Imagine taking a young person who doesn’t know how to swim to the lake. Not only does this young person not know how to swim, but nobody in their neighborhood knows how to swim. They’ve never even seen anybody swim. At the lake, you take them to the end of the pier and demand they jump in and swim across the lake. When they don’t, you lock them in the shed for an hour. At the end of the hour, you take them to the end of the pier again, but they still refuse to swim across the lake. So you lock them in the shed for a day. Surely they’ll learn the lesson this time, you think, but at the end of the pier they still refuse to swim. This time you lock them in the shed and walk away. Now, imagine instead of swimming we’re talking about living as a law-abiding productive member of the community, and instead of the shed we’re talking about prison.
I first heard this analogy at a prison ministry conference. We were talking particularly about youthful offenders, and about the simple fact that there are entire neighborhoods and communities where children grow up not seeing any adults work an honest job or support their family and community in a constructive way. The young person repeats what they’ve seen, gets in trouble with the law, and perhaps does some time at a juvenile detention facility. But they still only know a broken home, broken community, and broken system. Encounters with the criminal justice system continue without this person ever being given the tools they need to succeed. And this cycle repeats as more than 70 percent of young people in the United States who have had a parent incarcerated will themselves one day be incarcerated.
This may seem like a tired old story, making excuses for someone’s poor choices. I’ve heard the response before: Even my five-year-old knows the difference between right and wrong. Your middle class, suburban five-year-old may have a good grasp of right and wrong (mine often makes me wonder). They are probably growing up in the area that gets the resources for schools and libraries and special programs, surrounded by suburban families who don’t have to fear each encounter with law enforcement. For those who live in the cycle of poverty and incarceration, that unending spiral seems hopeless. When it becomes a generational cycle, the young people don’t know any other way.
This is a topic I have often written and spoken about in the context of mass incarceration and criminal justice issues. The feedback loop of violence is even reinforced by a state that says killing is an acceptable systemic response. But what if these criminal justice issues are not the only cycle of violence we have to contend with?
The most recent American foreign policy crisis with Iran brought forth the realization that the swimming analogy applies to more than just the youthful offender from a rough neighborhood. It raises the question of whether most Americans support state violence, because it is all we know. These and other cycles of violence are connected.
Historians will quickly point out that the American-sponsored coup in Iran started the decades-long series of conflicts involving that country, but the cycle of violence between nations is not my point here. My focus is on the individual who has never seen anything other than violent reprisals and celebration of that violence. Is that individual standing at the end of a pier being asked to support peace and diplomacy when they have only seen war?
Imagine a culture that celebrates violence at every turn. A culture whose heroes are action stars who slaughter people by the dozen on the silver screen. A culture that idolizes the rough justice of the Wild West and feeds everyone on the fantasy of being the good guy with the gun. A culture that places military service on the highest pedestal and shouts down anyone who disagrees with hawkish foreign policy as someone who does not support the troops. Does a young person raised in this culture even realize there is another way? Or is this person doomed to support a continuous cycle of violence, because violence is all they’ve ever been taught?
Every American can quickly become the non-swimmer at the end of the pier when we apply the analogy to other kinds of dysfunction. Can the American who has grown up in a country constantly at war conceive of solutions other than violent retaliation? Can the American who has grown up in an atmosphere of rabid nationalism love and respect people from other nations, or will they always see people who were born inside our imaginary lines as somehow more valuable? Are we each stuck in our own cycle of violence, repeating the things we have always seen in our families, neighborhoods, communities, and nation?
I have good news for you. In fact it’s the original Good News. The youthful offender can break the cycle of his own violence. The young person whose parents were incarcerated can break the generational cycle. Each of us can break the cycle of violence we find ourselves in, whether criminal violence or support for socially acceptable forms of violence. The original Good News, the only thing that ultimately breaks these cycles, is the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul told us, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” The pattern of this world is violence, whether individual or national — the fruit of an enemy that is not of flesh and blood. When we realize that violence itself is the enemy, we can stop the cycle of punishing people and nations and begin to restore the broken at every level.
Jesus taught us in all those red letters how to renew our minds, be transformed, and no longer conform to the patterns of this world. Blessed are the meek, the merciful, and the peacemakers. The followers of Jesus should be the leaders in breaking cycles of violence at every level, not the ones celebrating violent reprisal or supporting unjust war and unjustly harsh criminal penalties.
Our churches should be the first places welcoming the broken, the poor, the refugees, the ones who have known no other way. We have the Good News that breaks cycles of violence and replaces them with love and redemption. Let’s start acting like we really believe in the original Good News.