From Marduk to the Avengers: The Myth of Redemptive Violence
Alas! The universe is in grave danger. A malevolent galactic force is on the move, and all life is endangered. Forces for good are in distress. At the time of decision, a hero arises and vanquishes the malevolent force. Celebration ensues.
Does this description sound like the most recent blockbuster movie in the theaters? It might sound like one of a host of stories in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or the next chapter of the Star Wars franchise. And yet it equally describes Enuma elish, the Babylonian creation narrative likely composed almost four thousand years ago!
Even though we live in an “enlightened” age, we remain entranced and fascinated with fantastic stories and narratives. People obsess over the details of the epic legends crafted by authors and screenwriters and invest a lot of mental and emotional energy in those narratives. Almost all of these narratives, from Star Wars to the Avengers, and Harry Potter to Game of Thrones, rely on archetypal and foundational patterns of mythology to develop their plots and their characters.
Few such archetypes and foundational myths prove as pervasive as that of redemptive violence. Think of almost any story, ancient, medieval, or modern which involves a contest between competing forces of “good” and “evil,” and in some way that story will most likely validate the importance, power, and need for the forces of “good” to overcome the forces of “evil” through violence. In all of these stories we tend to find ourselves “rooting” for the “good guys.” Whenever the “bad guys” prove successful with the exercise of power and violence, we cringe and despair. If the story ended with the “bad guys” vanquishing the “good guys,” we are convinced the story cannot really be over. Something has to change so that the “good guys” come out on top in the end, and vanquish the “bad guys.” Only then is “order” restored to the story.
Such is the power of the myth of redemptive violence: almost every human society and culture is founded upon it. In order to maintain order, the forces of “good” must prevail over the forces of “evil,” and the means by which they do so is violence. This violence, considered evil if the “bad guys” use it, is justified because it redeems: it allows for that which is good and right to overcome that which would threaten what is good and right.
The myth of redemptive violence “works” because everyone is convinced it is the way the world works. It is just how things go: in order to meet the danger of violence against you, you must use violence. The myth of redemptive violence works to justify violence and suffering in the name of overcoming evil. It is written into the foundational myths and stories of people all over the world.
The myth of redemptive violence even has currency in the Bible. YHWH is extolled as a “man of war” who has valiantly triumphed over His foes in Moses’ song in Exodus 15:1-18; many of the military exploits of Israel under Joshua, the Judges, and the Kings are commended as divinely approved and their success reckoned as a display of divine favor.
It is only in Jesus of Nazareth that the myth of redemptive violence is exposed for what it is. The Romans had come to pacify the Mediterranean world with strong armies, bringing “peace through security”; Israelites were ready to rise up in armed revolt against this Roman pagan oppression, and were confident YHWH would give them success as He had given their ancestors success over the Seleucids. Jesus of Nazareth enters Israel at this place and time and proclaimed the good news of liberation from the forces of sin and death in the reign of God He would inaugurate through His death, resurrection, and ascension. Jesus made it plain that the Romans were not the real enemy: Satan and the powers and principalities over this present darkness were the real enemy, for they were the ones empowering the Romans and all such forces through the threat of violence and death (Matthew 4:1-11, Ephesians 6:10-18, Colossians 2:15, Revelation 13:1-18). These forces conspired to have Jesus killed; Jesus did not resist violently, but submitted to death on the cross, absorbing the hostility, evil, suffering, and shame without responding in kind, and in so doing overcame the power of evil and death through the resurrection on the third day (Philippians 2:5-11, 1 Peter 2:18-25). His followers would then proclaim this good news to the whole world, understanding that nothing could ever be the same. They did not take up arms to resist the forces which oppressed them; instead, they suffered gladly, knowing it honored the name of Jesus and meant they were resisted by the same forces which resisted Jesus (e.g. Acts 5:40-42). Throughout the rest of the New Testament violence was not the answer: it was the problem, and the victory to be won over the powers and principalities came through confidence in God in Christ and suffering for the sake of His Name, even unto death (e.g. Revelation 12:11).
Nothing would ever be the same. Those who followed Jesus continued to proclaim this Gospel for centuries; for three hundred years they did not take up arms, they did not riot or revolt, but often suffered ridicule, violence, and even death. They did not fail; in fact, they succeeded wildly beyond any rational expectation, and thoroughly transformed the Roman Empire.
Ever since, far too many Christians, enamored with worldly power, have again been seduced by the myth of redemptive violence. Many who professed Jesus not only justified, but also participated in, the wars and conflicts of nation-states. To this day many who would profess the name of Jesus continue to buy into the myth of redemptive violence as the way the world works: driven by the fear of harm and deprivation of themselves or their loved ones, they just “know” that “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”
The witness of the Scriptures remains constant. While the myth of redemptive violence is animated by the confidence that the “good guys” should prevail over the “bad guys”, the Scriptures testify that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God: none is truly “good” (Romans 3:1-23). Where the myth of redemptive violence sees no other alternative other than to meet force with force, the Scriptures testify that Jesus met force with love, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, gentleness, self-control, and proved willing to suffer and die rather than to meet force with force, and in this way gained the victory over the forces of sin and death (1 Peter 2:18-25). The myth of redemptive violence exists to justify the use of force against others to protect property and life; the Scriptures testify that all lives matter, it is better to suffer harm than to inflict harm, and the way of Jesus is contrary to the ways of violence (Matthew 5:38-48, Romans 12:14-21). Yes, the Scriptures bear witness that God continues to give authority to rulers and earthly authorities, and they are authorized to execute justice, which might well require violence (Romans 13:1-7); violence does remain the way of the world. Yet, in Christ, we see that violence is part of the corruption of the world, the ultimate tool of the powers and principalities of darkness which would enslave us, and thus must be overcome if we would find life indeed in the resurrection (Colossians 1:15-23).
We may enjoy those stories of the good guys defeating the bad guys, but we must remember they are stories, and they exist to perpetuate the myth of redemptive violence. Violence only begets more violence; then only Satan and his forces win. Jesus has died and is risen in order to overcome the powers and principalities which enslave us and has exposed the myth of redemptive violence for what it is. Only when we meet force with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control will we be able to overcome evil; may we follow the path of Jesus, not the paths of the world, and in Jesus find eternal life!
Ethan R. Longhenry