The foundational story upon which all Western culture is based is the myth of redemptive violence. So says Walter Wink, an American twentieth century theologian and sociologist, and I find myself becoming more and more inclined to agree with him.
The myth of redemptive violence is the belief that evil can only be defeated, or at least contained, through the use of violence. Someone has transgressed, evil has occurred, and the only way to return things back to how they should be is through the use of violence against that person, usually through them being killed.
Think of any superhero film, or James Bond film, or crime thriller, and this is the rough outline of the plot. Evil is only defeated through the death of the bad guy(s) at the end. Violence is used to achieve redemption. Even our cartoons fit this category.
Estimates vary widely, but the average child is reported to log roughly 36,000 hours of television by age eighteen, viewing some 15,000 murders. What church or synagogue can even remotely keep pace with the myth of redemptive violence in hours spent teaching children or the quality of presentation? (Think of the typical “children’s sermon” – how bland by comparison!)
No other religious system has ever remotely rivalled the myth of redemptive violence in its ability to teach its young so totally. From the earliest age, children are awash in depictions of violence as the ultimate solution to human conflicts.
Walter Wink, The Powers That Be
This sequence is as old as western civilization. One of the oldest dramas we have from ancient Greek theatre is the Oresteia trilogy by Aesychlus. It features a returning army general who comes home, only to be murdered by his wife and her lover. As revenge, his son murders his mother and the lover. And for this, the Greek gods then pursue the son and demand his life. The cycle of violence cannot be escaped by violence, not unless or until everyone ends up dead.
If you want proof that “there is nothing new under the sun” then watch a Shakespearean tragedy; most of these end up with all the important characters dead, and the final scene always features numerous dead bodies on the stage (spoiler alert – Hamlet has four people killed in the final scene, and another four die earlier in the play). Redemptive violence here may finally bring about some form of closure, but only after untold numbers of people have been killed.
Biblical Conflict Resolution
The bible gives us a different method for resolving conflict. In the Old Testament God says “Vengeance is mine, I will repay” (Deuteronomy 32:35) as a warning to us not to pursue revenge and personal vendettas. Yes, the OT does have a repeated sentencing theory of “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” but this phrase is almost always followed with “you must purge the evil from amongst you” – the sentences are not there so much for punishment, as they are to deter the rest of the community from committing such crimes.
Modern sentencing theory teaches that there are four usual reasons given for locking criminals up in prison:
- Retribution: To give a sense of “just desserts”, of meting out to the person in punishment what they inflicted on others.
- Protection: To protect the rest of society (and sometimes the criminal) from further acts of violence or crime.
- Deterrent: To warn others of the consequences of crime, and deter them from committing criminal acts.
- Rehabilitation: To provide a place of rehabilitation, so that after serving the sentence a criminal is less likely to commit further crimes.
Biblical sentencing theory should eschew the first reason of retribution, since God clearly says “vengeance is mine, I will repay”, but we should still sentence due to the latter three, with increased attention paid to rehabilitation. Sadly we sentence too much for retribution, and not with any serious care or provision for rehabilitation. And note that without retribution, there’s no need for any sentences to include violence.
The New Testament makes this all the more clear. Jesus teaches “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you… Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:38-48). And Paul interprets this teaching when he writes “Do not repay anyone evil for evil… Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:17-21).
In this paradigm, to use violence as a tool of redemption is actually to be overcome by evil. The New Testament clearly teaches that the myth of redemptive violence needs to be replaced by the story of grace.
Western literature does have some examples that point to the power of this approach. In Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s great novel The Brothers’ Karamazov, numerous characters encounter responses of grace even though they have acted evilly; as a result, they become transformed, and in turn start to offer grace to other evil people.
The 2018 film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri also plays with the same theme. Characters are filled with anger that leads them to commit acts of violence, until at one point the least intelligent person in the film says the line “all this anger just begets greater anger.” Some of the characters then start to respond with grace, rather than with anger.
And it’s not just film or literature that we can look to for examples. Two of the greatest characters of the twentieth century are considered to be Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jnr. Both are lauded because they fought for justice, not with redemptive violence, but with responses of grace. They sought to overcome evil with good.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hatred cannot drive out hatred; only love can do that. Martin Luther King Jnr
The myth of redemptive violence, taken to its conclusion, leads to a world where anger begets greater anger, hatred begets greater hatred and violence begets greater violence. But the message of Jesus is that we should respond to acts of evil or injustice with love.
So this week, where can you dispense moments of grace? At points in your week where you feel anger, or a desire for retribution, can you instead show grace? To your work colleagues? To your friends? To your church members? To your family members?