Research Associate Peter King introduces a new study guide for churches which invites us to reflect on the many ways in which violence manifests itself in our world.


It must have been during my time studying theology in Scotland in the early 1980s that I first came across the work of Helder Camara, and his analysis of violence. Liberation Theology was still relatively new, and my part of the theological world was abuzz with ideas about ways in which theology and the church might engage with global injustice.

Helder Camara was Archbishop of Recife in Brazil from 1964 – 1985. In 1971 his book Spiral of Violence was published in English translation. Writing in the context of the military dictatorship in Brazil, Camara observed how the violence of the protests which he would have observed around him was not the beginning, for what had provoked them was also violence, this time embodied in social structures:

This established violence, this violence No. 1, attracts violence No 2, revolt, either of the oppressed themselves or of youth, firmly resolved to battle for a more just and human world. 

Helder Camara, Spiral of Violence (Sheed & Ward, 1971), p. 30

And then, of course, as the authorities crack down on the protests of the oppressed, we see what Camara refers to as violence No. 3 from the powers that be in defense of the status quo. In this way, violence No. 1 can be maintained, and the whole spiral starts again.

Camara’s point is that violence surrounds us in the very structures of our societies, yet we tend to look for it only in situations of obvious conflict, so we notice violence No. 2 and condemn it whilst failing to see the violence No. 1 which provoked it. Violence No. 1 is taken for granted, part of the fabric of society, violence hidden in plain sight.

Bertholt Brecht puts it neatly in his poem ‘On Violence’ where he observes that:

The rushing river they call violent
But the riverbed pressing it in
Nobody calls violent.

Bertolt Brecht, ‘On Violence’ (Über die Gewalt)

John Willett & Ralph Manheim (eds), Bertolt Brecht Poems (Methuen, 1976), p. 276

As we look around us at the world it is clear that Camara was on to something in his observation and identification of violence No. 1. Nowadays we would speak of “structural violence” (Brecht’s riverbed) a term popularised by the theologians of liberation but perhaps still not widely understood or appreciated in the churches or in wider society.

Photo: Peter King

This post marks the launch of a new study guide entitled Hidden in Plain Sight:  The Violence That Surrounds Us. Its aim is to encourage groups and / or individuals to reflect on the ways in which violence is manifested in our world – the all too real violence embodied in what the philosopher Slavoj Zizek terms Systemic Violence and Symbolic Violence – the violence of structures and the violence of language. See Salvoj Zizek, Violence: Six Sideways Reflections (Profile Books, 2008).

The violence of social structures, for example, can be seen in the

avoidable limitations that societies place on groups of people, be they economic, political, religious, cultural, or legal in nature …

Furthermore:

… because these limitations are embedded within social structures, it is common for people to view them as nothing more than ordinary problems that they encounter in the course of their day-to-day lives.

And yet, it is estimated that that structural violence

causes more than ten times the rate of deaths—in other words, the excess deaths that would not have happened in an equal and just society—as the rate of suicides, homicides, and warfare combined

https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/psychiatry-in-society/201802/hidden-violence

So the violence may well be hidden but its effects are not.

At the same time as considering these dimensions of violence, the study guide also introduces the Hebrew Bible’s wholistic and wide-ranging concept of peace.   Again, it was in the 1980s that I first encountered the term Shalom, and its all-inclusive vision of a world where

all creation is one, every creature in community with every other, living in harmony and security toward the joy and well-being of every other creature. … 

Walter Brueggemann, Living Toward a Vision, (United Church Press, 1982), p. 15

If violence means much more than simply physical violence, then peace also means much more than simply the absence of war.  In a world where there is injustice and oppression, and where people are marginalised because of their race or gender or creed, there can be no true peace.

I wonder if the prophet Jeremiah was aware of this in his words:

They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying “peace, peace”, when there is no peace.

Jeremiah 6: 14 (NRSV)

Writing towards the end of the southern kingdom of Judah, the prophet calls out those who proclaim peace as a way of keeping the lid on the injustices of their society, of denying the pain and suffering they see around them and protecting those who are responsible for it.  

Photo: Peter King

So what is our responsibility in this situation?

In preparing the Study Guide I came across a term that was new to me, but which seemed to sum up the task of churches, and indeed all people of good will, in face of the hidden violence of our world. We are, I believe, to be Upstanders. To be an upstander is the opposite of being a bystander. A bystander stands by and watches whereas an upstander stands up and acts. 

So how can we be upstanders faced with the hidden violence around us? One thing that we can all do is to name and identify the hidden violence of our communities, our societies and of the wider world. Part of the church’s prophetic role is speaking out against the systemic and symbolic violence which marginalises and limits people and prevents their flourishing.

I hope that this Study Guide will help churches to identify and engage with the violence of our world in all its varied forms, and to embrace the full meaning and implications of our call to be peacemakers.


Research Associate Peter King trained at Bristol Baptist College and was ordained in 1988, serving for eight years at Eynsham Baptist Church, Oxfordshire. He now works for the Anglican Diocese of Chichester in adult theological education. Peter’s work for the CSBV includes producing Bible study resources such as these, and running our preacher’s blog Sunday Sermon Monday Mourning.


Hidden in Plain Sight
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