Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The Myth of Redemptive Violence

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 is necessary and restorative – it’s supposed to make people and societies 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.

The Babylonian creation story bears a strong resemblance to Genesis except it is based on war and conflict between the gods.

Why would people believe violence can make things whole? The word “whole” comes from the same word as “healthy” and “holy,” which makes the belief doubly bizarre – the belief that extreme violence can make societies whole and healthy. This belief that violence creates wholeness can only be based on the belief that there are monsters, or more accurately, people who are monsters. That is, evil people, ones who wish to destroy society.

So, of course, these people have to be eradicated.

If some people (and their societies) are defined as evil, and therefore a threat, then that which they supposedly are attacking has to be considered good.

Mircea Eliade gives us a clue. “Since ‘our world’ is a cosmos, any attack from without threatens to turn it into chaos,” he writes. “And as ‘our world’ was founded by imitating the paradigmatic work of the gods, the cosmogony, so the enemies who attack it are assimilated to the enemies of the gods, the demons, and especially to the archdemon, the primordial dragon conquered by the gods at the beginning of time.

“An attack on ‘our world’ is equivalent to an act of revenge by the mythical dragon, which rebels against the work of the gods, the cosmos, and struggles to annihilate it. ‘Our’ enemies belong to the powers of chaos. Any destruction of a city is equivalent to a retrogression to chaos.

“Any victory over the attackers reiterates the paradigmatic victory of the gods over the dragon (that is, over chaos).”

What Eliade is telling us is that all societies believe they were founded, approved and supported by God. Those who in any way criticize or attack this society have to be on the side of evil, or chaos.

What Eliade is writing about is the archetype of the horror story: good attacked by evil. And since when good is attacked by evil, the preferred response is violence. Hence, the belief in Wink’s “myth of redemptive violence.”

In other words, life comes from death. As the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur has pointed out, order is established by means of disorder.

The Myth of Redemptive Violence is based on what I called the Fairy Tale of Pure Good and Pure Evil, i.e., the belief of nearly all cultures that God is on their side, so the Devil (or chaos, or evil) has to be on the side of those they have defined as their enemies.

The belief in the Fairy Tale of Pure Good and Pure Evil leads inexorably to scapegoating. That is, since we have God on our side, and therefore are pure and good (which is impossible) we’re project our flaws onto others. Then, once we eradicate them, only the Good will remain.

The mythologist Maggie Macary wrote of what she called the Savior Complex. If there is a savior, then there has to be a scapegoat. They’re the obverse and reverse sides of the same coin. One cannot exist without the other.

If any society or religion is convinced God is on its side, then it will consider itself a savior. Those who resist its message, being evil, will be scapegoated, attacked, and destroyed. Chaos and evil must be destroyed; violence redeems and restores wholeness.

This Savior Complex is always based on those who believe in this seeing themselves as utterly innocent, i.e., purely good.

In a sense “evil” does not exist. If anything, it’s what C.S. Lewis called “bent” good. The problem with the concept of evil, how can anyone come up with a definition that cannot be turned against them, turning them into a scapegoat?

In the first, Good grows out of Evil; in the second, Evil is twisted (or as C.S. Lewis called it, “bent”) Good.

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 Babylonian myth, are motivated by little more than a lust for power and violence. You can see this belief in such philosophers as Thomas Hobbes, who argued people and life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” and people needed a strong ruler to control them.

In the second the need for a powerful authority, and the lust, are themselves the corruption. The first is an excuse for slavery; the second, an argument for freedom.

It can be argued (and I would agree with it) that a true conservative is someone one who someone 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 over.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"And that return, that true change of heart and mind, can only come about voluntarily, through persuasion. That, to me, is the Christian view."

Good essay. Thank you.