Shuck and Jive

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Myth of Redemptive Violence--A Sermon

The Myth of Redemptive Violence
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

April 15th, 2012

On that day the Lord with his cruel and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will kill the dragon that is in the sea.
--Isaiah 27:1

All of a sudden one of those with Jesus lifted his hand, drew his sword, struck the chief priest’s slave, and cut off his ear.  Then Jesus says to him, “Put your sword back where it belongs. For everyone who takes up the sword will be destroyed by the sword.
--Matthew 26:51-52

I'm Popeye the Sailor Man,
I'm Popeye the Sailor Man.
I'm strong to the finich
Cause I eats me spinach.
I'm Popeye the Sailor Man.

I'm one tough Gazookus
Which hates all Palookas
Wot ain't on the up and square.
I biffs 'em and buffs 'em
And always out roughs 'em
But none of 'em gets nowhere.

If anyone dares to risk my "Fisk",
It's "Boff" an' it's "Wham" un'erstan'?
So keep "Good Be-hav-or"
That's your one life saver
With Popeye the Sailor Man.

It is clear by the calendar and the leaves on the trees that we are in the season of Spring. At First Presbyterian we have structured our worship services around the four seasons. Each season corresponds with a spiritual path in theologian Matthew Fox’s typology of Creation Spirituality. The spiritual path associated with Spring is the via transformativa, or the way of compassion and justice-making.

The spiritual life is an earthy life. Creation Spirituality is not ethereal. It is not about escaping the body or transcending the body, the earthly, or the material, but recognizing, celebrating, and an engaging the sacred nature of the body, the earthly, and the material.

These four paths
celebrate with awe and wonder the universe in all its vitality and mystery,
honor mortality, limits, struggle, and the need to let go,
welcome creativity as the vital force of change,
and engage Earth and all of life with compassion and justice.

An image for working through these spiritual paths is a spiral danced rather than a ladder climbed.

Creation Spirituality is neither fluffy or spooky in my opinion. It is not about denying reality and substituting pipe dreams in its place. At least as I have adopted and adapted it, Creation Spirituality is a way to engage the contingencies and the mystery of life with awareness, commitment, and possibility. It isn’t about believing dogmatic theologies that control, punish, and reward. There is nothing you have “to believe.” There is no orthodoxy.

There is an acknowledgement that religion is a human product. The stories that we have created regarding God are our stories. They are the stories of our ancestors as they used their creativity to find meaning in this strange mystery of existence. Since our religion is a human product, so are the religions of others. We approach them as we do our own, with curiosity, respect, critique, and engagement.

The fourth path, the via transformativa, or the way of compassion and justice-making is taking that creativity (path 3) which arises from the intersection of wonder (path 1) and struggle (path 2), and directing that creativity toward justice for all earthlings, including our more than human earthlings and Earth itself.

Creation Spirituality embraces science of course. The rise of science is the icon of human creativity. Creation Spirituality also invites humanity to direct that creativity, that scientific and technical knowledge, toward sustainability and justice. Creativity is not a good in and of itself. Not all ideas, not all creativity leads to justice, fairness, and sustainability. Our creativity has created the most destructive weapons imaginable. The challenge of our time is place our creativity in service to humanity and to all earthlings and to Earth, for present generations and to the thousandth generation into the future. No small order.

It is critical that each of us consciously takes up that challenge. The path of compassion and justice is the path of engagement and it is a spiritual path. This path involves awareness and critique. That critique exposes destructive mythologies and values. This fourth path of Creation Spirituality is the path of exposing, naming, unmasking, and engaging those forces that are certainly creative but behaving in ways that diminish the goodness of life.

We can call these forces “The Powers That Be”. “The Powers That Be” are not particular people. They are the unseen forces that determine how the world works. “The Powers That Be” make up the personality of institutions. They consist of the ideology, the mythology, the structures and the rules. I talked about this last week. I’ll repeat it here.

When we speak of things like the “mainstream media” or “Wall Street” or “corporations” or “the government” or “the church” we are not speaking of particular individuals, except as those individuals participate in their role as agents for “The Powers That Be” of the institution in question. The individuals, the managers, the executives, and so forth are interchangeable. Sometimes when speaking of “The Powers That Be” we use the phrase “they”. That is what “they” say. That is what “they” do.

These “Powers That Be” lose sight of their intended purpose and instead become self-serving. Theologian Walter Wink says that the powers are good, fallen, and redeemable, all at once. When they are “fallen” they do not act on behalf of what is good for human beings or for Earth, but for their own self-interest or their own profits or power.

This is not hard to see. The resources of Earth, whether it be fresh water or forests or fossil fuels and minerals, that have been formed from deep time, hundreds of millions, even billions of years, are being processed and used within a few human lifetimes, two centuries perhaps, with an ever-increasing gap between those who have access to these resources and those who do not.

“The Powers That Be” the personalities of our institutions that include, government, corporations, education, media, and religion, act as though this is perfectly normal, that there is no other way to live. We are told that there is this “economy” that must grow indefinitely. Whatever it takes to feed it must be done. It is as though it is alive, like a monster.

This injustice which is another name for unsustainability, against future generations and against those who lose out in this resource race in this generation, is held together by organized violence. Weaponry and militarization on behalf of the powers are needed to keep this inequity and this injustice going. You cannot have inequality without violence. When the media report a violent outbreak among the Palestinians or in Greece, what they are not reporting is the systemic, organized violence that has been present there all along. Just because there is quiet that does not mean there is peace.

Underlying the violence itself is the myth of violence. That is what I want to speak about today.

This myth of violence, or as Walter Wink calls it, this “myth of redemptive violence” is what needs to be addressed at an intellectual and spiritual level. This is part of the work of the fourth spiritual path.

What is the myth of redemptive violence?

Let me put it this way. If everyone on Earth consumed at the rate of the average North American, we would need five planets of resources. Or another statistic. The world currently produces 78-80 million barrels of oil each day. The United States consumes about 18 million barrels of oil each day. The U.S. consumes about 25% of the world’s oil. We are about 5% of the world’s population. That is an inequity. I am not making a judgment, just stating facts.

Here is another fact. The United States spends more on its military than the next 17 nations combined. The U.S. spends six times more than the next big spender, China. We have military bases and a military presence all over the world, especially in those places with prized resources.

Is there a correlation or a connection between those facts? Is there any connection between being the biggest military on the planet by a factor of six and the consumer of resources vs. the rest of the world by a factor of five? Anyone who might look at those facts objectively would say, yes. The military-industrial complex keeps this inequality in place. But, it would not be polite to say that, nor patriotic. More than that, for most Americans it is impossible to see. You are squirming in your pews right now and you are the liberal bunch. “He can’t talk about that. That isn’t spiritual.”

The reason we cannot see it is because we have been trained from childhood with the myth of redemptive violence. Everywhere we look, from movies, cartoons, national celebrations, media editorials, and media reports, reinforce the belief that there are bad guys out there and they can only be stopped by good guys with weapons. We have to defeat terrorism. The enemy used to be communists, and we will use them again if we need to do so. Muslim fundamentalists are the latest incarnation of bad guys.

The myth of redemptive violence is the myth that violence saves as long as it is in the hands of the good guys and not the bad guys. Popeye is good. Bluto is bad. Superman is good. Lex Luthor is bad. The Terminator is good. The Terminated were bad. This myth is as old as civilization itself.

How does good defeat evil?

By recognizing that we all have good and evil within us and if we honestly talk about our feelings, wants , observations, and thoughts, and work together with negotiation and collaboration, we can come to solutions on shared problems?

Ppppssshhh. What kind of movie is that? What kind of entertainment is that? Popeye doesn’t have a conversation with Bluto and work out their problems by using “I” statements and acknowledging feelings. No, after 25 minutes of being pounded by Bluto, Popeye, miraculously finds his spinach, and at last minute biffs him and buffs him and always out roughs him. This continues episode after episode after episode. Neither of them ever learn a thing.

This plot, this myth, is played out in every cartoon. Our children know this myth simply by breathing the air. It doesn’t end with children. It is provided in adult formula as well in movies, television and in the news reports about war heroes. We are the good guys. We are fighting the bad guys. If you ever have a lingering doubt and have a fleeting heretical thought that connects consumption with war, just calm yourself and say, “We are the good guys. We are fighting the bad guys.” Then go shopping.

When “The Powers That Be” decided that Iraq wanted a regime change, they obliged by pounding the American and British populace with the message that Saddam Hussein was evil, had weapons of mass destruction, and the only way to deal with him was to bomb and invade the country. The heretics said things like, “You don’t think this might need more conversation? You don’t think there might be other ways of engaging this than war? Do you think your own geopolitical interests might be coloring your judgment?”

The answer was, “Of course not. Why do you hate America?”

Why do you hate America? If you question the myth of redemptive violence, that is the answer. What you are hating is the myth that has taken on spiritual depth in our psyches. Violence saves. We are saved by identifying with the hero who God has blessed with victory by his glorious sword. To say anything else is blasphemy.

The answer is from my perspective that I love America. I want it to do right. When it is uncritical of its violence and consumption it isn’t doing right. We need a better guiding myth than the myth of redemptive violence.

This isn’t just about the United States. This myth is as old as civilization.

The Ancient Near Eastern Babylonian version is the Enuma Elish. In this ancient myth, Marduk slew Tiamat the sea monster with an arrow. He took his sword, and cut her carcass in two parts. From her carcass he created the heavens above and the earth below. Her blood became the blood of the gods who in turn created human beings to be their slaves. This myth gave license for the king to control the people with violence because it is believed they were created by violence and that is all they understand.

In the 5th century BCE, the ancient Hebrews were in captivity to the Babylonians. They learned their myths. They took this story of Marduk and Tiamat and rewrote it. I t became Genesis chapter one. They demythologized the story. Tiamat became the deep, or the unordered waters. Same root word. The sun god became the greater light that God turned on. And so forth. The creation itself was not an act of violence but of creativity. God called to be and it was. Humans were created not as slaves but as good and in God’s image. Violence is not part of the created order but an aberration. It could be conquered as YHWH said to Cain, “Sin is crouching at the door, but you must master it.”

There are earlier more violent versions of creation in the Bible. In the Psalms and in Isaiah, YHWH creates by destroying Leviathan or Rahab the sea monster. Those are leftovers from the earlier mythology. The Bible is ambiguous about the myth of redemptive violence. At times it is critical as in the teachings and parables of Jesus and in some of the literature of the Hebrew Scriptures. Sometimes it uncritically embraces it as in the violent stories of Joshua and in Revelation when Jesus is seen as the conqueror at the end of time. We should read the Bible critically as well.

The fourth spiritual path of Creation Spirituality is to engage the powers and challenge them to do justice. Yes it is spiritual work. I am going to be spending the next several weeks talking about this work. Walter Wink and his book, The Powers That Be, will be a conversation partner.

What I want you to take away today is this. Organized violence that we see in the empires of civilization is taught. It has become mythologized. The myth reinforces a lie that humans are either good or evil and that the good must overcome the evil by violence. By violence we are saved and redeemed. This myth of redemptive violence is used to justify inequity. It is legitimated by religion.

I invite you this week simply to observe. Watch the cartoons, the video games, the news reports, the movies, and see if you can identify the myth of redemptive violence.

We can break this cycle. We can embrace a theology that says human beings are not inherently violent. We are a mix of motives. We can do the important work of being self-aware. Maturity and salvation comes from recognizing that the evil is not the other. The evil is the violence. What we do on an everyday level, solving conflicts by conversation, sharing feelings, separating observations from our evaluations, can be done at all levels. Religion does not have to legitimate violence. We have resources within our Christian tradition, traditions about Jesus that can empower us toward a non-violent and sustainable future.



  1. What about the teachings that Jesus HAD to die as a blood sacrafice for OUR sins? That God required a sinless or perfect sacrifice in order to forgive humanity for our inability to be in relationship with God anjd each other and follow God's laws? I would include this in the same category of myths of redemptive violence, personally.

  2. I loved this sermon. Thank you. Thank you.