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The Myth of Redemptive Violence in Churches

October 11, 2012

Before fully getting into this post I think it is important to make a distinction between the usual understanding of the word ‘myth’ in common denotative language and the use of the word ‘myth’ in an academic sense (which will be employed here).

In common vernacular myth is commonly used to describe a fable, fairy-tale, and is often understood as something that is “not-true” (i.e., did not historically happen). However, the usage of the term myth in academic settings is much more nuanced than really happened or didn’t happen. This is an important distinction because in an academic sense myth is, “any real or fictional story, recurring theme, or character type that appeals to the consciousness of a people by embodying its cultural ideals or by giving expression to deep, commonly felt emotions” (i.e., it’s historical facticity is not the real pursuit).

In this sense then a myth is more representative of a culture; what is the meaning behind this particular story that is being told and re-told; how is it forming culture, or representative of a society? There are lots of boring books that you can read on the topic, and I won’t subject you to much more in a blog post, I just wanted you to see the difference of the word ‘myth’ and how it is being used in this post: basically the title could also read “The Formative and Reflective Nature of Redemptive Violence Stories in Modern Culture and Subsequently Churches.”

So what is the myth of redemptive violence? The ‘good guys’–who may be disavowed, disenfranchised, bullied, underdogs, smaller in numbers, etc.–have their backs against the wall, are usually being given no choice, and must use some sort of violence–martial arts, sword-play, weapons, war, etc.–to make things ‘right’.

Once you start looking for it you will find it everywhere. Think about modern movies: A history of Violence and Taken: husbands must use violence to protect their families. Lord of the Rings: how do you beat the bad guy? Violence. Star Wars, Avengers, Batman, Braveheart… etc. ad nauseum. The myth pervades our culture, it is in literature, kid’s literature and TV programming, TV, and pretty much can be found in almost any narrative media form.

Now, I’m of the opinion that this is not a good thing. There are far too many people that have been fed a steady diet of this myth and are obese on it. Take a look at the news almost everyday. It is depressing; the absolutely senseless and pointless violence that occurs sometimes. Too many of these persons are significantly lacking in non-violent conflict resolution skills–those skills actually exist!–these persons could do with some new social skills and some new myths that model conflict resolution and compromise (and I suppose this would go for both parties in the above conflict scenario). In other words: not every bad guy needs his ass kicked or killed!

All that said, and in a round about way, it leads me to the question: of all places should the Myth of Redemptive Violence be modeled in the church? Maybe some of you are thinking, “What do you mean? Christians don’t believe in this myth!” Well, I could give all sorts of examples like the current political debates, the Tea Party, Westboro Baptist, or maybe Christians for the NRA, and while those are legitimate examples (as we will see below) it was actually this video that jogged my thinking on this one:

(Seriously, if you can’t make it through the whole video jump to 2:56 for a special moment in cognitive dissonance)

So, let’s put aside for a moment whatever the point of church is supposed to be–and the horrifying dancing of the chunky dude to Gangnam Style (I must of missed that day in theological class: dance to current club tunes for Jesus)–and concentrate on the images in the video.

The ‘sermon’ series (and yes, we can use that term loosely) is “Save the World” and the images that accompany the video… well, are they from the Bible? Or more appropriately: do they reflect biblical theology? On the one hand, yes, Yahweh of Armies likes to kill people in the OT, lots and lots of people. I mean it’s a blood-bath whenever he gets pissed off. But, any modern Christian should have this 27 book addendum in their Bible called the New Testament, or New Covenant, that more than slightly mitigates the first 39 books.

They claim to follow this guy… uh… what was his nick-name? uh… oh yeah: the Prince of Peace! Tell me again, according to Christian theology: how did he redeem the world? Was it through redemptive violence? Or through another pathway?

Ultimately, these Christians are a product of socialization. Their so-called biblical values are more a product of culture and their socialization process than the Bible. They are like fish in water so unaware of the water they don’t know what they are swimming in.

Myths are nothing but this ceaseless, untiring solicitation, this insidious and inflexible demand that all men recognize themselves in this image, eternal yet bearing a date, which was built of them one day as if for all time ~ Roland Barthes

Mark Twain’s publisher refused to publish one of his stories, but it was found among his papers after his death. In this short story, Twain’s response to the convoluted logic that many Christians employ towards violence was to create a scenario that pictured an angel walking into church as the preacher was praying, with all the pomp and ceremony that he could muster for the war, and for victory for the troops of his side in the conflict.

The angel walked up to the pulpit, took over the service, and announced that he had come from God ready to answer the prayer that had been prayed – as long as the people wanted the fulfillment of the unspoken implications of the prayer – along with the spoken ones. Then, just to be sure that they fully understood what they were really praying for, the angel outlined it like this:

“O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle — be Thou near them! With them — in spirit — we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it — for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.”

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. October 11, 2012 9:43 am

    lovely post. It is thinking about both “myth” and “violence” that has wound me up paying a great deal of attention to the work of Rene Girard.

  2. October 11, 2012 10:07 am

    so many violent acts are justified by the myth! In “Battling to the End” Girard makes the statement that “The aggressor has always already been attacked” and so feels justified.
    Here';s the myth at work. Everyone justifies violence as a problem solver AND considers themselves to be the “defender” in all cases. Even the great aggressors of history (name your team) employed this.
    The real problem is, violence is [almost] always escalatory (is that a word). As soon as we jump on the violent path it will inevitably go one way.

  3. October 11, 2012 10:25 am

    Sounds a lot like the holy hand grenade bit from Monty Python.

  4. Clarkstone permalink
    October 11, 2012 3:13 pm

    Thanks for the posting. Mainstream Christianity has been “lawyering” the Bible when it comes to justifying its participation in warfare, ever since Christianity became the de facto religion of the Roman Empire in the 4th century. If you would like to see a more modern recounting of the socialization of American Christians when it comes to war, set in the context of the past 10 years of fighting a “War on Terror,” consider checking this out: Blood Guilt: Christian Responses to America’s War on Terror

  5. Troy permalink
    October 12, 2012 9:24 am

    This is a great article, but let’s talk about the one NT episode that believers in redemptive violence always cite: Jesus overturning the money-changers’ tables.

    Is the problem simply one of proportion: taking one violent incident and making it a blanket justification for violence [if you have a really good reason], or is there a fundamental misunderstanding as to what that passage teaches?

  6. Clarkstone permalink
    October 12, 2012 9:39 am

    >> is there a fundamental misunderstanding as to what that passage teaches

    Troy,

    Yes, the overturning of the moneychangers’ tables is a classic passage that Christian “warists” (as opposed to “pacifists”) point to when justifying their point of view.

    In the passages where Jesus cleanses the Temple, never is there any mention of bloodshed, or of anyone being physically hurt during the episode. No punches were thrown. No swords clashed. Not so much as a skinned knee is described. Perhaps some tables were damaged when they were overturned. When the animals were herded out of the courtyard with the help of a homemade whip, some yelling probably occurred. Some harsh words would have been spoken, and the money-changers’ livelihoods were crushed (though perhaps only temporarily). But is this sufficient evidence that Jesus’ followers should not be “peaceniks,” but instead become soldiers and killers for the State? Are a verbal assault, the overturning of tables and the chasing of animals comparable to the duties of a soldier or the practice and atrocities of warfare?

    The above paragraph comes the previously referenced book.

  7. Michael permalink
    October 12, 2012 12:44 pm

    Thoughtful post!

    However, as a fantasy lit nerd, I should point out that attempts at violence do *not* supply the solution in LOTR. The armies of the West go to battle believing that they will die, in hopes that they will simply provide a distraction to allow a *non-warrior* to dispose of the Ring, without hope that he will make it out alive.

    Note also Frodo’s speech about non-violence when the hobbits return to the Shire and attempt to fix its problems!

    And of course, Gandalf’s notable comment on violent response: ““Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”

    • WenatcheeTheHatchet permalink
      October 12, 2012 1:23 pm

      Well, suggesting an idea here, that what Peter Jackson did with Tolkien’s material may not reflect what Tolkien’s aim was. That Tolkien fought in World War I and saw close friends die is easy to look up. Peter Jackson’s pedigree of horror film-making before making Lord of the Rings could just be part of why Tolkien fans have felt that Jackson essentially invented a pseudo-Rings mythology that had nothing much to do with Tolkien’s actual aims.

      So Scott discussing Jackson’s films isn’t the same as discussing Tolkien’s books. Just throwing that idea in there for discussion.

      • Michael permalink
        October 12, 2012 2:10 pm

        Good point, Wenatchee. I read the books long before I saw the movie :)

  8. November 28, 2012 10:46 am

    I totally get what you’re saying here and for the most part I agree… the only thing I would take issue with is the use of the video. Based on the details of the youtube posting “This song was used as a feature during our Hero Worship series.” I think you maybe using the video/song out of context. Lyrically there is nothing condoning violence within the song from what I can tell and if we put the video in the context of “Hero Worship” it may make absolute sense. Maybe you know something I don’t know in terms of the sermon series but the imagery in the background, again in the context of Hero Worship, may not be condoning violence but in fact condemning it if they are saying current “heroes” portrayed on the big screen are not the examples to be following rather Jesus is who our example should be.

    Just my 2 cents…

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