The Myth of Redeeming Violence

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I. Introduction

The Myth of Redeeming Violence (MRV) is one of the key premises of a social, cultural, and religious system by now at least five thousand years old. With a little practice it is easy to spot in events of world history, in speeches by present-day politicians, new laws that increase the prison population, story lines of cartoons and blockbuster movies, and actions of occupying armies and police in disadvantaged communities. Discussing it helps us to see what is wrong with our world and how we might begin to fix it.

The MRV can also be called the idolatry of violence—violence raised to religious, even divine status.

II. Origins

A. We can trace the MRV to beginnings in early Babylonia. Religious historians know a lot about that culture, because some of its key texts have survived and been translated and because the Old Testament creation story was composed in reaction to the Babylonian creation story, which was reenacted every year in a ritual of the state religion.

In the beginning there were two gods, Apsu and Tiamat. Apsu represents sweet water, Tiamat represents salt water, the vast ocean. Apsu and Tiamat beget the god Ea and his brothers. Other deities are created and reside in Tiamat’s huge body. But the younger gods make so much noise Apsu wants to kill them. Tiamat disagrees and warns Ea, who kills Apsu. Ea now begets a son, Marduk, a storm-god who himself becomes so powerful and disruptive the other gods still living in Tiamat are unable to sleep.Marduk offers to restore order if he is appointed ruler of the gods forever. The other gods except Tiamat agree. Tiamat is now depicted as a female monster and the principle of chaos.

Marduk attacks Tiamat and destroys her. From her dismembered corpse he creates the heavens and the earth.

Marduk then destroys Tiamat’s husband, and uses his blood to create humans so that they can labor for the gods.

Thus, humans are created from the blood of defeated gods in order to be servants of the gods.

III. The Babylonian myth conveys the following lessons for mortals:

  • Evil, identified with disorder and represented by a female monster, is a basic fact.
  • The essential political relationship is that between the ruler, on the one hand, and the enemy, on the other. The enemy is to be defeated, either turned into raw material or compelled to obey. The king is the source of order on earth as Marduk is the source of order in the cosmos.
  • The key to order is obedience, the key to obedience is compulsion, that is, violence.
  • The Babylonian story implies that might makes right, that chaos perpetually threatens, that war is a basic fact, and that empire is required in the nature of things.
  • Females must be subordinate to males; other peoples (neighbors who might challenge Babylon) must be conquered.
  • The gods favor those who conquer, and conversely, conquerors must have the favor of the gods. Losers deserve to be subjected. Religion exists to legitimate power and privilege.
  • Three slogans sum up the Babylonian story: The prize goes to the strong; peace comes through victory; security through strength.

IV. The MRV is a Myth, in the sense of a False Story. Why?

I limit myself to two considerations: (1) That the myth leads believers to do what makes problems they say they wish to solve more, not less, difficult. And (2) that there is a difficult to avoid social dynamic, which wise people have often glimpsed but scholars have only understood in recent years, that implies that violence breeds counter-violence.

1) The MRV creates in the minds of believers a picture of victory through a sudden and decisive strike that will “take out” or quickly eradicate an opposing government or political party, as if that is sure to produce lasting peace. Instead what it usually does is destroy the less obvious social and cultural preconditions for a stable society more or less content with its own existence. Those preconditions often result from centuries of trial and error and mutually respectful discussion, producing traditions that have the support of the population.

Of course, a society where the MRV is constantly taught will be violence prone, yet more peaceful contrary ideas can emerge alongside the myth and gradually undermine the society’s devotion to the myth. A violent attack that defeats an opponent by destroying stable, local peace-promoting relations upon which the opposing government relies unleashes forces of disorder as people facing new uncertainties try to cope using more easily imagined, crude, and violent methods.

The best sort of change is evolutionary—emerging slowly, nonviolently, from within—a renewal of minds based on healthy elements of tradition, of which no nation or major religion has a total monopoly. This is, I confess, a conservative argument, to use “conservative” in a sense that was once common but now seems out of fashion: the most valuable elements of a tradition are those that grew up slowly over centuries, not those imposed rapidly through conquest or revolutionary force. Think of our Unitarian Universalist principles, which were not imposed from on high but result from centuries of experience, learning, debate, and dialogue; other traditions have discovered such values. They need to be protected and allowed to flourish. 1

2) The second reason that the MRV is a myth has to do with how people and societies typically learn—by imitation of others; the technical term is mimetic learning. An application of this is mimetic rivalry, which is often characterized by mimetic violence. Every attempt to violently destroy a rival perceived as the major cause of a person’s or country’s or a group’s problems provokes a counter-campaign, if not in the short run, then in the long run; if not by the immediate target, then by potential future rivals who observe how the enemy was destroyed and study how to beat the victors at their own game. The U.S. may have “taken out” Saddam Hussein and the Baathist Party in Iraq and al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, but the longer-term effect of our military adventures in those regions is a new generation of violent opponents who imitate the violence of the former victors and their methods (including higher tech methods).

Mimetic violence occurs because nothing obsesses the mind like a warlike confrontation with an Other that one regards as his or her primary enemy. You may not wish to honor the Other by imitating him, but that is what you do. If you paint your enemy as a demonic monster, you are tempted to do to him and his allies what you claim he wants to do to you.

V. The Myth of the Holy Empire or the Holy War

Myths typically paired with the MRV is that the Supreme Being is on Our Side, that Our Armies alone fight a Holy War, that Our Leader is the present embodiment of Divine Will, and that the God of the Other Side is a Demonic Idol. Typically, the Opponent has exactly the same view but in reverse.

VI. The First Counter-Story

The biblical creation story recorded in Chapter 1 of Genesis was likely written during the Jewish captivity in Babylon. It differs in key ways from the Babylonian. In Genesis the divine creation is the result of a nonviolent process; God speaks the universe into being; and the universe and human nature are essentially good. Evil is an important fact but not fundamental; it results from a human choice that could have been different.

The Old Testament, however, does not thoroughly critique the Babylonian story. In fact, though the newer Biblical story eventually becomes well known, the Babylonian story remains surprisingly powerful. Retold with differently named gods in Assyria, Persia, Greece, and Rome, the basic myths are essentially similar. Marduk may be renamed Zeus or Jupiter but the plot line does not change. Even the Hebrew God sometimes seems to be modeled on Marduk or his violent adversary Tiamat.

Biblical religions claim superiority over their pagan predecessors, but Babylonian idolatry still prevails as long as the MRV and its allied myths guide later empires. That was true of the medieval Holy Roman Empire of Charlemagne, the crusading European monarchies of the 11th through 13th centuries, and the allegedly more enlightened or secular states of recent times. To understand what is spiritually sick about our world, we must see how the MRV still informs our thinking.2

It helps to have a name for what is common to the empires and cultures that now, 5000 years later, preserve practices and forms of thought that began in ancient Babylon. Some theorists call it the Domination System. New Testament writers called it “this world” or “the way of the world” or simply “Death” as distinct from “Life.”

VII. Life vs. Death in the Bible

The contrast between Life and Death is a theme from the beginning to the end of the Bible, though one must read carefully to appreciate this fact. Life is one option and Death is the other. In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve are essentially given a choice. They could have eaten from the Tree of Life and enjoyed immortality, but instead they ate from the so-called Tree of Knowledge, though they were warned that if they ate from it they would die. It could have been called the Tree of Death! Though eating its fruit doesn’t lead to death right away—the clever serpent was right about that— the result was the humans’ expulsion from the Garden, which denied them access to the Tree of Life and immortality. Things went downhill from there; Cain murders Abel and other deaths follow, natural and violent.

The Life and Death contrast reappears much later, in the New Testament, when Jesus and later Paul identify the Gospel message, and what Jesus calls the Kingdom of God, with Life, and the way of the present (fallen or corrupted) world with Death. Many Christians imagine that Life refers to immortality and going to Heaven and Death refers either to the end of personal existence or going to Hell. But it makes better sense to see Death here as referring to the Domination System based on idolatry of violence and Life as liberation from that system. 3

VIII. Wink on Revelation

My main guide at this point is Walter Wink, a New Testament scholar (d. 2012) whose books explore the meaning of the phrase “principalities and powers” in the NT. Wink uses his understanding of these “powers” to provide a new appreciation of the value of active nonviolence as part of an effort to create fairer and more democratic relations in our time.

He shows that Jesus and the New Testament diagnose the evil of what he calls the Domination System. Early Christians understood that an empire could be replaced by another empire, and the names of the gods would vary, but the underlying logic along with the acceptance of the MRV would still be preserved.

An example of this insight is provided in Revelation, written by Christians when Rome was still a pagan empire: Revelation names the Domination System as the Dragon aka the First Beast; it also names a Second Beast, a religion that demands the people worship the first beast. For the readers of Revelation in pagan Rome, this second Beast represented the state religion whose worship demanded sacrifices to the gods and goddesses most identified with Rome, including the genius of the emperor himself.

As an interpreter of Revelation, Wink warns us not to confuse the domination system (represented by the Dragon) with the Roman empire; the Roman empire is an example of the domination system, not the first example and not the last. The point is not to replace one empire with another but to replace the rule of the Dragon altogether with the peaceful kingdom symbolized by the Lamb. How can that be achieved?

VIII. The Principalities and Powers

The terms “principalities and powers” (“the powers” for short) refer to political, economic, social, and cultural institutions and networks, which are staffed or represented by people or groups of people. Examples today include nation-states, legal systems, armies, corporations, banks, local governments, health care delivery systems, and organized religious bodies—large and small, global and local. Because language makes thinking possible and they operate by means of language and thinking, they are like us. New Testament writers consider them spiritual beings that can be affected by what followers of Jesus do and say.

Are the “powers” good or bad? The answer has three parts:

1. They are created good (they exist to fulfill legitimate purposes in the eyes of God and any human who can see clearly.

2. They are fallen (they are in many ways corrupted and turned away from their legitimate purposes; most of them are integrated into the Domination System, properly called a culture of Death.

3. They can be redeemed (they can be converted or reoriented towards their true reasons for existence, to serve abundant Life).

That means that they can be “returned” to their legitimate purposes, purposes they may have served imperfectly, often badly, since they were created.

The point is not to destroy the powers; the point is to renew their thinking, to bring them back to their rightful tasks, which are essentially harmonious with the common good. Yet as long as empires and state structures and social groups are rivals of one another, which they are in spite of the System that advocates a single ruler, the powers will remain fallen to a greater or lesser degree.

It is good to resist the powers insofar as we resist their fallen expressions. It is evil to resist them violently because violence inherently constructs an opposing system of force and violence and solves nothing.

Inspired nonviolence is not passive; it is active—it aims to transform minds and spirits. The nonviolent movement for India’s freedom from the British Empire led by Mohandas Gandhi and the nonviolent civil rights demonstrations later led by Martin Luther King Jr. provide examples of what is required. So also did some of the movements to dismantle Stalinist dictatorships in Eastern Europe twenty years ago and the first stages of the Arab Spring around 2011. Likewise the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Were Wink alive today, he would say that the spiritual and civic task now is to promote a compassionate and just response to the threat of climate change while countering the drive toward war, the violence represented by racist demagoguery, and the demonizing of leaders of countries and members of faiths other than one’s own. The point is not to kill or enslave the worshippers of Marduk and his recent clones. The task is to show that the fear on which they rely is powerless against a determined nonviolent democratic mass movement for a fair and peaceful society. The task is to renew the minds of the people who influence the powers, which can come about only if the friends of nonviolent change reorient their own minds and propose ways of coexisting and cooperating that respect the reasonable interests of all groups, not excluding those long downtrodden and oppressed. Justice will involve social healing, emphasizing restorative justice, rather than retribution, which attempts to do to others what they did or might have wished to do to you. An example of a social healing process is the use of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission by South Africa as apartheid was being dismantled.

Notes

1. This “conservative” point is not only illustrated by the process by which the seven UU principles were formulated and adopted, it is also a logical application of the seventh principle, which calls for “respect for the interdependent web…of which we are a part.” In this case, the web mainly consists of human beings and social institutions rather than the usual example of biological beings and ecological systems.

2. Burton L. Mack (Mack 2008, 209, 245, and elsewhere) argues that the “Christian mentality” that came to characterize imperial Christianity from the time of Constantine and succeeding Roman emperors was bequeathed by way of the medieval Church to the modern West and does not lack influence in the contemporary United States. The “myth of redemptive violence”—he uses Wink’s term —is an important part of this mentality.

3. The New Testament is not an unambiguous witness for the perspectives of writers like Wink. The evidence for this perspective must often be read “through a glass darkly” in the documents that have come down to us. That is because the earliest versions of what became the New Testament must have been repeatedly modified as the various groups who were their custodians tried to reconcile earlier oral and written sources concerning Jesus and the Christ in order to create a coherent and compelling story and as leaders of these groups responded to pressures from (a) other groups claiming inspiration from Jesus and (b) the Roman state. We should remember that the versions that became authoritative in the fourth century had to be tolerable by Christianity’s imperial sponsors starting with Constantine, whose duties in the Roman religio-political system set limits on the compromises they could make on behalf of the religion they now favored. (See Mack 1995.)


Sources

All books are available as eBooks unless otherwise indicated.

Books by Walter Wink

  • 1984. Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press. The first in the series on The Powers.
  • 1986. Unmasking the Powers: The Invisible Powers That Determine Human Existence. Minneapolis: Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press. The second in the series. Not available as an eBook.
  • 1992. Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press. The third in the series. This book and the next provide the heart of the perspective in the talk. Note: what Wink calls the myth of redemptive violence I call the myth of redeeming violence. We are talking about the same thing.
  • 1998. The Powers That Be. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press. A shorter rendition of the main ideas in the series on The Powers.
  • 2003. Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress. See chapter 2 for a discussion of what was really involved in Jesus’ advice to “turn the other cheek,” “go the second mile,” and “give those who would sue you for your outer garment not only your outer garment but your inner garment as well,” and why the King James version of the Bible is wrong to render Jesus’ advice as “resist not evil.“
  • 2014. Just Jesus: My Struggle to Become Human. New York: Image. Pieces of an autobiography written in the last years of the author’s life. Published posthumously.

Related Studies

  • Armstrong, Karen, 2014. Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
  • Crossan, John Dominic, 2015. How to Read the Bible & Still Be a Christian: Struggling with Divine Violence from Genesis Through Revelation. Harper One.
  • Girard, Rene, 1996. Ed. James G. Williams. The Girard Reader. Crossroad Publishing Company. See especially Part I: The Overview of the Mimetic Theory: Mimesis and Violence. Not available as an eBook. For a brief introduction to the thinking of Rene Girard, including his concepts of mimetic learning, rivalry, and violence, see my talk: Violence and the Sacred.
  • Mack, Burton L., 1995. Who Wrote the New Testament: The Making of the Christian Myth. New York: Routledge.
  • Mack, Burton L., 2008. Myth and the American Nation: A Social Theory of Religion. New York: Routledge.

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