The Myth of Redemptive Violence in Churches
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.”