Through inattention, a phone call, the kitchen almost caught fire.
...my father hit her. He was frightened and angry. He didn't hit her hard. It was an open-handed slap, and he tried to pull the blow as he realized what he was doing, but it was too late..... I looked at my father, and the blood was already leaving his face.... He tried to go to her, but she pushed him away. She couldn't look at him. In all their years together, he had never once laid a hand upon her in anger..... Looking back, I don't know if she ever truly forgave him. I don't believe that she did, for I don't think that any woman can ever really forgive a man who raises his hand to her, especially not one whom she loves and trusts. The love suffers a little, but the trust suffers more, and somewhere, deep inside herself, she will always be wary of another strike. ..... In my father's case, there would never be a next time, but my mother was not to know that, and nothing he could ever do in the years that followed would ever convince her otherwise.
The writer is John Connolly, in his Charlie Parker novel, The Black Angel. In this bleak and harrowing tale of evil, the almost-avoided act of violence by his father seems a small thing. Yet it links all the violence together. There is a progression from the shame-filled regret of the father, (who eventually executes an arrogant young hoodlum,) through the pimps on the streets, to the truly evil long-lurking beings who are breaking into the world.
The father knew shame and regret. Some of the pimps try and be ''decent" to their stable- how the word betrays them. The black angel has no compassion. But the violence is always violence, regardless of any redeeming characteristic of the perpetrator. In each of Connelly's Parker books we see Parker, and his friend Louis the semi-retired assassin, on the edge of being consumed by their violence and losing their humanity. Being on the side of right is itself no protection from the vitriol violence pours on our humanity.
I have seen something of violence against women. Clergy who do not reject or belittle women who suffer violence, seem to find a flood of it in their work. And I have seen the fear in my wife's face if I raise my voice, witness to a history she will never quite be able to forget. So in Connelly's almost epic panorama of violence, the little story of the stovetop fire stood out as if it was coloured in fluorescent hi-lighter. The carnage of the Black Angel is not what horrifies me. It is this little story of what we good men do to the women and children we love which has upset me.
Connelly's killers are without compassion. They lack any empathy for others. They are driven by, and captive to, their own totally self-ed needs. It is this captivity which Charlie Parker has always struggled to avoid, and which Louis has perhaps stepped away from. Violence steps us towards that captivity. Each violent act is like the opening of a tiny black hole in the fabric of our compassion, sucking it away into the maw of a black angel.
Violence says my needs must take precedence over yours. There is no negotiation. My desire, my fear, my self is more important than you. I will not consider your needs, or enter in any way into your feelings. Violence is the total elevation of self.
We might be thinking of immediate physical violence. We should, if we give my analysis any credence, also consider violence which is done at a distance. Violence is always violence. The selfishness which insists on my physical comfort over yours, and my wealth at your expense, is still violence. It still says you, and your needs, don't count. My vote to maintain my comfort at the expense of justice for you, is just as corrosive of my compassion as physically beating you. Violence never leaves us with clean hands. To lose compassion is to risk our humanity.
A recurring question in the Charlie Parker series is the possibility of redemption. Parker feels a calling to seek some find of justice for the victims of violence. He struggles with guilt over his family's death, and what his calling does to his new wife. At what point does seeking for justice, or even resisting the violence of another become the acid of violence itself? Is violence ever redemptive? Is it ever not damaging to me the perpetrator? Parker is never sure at what point his violence will drag him beyond redemption.
Christian theology understands redemption as something we almost have to work to avoid! Even for the fallen angels of Enoch who feature in Parker's novels, repentance is possible. Repentance literally means to turn and go another way. It would also mean to turn away from violence. But each act of violence makes it that little bit harder to turn away from the next act. Each act of violence deadens the conscience. Each accumulating injustice means there is more I have to admit to having done wrong- it is that much harder to own up and stop and live some other way. We may avoid being sucked into the black hole of violence, but it is never redemptive.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
February 17 2007
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