The Myth of Redemptive Violence
By Josh Stephens
As someone who is in seminary studying for ordained ministry, I have spent considerable time discussing grief both in pastoral ministry classes and in work as a youth minister, chaplain, and parish intern. One of the ways people can deal with grief is to feel like they need to do something in response to a tragic event in their lives. Foundations are set up, memorial stickers are carefully arranged on car windows, and casserole dishes are delivered— all to say, “We remember,” and “I know this is a hard time for you.”
Individuals do not just grieve— so do neighborhoods, towns, states, and even entire countries. Many of us in the Chattanooga, Tenn. area have felt like doing something, like showing that we care, in response to the deaths of five military servicemen in a tragic shooting. Some have expressed their second amendment right to bear arms by standing guard at military recruitment centers. Others have waived flags on the side of the road or left gifts at makeshift memorials.
All over the country, the African-American community and others have experienced personal and collective grief that is now expressing itself in the “Black Lives Matter” movement. Tired of being disproportionately targeted in traffic stops and treated as guilty until proven innocent, many African-Americans have said enough is enough after repeated instances of black men being killed at the hands of white police officers. Riots, marches, sit-ins, and lawsuits are all expressions of grief. People are saying, “We need to do something about this.”
And frankly, I agree. We absolutely need to do something about these tragedies. We need to prevent them from happening again. We need a society in which every person can live in safety. What I am wondering, though, is if there is a common thread running through these killings that no one is really addressing. What if these killings are also connected to other incidents of violence that exist in our society and our world? What if there is a problem with the very way we see the world? Children play games with toy guns and shout excitedly at each other, “I got you! I killed you! You’re dead!” Parents teach their kids not to throw the first punch but to make sure they throw the last one. Movie after movie, TV show after TV show, forms our imagination with stories of one final battle or of killing one last bad guy, all in the name of peace and justice. And do not forget to buy the video game in which you can pull the trigger yourself! Meanwhile, our government continues to sell the idea that we can defeat terror— we can defeat fear itself— with the right bombing campaign, the right invasion, the right war.
The common thread running through all of these problems is the myth that violence is somehow redemptive. It is a myth that says we can defeat violence with violence or that violence can save us. This myth runs deep in our American DNA. Our very national anthem is the story of a battle— the story of violence. I freely admit that I too have contributed to this narrative of violence. I have, in fact, participated in it by getting in fights as a kid, by watching movies with this same uncreative storyline, by how I have voted, and more. If I am going to be honest, there is great violence that exists within me and I am willing to bet that there is violence that exists within you too.
I also must admit, and it has taken me many years to be able to say this, that I consider myself first a follower of Jesus and second an American. In other words, I understand that there may be things in my life that my country will ask me to support that I will be unable to comply with because I have been baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. As a friend of mine once said, “As an American, I absolutely think that a person who killed someone should be put to death. Vengeance should be served. But as a Christian, I cannot kill someone no matter what they may have done. Jesus said to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
To return to the subject of grief, it is absolutely essential that we individually and collectively find ways to grieve following tragedies like the shooting in Chattanooga, Tenn., the loss of black men at the hands of police, and so many other incidents of violence in our world. But maybe a most appropriate way to grieve is to address our personal and societal addictions to violence which are feeding the very incidents that we mourn. Perhaps we ask God for help imagining a way forward which challenges the narrative that violence can save us— a narrative that has, for far too long, claimed squatter’s rights in our subconscious realities. Jesus, after all, trusted that God’s love was even stronger than the violence of the cross. Surely it is also stronger than the violence that we have suffered and to which we foolishly turn.
There are some good thoughts here. However I think it is important to underscore the fact that all lives matter and that we are all loved equally by God. I dont think that the cuase of unity is served when splinter groups with narrow agendas act in ways that only incrrease polarization of our society. Everyone needs to work together for the common cause of all humanity.
By Jewels Wolf on September 15, 2015
About the Author
Josh Stephens, T'16, is a seminarian from the Diocese of Southern Virginia, where he served in children's and youth ministry at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Norfolk, Va. Prior to that, he studied Bible, ministry, and church history at Milligan College. He loves praying and exploring Sewanee's vast Domain, especially on his mountain bike.
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