An Image Compelling Conscience

Photographic images helped to end the war in Vietnam: a Vietcong prisoner, shot point-blank in his temple; a screaming young girl, running naked after a napalm attack; a Buddhist monk, transformed into a human torch in protest of the war. Since then, American troops go to war under Pentagon-imposed, tightly controlled access to visual images. We know that an image can compel conscience in ways words cannot.

Usually, that is. When it first came to light that Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice had physically abused his then-fiancée, Janay Palmer, Roger Goodell, the N.F.L. commissioner, responded with only a two-game suspension. It’s not clear whether he knew of the security video, showing Rice, dragging the unconscious Palmer from an elevator. But when a video emerged, capturing the actual punch, it became harder to ignore the heinousness of physically abusing one’s partner. Sometimes someone else’s words perfectly express one’s own sentiment. After noting in The New Yorker that the N.F.L. currently boasts its highest-ever TV ratings, Ben McGrath wrote of Rice and Palmer:


The fact that they have since married changes nothing about the appalling act of violence, or the gut sense that there ought to be no room in public life for a man who carries out such an act, and no pleasure derived from watching him put such strength to less harmful use (Sept. 29, 2014).

Both videos should be terribly difficult to watch, though they were fodder for the 24-hour TV news outlets, and they’re still easily web-accessed. Try watching them again, after rereading these words from Proverbs. 

When one finds a worthy wife,
her value is far beyond pearls.
Her husband, entrusting his heart to her,
has an unfailing prize.
She brings him good, and not evil,
all the days of her life (31:10-12).

What demons possess a man who can hit a woman? If he was raised in a culture that could continence such an act, what greater proof can there be of an “original sin,” of an evil greater than ourselves, from which we cannot, of our own power, escape?

That’s not the only evidence of a societal sin from which we suffer. What of the heartbreaking willingness of women to seek out such men? And to return to them even after their violent natures have been exposed? No one with a healthy sense of self worth would ever go back to such a man. Why are there so many women who do? Is there a greater denial of Genesis truth—that God saw all that he created and called it good—than the inner conviction of so many women that they somehow deserve the violence? Why do all of us, but women in particular, believe that we are not worthy of love? 

All of us want desperately to be loved, and most of us look for love in the wrong places. We do so even after we’ve been emotionally wounded. But what sort of societal evil, what sort of sin larger than any one of us, can explain the evil of men physically abusing women, or of women who are convinced that the acceptance of such cruelty is their only chance at love? Or to believe that they must endure such abuse so as to create a better life for their children. How do they fail to recognize the sinful disregard of self that they themselves seed in the next generation? Certainly, there is the cultural sin of sexism. In more ways than can be reckoned, we still teach women that their true worth is something that men assign to them.

We usually hear the parable of the invested talents as reminding us to use the gifts that God has given us. But the parable probes deeper than what we do with what God gave to us. It’s also about who we think we are. Do we really believe that God created us as good, and that nothing can ever cancel that basic truth about ourselves? How can any of us believe that we come forth from an all good, all loving God and still be convinced that we must settle for a love that is violent and twisted? Could there be a stronger sign of sin’s reality? 

But we, “brothers and sisters, are not in darkness” (1 Thes 5:4). We are “children of the light and children of the day”(1 Thes 5:5). Sin is recognized for what it is when salvation dawns. We can only see evil and reject it in the light of grace. In that glow we see a truly human life that is yet to be. Belief in a higher power is more than a prerequisite for sobriety. It’s the most important truth we can learn about ourselves. We come from love and we deserve to be loved. Love is our origin and our destiny

Images speak. Every crucifix tells us what it means to forget that truth about ourselves. So do those elevator security-camera videos of Janay Palmer. 

Proverbs 31: 10-13, 19-20, 30-31    1 Thessalonians 5: 1-6    Matthew 25: 14-30

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