Friday, March 7, 2014

The Myth of Redemptive Violence

"[Wink's ideas are about]...an epidemiology of power disorders, a phenomenology of oppression." - Neal Stephenson



The theologian Walter Wink (author of The Powers That Be) writes of what he calls the Myth of Redemptive Violence. This myth, he writes, is the belief that violence, especially administered by the State, is necessary and restorative to make people whole. Violence equals health, you might say, or in Orwellian terms, War is Peace.

He believes this myth is one of the oldest known, and runs back to the Babylonian creation story, (the Enuma Elish) from around 1250 B.C.E. This story, he tells us, keeps reappearing, even today, even in something as innocuous as children's cartoons.

According to the myth, in the beginning Apsu, the father-god, and Tiamat, the mother-god, give birth to all the other gods. But the younger gods are so rowdy in their partying their parents decide to murder them so they can sleep. Their children uncover the plot and kill Apsu. Tiamat, also known as the Dragon of Chaos, swears vengeance.

Terrified, the rebellious gods turn for help to their youngest, Marduk. His price is dear: he wants to be undisputed ruler. Having gained this promise, he catches Tiamat in a net, drives an evil wind down her throat, pierces her belly and heart with an arrow. He then smashes her skull with a club and scatters her blood. From her corpse he creates the universe.

In this myth, creation is an act of extreme violence. Life comes from death. As the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur has pointed out, order is established by means of disorder. Tiamat (the Dragon of Chaos) is prior to the "order" imposed by Marduk by violence. The gods themselves are astonishingly violent. Evil precedes Good; in such a case only great violence by the latter can control the former.

Now contrast this Babylonian myth with the one in Genesis: Good precedes Evil. Creation is essentially good, but has been corrupted by Man, overwhelmingly through a combination of his awakening to self-consciousness and narcissism that leads to the scapegoating based on envy. The result was the expulsion from the Garden of Eden.

What we have are two diametrically opposed stories: Evil precedes Good, necessitating violence to impose "order," or Good precedes Evil, meaning violence, however well-intended, will never return us to the Garden. In the first instance existence is inherently corrupt; in the second it isn't, but has been corrupted by us. In the first, Good grows out of Evil; in the second, Evil is twisted (or as C.S. Lewis called it, "bent") Good.

The first story is not only un-Christian, but anti-Christian. It is the most pagan of pagan horrors. In the first, existence is inherently a horror, in the second the horror is secondary, caused by the corruption of an inherently good cosmos. In the first the preferred response is revenge.

In the first story people are by nature incapable of peacefully co-existing and must have order imposed from above by strong rulers who, according to the myth, are motivated by little more than a lust for power and violence. In the second the need for a powerful authority, and the lust, are themselves the corruption. The first is an excuse for slavery and fascism; the second, an argument for freedom.

It can be argued (and I would agree with it) that a conservative is one who believes human nature is corrupt and that society represses or transforms the imperfections in it. In the latter case it would, for an example, attempt to turn envy into admiration.

But notice that it is a voluntary society that does these things, not the coercive (and inherently pagan) State. I'd argue that a true conservative believes there is much good in human nature, but it has been corrupted. To believe this is to believe people can redeem themselves, can change for the better. Unless there is some goodness in us – and because of that we instinctively know what it is – we cannot "return" to it. And that return, that true change of heart and mind, can only come about voluntarily, through persuasion. That, to me, is the Christian view.

The pagan view, on the other hand, believes might makes right, the violence is necessary and redeeming, that the Good (and order) imposed on Evil (and chaos) is usually motivated by vengeance and the lust for power. Whatever philosophy it hides behind, whatever ideology is used to justify it, underneath all of them it is the belief that the gods smile upon conquerors, that peace can only come about through war, that security not liberty is the highest good.

That ancient myth does not exist in its pure form today in the Western world. It was ameliorated by the influence of Christianity, although Christianity today has been influenced and therefore perverted by it. But in whatever form it exists, that Babylonian myth is far from finished, even today.

2 comments:

The Anti-Gnostic said...

The pagan view, on the other hand, believes might makes right, the violence is necessary and redeeming, that the Good (and order) imposed on Evil (and chaos) is usually motivated by vengeance and the lust for power.

Islam, for example, is an inherently pagan view. God and His agents impose the Dar al-Islam on mankind. So far as I know, there is really no concept of theosis in Islam as compared to, say, orthodox Christianity and Buddhism. That seems to be a pretty bright line between the pagan and "enlightenment" (for lack of a better term) worldviews. Sufi Islam was a bright spot, but the Wahabbists are sending it down the memory hole.

Mormonism also has a strangely pagan strain, with the saints ending up as some kind of demi-gods. I'd vote for a Buddhist President before I'd vote for a Mormon President.

Bob Wallace said...

I would, too.