Ukraine: Giving Up Our Violent Scripts

 [We’re Giving Up Violence for Lent]

Guest Post: William Shaw

Today our friend William adds to our series on Giving Up Violence for Lent, sharing a bit of his story and the violent scripts that shaped his perspective on the crisis in Ukraine.

For the last month the escalating situation in Ukraine has gripped the world, especially the dramatic showdown between protestors and police in the central square of Kiev, now known as the “Maidan.” All eyes were on this often overlooked country as they fought for freedom against a corrupt government and violently oppressive police force. It had all the elements of a good movie: there was a group of underdogs, surrounded behind homemade barricades going up against a superiorly armed and better-organized force (think of the Alamo or the barricades in Les Miserables), there was a clear division between the good guys and bad guys (the bad guys all wore black uniforms with covered faces like Star Wars’ storm troopers), the protesters were fighting for democratic ideals while the government was greedy and wanted to squash the people, and to top it all off, there was a shooting where protesters were killed, an injustice that had to be revenged.

I should mention at this point, that my wife and I are currently living in Poland, a neighbor of Ukraine (for my geographically impaired fellow Americans ;), where everyone is watching closely to see what happens next and how it will affect our lives here. We also have many friends in Ukraine whom we care about and are hoping that they will remain safe regardless of what happens.

As I was watching all of this through the lens of Facebook, Youtube videos and western media websites, I noticed that I had these violent fantasies for how the situation “should” turn out. I was rooting for the protesters to fight back with whatever weapons they had against the police. I saw videos of protestors storming government buildings and violently beating police officers and thought, “well, they are the bad guys, they deserve to be beaten for shooting at innocent people.”

I also found myself hoping that Ukraine would split down the middle between the Russian leaning part and the Western leaning part and even got excited when I heard that some protesters in Western Ukraine had broken into some police buildings and armories and had stolen some weapons. “Yes”, I thought, “now we will have a true fight for freedom!” Despite the fact that in reality this would result in thousands of people dying and being displaced.

I finally had a moment when I paused to reflect and asked myself, “Where are these thoughts coming from? Why do I find myself rooting for violence and war?” As if it were an inevitable part of the script.

I am ashamed to admit that there was a period in my life where my weekly schedule was dictated by the T.V. guide. Every Saturday during my teenage years I would stay home all day and watch movies that were playing on television. I loved the action films the best – films like Braveheart, Gladiator, or The Patriot.  I found that I also rooted for the violence in these movies the same way that I was rooting for it in Ukraine.

When William Wallace’s wife is killed in Braveheart, I am in full support as he takes his revenge and kills a dozen soldiers, and goes on to kill thousands more. It is funny how we are willing to forgive massive loss of life if it is in the name of avenging the hero’s innocent family that was killed.

The fact of the matter is that we have been programmed to think this way by the movies and television shows we have watched. These shows follow a predictable script and it makes our brains feel good when that script is followed, like settling into an old worn and comfy chair with our own groove. You could say that our brains have been programmed for violence. Unfortunately, that programming transfers to the real world as well. Especially when today’s media blurs the lines between news and entertainment with an incentive to present events in dramatic strokes in order to increase ad revenues.

Photo: Sergei Supinsky/AFP

Photo: Sergei Supinsky/AFP

So what does it mean to give up violence for lent in this context? It means choosing to defy this script, this programming for violence, and to think about alternative endings and alternative versions or aspects of the same story. For instance, choosing to see the police officers that surrounded the protesters as real people with families and not just faceless uniformed figures. They were shot at as well. Their comrades were also killed. It means thinking about the real consequences if this road leads to war. It means seeing the complexity of the situation, and realizing that violence would not be a quick fix to the situation. It means thinking of creative alternatives to violence.

In all the videos I saw there was one that truly stood out and amazed me. The film was showing violent protesters striking at a line of shielded police with large sticks, but in the middle between the protesters and police there was a man wearing a Ukrainian flag, a protestor himself, who was trying to stop the other protestors from striking at the police. Every once in a while he would get hit with a piece of wood but would continue his attempt to protect the police.  He was the only one standing in the gap between the two violent factions, and I thought to myself, now there is a real hero.

Billy-profileWilliam Shaw is a Marriage and Family Therapist from Minneapolis, MN who is currently living in Krakow, Poland with his wife, Marta. He is interested in psychology, theology and loves to play strategy board games.

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