The decline of violence is a fractal phenomenon, visible at the scale of millennia, centuries, decades, and years. It applies over several orders of magnitude of violence, from genocide to war to rioting to homicide to the treatment of children and animals. And it appears to be a worldwide trend, though not a homogeneous one. The leading edge has been in Western societies, especially England and Holland, and there seems to have been a tipping point at the onset of the Age of Reason in the early seventeenth century.
At the widest-angle view, one can see a whopping difference across the millennia that separate us from our pre-state ancestors. Contra leftist anthropologists who celebrate the noble savage, quantitative body-counts—such as the proportion of prehistoric skeletons with axemarks and embedded arrowheads or the proportion of men in a contemporary foraging tribe who die at the hands of other men—suggest that pre-state societies were far more violent than our own. It is true that raids and battles killed a tiny percentage of the numbers that die in modern warfare. But, in tribal violence, the clashes are more frequent, the percentage of men in the population who fight is greater, and the rates of death per battle are higher. According to anthropologists like Lawrence Keeley, Stephen LeBlanc, Phillip Walker, and Bruce Knauft, these factors combine to yield population-wide rates of death in tribal warfare that dwarf those of modern times. If the wars of the twentieth century had killed the same proportion of the population that die in the wars of a typical tribal society, there would have been two billion deaths, not 100 million.
Are we, perhaps, less far than we think from the time envisioned by the ancient prophets, when “nation will not take up sword against nation, neither will they learn war any more” (Isaiah 2:4)? I have long observed, to anyone who will listen, that most people, at most times and places, live most of their lives in relative peace. Pinker’s study seems to suggest that this is increasingly true, despite even the horrors of the twentieth century. Our attention focuses on acts of violence precisely because they are anomalous, whether the occasion is murder, terrorism, or organized warfare.
“Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end” says Isaiah 9:7 of the one identified in the previous verse as the Prince of Peace, in a passage widely held in the Christian tradition as pointing to the birth of Christ: yet today, many who claim to be followers of that Christ, who insist they are believers in the very selfsame sacred text that gives us these words, have given up on any hope that there can be any increase of peace, but instead hope only for a bloody, fiery apocalyptic end of the world — and some of them think their “blessed hope” lies, not in the increase of peace, but in being on the winning side in an upcoming battle. They concern themselves not a whit with the increase of peace (though the chief apostle, Peter, admonishes them to “seek peace and pursue it”), thinking that there will be time enough for all that after the end of time.
Yet for the Christian, the evil that we fight is not the evil outside of us, but the evil we find within: not sinners but sin, not bad people but the wickedness to which people, including ourselves, so easily succumb: “for our struggle is not against flesh and blood” (Ephesians 6:12). Our enemies are not those who hate us, but the hatred within us, not terrorists but our own sense of terror, not those who threaten to ban talk of God from our public places but our own fears and suspicions which threaten to banish the peace of God from our inner life. When the victory is gained over these enemies, we can become stalwart warriors for peace.