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Violence undone: an epiphany

Martyn Smith

Whether starting gang fights as a football hooligan or studying for his thesis, Martyn Smith has always been fascinated by violence. Here he candidly explores itsattraction and recounts the life-changing moment he passed the point of no-return.


It was Frederik Buechner who first said that all theology is autobiography, and my life journey so far backs up his assertion. I was recently awarded my doctorate for a thesis on divine violence, over thirty years after being released from youth custody for an act of gratuitous violence. In one form or another, violence has accompanied and encompassed me for the vast majority of my life, holding me tightly in its seductive thrall. Both explicitly, accompanied by adrenaline, the thrill of illicit danger and vivid splashes of blood; as well as in the reflective solitude of my study, surrounded by books which usually portray violence as merely another abstract topic.

It would be easy in telling my tale to fall into the common conversion-story trap of hyperbolic overstatement, making my earlier life into a dark and yet compelling East End gangland, rather than describing its actual mundane, cold reality. Conversely it's almost impossible to express my later spiritual epiphany without it sounding overstated. With these caveats in mind let me take you back to where it all began - in Ipswich.



It was in this county town of Suffolk that I was born and brought up. My parents were both staunch atheists; against buying their council bungalow on idealistic grounds (it would be unfair to deprive others of it when they die); proudly working class - on default- Labour setting for elections; and factory workers from their teens to retirement. My brother, ten years my elder, passed his eleven-plus and took up his place at grammar school, using this superiority to mock me mercilessly for failing mine. Ahhh, siblings.

To this day, I remain at a loss as to why I was so inherently violent in thought and deed at that time. To most sane people, for example, I imagine that randomly punching strangers in bars to initiate fights for entertainment would be construed as, at best, rather questionable. For me, it didn't matter whether I won or lost these bouts, I just enjoyed being in the moment. On the other hand, there are incidents that I look back on with pain and deep regret - mostly revolving around violent treatment of girlfriends. Ironically, some I loved the most were the ones I physically hurt the worst; these most shameful recollections are ones which, unfortunately, least troubled me at the time.

It would be easy to point at others, or to highlight occurrences that might have caused my embracing of the Violent Way. Instead I believe that my violence was part inherited, part imbued from my locale, part chosen and entirely enjoyed - to start with anyway. Another rather mysterious element, requiring its own story, is the fascination I held for the occult as a means of making contact with evil. I suspect that the impact of such experimentation will perhaps only be revealed in the next life.



The fact was that I enjoyed inflicting pain, wasn't afraid of receiving pain - far from it - and found myself in need of incrementally stronger 'doses' in order to get my fix.

If you were to hazard a guess where such a pilgrimage would take a poorly educated, disenfranchised, occult-intrigued teenager in the 1980s then I imagine football hooliganism would be a popular choice - certainly, it became the main place where I could guarantee regular violent encounters. Over recent years and especially post-Fever Pitch even the most bloodless middle class 'soccer-fan' alleges to understand and feel football's tribalism and roots in the community. I imagine that such 'empathy' is akin to that enjoyed by online wargamers who likewise feel that they have actually been in a battle.

I did not want to watch, but chose instead to lead - and over time become increasingly emboldened to perpetrate more extreme acts of hurt, hate and vio-lence. On one terrible occasion I stuck a broken pint mug into a man's chest during an altercation and after a ferocious fight I was soundly beaten. I still, inexplicably, turned up at his pub the next day in order to fight again, even though I knew I was guaranteed to fail. The beating I received was horrific and well-deserved; it taught me nothing, instead only serving to further enhance my reputation as a fearless fighter.



My own inside-joke was that I was confounding the scholarly descriptions of football hooliganism and hooligans. On the one hand I sported the accepted uniform of Fila, Tacchini, Pringle and other high-tag brands. But with equal pride I pored over the writings of Orwell, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and other politically- inspired authors. My heroes at the time were not primarily footballers or even pop stars but Che Guevara and The Badar Meinhof Gang. Up yours academia, I smugly asserted - I am here to disprove your ill-informed analysis.

Oscar Wilde once quipped that cigarettes were the perfect drug because they always left you wanting more. Unfortunately the same is true in almost every hobby. Even in Christianity, I've seen how worshippers crave greater intimacies with God and the spiritual realm.

Certainly, as a football hooligan I too experienced an epiphany that initiated me into a higher echelon of the violent cognoscenti. It was an away game at Norwich City, our local rivals, and whilst not exactly generating the white heat of other notorious football derbies it nonetheless cranked up the hatred for months in advance until the pent-up rage could be unleashed. Until that day I'd unknowingly fulfilled many of the stereotypes of hooliganism - I'd done a lot of noisy taunting, followed by a few scuffles and a great deal of running around. This day changed all that.



In a narrow alleyway a handful of us Ipswich fans stalked, looking for opposition fans who were 'up for it'. Loud chanting soon heralded the approach of Norwich fans; as they rounded the corner we realised we were hopelessly outnumbered. My immediate inclination was to run in order to avoid an inevitable beating; on attempting to do so, however, my friend David calmly touched my arm, smiling and said, "… don't run mate, they're only Norwich" and in this most prosaic of moments my life changed, as I would later admit, for the worse.

Instead of running we faced down our enemies and, letting out primal screams, we charged into them, little caring that they had various weapons with which to assail us. We struck with such outlandish ferocity, however, that after a short but brutal fracas it was they who ran and us who chased, impervious to our injuries and the bloodshed. After their escape I cockily sauntered towards the ground - as yet unaware that a paradigm shift had occurred which would not be curtailed for many years. No more did I fear any enemy or the pain they might inflict on me; on the contrary, I now felt unassailably confident. It was a trait that ironically meant I actually fought less as others sensed my superiority and thus was I hoisted further up the hierarchy of violence with barely another punch thrown at all.



Oblivious to regret and consequences, however, I craved more damaging acts. One evening things took a marked turn for the worse in a street altercation in which I threatened two men with my razor-blade. In the heat of argument, in a split-second of utter madness, I slashed one of their faces causing a horrendous wound. This led to his hospitalisation and my incarceration - for a sentence of 18 months. I would be lying, however, if I didn't admit to loving every single moment of my time inside - but that is a story for another day. Suffice to say that I was let out ten months later - meaner, leaner and very much keener to take up where I'd left off, but now with the added street kudos of having 'done time'.

Thankfully, God had other plans. So it was that on 11th May 1988 at about 4am everything I'd ever known was challenged and everything I'd ever been was changed. That night I had been given the opportunity of collecting debts for a local drug-dealer and I was thrilled at the chance of taking what I saw as such an exciting and violent job. The evening took an unexpected turn, however, when in the midst of the most worldly of circumstances I had the most other-worldly of experiences. To this day I find it impossible to adequately express what occurred that night and yet what I do know is that God spoke gently in my inner-most being, whispering His love to me in my very darkest and least deserving of hours. Extraordinarily, I responded positively and so it was that in the middle of the road, with another drug-dealer, I literally called out aloud to God, asking for His forgiveness. My companion was physically transfixed and I took my chance to run free, tears streaming down my face in wonderment at God's mercy.



Try as I might to conclude otherwise in the following weeks I realised that I had no other option than to accept that there was a God called Jesus and that I wanted to give Him my all forever. This second epiphany, I am eternally grateful to say, has proved longer-lasting and more deep seated than the first one in Norwich and has borne fruit in my life the like of which I could previously not even have imagined, let alone sought or desired.

The second half of my life, therefore, has been entirely dedicated to Jesus Christ and though there have undoubtedly been low-points, the reality of His being has given me a purpose, drive and sense of direction that were previously missing. And so the boy who left the sink secondary school with one 'O' level has had a doctorate conferred on him this summer; I am proud of this and grateful to God for His ongoing 'renewing of my mind'.

So, what has this rather unorthodox journey taught me about the Church, God and myself?



Firstly, it is obvious to me and those I know that I do not exhibit violence in my life, at least not explicitly. I nonetheless concede that I can be rather forceful at times and it has also been noted that I have rather a foreboding demeanour on occasions - are these, I wonder, residual to my past? If I am frank, would I be willing to forego these facets of my character even if I were able - after all, they are part of who I am andhave, more than once, been rather useful in various encounters. I also want to argue that the expression of any kind of irresistible force is a form of violence, whether physical, moral, spiritual or even verbal, in arguments for instance. Just because blood hasn't been spilt, it does not necessarily mean that violence has not been used and perhaps even enjoyed - just in a more palatable and 'Christian' fashion.

Further, it is not just nature that is red in tooth and claw but human existence and experience too. To start with, life itself is spawned in a moment which, sentimentality aside, is characterised by the inexorable and violent thrust of engorged manhood later giving way to the bloody and visceral birth of a child through the same canal of these much-punished female genitalia. Life and the fight for survival is either literally or mythically, depending on location, enshrined in hunting and gathering and fighting foes whilst death is often a pain-addled affair and the violent wresting of life away from the human grasp.



God too is not beyond such ascriptions of violence and aside from the over 1,000 references to divine violence in the Old Testament1 it is beyond argument that God's dealings with humankind are typified by various degrees of violence. Some of them, like The Ban (herem), are chilling in their assertion that those defeated by Yahweh's armies should be 'devoted to destruction'.2 Those seeking solace that this 'God of the Old Testament' has been super-ceded by a more avuncular being should remember that it was through violence that God inaugurated the Christian dispensation and the primary Christian symbol, the crucifixion, still stands as the ineradicable centrepiece of Christian redemption and remains indubitably an act of extreme violence.3

Those endorsing the Christus Victor atonement model which portrays salvation as a drama rather than a theological proposition contend that the only way in which God could defeat a powerful adversary like the Satan would be through redemptive violence.4 Further, it is not concomitant of this position that because violence has been the bane of human history that God must not use extrinsic violence to accomplish our salvation. Instead, it is imperative to preserve the fundamental difference between God and nonGod, because the biblical tradition insists that there are things which only God may do - one of them is to use violence.



My final lesson learned has been that this God of love, in spite of His desire to intervene otherwise, will occasionally use violence when there is no other way to achieve His goals. This is especially true if these goals involve salvation - God is, simply put - a God of insurmountable love and irresistible force.

Strangely, at the end of it all, the greatest compliment I receive is when staff and pupils at my school suspect me of being a religious, intellectual, sensitive and caring wimp; this is a satisfying ascription to one who once pursued a life diametrically opposed to that. It might also be that in some small measure this observation parallels that regularly and erroneously made of gentle Jesus, meek and mild.


Martyn J Smith is the lead teacher in Religious Education, Philosophy and Ethics at Belvoir High School in Leicstershire. His PhD thesis will be published with Pickwick Publications next year.



1 Schwager notes, in fact, that the theme of God's bloody vengeance occurs more frequently than the problem of human violence. R. Schwager, Must There Be Scapegoats? Violence and Redemption in the Bible, New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1987, 55.

2 S. Niditch, War in the Hebrew Bible - A Study in the Ethics of Violence, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993, 28. This 'ban' has been interpreted in the KJV translation of the Bible as, "…utterly destroy", Numbers 21:2.

3 J. Young, The Violence of God and the War on Terror, London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 2007, 5.

4 For the classic rendition of this argument in the Western Church see G. Aulén, Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of the Atonement, Oregon: Wipf and Stock, 1931.