- Zachary Helton
"The Myth of Redemptive Violence and the Myth of Redemptive Love," by Zachary Helton
Your love must be sincere. Hate what is evil and cling to what is good. Love one another with the affection of sisters and brothers. Try to outdo one another in showing respect. Don’t grow slack, but be fervent in spirit: the One you serve is Christ. Rejoice in hope; be patient under trial; persevere in prayer. Look on the needs of God’s holy people as your own; be generous in offering hospitality. Bless your persecutors—bless and don’t curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Have the same attitude toward everyone. Don’t be condescending to those who aren’t as well off as you; don’t be conceited. Don’t repay evil with evil. Be concerned with the highest ideal in the eyes of all people. Do all you can to be at peace with everyone. Don’t take revenge; leave room, my friends, for God’s wrath. To quote scripture, “‘Vengeance is mine, I will pay them back,’ says our God.” But there is more: “If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them drink. For in doing so, you will heap burning coals upon their heads.” Don’t be overcome by evil, but overcome evil by doing good.
There’s a book by Don Riso in which he describes the experience of attending a retreat that involved several days of nearly constant manual labor. The retreat center needed significant upkeep, the breaks were short, and in the intense summer heat, the lines to the few showers were long and daunting. Now, while most of us may be thinking this sounds like the worst “retreat” experience one could imagine… there was a point to the madness. Each of these unpleasant conditions was intentional, engineered for one purpose: to bring out the personality features of each person so they could be seen more clearly. Our addictions and aversions, our patterns of reacting that cause suffering to us and those around us, these might be easy to hide in the normal routine of a day-to-day life, but suddenly cast into a wilderness of discomfort, these patterns become clear. It is only then that we can notice and do something about them. This is the purpose of the season of Lent. Lent is the season of entering the desert, like Jesus, so that we can see ourselves more plainly, hear the demons in our head with clarity. Then, with love and understanding, we can allow them to heal and transform back into the angels they once were. In that respect, this whole past year has really been an extended season of Lent. Everything from minor inconveniences to interruptions in routine to the loss of live have brought our demons out in fully display. I read someone say last year about this time that we were all going to come out of this either “monks or drunks,” depending on whether we just let those demons do what they do… or learn how to transform them. One of these demons, these collective patterns of reaction that we’ve seen, has been violence. Now, I know, when I say “violence,” it probably immediately means different things to different people. Most immediately, maybe you’re thinking about the attack against the Capitol. Maybe you’re thinking of riots in the response to the death of George Floyd, or perhaps the pattern police brutality that led up to those riots. More generally, maybe “violence” makes you think of war, or the TV shows you feel guilty about letting your kids watch. Maybe you think of personal trauma, physical or emotional. There are many, many ways to be violent, most of which never require a shot to be fired or a punch thrown. When we talk about “violence” this season, we are talking about any instance in which one tries to assert their own will through dominance or coercion. It’s a definition broad enough to define everything we’ve named above, as well as some aspects of our relationships with ourselves, our children, our families, our politics and our social media accounts, which, by that definition, can be very violent. “Violent” thinking is the effort to assert our own will through dominance or coercion, and it is the demon we have chosen to face square on in this season of Lent. How does it show up? What forms does it take? And, when it gets right down to it, is there, really, any other option that works? To start to understand violence, to train our eyes to see it, let me tell you a story. Don’t worry. It’s short. Once upon a time, there was a hero. The hero lived in peace, until one day an evil villain entered their land, bringing chaos and pain wherever they went. The hero sprang into action, and for a while, it was a toss-up as to who would win. But eventually, as it was always going to be, the hero dominated the villain, beat them senseless, driving them from the land, and, once again, bringing peace. The end. I told you it was short. But here’s the question: Who was the hero I was referring to? Who was the villain? Was I telling you about a cartoon I watched with my sons on Saturday morning, or about the politics podcast I listen to while walking? Was I telling you about something my church went through while I was growing up, or recapping the Second World War? Was it the Book of Judges, or the latest Star Wars? Of course, it was all of them. This story is called the Myth of Redemptive Violence, and it serves as the basic plot structure, not only for popular fiction, but for the way we think – the story we project onto everything from ourselves to parenting strategies to warfare. It asserts that if only we can dominate the enemy, then there will be peace. This is the pattern of violence, and it is at play at every level, with a thousand names and a thousand faces. If we truly have a national religion, Walter Wink writes, it is violence. When we live by this story, we are a violent people, and large-scale or national violence is only this interpersonal pattern magnified ten thousand times. We learned it in the crib. Now, for the most part, we’d probably take the moral high ground and say we don’t condone violence. Although, that posture get sketchy when we start moving into hypotheticals. What if someone broke into my house? What if there were an active shooter situation? What if we were attacked by a foreign country? What if we were attacked by our own country? What if my rights were threatened, my children in danger, if we were backed into a corner and there was no way out…? Then, our moral convictions might start to waiver as we echo that age old refrain: Sometimes violence is just the only way. But what if I told you it wasn’t? Really. And not just in an some out-of-touch spiritual kind of way? What if I said the Myth of Redemptive Violence was actually not even the most effective way to bring peace – it’s only the laziest? It’s a quick fix that never lasts for long. After all, in the story I told above… how long until the villain returns? How long until both sides are dragged so far into the cycle of violence and counterviolence, so muddled in their self-justifying reasons that it’s no longer clear who is the villain? “An eye for an eye,” Gandhi once said, “leaves the whole world blind.” So, this is where I’d like to tell you another story. This one’s a bit longer. Once upon a time, there were two heroes. Both lived in peace until one day, one of the heroes travelled to a distant land, wild and dangerous. This hero, in their fear, had to learn to live by different rules, different values in order to survive the pain they faced, and by the time they returned to their native land, they were quite mad and barely recognizable. They had forgotten themselves, and now brought chaos and pain wherever they went. Many labelled them a “villain.” The hero sprang into action, trying to understand what had happened, to see what their fallen friend had been through, and what they needed to heal. It took some time, and some people got hurt. For a while, it was a toss-up as to who would win. But eventually, as it was always going to happen, the crucible of understanding and love created a space for the lost hero’s wounds to heal, and they remembered themselves once more. The lost hero’s spirit was restored. The land was, once again, at peace. This story is less common, but so much more true. What is a villain, after all, but someone just like you under different circumstances? A child of God who has forgotten who they are as they learned to survive the pain thrown at them? This is the non-judgmental, non-violent story Jesus tried to tell. It’s the prodigal son. It’s the Lotus Sutra. This is the story that the former terrorist, the Apostle Paul, tried to tell, speaking deeply from his own experience. This is the story of the end of apartheid in South Africa, it’s the “beloved community” story of Martin Luther King Jr., and it is the only story that offers real hope of lasting peace and genuine restoration. Let’s call this story the Myth of Redemptive Love. According to Walter Wink, who I quoted earlier, everything has a spiritual dimension to it. Every organization or system is trying to meet some legitimate need for something like order or safety, and every individual has legitimate needs for things like love and belonging. This is the spirit of the person or system following that call. But, when the system forgets the purpose it was created to serve… when the person starts trying to meet their needs in ways that cause suffering… then their spirit “falls.” The angel becomes a demon. “Even gangs,” Wink points out, “manifest the human need for security, support, and love.” And if that is the case – if no one is intrinsically evil, if we’re all just trying to meet some very valid needs, then violence really stops making any sense. There are only people, systems, nations with fallen spirits, spirits that need to be redeemed, not crushed. They’ve forgotten who they are, and can only remember when those needs are understood and met. There are no “villains” left to be defeated, only lost heroes to be loved into redemption. This is a far cry from the way people like to talk about nonviolence – the straw man they hold up as “impractical.” This is not being a doormat, it’s not ignoring evil, but quite the contrary. Nonviolence requires courageous, direct action. It requires standing in the way of wrongdoing, putting a “spoke in the wheel” of injustice as Bonhoeffer once said, and letting it crush people no more. Nonviolence requires incredible creativity and patience in reminding systems of their divine purpose and individuals of their inherent beloved-ness. “Do not be overcome by evil,” St. Paul once wrote, “but overcome evil with good.” And when we are able to do this, then the fruit of our nonviolence is actual peace. Not fragile peace, which, as MLK wrote, is the mere absence of tension while resentment boils beneath the surface… but realpeace, which is the presence of restorative justice. This is the end of the healthiest tellings of the Christian story – the divine banquet, the New Jerusalem with a gate that never needs to close, a tree for the healing of all the nations. These are the two stories we have to learn, and they are everything. Think about the last conflict you heard about on the news. Which myth did it play by? Think about the last conflict you saw in a movie or book. Which myth? Think about the last disagreement you had with another person. Which myth? Did you ask questions to try to understand the lost hero? Or did you go ahead and just try to assert your will? Redemptive violence or redemptive love? Think about our prison system. Which myth does it live by? Our policing system? Our political parties?
Our parenting strategies?
Which myth? How would the world be different if it was the other?
Violence plays a role on every level of our lives and our collective life, whether we’re aware of it or not. Fostering eyes to recognize the story of violence and the story of nonviolence, to choose which to live by, rather than fall victim to the default… this is the goal of our wilderness journey this year. What if we gave up violence, learned how to transform it into understanding, just for the next forty days? Can you imagine what this world could be?
Let it be so.
Invitation to Respond
On paper, or with someone in the room, reflect on one or more of these questions:
Consider some of the ways violence has shown up in your thinking, just over the past week.
What would it have looked like / might it look like next time, if you followed the “lost hero” story of nonviolence? Of redemptive love?
What gets in your way of living a nonviolent story of redemptive love?