Fresh Violence!

Fresh Violence! Fresh Violence! Come Get Your Fresh Violence!

What do we mean when we speak of “fresh outbreaks of violence?” How are these distinct from “stale outbreaks of violence” or “new outbreaks of violence?”

Are “fresh” outbreaks similar to the “fresh” fruit and vegetables sold at our esteemed markets or do they resemble the “fresh” produce sold in grocery stores? Does fresh, in this context, have the strange valence attached to “fresh” cheese (of the cheddar, not mozzarella variety)? Is this “fresh” akin to a “fresh outbreak” of acne on a teenager’s face? Does “fresh” have the connotation of bold and audacious as in the slang reference to a certain kind of person as “fresh?” Is it something to do with attraction and desire?

More cynically, is it that “fresh” outbreaks are newsworthy while old, ongoing moments of violence are not (witness the virtual dearth of news about Iraq)?

To write of Fresh Violence is to acknowledge a deep crisis in our ability to clot, scar, and heal.

We have what, in medical terms, might be termed a double whammy: we continue to bleed because our national blood lacks appropriate clotting agents and the medication prescribed for this condition creates deadly clots, a condition known as thrombosis. I am no doctor, but my father died from this double whammy, so I have some idea of what I speak.

He had a condition known as Deep Venous Thrombosis (DVT), in which a clot typically forms in one of the extremities and if not detected in time, travels along the circulatory system and may lead to a collapsed lung, may destroy your heart, and really will kill you. As I’ve subsequently discovered, detected early, DVT is remarkably treatable.

A little more about my father, and then back to the nation. He was a medical stereotype: a man who refused to take his health seriously and a doctor who believed in his ability to treat himself, until, alas, he couldn’t breathe and his face was an ashen-gray color. Have you ever seen a black man with a gray face? It is not a pretty sight. He insisted on treating himself with pills for malaria instead of getting the right diagnosis. In general, we might not speak badly of the dead. But I am still to forgive him for his idiotic lapses in judgment.

Kenya has been a symptomatic place for a long time. A walk down one of Nairobi’s busy streets tells, or at least used to tell, a heartbreaking story: women, with infants in tow begging for money; children with feces as weapons extorting money; rapacious crowds waiting to hear cries of “thief” so they can enact “mob justice”; scores of young men sitting, just sitting, with expressions of quiet desperation; street preachers who always have an audience no matter the time of day; posters advertising healing and miracles and salvation.

We have lived with and ignored the banality of violence for so long, convinced we only need take anti-malaria pills, that we are shocked by our gray faces and collapsing lungs, amazed that our heart no longer beats with strength and vigor.

We marvel, now, at each new symptom, having learned to take perverse pleasure in the spectacle of our failing bodies. We risk, I think, the pleasure of the hypochondriac, who delights in each new symptom.

To be clear, I am not claiming that we should not pay attention to new urgencies and emergencies as they arise. Even if we wished, we cannot avoid new sites of wounding. They hurt.

But we might also pay attention to what lingers, what persists, become more responsible in how we interpret the signs of our times. I close, then, with one such symptom: the desire for miracles.

When I left Nairobi, the streets were littered with posters for healing crusades. If one believed them, we were a country awash with miracles. In what I take as a profound moment of blindness, we patted ourselves on the back and proudly declared we were a VERY Christian country. Not just Christian. But VERY Christian. Look at our streets, we said, we are so Christian that you cannot turn a corner without seeing the word Christian. But it was not just Christian. It was Christians who believed in miracles, who claimed to see visions and talk in heavenly languages. Indeed, we proclaimed with much confidence that we lived at the edge of time: the young men were seeing visions and the women perceiving signs.

We have been eschatological for as long as I can remember.

Putting aside any theological debates, what strikes me, in retrospect, was not the air of devotion around such events, but the frantic, desperate longing for a miracle: for life to change, for worries to cease, for jobs and money to come, for prohibitively expensive medical conditions to be cleared, for faith to compensate for lack of qualifications, for faith to overcome the culture of corruption that closed so many doors. Faith, at these events, was a code word for a kind of life made impossible by the State, by the doors closed by globalization, by the absence of proper connections.

We were willing to see and embrace our Christianity and less willing to see the culture of violence it masked.

Everyone wanted miracles: the haves because it excused them from taking responsibility and the have-nots because they had such limited choices. None of this information is news.

Yet, to reframe it in the context of the last few months is to recognize a crucial symptom, not deeply hidden, but visible, obvious, ridiculously so.

Several people have commented, rightly I think, that we live in a culture of violence. It is only when violence is spectacle, fresh, that we notice and comment on it. We might, rather, continue to probe what we mean by “culture of violence,” start taking action and responsibility, break the pacts of custom and tradition that protect gender and domestic violence, hold perpetrators of mob violence responsible for their actions, pursue economic strategies designed not simply to “stop” corruption, but to create conditions for economic justice.

We might create conditions in which we can heal, even, and especially, with scars.