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Our history of violence

Ryan Denison is the Senior Fellow for Theology at Denison Forum, where he contributes writing and research to many of the ministry’s productions.

He is in the final stages of earning his PhD in church history at BH Carroll Theological Institute after having earned his MDiv at Truett Seminary. Ryan has also taught at BH Carroll and Dallas Baptist University.

He and his wife, Candice, live in East Texas and have two children.


Abstract illustration of medieval battle. (Credit: Vertyr via Fotolia)

There’s an old cliché that dead men tell no tales. But as the New York Times describes, a recent discovery on the shore of Lake Turkana in Kenya begs to differ. Scientists working near the lake have recently discovered the remains of a group of hunter-gatherers from roughly 10,000 years ago who were attacked and slaughtered. As James Gorman describes, “Of twelve relatively complete skeletons, ten showed unmistakable signs of violent death . . . Partial remains of at least fifteen other people were found at the site and are thought to have died in the same attack.” A combination of arrow and spear wounds along with other clear demonstrations of violence leaves little doubt as to the cause of death in each case.

While the violent tendencies woven into the fabric of humanity’s sinful nature should not come as a surprise, this discovery is thought by many experts to be the first example of war-like aggression in a prehistoric, hunter-gatherer culture. Previously, many speculated that such violence came about only when groups began to form more established societies. But while researchers were quick to point out that one find does not definitively change our understanding of ancient warfare, it does perhaps point to the need to re-examine those beliefs.

Ultimately, whether the discovery in Kenya is evidence of a more common brand of violence than previously anticipated or if it was simply an example of a rare occurrence that happened to be preserved, we don’t need 10,000 year old bones to tell us people often resort to violence when it seems like the most efficient means of getting what they want. It’s a problem as old as Cain and Abel and one that continues to cause problems throughout the world today.

However, finding a solution to humanity’s violent tendencies has proven difficult for a number of reasons. First, the topic is often approached too broadly. All aggression is not inherently evil and the notion that war for any reason is abominable is both illogical and unbiblical. While we should do our very best to prevent conflict from escalating to the point that war is needed, we cannot prevent the other side from insisting upon violence as the necessary form of resolution. Moreover, God led the Israelites to war on multiple occasions and while their actions and his commands must be viewed within the proper context (see Jim Denison’s Why did God tell the Jews to kill all the Canaanites? for more on that subject), it is clear that Scripture does not condemn all forms of violence.

So if violence is not inherently wrong then it must be its application and, more specifically, the motivations behind that application that determine its moral standing. Scripture speaks frequently on the need to be aware of our motivations, because they go a long way in determining our actions. That’s why Jesus spoke so forcefully on the dangers of unchecked anger in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21–26). It’s why we are called to forgive others just as God has forgiven us (Ephesians 4:32). And it’s the reason we are called not to escalate the situation when we are wronged (Matthew 5:39). If we can accurately assess the reasons why we are tempted to act or react violently, then we stand a much better chance of preventing the kind of unwarranted violence that God does abhor.

While we are never going to eliminate violence this side of heaven, understanding when it is appropriate and what motivates us towards it in a given situation can be of great help in minimizing the damage such naked aggression often causes. That is true on a global scale, but it is just as true in our own lives as well.

So what will you do the next time you are inclined to act in a manner that does not honor the Lord? Will you allow sinful motivations to yield sinful actions? Or will you submit those motivations to God and allow him to help you avoid giving in to such fallen inclinations? Decide today what you will accept the Lord’s help and making the correct decision when that moment next arrives will be far easier.