For want of a nail the shoe was lost; For want of a shoe the horse was lost; For want of a horse the battle was lost; For want of the battle the kingdom was lost. For want of a nail.
That proverbial rhyme illustrates the cascading cause and effect of our behavior, which applies well to the destructive violence in our society. Violence is not just in the isolated horrific events that dominate the news. It is pervasive in our daily lives: in films and music, in television and video games, and, yes, in traffic and athletics.
It is true violence can be found in the Bible and in Shakespeare. But there is a difference. The violence in great literature shows us the evil, the ugliness and the destruction of such violence. It teaches us not to be violent. Too much of the violence in our modern media fails to do that.
Recent tragic events have prompted proposals for greater gun control. Firearms, as all powerful technology, need legal oversight. But the finer the net is woven, the more holes will be found by the demons. The myopia of these legal proposals is that they are asking "how?" They are not asking "why?"
The fundamental question is, "Why are we a violent society?" It might be true there always will be isolated cases of totally irrational behavior. But the complete contempt for human life in recent mass killings is not entirely an aberration or an anomaly in our social fabric. We cannot systematically kill the unborn and execute prisoners; we cannot glorify violence in our amusement and athletics; we cannot solve domestic and international disputes with deadly force and then expect our children to respect human life. We might despise what people do, but we must respect who they are. Each human being, from the innocent unborn to the degenerate criminal, is a child of God and must be treated as such.
The causes of social violence are very complex, and each area needs to be addressed. Those who work for peace in all our social structures are to be supported. Yet in the deepest sense, the cause is this simple: We are losing a sense of the sacredness of human life. From the perspective of faith, this means we are losing a sense of the presence of God in our lives and in every human life. And in losing that, we are losing life itself.
In Dostoevsky's final novel, "The Brothers Karamazov," at the height of a moral argument Ivan said, "If God does not exist, everything is permitted."
For want of a nail ... the kingdom was lost.
This is not to disparage non-believers. Those whose lives are not founded on faith in God do have sacred values. First among these should be the sacredness of each human life.
Without that, we always will be a violent society.
For want of a nail.
Father Earl Meyer is a Catholic priest at the Capuchin Center for Spiritual Life in Victoria.