“Do you know why humans like violence? Because violence feels good”
(Spoken by character of Alan Turing in The Imitation Game)
This is continuing a series about anger, violence and war from a Christian perspective. Last time I looked at Christ’s apparent violence and rage in the incident of the ‘cleansing of the temple’. Now, post-Easter, I’d like to look at what’s been called the ‘Myth of Redemptive Violence’ and how it relates to the cross of Christ.
‘The Myth of Redemptive Violence’ is a phrase coined by theologian-activist Walter Wink, who argues that it’s the predominant myth of our culture and possibly of most cultures throughout history. Put simply, it’s the idea that violence or brute force is the primary means by which good wins, evil is dealt with and positive change is accomplished.
The myth is played out in every cartoon and in story after story – Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Asterix and Tom & Jerry cartoons, Western films, superhero comics… Good has to prevail over evil by force, by fighting, by violent struggle which ends in the physical punishment and often death of the villains of the piece.
And the good side is completely justified in using violence against the bad because the bad are so bad, and their destruction is necessary to bring peace and stability. The baddies are entirely responsible for things being wrong, and things cannot be right again until they are removed – usually killed.
Roots of violence
Wink traces the roots of this myth to the Babylonian creation story, a primal myth in which original disorder has to be conquered through acts of violence to bring order. But I think it goes even deeper, back into our evolutionary origins, the violent competitive struggle for survival, from which the Babylonian myth itself derives.
Violence is part of the human animal. The instinct to fight is one of our primal survival responses – a defensive reaction to feeling threatened or frightened. And plenty else can trigger our desire to lash out and hurt – frustration, feeling thwarted or challenged or trapped, jealousy and betrayal, hunger, hurt, humiliation, wounded self-image. And the evolutionary instincts to hunt and to dominate, to compete and conquer also easily lead to violence.
I’m not saying that it’s wrong to have angry, frightened or even violent impulses, by the way – we can’t help it, though we can help what we do with them. (Nor am I saying that it’s necessarily totally wrong ever to fight under any circumstances – but I’ll come back to that in another post.)
So there are violent impulses hardwired deep into all of us, in the most primitive part of our psyches, somewhere around the same place as our sex drives. For the most part we who see ourselves as ‘civilised’ know that these violent impulses aren’t ones we should act on directly. Nonetheless the instincts don’t go away and often we just find more socially (even religiously) acceptable ways to exercise them.
Punishing the baddies – or the scapegoats
And these violent instincts are also coupled with another deep psychological impulse to put all of our unacceptable ‘bad’ onto others as scapegoats, and rid ourselves of it by punishing them for it. And this is where religion comes in and sanctions ‘redemptive’ or purgative violence against those it brands evildoers, heathens or heretics. And there we have the root of Crusades, Jihad and all manner of ‘Holy War’; of witch-hunts and the burning of heretics.
But we can’t blame this all on others; it’s in us too. Almost all of us instinctively love it when the ‘baddies’ get their comeuppance at the end of the story, however brutally or violently. There’s something deeply and horribly satisfying about the evil Nazis melting at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. We feel they richly deserve it, and in their terrible (but just) destruction the world is cleansed and put right again. It’s satisfying, but not I think truly Christian or Christlike.
However, following Franciscan Richard Rohr, I’d say that this violent myth has historically infiltrated the church and Christian theology, and has long influenced our understanding of sin, atonement and judgement; even perhaps of evangelism.
The ‘Christian’ myth of redemptive violence
So according to the Christianised version, God’s good creation is spoiled by bad beings and bad people who are to blame for all the ills of the world. To restore rightness and goodness, these bad ones must be violently punished, removed, even killed.
But the ‘Christian’ version goes further. Badness has so infiltrated everything and everyone that all merit death, and not just death but also endless punishment after death; terrible eternal torture in hell. This is apparently what divine justice requires.
And we’re told the only solution to this is the violent sacrificial death of the perfect victim, God’s only son Jesus, who effectively takes on the role of the innocent scapegoat for the rest of us. This violent act alone satisfies the requirements of righteousness – and of an apparently violent, vengeful, even bloodthirsty God – and means that goodness and peace can be restored. But all those who aren’t covered by Jesus’ blood sacrifice will have to be eternally, violently punished.
This, in many ways, is the ‘gospel’ many of us have been taught, if not usually expressed quite so starkly. It’s not a gospel I’ve ever felt comfortable with; it doesn’t feel very much like good news, or a story of divine love and mercy.
Telling a better story
Now I don’t deny all of this tale. I do believe that in some sense the goodness of God’s creation has been spoiled and that all of us are subject to corruption. I’m still that much an evangelical. 😉
Nonetheless, I do reject the idea that only by violent and bloody punishment can this situation be dealt with. I can’t help feeling that there must be better ways of understanding the Christian story, shorn of its false association with the Myth of Redemptive Violence. Jesus, I’m convinced, did not buy into this myth, nor do I think he understood his own death in these terms.
Rather Jesus represented the way of non-violence and even anti-violence. He represented the way of love – not of force or brute power. He opposed the Myth of Redemptive Violence and turned it on its head. In his death, he was not satisfying the demands of a vengeful God for a violent sacrifice to restore order. Rather he was taking upon himself all the violence of the world system, of us, in order that it and we might be healed, redeemed, saved from the otherwise endless cycle of violence and revenge.
Violence breeds violence, and violent punishment is not the solution to violent crime. But in Jesus’ death something new and never-before-seen happens. The violence of humanity and of the world that Jesus takes upon himself does not – miraculously – breed more violence. Rather, his utter innocence and purity somehow overcome and disarm all the violence, meaning that there can be redemption at last for our broken and violent world and for our broken and violent hearts.
So Jesus’ death is not an act of blood sacrifice to appease an angry God. It is an act of self-sacrifice to topple the violent and destructive powers that rule us – including the power of the Myth of Redemptive Violence. Jesus’ death is the ultimate act of love, a love which alone can defeat death and destruction and the darkness within every one of us.
Next time – is it okay to be angry?
Further reading (and listening)
- Walter Wink: The Myth of Redemptive Violence (Wink’s original article, PDF)
- Richard Rohr: The Cross as “the axis of the world” (Greenbelt recorded talk)
- Review of John Dominic Crossan’s How to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian: Struggling with Divine Violence from Genesis Through Revelation