The God-shaped Hole: Interlude – The Myth of Redemptive Violence

October 21, 2011

[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.

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3 Responses to “The God-shaped Hole: Interlude – The Myth of Redemptive Violence”

  1. […] theological series is still 3-4 posts from being complete–the last entry can be found here and from there you can find links to all previous installments. I also realized that the final […]

  2. […] will do my best to wrap up the “God-shaped Hole” series and the “30 Best Metal Albums of All Time” thread at some point in the near […]

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