[This post is the latest in a series; if you would like to read the others you can find them here: “The God-shaped Hole Part I: Diagnosis” ; “The God-shaped Hole II: Symptoms – a) Politics Without Principle“; “The God-shaped Hole II: Symptoms – b) The Divided Church]

The myth of redemptive violence is deeply rooted in the human psych—admittedly it seems to be lodged most firmly (but not only or always) in the male half of the species. The myth of redemptive violence beckons many to bleed, suffer, and die for a cause—often any cause that appears at a pivotal point in a person’s life.

This can and often is highly synonymous with the idea of a “martyr complex” that many seem to have, whether moored in religious, political, artistic or everyday social elements and provocations. The myth of redemptive violence emerges in the midst of these forces and urges some to join, enlist, strike out, and fight for whatever the cause may be. It calls out alluringly to those eager to hear such promises of fulfillment, promising that if they bleed for its cause their life will be granted true meaning.

Violence is active—hurting others and using violence to further a cause are not placid affairs. The struggle to persuade others to enlist in its opposite, the cause of pacifism, often fails unless that pacifism can be propositioned in a way that communicates a vibrant and active form of nonviolence, as its key twentieth-century implementers such as Gandhi and Dr. King exemplified. Yet an individual’s choice between armed resistance and steadfast nonviolent resistance to oppression is often made in desperation and particular geographic circumstance; often those who have suffered the most and are the most at their wits end see violent retaliation as the only possible answer for addressing their problems. The violence they have experienced has inculcated an ethos of violence in them that sends them out to embrace the methods of their enemies in an attempt to seek vengeance or justice yet which most often results in reciprocating the violence so that the cycle will continue.

Pacifism may not be a perfect system and it certainly has its limitations. There are simply instances when some things in the world seem to require more than a “turn the other cheek,” response, at least on a global scale—or perhaps we only tell ourselves that is so. But it is indeed irresponsible for those of us in the comfort of our homes to urge those in war-torn areas of the world directly in harm’s way to resist violence in the way of self-defense under any circumstance. The real problem with the myth of redemptive violence is not that active resistance is always the worst option. For example, intervention to stop genocide is of such importance that even if the violence employed in doing so may in an of itself be ethically “wrong,” it is still the lesser of two evils when compared with the act of genocide and allowing it to occur. The real problem of the myth of redemptive violence (and why it is connected with the God-shaped Hole) is that it insinuates itself with so many people so well that in their desperate search for meaning any cause will suffice—the cause becomes far secondary to the feeling of being active, of doing something about the pain, hurt and needs they carry. The myth of redemptive violence makes the act of dying for a cause enough to justify the cause after-the-fact and to excuse any manner of atrocities that may befall those caught in the way of whatever cause is deemed “holy.” This is played out on much smaller stages than those of international terrorism or global warfare. This plays out on playgrounds and in neighborhoods, in homes and in the bored daydreams of cubicle dwellers. Artistic revenge dramas—be they good vs. evil super-hero dramatics, action movie shoot ‘em ups, or even sporting events—can actually serve a cathartic and much needed human artistic purge of such feelings but it must then be left in the creative realm. It is when those daydreams of the bored, the disenchanted, the bearers of the God-shaped Hole began to carry that search for meaning out into their lives and they allow the lure of the myth of redemptive violence to deceive them into participating in acts that perpetuate such violence around the world with the misguided belief that it gives life meaning—they then allow it to control their votes, their political polemic, their (even if secular) theologies and philosophies.

The God-shaped Hole is strong in our nation today as many of us find our economic, political, and social systems in precarious circumstances. Looking back into history for a time when things were more “stable” we realize that there is no such time when that has been the case for all people—there are certainly times in which the “majority” lived more certainly, optimistically and comfortably, but most minority groups (and most of the poor), most “others,” have no such golden age to grow nostalgic over. And with the interconnectedness of the human family—economically, politically, socially, globally, environmentally—more apparent now than ever, it is far past the time for nostalgia and  time for positive progress forward. Such positive progress forward must forgo the myth of redemptive violence. This is not necessarily a call for national (and certainly not enforced) pacifism. The need for protection and self-defense as a nation is understood in that until all of us as nations are simpatico concerning real peace, corporate pacifism can be irresponsible and dangerous even as it can still be honorable and righteous when willingly adopted on a personal and individual basis. FDR’s dream of a thorough and exhaustive purging of global weapons so that no nation in the world could have the means to launch a full-scale assault on another seems further away and more improbable to grasp now than at the time he publically spoke of its desirability (and we are always one nation that would like to wait until last to follow suit towards disarmament, including the nuclear variety). No, this forgoing of the myth of redemptive violence for now is a smaller-scale call to wake up and realize that lashing out in violence is not the only way of actively redressing the burdensome chains around our necks. Because the forms this lashing out take are often foolish ones taught to us by those with something to gain instead of us. The poverty-struck teen in a poor neighborhood who sees gangs or drug-dealing as the only way out resorts to a violence that will most often result in his own demise or imprisonment. The child bullied who resorts to wide-scale volatile lashing out at all her peers only increases the cycle of pain, abuse and violence. The voter who casts a vote with the intent of getting theirs at the expense of denying someone else’s, the middle finger to the other driver, the burning down of neighborhoods to prove a point. The list can go on and on, and the examples can look like stereotypical indictments of other’s actions (as they are often used in political discourse to shallowly depict the “others’ faults), but the truth is we all do shades of these actions and entertain the idea of doing much worse, at least on some occasion or at some point in our lives. We are geared to think that when our back is against the wall the only way out is through some degree of violence. There are certainly cases in which violence as self-defense is indeed the only way out; there are indeed actions of subtle violence as demonstration that emerge as seemingly the only catharsis possible to purge an emotion of despair so as to avoid something even worse. But in almost every circumstance there is a way forward communally not involving violence. The only way to actively address the God-shaped Hole and find real meaning is to forgo the myth of redemptive violence—to know that not all of us must die for a cause for that cause to be righteous. To know that when all seems insurmountable, there has to be a way forward that does not involve lashing out to hurt the other side. To know that our politics, religion, faith, culture, and life can be pure and true without being anchored in a literal call to arms. Granted, history has tragically proven that often those who embrace non-violence die violently, especially if they insist on telling the truth and working to better the lives of others. History, society, and their structures are often set on the idea that they are preserved by violence and dare any to see what will happen when they posit otherwise. That some do indeed die violently is not part of the myth of redemptive violence. That such people often know their paths will take them to a violent end does not mean they participate in the myth either; to accept such an end as a possibility (even a probability) and to proceed forward in the quest for truth and justice is sometimes an inescapable thing. It is in the seeking of such an end in and of itself secondarily to a righteous cause that the myth is propagated. It is in positioning someone else in the place of risk or making someone else the target of a perceived act of “redemptive” violence—redeeming oneself at the expense of another even—that the myth is perversely expounded upon. The myth of redemptive violence insists that we must bleed and die to find meaning. The truth of God is that we must more often than not live—live truly and abundantly—to give life meaning.


[This post is the latest in a series; if you would like to read the others you can find them here: “The God-shaped Hole Part I: Diagnosis” ; “The God-shaped Hole II: Symptoms – a) Politics Without Principle“]

In countless mainline churches each week, worshipers acknowledge a unity of one “holy and apostolic church” in their Sunday liturgy. Many may do so nobly imagining a pure, underlying, spiritual church scattered throughout the world and grouped into various divisions under separate yet ultimately unimportant labels—the names they bear or the particular denominational flag they may wave is irrelevant to the true membership in this one church of which they are ultimately a part. Yet such an image may be hard to maintain for some when any real observation of the divisions facing the Christian community likely forces them to admit there are real, deep divisions among those who call themselves Christians.

But honestly, it has been a very long time by anyone’s count since there was truly “one” Church in any tangible, material sense, and reasonable arguments can be made that such a time never–or only very briefly–existed in the first place. The “Great Schism” of 1054 merely put an official stamp on divisions that had grown for some time, formally separating the Church of the Roman Empire—today’s Catholic Church—from the Eastern (Greek) and Western (Latin) Church—today’s Orthodox Church. The Protestant Reformation later signaled another huge break and “Reformers” have never stopped splintering and breaking away from one another after the break with the larger Church perhaps made separation-from rather than reparation-with “the other side” the more acceptable course of action. So I’m not about to argue that today’s current divisions among Christians are stronger than they have ever been. They are merely different; and in the ways in which they are different I see evidence of yet another symptom of the “God-shaped Hole,” one tied strongly to the last symptom we considered, “Politics-without-Principle.”

I have a brother with a strong interest in Church affiliation and denominational loyalty, particularly in once-lapsed now returning Church-goers, as an aspect of his professional studies. He has made the point to me several times (and many sources readily support his conclusion) that the denomination of a church matters very little today to someone becoming involved with Church for the first time or involved again after a lapse–denominations as a whole matter less and less to most people. He supposes the divisions and alliances of churches now are more akin to what he terms “Faith Tribes.” He sees these “tribes” roughly consisting of Fundamentalists, Progressives, Conservatives, and Moderates; I would add “Charismatics” to that list, suggest that “conservative” and “fundamentalist” in religious terminology are often separated only by a very fine line, and acknowledge the combinations possible within these tribes—Charismatics may be progressive or fundamentalist but I add them as a separate group because much of what makes them distinctive is unique and unlike what is found in any of these other groups; they are also arguably the largest and fastest-growing global Christian faction. Anyway, while once Protestants waged theological war against and distanced themselves from Catholics, and later Protestants fought amongst themselves and aligned into ever-increasing smaller camps, now the divisions come more from ideologies that separate people even within their own denominations. You rarely run into that staple of American Protestant life from 20-50 years ago, the denominational loyalist who seemed to honestly believe only Methodists (or Baptists, Presbyterians, etc.) had it “right.” Today, a liberal Catholic will have much more in common with a liberal Baptist than with a conservative member of their own Church. But it’s not this potential era of post-denominationalism that is symptomatic of the God-shaped Hole that I hypothesize; rather, it is the issues driving the current church conflicts that point to that problem.

I propose that the reason denominational affiliation matters less to most church-goers these days is because the traditional matters of the Church are less important, even to those regularly going to church. Typically what made a Baptist a Baptist or an Episcopalian an Episcopalian—aside from being born one, and even in those cases these same issues became identifiers as those brought up in the tradition learned and articulated them—were theological, doctrinal, liturgical, and ceremonial. The average Presbyterian in the pew today has little knowledge of Calvin’s theology and the average Baptist knows little about their denomination’s history of advocacy of church-state separation. The issues that matter to the average pew-sitting church layperson now are moralistic social issues—and these issues are usually tied up heavily with a person’s partisan politics. The side they come down on politically is where they find themselves religiously, and it is that side they align with that draws them to their counterparts across denominational lines. Of course politics are inseparable from religion, a point stressed in the last segment of this series and one which well continue to recur in various ways as we proceed. Yet it is the sort of politics-without-purpose that are pervasive in the new Church disputes far more often than a politics of compassion and passion refined from theological challenges and considerations—it is politics formed in the fires of 24-hour news-cycles rather than in the refining fire and challenge of the Gospel that the average parishioner brings with them to Church; that is the point, their politics are brought with them into worship rather than sparked from worship. A fire sparked from the Gospel and honed in worship and liturgy sparked the Social Gospel movement in America during the early twentieth century, drawing Christians out into the street to contest rampant poverty, abuse, and oppression. A fire sparked from the Gospel awoke the Church to the Civil rights movement. A fire sparked from the Gospel swept across Latin America in the mid-twentieth century resulting in a vibrant and challenging theology of liberation. Yet a politics brought from the news-pundits into the church and cultivated amongst like-minded individuals only results in inner-church rancor, splits, and pointless polarization. Church as entertainment fueled much of the mega-church boom at the tail end of the twentieth century; now that the generation of boomers who ushered it in have failed to bring in the next generation with the same tactics, politics as church becomes the fall-back position to hold onto what they have and futilely attempt to coerce another spasm of growth—yet mostly what it does is cause a rift.

The issues splitting Church’s today are by and large social issues and no matter how sides often try to paint it as a big picture debate involving the role of scripture in their tradition or church governance, the real issue that is the elephant in the room is sexuality more often than not; specifically homosexuality and whether or nor a church will acknowledge its gay members, ordain them as clergy, or support their marriage or civil union. Almost every mainline denomination has split over this issue and those that leave to form their own denominational splinter group are almost always the side angry that the denomination as a whole as opted on the side of inclusivity. On a larger scale, the two biggest Christian bodies in the world—the Catholic Church and the churches affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention—are still dealing with sexuality by way of traditional gender roles, refusing to ordain female clergy or in the case of the Catholic Church refusing to seriously consider the right of clergy to marry. In doing so both bodies are, perhaps inadvertently, blanketing one half of the human creation as inferior and (in the case of the Catholic Church) painting the act of procreation itself as undesirable. Gender and sexuality issues are certainly topics for which the “other side” can argue from historical or theological ground but in today’s age of church splits, scandals, and loss of relevancy the truth is that holding fast to discriminatory practices and theologies is much more the result of clinging to politics-without-purpose than true religious discernment. The sides that cling to outdated mindsets do so, sometimes inadvertently, for cultural and social reasons refusing to seriously consider the potential and truth that can be found in an all-encompassing, inclusive, and vibrant relationship with God. Certainly those who disagree with this will note that the traditional viewpoint has been theirs, at least in the context of the “bigger picture” of history; so this change to more inclusive and welcoming is an innovation and their embrace of historical consistency cannot be evidence of a God-shaped Hole. Yet it is in the refusal to consider all of the developments in ethics, theology, cultural studies, language, and history, as well as in human experience and relationships and the central role love should play in the life of the Christian that the only real justification for clinging to such untenable positions is the cultural, social and political prejudices and justifications that make politics the end result of both civic and religious relationships. Symptomatic of the God-shaped Hole in modern life is that too many cling to their religion as a means of reaffirming their already existing political opinions; if Church ceases to entertain them then it must at least reassure them that they are “right” and if it ever issues a challenge to their mind or heart they quit or split, taking their like-minded faction with them. In this day and age the split is a social split, the denomination itself is secondary, and theology is subservient to social customs—yet another symptom that even though they may not admit it, too many people feel that God is absent in their life and in the Universe as whole.