The redeeming power of violence is a myth retold in superhero movies, US freedom stories (from the American Revolution to WWII and told by Second Amendment advocates), even American Christianity. Its structure is simple:
- an unwanted power or evil manifests
- its source is identified and personified
- the evil is overcome or eliminated with "good" violence through sacrifice, heroism, or fate (luck or fortune)
The myth of redemptive violence concludes the same. What we want, believe in, or see as right is restored by righteous sacrifice or power carried out by violence. That's the basic structure of the myth. It's a myth told and retold, especially in imperial societies. The story justifies empire. It justifies the quest for superiority and domination. Sports, though not evil or wrong in themselves, can perpetuate and reinforce the myths of redeeming power, domination, and violence. They ritualize the cultish worship of winning and "winner takes all."
The myth of redemptive violence begins an interminable cycle of violence. Violence begets justified violence. The cycle of violence, either in pursuit of vengeance or negative peace (the absence of conflict through domination), never ends. Walter Wink describes the myth of redemptive violence as "the simplest, laziest, most exciting, uncomplicated, irrational, and primitive depiction of evil the world has ever known."
Why write this now? On Monday (22 March 2021), a 21-year old gunman shot ten (10) people at a grocery story in Boulder, Colorado. News reports he used an AR-15 that he acquired about a week before the mass shooting. My newsfeed has filled with calls for sensible gun control, a ban on assault rifles, and messages of other justifiable outrage.
I am in full support of strong science-based gun control measures. I am not anti-gun ownership. One reason I am not in support of banning all guns is that I believe the problem of mass shootings and gun violence is not simply a matter of access to guns. I believe the problem of mass violence lies also in our culture, and hearts as human beings. We worship the redeeming power of violence. It saturates American culture, its founding myths, and its understanding of freedom. Freedom at gunpoint, whether defending our homes with handguns or our homeland with an excess of nuclear weapons, is the American way. Many Christians also believe redemptive violence is the heart of Jesus' cross. The dominant Christian story is a story of redemptive violence for millions. God required sacrifice. Human sin had to be atoned. God's perfection required vindication. God's anger had to appeased. And, somehow, God willing or allowing the death of God's own Son on the cross accomplished these things. Creation, especially humanity's willful rebellion against God, is even redeemed.
That's not how I seeJesus' cross or atonement.
Fully explaining an alternative theology of the cross is beyond the scope of this blog post. But, suffice it to say, seeing salvation in God and Jesus' cross does not require believing in redemptive violence. In fact, the cross can be the starting point of ending that false belief. First, I recognize the horror of Jesus' cross seeing Christ's face in every one of the tragic victims of Monday's mass shootings. It's true for every victim of senseless violence. I can see the image of God in them, their inestimable worth, and feel the breathless tragedy of their senseless deaths. I can see Jesus' innocence in the victims' innocence. Whatever motivated the shooter, whether malicious intent or mental illness, the shootings accomplished nothing but tragedy. The violence redeems nothing of worth, in fact the opposite. Mass shootings are terrorism based on a falsehood. There is nothing redeeming in them. If I continue to focus on the cross, I can also begin to see this cycle of violence and unnecessary death in our culture as our creation and our problem, not God's will or divine drama to solve. What's the answer? Something fragile, but amazing.
Out of self-giving love, God doesn't leave us alone in our violent mess. Nothing can bring back those who needlessly died. But, God makes it God's problem by coming into this world, too. That is Jesus' story. Through Jesus, God experiences life's real vulnerabilities, our world's evils, and suffers our death innocently out of no obligation, but by love and choice. God joins us in this cycle of violence, not as a perpetrator but victim. The cross calls us to a similar journey. In the face of mass shootings, I mourn my sense of safety and realize it can quickly taken from me. The cross points to a vulnerable existence that evokes emotions and demands a response. We're faced with a dilemma of action based on fear or faith. Are more guns or arming myself the answer? Jesus' life and ministry suggest, no. The cross stands as a timeless reminder that the tragedy of unnecessary violence is real. Mass shootings reveal the same truth. But, the cross doesn't point us to redemptive violence. More violence is not the answer to a cycle of violence. The redeeming power of violence is a lie. Instead, we, Christians, can take the cross back from empire. Let us proclaim its redeeming power as a symbol of divine-sanctioned violence is a lie. The myth of redemptive violence is a lie. Seeing the lie and telling a new story depends on us, we human beings. For Christians, that new story begins with God. On Easter, the cross is no longer a symbol of redemptive violence under God. God does not redeem as empire does. The cross symbolizes the promise of God's rule and its possibility for new life. That's something worth believing in. But, it starts with confessing and changing something within us and around us: our faith in redemptive violence must first die. It was a lie to begin with.