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. What people overlook, then, is the religious character of violence. It demands from its devotees an absolute obedience-unto-death.
This Myth of Redemptive Violence is the real myth of the modern world. It, and not Judaism or Christianity or Islam, is the dominant religion in our society today. When my children were small, we let them log an unconscionable amount of television, and I became fascinated with the mythic structure of cartoons. This was in the 1960s, when the ”death of God” theologians were being feted on talk shows, and secular humanity’s tolerance for religious myth and mystery were touted as having been exhausted.
I began to examine the structure of cartoons, and found the same pattern repeated endlessly: an indestructible hero is doggedly opposed to an irreformable and equally indestructible villain. Nothing can kill the hero, though for the first three quarters of the comic strip or TV show he (rarely she) suffers grievously and appears hopelessly doomed, until miraculously, the hero breaks free, vanquishes the villain, and restores order until the next episode. Nothing finally destroys the villain or prevents his or her reappearance, whether the villain is soundly trounced, jailed, drowned, or shot into outer space.
Few cartoons have run longer or been more influential than Popeye and Bluto. In a typical segment, Bluto abducts a screaming and kicking Olive Oyl, Popeye’s girlfriend. When Popeye attempts to rescue her, the massive Bluto beats his diminutive opponent to a pulp, while Olive Oyl helplessly wrings her hands. At the last moment, as our hero oozes to the floor, and Bluto is trying, in effect, to rape Olive Oyl, a can of spinach pops from Popeye’s pocket and spills into his mouth.
Transformed by this gracious infusion of power, he easily demolishes the villain and rescues his beloved. The format never varies. Neither party ever gains any insight or learns from these encounters. They never sit down and discuss their differences. Repeated defeats do not teach Bluto to honour Olive Oyl’s humanity, and repeated pummellings do not teach Popeye to swallow his spinach before the fight.
Something about this mythic structure rang familiar. Suddenly I remembered: this cartoon pattern mirrored one of the oldest continually enacted myths in the world, the Babylonian creation story (the Enuma Elish) from around 1250 BCE. The tale bears repeating, because it holds the clue to the appeal of that ancient myth in our modern media.
In the beginning, according to the Babylonian myth, Apsu, the father god, and Tiamat, the mother god, give birth to the gods. But the frolicking of the younger gods makes so much noise that the elder gods resolve to kill them so they can sleep. The younger gods uncover the plot before the elder gods put it into action, and kill Apsu. His wife Tiamat, the Dragon of Chaos, pledges revenge.
Terrified by Tiamat, the rebel gods turn for salvation to their youngest member, Marduk. He negotiates a steep price: if he succeeds, he must be given chief and undisputed power in the assembly of the gods. Having extorted this promise, he catches Tiamat in a net, drives an evil wind down her throat, shoots an arrow that bursts her distended belly and pierces her heart. He then splits her skull with a club and scatters her blood in out-of-the-way places. He stretches out her corpse full-length, and from it creates the cosmos. (With all this blood and gore, no wonder this story proved ideal as the prototype of violent TV shows and Hollywood movies).
In this myth, creation is an act of violence. Marduk murders and dismembers Tiamat, and from her cadaver creates the world. As the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur observes (The Symbolism of Evil, Harper Collins 1967), order is established by means of disorder. Chaos (symbolised by Tiamat) is prior to order (represented by Marduk, high god of Babylon). Evil precedes good. The gods themselves are violent.
The biblical myth in Genesis 1 is diametrically opposed to all this (Genesis 1, it should be noted, was developed in Babylon during the Jewish captivity there as a direct rebuttal to the Babylonian myth). The Bible portrays a good God who creates a good creation. Chaos does not resist order. Good is prior to evil. Neither evil nor violence is part of the creation, but enter later, as a result of the first couple’s sin and the connivance of the serpent (Genesis 3). A basically good reality is thus corrupted by free decisions reached by creatures. In this far more complex and subtle explanation of the origins of things, violence emerges for the first time as a problem requiring solution.
In the Babylonian myth, however, violence is no problem. It is simply a primordial fact. The simplicity of this story commended it widely, and its basic mythic structure spread as far as Syria, Phoenicia, Egypt, Greece, Rome, Germany, Ireland, India, and China. Typically, a male war god residing in the sky fights a decisive battle with a female divine being, usually depicted as a monster or dragon, residing in the sea or abyss (the feminine element). Having vanquished the original enemy by war and murder, the victor fashions a cosmos from the monster’s corpse. Cosmic order requires the violent suppression of the feminine, and is mirrored in the social order by the subjection of women to men and people to ruler.
After the world has been created, the story continues, the gods imprisoned by Marduk for siding with Tiamat complain of the poor meal service. Marduk and his father, Ea, therefore execute one of the captive gods, and from his blood Ea creates human beings to be servants to the gods.
The implications are clear: human beings are created from the blood of a murdered god. Our very origin is violence. Killing is in our genes. Humanity is not the originator of evil, but merely finds evil already present and perpetuates it. Our origins are divine, to be sure, since we are made from a god, but from the blood of an assassinated god.
Human beings are thus naturally incapable of peaceful coexistence. Order must continually be imposed upon us from on high: men over women, masters over slaves, priests over laity, aristocrats over peasants, rulers over people. Unquestioning obedience is the highest virtue, and order the highest religious value. As Marduk’s representative on earth, the king’s task is to subdue all those enemies who threaten the tranquillity that he has established on behalf of the god. The whole cosmos is a state, and the god rules through the king. Politics arises within the divine sphere itself. Salvation is politics: the masses identify with the god of order against the god of chaos, and offer themselves up for the Holy War that imposes order and rule on the peoples round about.
In short, the Myth of Redemptive Violence is the story of the victory of order over chaos by means of violence. It is the ideology of conquest, the original religion of the status quo. The gods favour those who conquer. Conversely, whoever conquers must have the favour of the gods. The common people exist to perpetuate the advantage that the gods have conferred upon the king, the aristocracy, and the priesthood.
Religion exists to legitimate power and privilege. Life is combat. Any form of order is preferable to chaos, according to this myth. Ours is neither a perfect nor perfectible world; it is theatre of perpetual conflict in which the prize goes to the strong. Peace through war, security through strength: these are the core convictions that arise from this ancient historical religion, and they form the solid bedrock on which the Domination System is founded in every society.
The Babylonian myth is far from finished. It is as universally present and earnestly believed today as at any time in its long and bloody history. It is the dominant myth in contemporary America. It enshrines the ritual practice of violence at the very heart of public life, and even those who seek to oppose its oppressive violence do so violently.
We have already seen how the myth of redemptive violence is played out in the structure of children’s cartoon shows (and is found as well in comics, video and computer games, and movies). But we also encounter it in the media, in sports, in nationalism, in militarism, in foreign policy, in televangelism, in the religious right, and in self-styled militia groups. What appears so innocuous in cartoons is, in fact, the mythic underpinnings of our violent society.
The psychodynamics of the TV cartoon or comic book are marvelously simple: children identify with the good guy so that they can think of themselves as good. This enables them to project out onto the bad guy their own repressed anger, violence, rebelliousness, or lust, and then vicariously to enjoy their own evil by watching the bad guy initially prevail. This segment of the show – the “Tammuz” element, where the hero suffers – actually consumes all but the closing minutes, allowing ample time for indulging the violent side of the self.
When the good guy finally wins, viewers are then able to reassert control over their own inner tendencies, repress them, and re-establish a sense of goodness without coming to any insight about their own inner evil. The villain’s punishment provides catharsis; one forswears the villain’s ways and heaps condemnation on him in a guilt-free orgy of aggression. Salvation is found through identification with the hero.
Only the names have changed. Marduk subdues Tiamat through violence, and though he kills Tiamat, chaos incessantly reasserts itself, and is kept at bay only by repeated battles and by the repetition of the Babylonian New Year’s festival where the heavenly combat myth is ritually re-enacted. Theologian Willis Elliott’s observation underscores the seriousness of this entertainment: ”the birth of the world (cosmogony) is the birth of the individual (egogony): you are being birthed through how you see ’all things’ as being birthed”. Therefore “Whoever controls the cosmogony controls the children”.
The Myth of Redemptive Violence is the simplest, laziest, most exciting, uncomplicated, irrational, and primitive depiction of evil the world has even known. Furthermore, its orientation toward evil is one into which virtually all modern children (boys especially) are socialised in the process of maturation. Children select this mythic structure because they have already been led, by culturally reinforced cues and role models, to resonate with its simplistic view of reality. Its presence everywhere is not the result of a conspiracy of Babylonian priests secretly buying up the mass media with Iraqi oil money, but a function of values endlessly reinforced by the Domination System. By making violence pleasurable, fascinating, and entertaining, the Powers are able to delude people into compliance with a system that is cheating them of their very lives.
Once children have been indoctrinated into the expectations of a dominator society, they may never outgrow the need to locate all evil outside themselves. Even as adults they tend to scapegoat others for all that is wrong in the world. They continue to depend on group identification and the upholding of social norms for a sense of well-being.
In a period when attendance at Christian Sunday schools is dwindling, the myth of redemptive violence has won children’s voluntary acquiescence to a regimen of indoctrination more extensive and effective than any in the history of religions. Estimates vary widely, but the average child reported to log roughly 36,000 hours of television by age 18, 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 even remotely rivalled the myth of redemptive violence in its ability to catechise its young so totally. From the earliest age, children are awash in depictions of violence as the ultimate solution to human conflicts. Nor does saturation in the myth end with the close of adolescence. There is no rite of passage from adolescent to adult status in the national cult of violence, but rather a years-long assimilation to adult television and movie fare.
Not all shows for children or adults are based on violence, of course. Reality is far more complex than the simplicities of this myth, and maturer minds will demand more subtle, nuanced, complex presentations. But the basic structure of the combat myth underlies the pap to which a great many adults turn in order to escape the harsher realities of their everyday lives: spy thrillers, westerns, cop shows, and combat programmes. It is as if we must watch so much “redemptive” violence to reassure ourselves, against the deluge of facts to the contrary in our actual day-to-day lives, that reality really is that simple.
Redemptive violence gives way to violence as an end in itself. It is no longer a religion that uses violence in the pursuit of order and salvation, but one in which violence has become an aphrodisiac, sheer titillation, an addictive high, a substitute for relationships. Violence is no longer the means to a higher good, namely order; violence becomes the end.
(First published on 16 November 2007.)
© Walter Wink was Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City. Among his various books are The Human Being, Peace Is The Way, The Bible in Human Transformation, The Powers That Be, and Homosexuality and Christian Faith He died recently, but his legacy of thought in these and other areas continues to resonate widely.
This article - one of the most extensively read on Ekklesia - was originally reproduced in 2007, and republished in 2009 and 2012 with the kind permission of the author and Christian Peacemaker Teams Christian Peacemaker Teams (www.cpt.org) is an initiative of the historic peace churches (Mennonites, Church of the Brethren, and Quakers) with support and membership from a range of Catholic and Protestant denominations. Backing violence-reduction efforts around the world is its mandate.
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Redemptive violence is a myth which is cast in the framework of an indestructible good character who, upon finding that the law is too weak to prevail in the conditions of near-anarchy, takes the law into his own hands and battles an equally indestructible evil character. Although the good character seems to be fighting a losing battle for most of the story, he somehow mercilessly vanquishes his opponent and restores order and civility. The writer argues that such “Superman-like” actions are born out of the myth that violence is required, and accepted, to crush evil so that good can ultimately triumph.
The myth of redemptive violence has its origin in the Babylonian creation myth, the Enuma Elish. In contrast to the biblical narrative, where the creation is presented as good and where evil enters later as a problem to be solved, in the Babylonian story creation itself emerges out of violence. This story provides the plot for much of the entertainment in society today, from the standard comic strip or cartoon sequence to feature length movies and novels. Typically, an indestructible good guy is set in opposition to an equally indestructible bad guy who is beyond hope of reform. Nothing can kill the good guy, although for the first three-quarters of the story he suffers grievously, appearing hopelessly trapped. Somehow the hero breaks free, vanquishes the villain, and restores order again.
The plot is depicted graphically in movies like Jaws, Rambo, and Air Force One. Likewise, the classic gunfighters of the “Western” settle old scores and restore order by shootouts, never by due process of law. The law in fact, is suspect, too weak to prevail in the conditions of near-anarchy that fiction has misrepresented as the Wild West. The gunfighter must take matters into his own hands. Similarly in the big city, in movies such as Dirty Harry, a beleaguered citizen finally rises up against the crooks ... and creates justice out of the barrel of a gun. This is the environment in which we are catechized – more effectively than in any Sunday school.
The Theology of Violence
Walter Wink exposes the “Myth of Redemptive Violence” in his trilogy on the Powers, especially the last volume, Engaging the Powers. Behind Wink’s understanding of the “Myth of Redemptive Violence” is a fresh and thorough analysis of the biblical language concerning the “principalities and powers” which he identifies as “the inner and outer aspects of any given manifestation of power.” He maintains that every Power has an outer, visible manifestation along with an inner aspect or spirituality. The outer reality is visible in such things as political systems, appointed officials, and laws. The inner reality, while invisible, is the “driving force that animates, legitimates, and regulates its physical manifestation in the world.” The two realities, the inner and the outer, exist together as an inseparable whole which becomes demonic when it ceases to act according to God’s purposes for the common good.
Wink reformulates biblical concepts, such as angels and demons, principalities and powers, in light of contemporary experience. Beginning at the ancient worldview which held that everything earthly has its heavenly counterpart and moving on beyond the spiritualist worldview which sees the spirit as good and matter as evil, the materialist world view which acknowledges no spiritual reality and the theological worldview which concedes the earthly reality to science and preserves its privileged “spiritual” realm, he postulates a new integral worldview emerging from contemporary streams of thought such as, the new physics, liberation theology, feminist theology, and others. “This integral view of reality sees everything as having an outer and an inner aspect.” Religious tradition, especially in the ancient and spiritualist world views has often tended to treat the Powers as angelic or demonic beings fluttering about in the sky. Wink brings a more current view of reality to bear on the biblical teaching about the Powers. From the perspective of his integral worldview, “the powers are the inner aspect of material or tangible manifestations of power.” So the Pentagon, or Enron, or the Mafia, or the United Bible Societies are all examples of the Powers. All have an inner reality – a spirituality. It is this inner spiritual reality, combined with the outward manifestation, which impact our lives and the world around us. In the Bible this view of the Powers is most clearly evident in the book of Revelation where the angel of the church is presented as its corporate reality, its ethos, or essence – its spirituality. According to Wink, the Powers are good; they are fallen and they are being redeemed. He points to the apostle Paul’s dialectic on the law in Romans 7 as a biblical articulation of this view.
Violence and The Powers
A key to understanding how the myth of redemptive violence gets perpetuated is the doctrine of the Fall – the recognition that the Powers, created in, through, and for Christ (Colossians 1:16,17), are fallen. Created for good works (Ephesians 2:10), they/we fail to live up to their/our calling. In Wink’s words, “Their evil is not intrinsic, but rather the result of idolatry.” The Powers, as well as individuals, fail to live up to their true vocation, and now “live under the conditions of the Domination System,”8 where violence is required to maintain order and avoid chaos. Scriptures such as the vision recorded in Revelation 12 and 13 provide evidence for the claim that in the biblical narrative, “evil is represented... as the system of order that institutionalizes violence as the foundation of international relations.” The good news is that God liberates individuals from the domination of the Powers and at the same time liberates the Powers from their destructive behavior as well. Wink is not the first to “reinterpret the ‘principalities and powers,’ not as disembodied spirits inhabiting the air, but as institutions, structures, and systems.” Liberation theologians had already come up with a similar analysis. At the risk of misrepresenting both Wink and liberation theology by oversimplification, I would suggest two important distinctions between their respective analyses of the powers and consequent views on the role of violence in engaging the Powers. The first is that liberation theology builds on Marxist social analysis which is based on the materialist worldview.
As a consequence, their analysis of the “principalities and powers” tends to focus on the outward, physical manifestations of the Powers – the institutions and structures, while Wink, coming from the integral worldview stresses the importance of recognizing both the inner and outer aspect of the Powers. The second difference I would profile is that liberation theology tends to see the “principalities and powers” as essentially godless or evil, while in Wink’s view the Powers are good creations of God, they are fallen and they can be redeemed. Consequently, liberation theologians tend to be more open to the use of “redemptive” violence in the struggle for liberation from the Powers, while Wink views violence itself as one of the characteristics of the Powers in their fallen state. He makes his strongest case for the repudiation of all violence on the basis of God’s domination-free order established by and reflected in the life and teachings of Jesus (e.g. Matthew 5, Luke 6, Luke 22:24-27, Luke 12:37, etc.).
Violence and the Atonement
Our human understanding of the theology of the atonement correlates to how we respond to the myth of redemptive violence. The New Testament reveals some ambivalence in the Christian understanding of the atonement. The earlier writings and all of the Gospels, reflect the understanding that Jesus was executed by the Powers. The violence perpetrated against Jesus by the Powers only served to unmask their illegitimacy. Through his death and resurrection Jesus was understood to have defeated the Powers. This view is articulated in theology as the “Christus Victor” theory of atonement. According to this view, Christ triumphs over the Powers under which humanity is in bondage and suffering, and in Christ God reconciles the world to himself. This theology of the atonement could not be sustained by the Church, especially after Constantine.
In some of the later Christian writings, and especially those following the conversion of Constantine, which led to a situation where the success of the Church was linked to the success and preservation of the empire, competing views of the atonement gained prominence. In the post-Constantinian context, the view that Christ triumphs over the Powers was seen as subversive, and atonement came to be regarded as a highly individual transaction between the believer and God. The Christus Victor theory gave way in many theological circles to the blood theory of atonement which suggests that, in sinning, humanity has injured God’s honor. God must be appeased because of these sins and Christ paid that debt to God through his sacrificial death on the cross. This theory “has usually correlated throughout Christian history with support of a reactionary status quo.” In contrast to the blood theory of atonement which presents the crucifixion as the ultimate act of redemptive violence, the cross is frequently presented in Scripture as “the ultimate paradigm of non- violence.”
This is the case in Paul’s assertion in Colossians 2:13-15, that in Christ’s death on the cross, God disarmed or unmasked the Powers (rulers and authorities). The cross was the divinely set trap in which the Powers were destroyed. It revealed evil where the people had always looked for good – in the guardians of religion. It exposed humanity’s complicity with the Powers – our willingness to trade away freedoms for security. The cross also exposed the inability of the Powers to make Jesus become what they wanted him to be, or to stop being who he was. They could not kill what was alive in Jesus and so the cross revealed the impotence of death. “The cross marks the failure, not of God, but of violence.”
The Anthropology of Violence
French anthropologist René Girard helps explain what sets off the cycle of violence. Girard develops the concepts of “mimetic desire” and “mimetic rivalry,” as explanations for the rise of violence in human society. Both concepts are also evident in the explanation for wars advanced in the New Testament in James 4. In the act of reaching for or acquiring something, humans make it desirable for others (mimetic desire), but in the act of acquiring something we also prohibit others from having it. This has the tendency to arouse desire for the item in others resulting in mimetic rivalry and ultimately conflict and violence as both parties attempt to acquire the same thing. Girard also explains how violence is managed for the survival of society, through the “scapegoat” mechanism. “Girard proposes that the roots of violence can be traced back to the mechanism of mimetic conflict.... Those societies that survived did so, he believes, because they discovered a mechanism by which all parties could perform a ‘final’ killing of a surrogate victim.”
This is the scapegoat
Girard’s work in anthropology also helps to explain how the sacrificial system in religion had become a form of organized violence used to restore and maintain social order and tranquility. According to Girard, violence is managed and kept outside society by deflecting it onto the scapegoat. So for the religious leaders in the first century, Jesus becomes the ultimate scapegoat. Caiaphas articulates this eloquently when he advances the view that it is better to have one man die rather than have the whole nation destroyed (John 11:50). “Girard understands the Hebrew Bible as a long and laborious exodus out of the world of violence and sacred projections, an exodus plagued by many reversals and falling short of its goal.... It is not until the New Testament that the scapegoat mechanism is fully exposed and revoked. Here at last, Girard asserts, is an entire collection of books written from the point of view of the victims.... God is revealed, not as demanding sacrifice, but as taking the part of the sacrificed.” Jesus in effect becomes the archetypical victim, profiling the plight of and vindicating the victims from Genesis to Revelation, who cry for justice and deliverance from their role as scapegoats in a world caught up in the myth of redemptive violence.
Shattering the Myth of Violence
This paper has tried to demonstrate the truth behind Wink’s contention that the predominant religion in our world today is not Islam or Judaism or Christianity and certainly not the non-violent way of Jesus, but rather the myth that through violence we can bring order out of chaos. The Psalmist expressed it well when he wrote, “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God.” (Psalm 20:7) I close with this summary statement on violence taken from the Nobel address by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in December 1964: “Violence as a way of achieving justice is both impractical and immoral. It is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding; it seeks to annihilate rather than to convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible. It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue. Violence ends by defeating itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers.”
Hart Wiens serves as the Director of Scripture Translation at the Canadian Bible Society beginning in 1997. He directs the overall work of Bible translation in Canada, especially as it applies to the languages of First Nations communities. This paper was presented at the United Bible Societies’ Triennial Translators’ Workshop in Mombasa, Kenya, June 2006. Click here to learn more about the work of Mr. Wiens and the Canadian Bible Society: http://www.biblesociety.ca/.
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