfranchised so many people feel from the lawful use of violence, the fear of violence will maintain its stronghold in already vulnerable places.

This theme of fear among the violent emerges over and over when exploring the problem of murder in American cities. Police departments and hospitals observe that a small group of men are just as likely to be a victim as a perpetrator of violent crime. These men are not just shooting at one another over drug turf or perceived economic benefit (though that often initiates feuds), but because they want to feel safe: they are convinced that they will only survive by intimidating others. As a friend of mine—who did time for attempted murder before becoming a church elder—once put it to me: "You're only as good as your last [violent] act." The question is whether there is a way to meet the deep human need for security in a way that addresses these fears. Re-establishing the security that leads to flourishing in broken communities will require establishing trust.

Human creativity and capacity are predicated on physical security; we cannot thrive or flourish when we are afraid.

Security Is Fundamental to Flourishing

Security is almost as important as food. A person can maintain their physiologic needs by eating, drinking, sleeping, and wearing clothes, but they will never do anything more than survive if they do not feel secure. There is little use building anything that can't be protected; there is little benefit in owning something that might be stolen. Human creativity and capacity are predicated on physical security; we cannot thrive or flourish when we are afraid.

In many historical and contemporary contexts, rigorous security has not been reliable—at least not to the degree that flourishing requires. Gary Haugen and Victor Boutros make this point over and over again in their excellent book, The Locust Effect: they explain that aid and development have addressed problems like hunger or disease well, but have stalled when it comes to security and justice. A community may be self-sufficient in regard to its food supply, water access, medical care, and economic growth, but if any of those things can be taken away by force and there is no trust that justice or an opposing force will prevail, that self-sufficiency falls apart.

We can't sustain this trust without the active fear of retribution: although there are many cultural, social, and spiritual forces that keep people honest and restrained, we can never know whether these forces are acting on all of our neighbours. Passive restraints on violence like locks and walls can only do so much, and they can easily hinder the free movement and exchange that human flourishing is predicated on. A good back fence will make both my neighbour and me happy (particularly if my neighbour owns an animal I detest), but if we live on separate compounds with ten-foot walls then my pleasure in never seeing the dog is diminished by the limitation of any other neighbourly contact. More importantly, even if we have a strong sense of social character that guides our decisions more than simple fear of retribution, such character will easily break down if people within the group feel like their own survival is threatened.

The logic of mutual trust in the fear of retribution finds its fulfillment in the state. Romans 13 is instructive here, as it points out that the power of the sword given to the rulers of the state is meant to carry out "God's wrath on the wrongdoer" (Romans 13:4). As deeply as Christians may want to choose nonviolence and peaceableness wherever possible in their own personal lives, the fear of violence remains fundamental to the human condition as long as human sin exists in the world. This fear and the requisite need for imminent retribution is nearly as fundamental to human existence as the fear of natural evils like disease or starvation and the necessity of medicine and agriculture.

For Christians who wish to follow in the way of Christ, this can and should produce some tensions. After all, it was Christ who proclaimed a way of nonviolence and himself suffered injustice rather than seeking redress for his own rights. Yet even as vaccines for polio prevent more paralysis than Jesus healed in his lifetime, so our work of statecraft should find a way to channel this fear of retribution into a system of governance that looks to the future where swords are beaten into plowshares even as it uses the power of the sword to secure justice for all.

Where There Is No Trust

Most readers of this essay take their basic safety as a given, engaging in plenty of flourishing activities that are predicated on their lives and property being secured by a wide variety of institutions. The violence carried out or threatened on our behalf is so far removed from us that few of us would even be able to enumerate the ways in which it is. However, in a great many places around the world, and even at home, the bedrock of human security guaranteed by these institutions is not nearly so resolute. It is often assumed that material prosperity or the cultural mores that hold back violence are all that is necessary for flourishing, but very often it is the other way around.

Our social trust in the law is predicated on the assurance that agents of the state will only use force in a restrained, lawful manner. The unlawful or unjust use of force by state agents, then, corrodes this trust not only in those particular agents or even just law enforcement and military in general, but in all arenas of life. The bonds of trust that we use to hold violence in check are incredibly fragile; when they are threatened, every other building block of social cooperation that relies on them becomes weaker.

This is most pronounced when there is an imbalance of violent power and no way to tell who can be trusted. Friends living in a failing state put it to me like this once: "If I meet someone on the road, I don't know what he is going to do to me. It does not matter if he is wearing a uniform or carrying a gun." If a man in uniform is just as likely to rob you as a man in a mask, then the best course of action is to flee or find someone whom you can trust to protect you—no matter how cruel he might otherwise be.

In these circumstances, individuals and groups will attempt to navigate the world of insecurity by trusting whatever force seems most legitimate. The few young men who are sufficiently capable and cunning may choose to stand on their own strength alone or band together with others into a gang or militia. If one can demonstrate their own proclivity and aptitude for violence, then one can create enough fear of retribution to get by. Usually, these gangs will not stand for long unless they seek social legitimacy by offering protection to people who are willing to trust them and follow whatever laws they lay down. These shadow institutions fulfill the human need for security by bringing in whatever fear of retribution they can muster.

The most relevant case of this in the West is the crisis of violence in American cities. While the murder rate is not as bad as it was thirty years ago, there are certain places where it is rising again. Most of these places have been shaken by protests against the police. Many are quick to say that Black Lives Matter is undermining public trust in the police by pointing out the unlawful use of force, but these protests are symptomatic of shattered trust, not its cause. Clearance rates for homicides are also going down in many of these places, speaking to the fact that the state is less trustworthy in terms of its ability to ensure retribution to murderers. This, in turn, only encourages more people whose trust in the state is already minimal to take the law into their own hands and provide for their own security.

Passive restraints on violence like locks and walls can only do so much, and they can easily hinder the free movement and exchange that human flourishing is predicated on.

Many will argue that more jobs are needed to fix this problem of violence. It is true that violence committed for financial gain does flourish when distrust in the state and the corrosion of other social bonds rises. It is also true that many violent perpetrators want to have opportunities for stable work and are often shut out of the labour market for a variety of reasons. However, this isn't enough: a friend of mine who is a former gang member likes to point out that he shot a man on his day off from his job. In places already beset by violence, violence will still often make sense as long as there is no fear of retribution from the state.

Re-establishing Trust in American Cities

The historical patterns of injustice against African Americans and the instability of other social institutions has created a milieu of mistrust. The resulting violence within African American communities has only invited more of the state's force, which is not always applied judiciously. Inconsistent application of the law toward African Americans is far less damaging (and, fortunately, far less rare) than sheer malice toward them, but it erodes trust all the same.

The question is often asked: What about black-on-black crime? After all, far more black men are killed every year by other black men than by police officers. Even if we aren't using the question to shut down an argument and we are taking into account the frequent marches or rallies in these communities against day-to-day murders, the disquieting fact is that thousands of black men die every year and quite often their killers, of whatever race, do not face justice—at least not in a court of law.

A smaller number of deaths attracts greater nationwide attention and activism because of the relationship between violence, fear, and trust: when a police uniform does not evoke a sense of public trust, the force its wearer deploys is equally untrustworthy. If someone of a particular race or living in a particular neighbourhood does not know whether the person pulling them over is a "bad apple," any interaction with the police is a moment for fear. The fear that people of colour have felt toward police for decades is now finally percolating into the mainstream public consciousness and forcing white people to reconsider the trust they have placed in law enforcement. Such reconsideration will only be valuable if we ask what sorts of strategies will strengthen this trust.

There is a great deal of enthusiasm for "community policing" to help rebuild trust. While I certainly hope that meaningful relationships will be formed between police officers and the citizens that they have sworn to protect, we cannot ignore the need for fear of retribution. Harmonious relationships between police and community are necessary but not sufficient for restoring trust in the law. Apprehending wrongdoers without violating their rights or the rights of any innocent persons is far more foundational to public trust than any cookouts and pickup basketball games.

Harmonious relationships between police and community are necessary but not sufficient for restoring trust in the law.

Most right-leaning commentary on African American murder rates will then proclaim the merits of "stop and frisk," the controversial and unconstitutional approach to policing that disseminates law-enforcement activity across a geographical area and attempts to maintain order by searching anyone who looks suspicious. This strategy, when combined with "clearing corners" of drug activity, seems to do little to actually decrease violence and does nothing to rebuild public trust. Similarly, while there has been much enthusiasm for body cameras in recent years, there is only minimal evidence that they help in a regime where there is no trust as to how authorities will use or monitor the footage.

Two methods initiated and funded by the state that have shown the most promise but have been woefully under-discussed outside of a few outlets are the "interrupters" model and the "focused deterrence" model. Both seem to be far more effective than the tactics that have created the current environment, where police and community don't trust each other enough to uphold public safety. Each of these methods works by focusing resources on the places and people most at risk for violence, seeking to help make a community safer by encouraging virtuous behaviour in people who would otherwise do harm.

"Interrupters" are usually men who themselves have a history of violence and are from the area where they work; they monitor local conflicts and mediate wherever possible, following up with known perpetrators and trying to help effect change through small-scale connections that rebuild social trust in places where it is most in disrepair. In the neighbourhoods they cover, their efforts have led to demonstrable reductions in violence. While there is no explicit retribution threatened, there is at least some sort of positive social and moral feedback re-established where ordinarily the law may or may not successfully provide retribution.

Like the interrupter model, the "focused deterrence" model also targets the biggest holes in the social fabric, but it attempts to ensure consequences for violence by confronting violent offenders with other respected members of the community along with evidence of their ongoing crimes. Other city agencies or community groups simultaneously offer social services to help provide a way out of the life of crime for these offenders. Rather than randomly pursuing drug dealers on a corner or trying to find witnesses who refuse to talk to police, this strategy redirects policing resources in ways that try to rebuild trust.

Both of these models, however, also require other resources to restore the social fabric. The fragile trust necessary for peace requires not only that a potential violent offender be able to provide the basic necessities for himself and any family he might have, but also that he be able to participate in a flourishing community without having to rely on violence to be honoured, respected, or protected. Insufficient support for these models will leave them and the people they support to flounder, as has happened in Baltimore with both focused deterrence and interruption.

This isn't to say that simply getting rid of poverty will get rid of violence, for the rich are just as willing to be violent toward others if it suits their purposes—consider, for example, the transatlantic slave trade. Nor can we go along with those who propose a complete abolition of the police and prisons, since no society, however prosperous, has found a way to purge people of their inherent tendencies to harm one another for reasons only they find sensible. (Furthermore, a government regime capable of eliminating poverty will have to hold some sort of force as a possible consequence if it wishes to redistribute wealth sufficient to do so!) Rather, it is to observe that physical security is deeply intertwined with human flourishing and that we cannot have one without the other.

We have always lived with violence and must always live with it until kingdom come. The mutual trust that sustains our cultural and social flourishing requires that people who violate that trust be held accountable and that violence be deployed if necessary on behalf of the vulnerable. In the case of neglected urban neighbourhoods that do not know if the man in the uniform or the man in the mask is more trustworthy, only the certainty that unjust violence will not be tolerated will allow that trust to be rebuilt.

Matthew Loftus
Matthew Loftus

Matthew Loftus teaches and practices Family Medicine in Baltimore and East Africa. He is a columnist for Christianity Today and a regular contributor at Mere Orthodoxy and Christ and Pop Culture. You can learn more about his work and writing at


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