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Facing the Myth of Redemptive Violence

By Walter Wink
21 May 2012

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.)

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© Walter Wink was Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City. Among his various books are The Human BeingPeace Is The WayThe Bible in Human TransformationThe 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.

Article originally reproduced with the kind permission of 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.

No-Evil-for-Evil Newtown

from The Economist:   “Evil beyond imagining: If even the slaughter of 20 small children cannot end America’s infatuation with guns, nothing will.

Shane ClaiborneShane Claiborne

The Myth of Redemptive Violence

I had a veteran friend once tell me, “The biggest lie I have ever been told is that violence is evil, except in war.” He went on, “My government told me that. My Church told me that. My family told me that. … I came back from war and told them the truth — ‘Violence is not evil, except in war. … Violence is evil — period.'”

Every day it seems like we are bombarded with news stories of violence — a shooting in Colorado, a bus bombing in Bulgaria, drones gone bad and the threat of a nuclear Iran, a civil war in Syria, explosions in Afghanistan and Iraq.

This week’s cover story of Time magazine is — “One a Day” — showing that soldier suicides are up to one per day, surpassing the number of soldiers that die in combat. The U.S. military budget is still rising — more than $20,000 a second, more than $1 million a minute spent on war — even as the country goes bankrupt.

Our world is filled with violence — like a plague, an infection, a pandemic of people killing people and people killing themselves. In my city of brotherly love, Philadelphia, we have nearly one homicide a day — and in this land of the free we have over 10,000 homicides a year.

Today, Barack Obama called the shooting in Colorado “evil.” And he is right.

But perhaps it is also time that we declare that violence is evil, everywhere — period. It’s obvious that killing folks in a movie theater is sick and deranged, but the question arises: Is violence ever OK?

Our kids keep getting mixed messages. A few years ago there was a national news story about a second grader in Rhode Island who wore a baseball cap to school with soldiers carrying guns on the front. The school authorities ruled that his hat violated dress code, which did not allow for weapons on clothing, a code established with the kids best interest in mind, for their safety and protection. But then school authorities pushed for an exception, working to allow for clothing that had soldiers with guns, in the interest of promoting “patriotism and democracy.” No wonder our kids are confused by our double-speak. Even for those who believe violence is a necessary evil in our world, maybe there can be a renewed commitment to still call it evil.

Martin Luther King was one of those prophetic voices that insisted that we must challenge the violence of the ghettos — or those who massacre people in theaters — and we must challenge the violence of our government.

We must not forget that Timothy McVeigh, who committed the worst act of domestic terror in U.S. history, said that he learned to kill in the first Gulf war. It was there that he said he turned into an “animal.” He comes back from war, mentally deranged, and continues to kill. And then the government that trained him to kill, kills him, to show the rest of us that it is wrong to kill. There is something deeply troubling about our logic of redemptive violence.

Even though western evangelical Christianity has not been known for its consistent ethic of life (as it has often been more pro-birth than pro-life, opposing abortion but not always opposing death when it comes to capital punishment, gun violence, militarism and poverty), Christianity throughout history has had a powerful critique of violence in all its ugly forms. One of the patriarchs, Cyprian (an African Bishop in the third century), critiqued the contradictory view of death so prevalent in our culture where we call killing evil in some instances and noble in others: “Murder, considered a crime when people commit it singly, is transformed into a virtue when they do it en masse.”

Contemporary thinkers like Renee Girard contend that this challenge to violence inherent to Christ-like Christianity is, at least in part because, at the center of the Christian faith is a victim of violence — as Jesus was brutally murdered on the cross. And there is a triumph over death as rises from the dead, a final victory over violence and hatred and sin and all ugly things.

And yet, even in the face the evil that Jesus endured, he consistently challenged the myth of redemptive violence. He looked into the eyes of those killing him and called on God to forgive them. He loved his enemies and taught his disciples to do the same. He often said things like, “You’ve heard it said ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’… but I want to say there is a better way” and “You’ve heard it said, ‘love your friends and hate your enemies’ … but I tell you love those who hate you … do not repay evil with evil.'” He challenges the prevailing logic of his day, and of ours. He insisted that if we “pick up the sword we will die by the sword” — and we’ve learned that lesson all too well.

When one of his disciples picks up a sword to defend him and cuts off a guy’s ear, Jesus scolds his own disciple, picks up the ear, and heals the wounded persecutor. Christian theologians have said Jesus teaches a “third way” to interact with evil. We see a Jesus who abhors both passivity and violence and teaches us a new way forward that is neither submission nor assault, neither fight nor flight. He shows us a way to oppose evil without mirroring it, where oppressors can be resisted without being emulated and neutralized without being destroyed.

We can take courage that Jesus understood the violence of our world, very well. At one point he wept over Jerusalem because it didn’t know the things that make for peace. No doubt Jesus is still weeping.

And lots of us are weeping with him — from Colorado to Kabul. Perhaps it’s time for a united, nonviolent assault on the myth of redemptive violence. Perhaps it’s time for us to declare that violence is always evil — period. There is always a third way.

Shane Claiborne is a prominent activist and faith leader.  Activist and bestselling author, ‘The Irresistible Revolution’

The Myth of Redemptive Violence

August 28, 2012  By Jeff Wheeldon

In the beginning, Tiamat the elder goddess of chaos found the younger gods to be noisy and annoying, and planned to kill them.
 

Terrified, they looked to the strongest among them, Marduk, to save them.  But Marduk was also crafty, and added a condition: if he saved them, he would be king of the gods.  They agreed, and he went to face Tiamat in battle.

The battle was suitably epic.  Faced with a much larger, older, and more powerful foe, Marduk managed to overcome the odds.  He let his guard down for a moment, and when Tiamat (often portrayed as a sea monster, Leviathan) opened her massive jaws to finish him, he used his godly power to force the wind down her throat, blowing up her belly like a balloon; then he shot her in the belly with an arrow, popping that balloon.

You know, like how Richard Dreyfuss killed the shark in Jaws.

From the messy corpse of Tiamat, Marduk crafted the world and its inhabitants.  And so you see, order comes from the forceful suppression of chaos, and life is born out of violence.

This is the Babylonian creation myth, and it’s inescapably woven into our culture.  From it, we get our concept of what it means to be a hero: be stronger and craftier than your enemies, meet violence with greater violence, and rely on your ideals and virtues to justify your actions.  Violent suppression of violence, in the name of peace.  Theologian Walter Wink refers to this narrative as “the myth of redemptive violence”.

Of course, it sounds negative when you say it like that.  But really, that’s the story we’re told over and over again, in novels and comics and movies, but perhaps more in video games than anywhere else.  Video games involve us like no other medium: while a movie or novel lets us act out the part of the hero vicariously, video games put us in that role almost completely.  We get all of the hero action, with none of the mortal danger!

But our desire to be part of this hero narrative isn’t just in our cultural media.  We do it in church, too.  I’m writing this on a Sunday night, and I have a song from this morning’s service stuck in my head: “You are a mighty warrior, dressed in armour of light!  Crushing the deeds of darkness, lead us on in the fight!  Through the blood of Jesus, victorious we stand!”  We hold evangelistic “crusades”, we practice “spiritual warfare”, and we sing “Onward Christian Soldiers!”  We seem to incorporate the Babylonian myth of redemptive violence even into our religion.

We’re not the first.  The Bible occasionally refers to God in this sort of way – we call it “the divine warrior motif”.  But there’s a very important distinction to be made: when the Bible portrays God as a divine warrior, it’s usually being ironic.  It’s giving a nod to the myth of redemptive violence, acknowledges that it’s there, and then sweeps its legs out from underneath it.  Here’s how.

First, the myth of redemptive violence is based on a sense of struggle that goes all the way back to creation: the world was created from the bloody corpse of an elder goddess, and from a violent matricide all mortal life is born.  All creation myths of the Ancient Near East have some form of this, except for Israel’s: our God creates the universe with a word.  Our God is not an underdog who must overthrow the oppression of chaos by violent means; God is the perfection of power, and there are no forces who can stand against God except by the grace of God’s mercy.  Peace and order do not come from violent struggle, but from the character of the God who creates them and continues to will them.  Violent struggle is not something that we inherit from God, but something that we create for ourselves.

Second, it uses violent symbols and images, but subverts the violence of those symbols with non-violent content.  Revelation portrays Jesus as riding on a white horse (classic symbol of [violent] good: the white knight) and leading armies to victory with a sword.  But the armies he leads are made up of the saints, who are wearing the white robes they were given for being willing to be martyrs – that is, they walked to their own execution for the sake of pledging allegiance to Christ rather than to the oppressive empire.  These are not warriors!  And Christ, the “rider on the white horse”, has a sword that comes from his mouth.  Our God doesn’t use violence to create the world, but words; our Lord doesn’t use violence to destroy his enemies, but words.  Revelation says that we have overcome Satan “by the blood of the lamb and the word of their [our] testimony” (12:11).  We don’t use violence to overcome evil, we use words.  So the form of the literature is violent, and in that way it fits right in with the myth of redemptive violence; but the meaning of the text undercuts that violent mythology.

So what does this mean for us?  We’re surrounded by the myth of redemptive violence: American culture in particular is deeply rooted in it, and it finds its way into the church and even the Bible itself.  Obviously we can’t avoid it, but should we embrace it?  The Bible uses the form of the myth to undermine the myth, and as long as we do too, it’s not particularly bad or harmful.  The trouble is, we have a long history of seeing the form and missing the meaning; we use the tongue-in-cheek violence of the Bible as justification for real-life violence against others, forgetting that we serve a God who’d rather die for what’s right than fight for it.  We let the myth get under our skin, and buy the lie that says that violence is the only way we can really protect the light, the good, even peace itself – as if those things are anything but the gift of God, freely given.  All good things come from God; do we need to protect God?

As for video games: they allow us to act out the role of the violent hero, and that can be good or bad.  We seem to have a built-in desire to be this kind of hero, even when Christ (our true hero) is the opposite.  But when I say built-in, I don’t mean we’re born with it, but rather that we’re taught it from our first G.I. Joe action figures.  Maybe gaming is a positive outlet for this urge, and playing Battlefield is keeping us off of real battlefields.  Maybe gaming reinforces the myth of redemptive violence, and keeps us looking for heroes like Marduk rather than like Christ.  Or maybe it’s all in good fun, just a rush, and has no real effect on us.  In order for that to be the case, we need to remember what kind of a hero we serve; we need to remember that we are not literally “Christian soldiers” armed with a “sword” and buffed for battle by the blood of the lamb; we need to remember that a true hero walks to his or her own death for the sake of truth and justice, not just to battlefields to fight about it.

Maybe when we can get this idea of heroism into our heads, our games will change because the violence won’t feel so justified and satisfying anymore.  In the meantime, play critically: what’s the meaning behind the violence in your games?  There are plenty out there that are full of meaning, but there are also many that are seemingly meaningless.  Are we just taking on the role of Marduk, again and again?  Or are our games, like the Bible, using the form of violence to undermine the myth of redemptive violence?

In which redemptive violence is a myth for Syria

from a blog by Sarah Bessey, THE INTERSECTIONS OF A SPIRIT-FILLED LIFE

August 31, 2013

I am not an isolationist. We belong to each other, of course, we do. The people of Syria are our people. This vicious civil war has been going on since spring 2011 and Syria’s children dying horrific deaths, her activists have been murdered, more than 100,000 of her people have been killed, some of them with the neuro-toxins of chemical warfare, and there are 2 million – million! – refugees.

Who could isolate themselves from such suffering? Who would turn away from such evil?

And yet I am absolutely against any military intervention in Syria.

Bombing Syria will not solve a single thing in this conflict and it will bear repercussions for decades. Precedent has been set by other conflicts, particularly in the Middle East, that bombings are not strategic and military intervention will not fix anything, particularly over the long term.

There are many logistical, political, reasonable, legal, and just-plain-common-sense reasons for our nations to avoid bombing or military action in Syria. (Check out questions 6 & 7 in this article at the Washington Post, 9 Questions About Syria You Were Too Embarrassed to Ask)

But beyond the obvious and well-documented reasons and precedents to avoid military conflict in the Middle East again,  let me add this reminder:

Redemptive violence is a myth.

In the same way that I want to be a feminist in the way that I believe Jesus would be a feminist, I want to engage with world conflict in the way I believe Jesus would engage with world conflict. I believe that followers of Jesus should never be the ones calling out for war or bombings or violence of any kind. Violence is evil, and partaking in violence will never bring about real or lasting peace. Each side in this conflict believes they are in the right and it’s clear there is no “good guy” here. Violence continues and spirals and worsens and there is no redemption in sight. Why would we contribute to that evil in any way?

We sow the wind, as the prophet Hosea warned, and then we are surprised when we reap the whirlwind.

As followers of Jesus, we are meant to live the ways of our Saviour into every corner of our existence. In this instance, I support and engage with efforts advocating for immediate care of refugees, worldwide diplomatic pressure and dialogue, particularly with Syria’s neighbours and allies, and a strong commitment to the practice of non-violence. We should be the voices and hands of peace making in our world. Walter Wink calls this “the third way” – the action alternative from military intervention and isolationism.

Non-violence isn’t passive: it’s active and hard and real. It’s a discipline and it subverts violence with radical peace-making.

Disciples of Jesus are meant to live as ambassadors and signs of God’s shalomPeace-making is not for the faint of heart and it is the prophetic call of the believer.

We must pursue the third way – not passive and yet not violent, this is the way of the peace maker.

Go on and write or call or email your government to make sure your voice is heard.

Go on and give money NGOs and ministries working to relieve suffering, particularly for refugees, and to end conflict within Syria.

Go on and become active in the refugee community of our city.

Go on and speak up in your community and take the side of peace making.

Go on and sign petitions or participate in peaceful protest.

Go on and educate yourself.

And go on and pray – with your voices, your spirits, your bodies – for peace.

and, finally, an earlier article from 1992

Babylon Revisited: How Violent Myths Resurface Today

By Walter Wink

Violence is the ethos of our times. It is the spirituality of the modern world. What is generally overlooked is that violence is accorded the status of a religion, demanding from its devotees an absolute obedience-unto-death.

Its followers are not aware that the devotion they pay to violence is a form of religious piety, however. Violence is so successful as a myth precisely because it does not appear to be mythic in the least. Violence simply appears to be the nature of things. It is what works. It seems inevitable, the last and, often, the first resort in conflicts. It is embraced with equal alacrity by people on the Left and on the Right, by religious liberals as well as religious conservatives.

That threat of violence, it is believed, is alone able to deter aggressors. It secured us 45 years of a balance of terror. We learned to trust the bomb to grant us peace.

The roots of this devotion to violence are deep, and we will be well rewarded if we trace them to their source. When we do, we will discover that the religion of Babylon — one of the world’s oldest continuously surviving world religions — is thriving as never before in contemporary life…it, and not Christianity, is the real religion of (the United States).

Jesus taught the love of enemies, but Babylonian religions taught their extermination. Violence was, for the religion of ancient Mesopotamia, what love was for Jesus: the central dynamic of existence. For this early civilization, life was as cruel as the floods and droughts and storms that swept the Fertile Crescent. Recurrent warfare between the various city-states in the region exhausted resources. Chaos threatened every achievement of humanity. The myth that enshrined that culture’s sense of life was the Enuma Elish, dated to around 1250 B.C.E. in the versions that have survived, but based on traditions considerably older.

In the beginning, according to this myth, Apsu and Tiamat (the sweet and saltwater oceans) bear Mummu (the mist). From them also issue the younger gods, whose frolicking makes so much noise that the elder gods resolve to kill them so they can sleep. This plot of the elder gods is discovered, the younger gods kill Apsu, and Tiamat pledges revenge.

The rebel gods in terror run for salvation to their youngest, Marduk. He exacts 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, blows her full of an evil wind, shoots an arrow that bursts her distended belly and pierces her heart; he then splits her skull with a club, and scatters the blood in the out-of-the-way places. He stretches out her corpse full length, and from it creates the cosmos.

We are indebted to Paul Ricoeur for his profound commentary on this myth. He points out that in the Babylonian myth, creation is an act of violence: Tiamat is murdered, dismembered, and from her cadaver the world is formed. Order is established by means of disorder. The origin of evil precedes the origin of things. Chaos (symbolized by Tiamat) is prior to order (represented by Marduk, god of Babylon). Evil is prior to good. Violence inheres in the godhead. Evil is an ineradicable constituent of ultimate reality, and possesses ontological priority over good.

Good vs. Evil

The biblical myth is diametrically opposed to all this. There, a good God creates a good creation. Chaos does not resist order. Good is prior to evil. Neither evil nor violence is a part of the creation, but enter as a result of the first couple’s sin and the machinations of the “serpent.” 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, evil for the first time emerges as a problem requiring solution.

In the Babylonian myth, however, there is no “problem of evil.” Evil is simply a primodial fact. Our very origin is violence. Killing is in our blood. Humanity is not the originator of evil, but merely finds evil already present and perpetuates it. We are the consequences of deicide. Cosmic order results from the violent suppression of the female (Tiamat) and is mirrored in the social order by the oppression of women by men.

Thus, human beings are naturally incapable of peaceful coexistence; order must continuazlly be imposed upon us from on high. Nor are we created to subdue the Earth and have dominion over it; we exist but to serve as slaves of the Gods and of their earthly (representatives.).

Do you begin to sense where all this is leading?

The ultimate outcome of this type of myth, remarks Ricoeur, is a theology of war founded on the identification of the enemy with the powers that the god has vanquished, and continues to vanquish, in the drama of creation. Every coherent theology of holy war ultimately reverts to this basic mythological type. According to this theology, the enemy is evil and war is its punishment. Unlike the biblical myth, which sees evil as an intrusion into a good creation and war as a consequence of the fall, this myth regards war as present from the beginning.

This myth is the orginal religion of the status quo, the first articulation of “might makes right.” The gods favor those who conquer. The mass of people exists to perpetuate that power and privilege which the gods have conferred upon the king, the aristocracy, and the priesthood. Religion exists to legitimate power and privilege. Life is combat.

The Myth Today

This myth of redemptive violence inundates us on every side. We are awash in it yet seldom perceive it. Its simplest, most pervasive, and finally most influential form, where it captures the imaginations of each new generation, is children’s comics and cartoon shows.

Here is how the myth of redemptive violence structures the standard comic strip or television cartoon sequences: An indestructible good guy is unalterably opposed to an irreformable and equally indestructible bad guy. Nothing can kill the good guy, though for the first three-quarters of the strip or show he (rarely she) suffers grievously, appearing hopelessly trapped, until somehow the hero breaks free, vanquishes the villian, and restores order until the next installment. Nothing finally destroys the bad guy or prevents his reappearance, whether he is soundly trounced, jailed, drowned or shot into outer space.

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 actually consumes all but the closing minutes, allowing ample time for indulging the shadow side of the self.) When the good guy finally wins, viewers are then able to reassert control over thier own inner tendancies, repress them, and reestablish a sense of goodness. Salvation is guaranteed through identification with the hero.

Cartoon strips like Superman and Dick Tracy have been enormously successful in resolving the guilt feelings of the reader or viewer by providing totally evil, often deformed, and inhuman scapegoats on whom one can externalize the evil side of one’s own personality and disown it without coming to any insight or awareness of its presence within oneself. The villain’s ways and heaps condemnation on him in a guilt-free orgy of aggression.

No premium is put on reasoning, persuasion, negotiation or diplomacy. There can be no compromise with an absolute evil. (It) must be totally annihilated or totally converted.

Lawless Solutions

The classic gunfighters of the “Western” settle old scores 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, just as, in the anarchic situation of the big city… (in movies such as Dirty Harry , and, in real life, Bernard Goetz, a beleaguered citizen finally rises up against the crooks …and creates justice out of the barrel of a gun.

As Robert Jewett points out, this vigilantism betrays a profound distrust of democratic institutions, and of the reliance on human intelligence and civic responsibility that are basic to the democratic hope (the movie High Noon). It regards the general public as passive and unwise, incapable of discerning evil and making a rational response. Public resources are inadequate, so the message goes; we need a messiah, an armed redeemer, someone who has the strength of character and conviction to transcend the legal restraints of democratic institutions and save us from an evil easily identifiable in villainous persons.

These vigilantes who deliver us by taking the law into their own hands will somehow do so without encouraging lawlessness. They will kill and leave town, thus ridding us of guilt. They will show selfless and surpassing concern for the health of our communities, but they will never have to practice citizenship, or deal with the ambiguity of political decisions. They neither run for office nor vote. They will reignite in us a consuming love for impartial justice, but they will do so by means of a mission of personal vengence that eliminates the due process of law.

The possibility that an innocent person is being executed by our violent redeemers is removed by having the outlaw draw first, or shoot from ambush. The villain dresses in dark clothing, is swarthy, unshaven, and filthy, and his personality is stereotyped so as to eliminate any possibility of audience sympathy. The death of such evil beings is necessary in order to cleanse society of a stain. The viewer, far from feeling remorse at another human being’s death, is actually made euphoric. Some movie audiences actually stand and cheer when the villain is blown away…

Rather than shoring up democracy, the strong-man methods of the superheros of popular culture reflect a nostalgia for simpler solutions. They bypass constitutional guarantees of legal procedure in arrest, or an appreciation for the tenet that a person is to be regarded as innocent until proven guilty.

What we see instead is a mounting impatience with the laborious processes of civilized life and a restless eagerness to embrace violent solutions. Better to mete out instant, summary justice than risk the red-tape and delays and bumbling of the courts. The yearning for a messianic redeemer who will set things right is thus, in its essence, a totalitarian fantasy…

Violent Lessons

The myth of redemptive violence is the simplest, laziest, most exciting, uncomplicated, irrational and primitive depiction of evil the world has ever known. Furthermore, its orientation toward evil is one into which virtually all modern children (boys especially) are socialized in the process of maturation…

Estimates vary widely, but the average child is reported to log roughly 36,000 hours of television by the time she or he is 18, including some 15,000 murders. In prime time evening shows, our children are served up about 16 acts of entertaining violence (two of them lethal) every night; on the weekend the level of violent acts almost doubles (30.3). By the age of 16, the average child spends as much time watching TV as in school.

From the earliest age, children are awash in depictions of violence as the ultimate solution in human conflicts. And saturation in the myth does not end with the close of adolescence. There is no rite of passage…but rather a years-long acclimatization to adult television and movie fare. Redemptive violence gives way to violence as an end in itself (in) a religion in which violence has become the ultimate concern, an elixie, an addictive high, a substitute for relationships.

The modern individual, stripped of the values, rites and customs that give a sense of belonging to traditional cultures, is the easy victim of the fads of style, opinion and prejudice fostered by the communications media…people live under the illusion that the views and feelings the have acquired by attending to the media are their own. Overwhelmed by the giantism of corporations, bureaucracies, universities and the military, individuals sense that the only escape from utter insignificance lies in identifying with these giants and idolizing thenm… one’s personal well-being is tied inextricably with he fortunes of the hero-leader. Right and wrong scarcely enter the picture.

Thus the myth of redemptive violence has become the cornerstone of foreign policy, enshrined in the doctrine of the national security state. Might is right. Everything depends on victory, success, the thrill of belonging to a nation capable of inposing its will in the heavenly council and among the nations. For the alternative-ownership of one’s own evil and acknowledgement of God in the enemy-is for many simply too high a price to pay.

Author:

Walter Wink is a professor of biblical interpretation at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City. Originally taken from his book Engaging the Powers, Copyright 1992, by Augsburg Fortress, this selection is an edited version of an article published in Sojourners in April, 1992. http://www.walterwink.com, wwink@bcn.net

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