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Flannery O’Connor and the Violence of Christianity

January 18, 2017


Recently, I read a terrible article warning readers against Flannery O’Connor. Specifically, the author was apprehensive about the prevalence of violence in her work. Like many others who dislike Flannery, this critic seemed to believe that she uses violence to get her point across, as if violence were merely a shocking tool wielded by a heavy handed novelist. But this understanding of O’Connor’s writing is, quite simply, wrong. Violence isn’t a tool used to deliver a message; violence is the message. But how could this be for a Catholic author who is supposed to be writing about Catholic things? Isn’t the Gospel about love and life, not violence and death? Well, not quite. Flannery’s understanding of violence is plain in this passage from her aptly named novel, The Violent Bear It Away:

“He knew with an instinct as sure as the dull mechanical beat of his heart that he had baptized the child even as he drowned him, that he was headed for everything the old man had prepared him for, that he moved off now through the black forest toward a violent encounter with his fate.”

This passage references two violent events. The first is the dual baptism and drowning of a small boy, Bishop. The second is the future violent climax of the story where Francis will raze his old life to the ground and submit to his destiny as a servant of God. In the first event, we are reminded that baptism is not only the washing away of original sin and our rite of entrance into the church; but, it is death. We are buried with Christ; we are drowned. St. Paul says in his letter to the Romans, “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death” (Romans 6:4). Baptism is a renewal, yes. Though not because the cool water is refreshing but rather because we die and rise again to live with Christ.

Of course, as we all know, the Christian life doesn’t end at Baptism. We still have a lot more dying to do. And that’s what the Christian life is about. We are supposed to become united with Christ in his crucifixion, the most violent of deaths. The violence isn’t gratuitous, of course. Only in dying can we truly live because only then can Christ live fully in us (Galations 2:20).

So, violence isn’t a tool O’Connor uses to describe the Christian life. Instead, violence is the Christian life. Death in baptism all the way to death in our union with Christ. And the fact that many of O’Connor’s stories are saturated with this kind of violence is absolutely in line with Scripture. Christ’s death was “once for all” (1 Peter 3:18) but we must “die daily” as St. Paul put it (1 Corinthians 15:31). Through this violence, we experience peace and a fullness of life that is otherwise unimaginable.