It now appears that the slaughter in Sri Lanka of Christians worshiping on Easter Sunday was carried out in retaliation for an earlier slaughter in New Zealand of Muslims who were themselves in the midst of worship. Extremists carried out both of these massacres, but we should not view these as isolated incidents. Attacks on houses of worship have become all too common.
The cycle of violence is also known as the Myth of Redemptive Violence. For example, Dylann Roof, the murderer who killed those engaged in Bible study at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, said he murdered black people because he believed they raped white women daily. Timothy McVeigh asserted his bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City was in retaliation for various attacks and raids carried out by federal agents over the years.
The drums of war and violence are beating once again. Frank Gaffney, president of “Save the Persecuted Christians,” and a longtime purveyor of Islamophobia, is demanding the US government use the tools at its disposal to punish those who attack Christians. There are those who would love nothing more than a “holy war” to cleanse the world of people they refuse to accept.
I confess that when I was growing up, I was a true believer in the Myth of Redemptive Violence. It was no mere myth for me; it was an article of faith. I relied upon my belief in redemptive violence continually in my relationships with my younger brother and sister. My violence toward my siblings was physical and emotional, and in my mind, it was always justified as retaliation for some real or imagined slight. My violence was carried out simply to right the wrong(s) I had been subjected to.
I don’t mean to be trite or flippant when I say this. I think there are genuine parallels. As the theologian Walter Wink pointed out so brilliantly in his powerful trilogy (Naming the Powers; Unmasking the Powers; Engaging the Powers), young children are indoctrinated into the Myth of Redemptive Violence through cartoons.
As a boy, my favorite cartoon hero was Mighty Mouse. In each episode, Mighty Mouse saves the day from the bad guys and rescues fellow mice who have been harmed. Never are any lessons learned, never are relationships made whole. Each episode stands alone as a satisfying example of evil intent and actions defeated by a mythic hero coming to the rescue.
These same “lessons” are imparted through spy thrillers, westerns, and war movies. They are deeply embedded in our worldview. Road rage is another manifestation of the Myth of Redemptive Violence—‘he/she cut me off and I had to get revenge!’
Entire wars have been fought based on the Myth of Redemptive Violence. Remember the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964 in which, supposedly, a North Vietnamese attack was carried out against an American warship? In retaliation, the United States killed as many as two million Vietnamese and lost tens of thousands of its own soldiers in a war of folly.
My parents enrolled me in first grade when I was five years old. I was thus among the smallest children in the schools I attended. I reluctantly set my faith in redemptive violence aside for eminently practical reasons—fear of being beaten up being chief among them. This experience began to create doubts in my mind as I learned that kindness, negotiation, persuasion, and forgiveness—which I utilized out of necessity—could often work wonders.
The Myth of Redemptive Violence is a favorite tool of the bully and the coward. It is no wonder that attacks have been carried out on houses of worship because people gathered there are not anticipating violence and because, ultimately, their faith teaches that violence is wrong. Equally, it is wrong to retaliate. What is proper is for a criminal investigation to be made, for those responsible to be taken into custody, for judicial proceedings to be held, and for those responsible for acts of violence to be held accountable for their actions.
The Myth of Redemptive Violence is part of a mental superstructure that holds us in captivity and prevents us from becoming the people God intends us to be. We must disenthrall ourselves from such myths to advance the Kindom of God.