Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

The Back Page

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

The Back Page

Article excerpt


Children are not exposed to enough violence. Yes, I know the grim statistics, how a child who enters middle school has already witnessed 8,000 murders and 100,000 other violent acts on TV. As he and his friends enter adolescence, they take up first-person shooter video games. In college, he becomes a connoisseur of gory new shows, inviting his girlfriend over to watch prestige dramas that are not much less pornographic or violent than what he watches when she isn't there.

Children arrive at adulthood by wading through a river of pixelated blood. Rape, murder, assault: The violence we see on screen exists outside and against civilization. No less remarkably (and perhaps not coincidentally), we have been insulated from a different kind of violence-the ordered bloodletting of the butcher's shop, barnyard, and hunting field. Without the lessons these practices teach, we tend to approach violence either with naive squeamishness or with a cruel indifference to savagery.

I will never forget the first time I saw a cow hanging in my grandparents' barn, half butchered, its tongue placed in a bucket. I was a four-year-old who loved science fiction. The characters on my favorite show lived in a society without money, pollution, or violence-a rare steak emerged from a swirl of particles in the starship's "replicator." Here on the farm, a steak came from a cow. Death was part of life. Violence was part of order. When I was six years old, I got a BB gun for Christmas. My father had already given me a toy gun to carry when he took me hunting. Whenever I got out of the truck or crossed a fence, I was to avoid pointing my harmless firearm at myself or other people. While handling that BB gun and the guns that followed-the .410, 20 gauge, and 12 gauge, the .30-06 and .243-I was taught that there were right and wrong ways to use violence.

Whatever I killed, I had to clean. One November Saturday, I shot my first pheasant and brought it home, its oriental plumage flashing in the sun. I learned how to pluck, dress, and clean the bird before placing the meat in the fridge to cool. Years later, I crouched over my first deer with a hunting knife, trying not to puncture the bladder as I cut through the skin. No amount of gore seen on screen could have prepared me for the flesh's smell and heat.

Where I grew up, in rural Nebraska, we all had to learn these lessons. Ranchers kept rifles hanging in the back windows of their trucks, ready to be pulled down if they saw a coyote stalking the herd. In my home, guns were piled in a corner beside the toys, and shells accumulated on a nearby bookshelf. Some would call this irresponsible. In fact, it was one of the ways my parents taught me what responsibility was. Danger cannot be excluded from life, so one had better learn early how to handle it.

The summer after my junior year of college, I joined an electrical crew that was rewiring the feeder motors in a hog confinement. Thousands of animals lived there, packed into tin sheds laid out like barracks. They were so crowded that the slightest infection could wipe out the herd in a matter of days. So each morning when my crew arrived, we drove our van through a carwash and then walked through a shower house, entering a locker room on one side of the building, stripping down, going through a bank of showers, and coming out on the other side. We wore specially sanitized company clothes until we walked back through the showers at the end of the day.

No matter how much I scrubbed that summer, I could not get the smell of manure out of my hair. …

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