The belief that violence ”saves” is so successful because it doesn’t seem to be mythic in the least. Violence simply appears to be the nature of things. It’s what works. It seems inevitable, the last and, often, the first resort in conflicts. If a god is what you turn to when all else fails, violence certainly functions as a god.
~ Walter Wink, Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Auburn University
There is no “silver bullet” to the problem that is American society and gun violence. The problem defies simple explanations. Rules and laws alone can not possibly reverse the causes of our ability to violently kill each other en masse. There is no end of sermons and lectures that address this problem head on. Shelves and desks are filled with psychological studies of the persons who choose to die by “glorious” violent death and take as many with them as possible while they do it.
Nevertheless, laws still must be written and implemented, sermons still must be preached, and studies must continue.
While there is no “silver bullet” there may be one very significant contributor to all the tragedy we see happening in front of our eyes in America today. It is specifically the exaggerated and unfailing worship of the god of redemptive violence. The ever-present belief that somehow violence will produce good; that destroying enemies results in peace.
My daughter is in third grade. She attends a charter school which teaches in both German and English. Many of the staff and teachers are German. So when the subject of their learning turns to World War II, its personal and mournful. I appreciate the perspective they bring to the subject, because I myself sat through far too many lectures on WWII that put Americans as the “saviors” and the “winners” of that war.
When my daughter came home, she was confused. Mom is from Germany, and dad is from America. “Dad? So, Germany ‘lost’ World War II and America won?”
“No, honey. No one won that war. There are no winners in war. Only those who lose less.”
The Myth of Redemptive Violence is as old as humanity. It is not unique to America. But somehow it has come to permeate every aspect of our society and the consequences are Umpqua, Charleston, and too many more to list. Violence is American as apple pie.
- We celebrate corporations who do “violent takeovers” of other companies.
Their violence resulted in a better company.
- Despite our laws against torture and waterboarding, popular television shows like 24 and the Blacklist show over and over again that information that can save lives is only gotten by being violent, torturing, threatening to mame and kill. And we watch this for entertainment.
Their violence saved lives.
- We justify police brutality as necessary recourse despite the fact that the criminal was un-armed.
Their violence upheld law and order.
- Political candidates become viable winners when they appear eager and willing to rain down violence on far away countries and individuals who threaten our existence
Their war will bring peace.
- We claim that the only way to be safe in your home is to have a weapon and be ready to use it.
My violence will protect my family.
Each of these justifications are overly simplified. They lack the nuance of reality. They ignore the long term consequences of short-term solutions. But they permeate our society and inform our ethics, our behavior, our voting history, our purchase decisions.
But most of all, they make us fearful.
The god of redemptive violence thrives on fear. This god wants you to believe that you are always under threat, that your survival is more important than your neighbors, that enemies are unforgivable and incapable of restoration. That violence in the hands of good people is always just and its ends are always right.
In rejecting the god of redemptive violence, we reject fear. We embrace forgiveness and the un-failing belief that every human is made for goodness and can be redeemed to it. In rejecting this god, we embrace our neighbor. We embrace our connectedness as a species. We embrace our ability to overcome evil with good, to see beauty rise out of ashes, to lay down our life rather than defend it at gunpoint.
There are a lot of things in my life that inspired this article. A lot of personal experiences with violence, with anger, with tension and villification of “the other”. But those are not easily digestible or accessible. These resources here are:
- My article on “In Guns we Shall Not Trust”
- Walter Wink’s article on The Myth of Redemptive Violence
- John Howard Yoder’s “The Politics of Jesus”
- Raymond Bakke’s “A Theology as Big as the City”