Bartamoleo’s 1611 portrait of Cain murdering Abel illustrates an article in the Wall Street Journal last weekend about a kinder and gentler world.
Violence Vanquished, by Steven Pinker, makes an argument most of us would find hard to believe, especially after watching the evening news. The Harvard professor of psychology says violence is actually decreasing.
Forensic anthropology, for example, reveals that before governments as many as 15% of people died violently. And since 1300 the number of people per 100,000 that were murdered has dropped from almost 60 in parts of Europe to less than two or three today.
Ancient graves apparently are filled with decapitated and crushed skulls, embedded arrow-heads and other signs of how little life was valued. And even war is declining, with fewer people dying now than at any time since the 1940s. Pinker cites many causes for this, from government itself to the mutually self-serving interests of trade. He traces five trends that account for this in his new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature.
Many of these make sense, such as the role of government. The Scripture says kings “bear not the sword in vain,” and while Pinker makes little effort to deny that rulers can be unjust, it is not in their interests to kill the people who pay taxes.
The cliché that the 20th century was the most violent in human history can not be sustained, however. Even the World Wars can not match the violence of ancient empires. And judicial torture had been discarded by the 18th century, at least in the west, hence the prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment” in our own constitution.
As one becomes aware of the historical decline of violence, the world begins to look different. The past seems less innocent, the present less sinister. One starts to appreciate the small gifts of coexistence that would have seemed utopian to our ancestors: the interracial family playing in the park, the comedian who lands a zinger on the commander in chief, the countries that quietly back away from a crisis instead of escalating to war.
For all the tribulations in our lives, for all the troubles that remain in the world, the decline of violence is an accomplishment that we can savor—and an impetus to cherish the forces of civilization and enlightenment that made it possible.
Well, maybe. Certainly I’m glad to live in a less violent age. But I’m not ready to savor it yet. Christ taught that to hate our brother was to have committed murder in our heart. This is a truth that goes back to Cain and Abel. Before Cain even lifts his hands, God asks him why his face has fallen. Here is the text:
The LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.” (Genesis 4:6-7 ESV)
That’s why even though our age might seem utopian compared to the Middle Ages, it’s not. Sin still “crouches at the door.” And the forces of civilization Pinker says we might cherish can be attributed to the church as easily as to the enlightenment.
Real change comes from the inside out, and only from the transformative power of the Gospel. Self-serving restraint is no salvation, and while the benefits of government and commerce are palpable they are not permanent.
War and greed are still crouching at the door. This is the motivating principle of democracy itself, since it teaches us no man can be trusted too little or for too long.
Cain is still our brother, after all.
And the family resemblance is very strong.