In 2009 while I was on the board of Friends for a NonViolent World we held a weekend conference titled Ways of Peace I: Nonviolence in the Christian Tradition. Theologian Walter Wink was the keynote speaker. His topic was “The Myth of Redemptive Violence,” a phrase he coined to describe an archetypal storyline that is common in American culture, and he showed us a Popeye cartoon to illustrate his point.
If you’ve ever seen a Popeye cartoon, you know how they go. Big, bad Brutus torments nice guy Popeye over and over, until finally Popeye has had all he can take. He swallows a can of spinach, giving him the strength to beat the crap out of Brutus. Usually he wins the hand of Olive Oyl in the process. Good triumphs over evil and all is well in the world again.
It’s not just Popeye’s world where this story plays out. The “Billy Jack” movies of the 1970s pull exactly the same strings, as do films like “Straw Dogs”, “Carrie”, and so many others. If you also consider stories where it’s not the hero himself who’s tormented by the villain, but some other innocent party whom the hero rescues and avenges through violence, you begin to realize that this theme is everywhere. Our culture drenches us in this narrative beginning in early childhood and never stops.
I’ll quote some key passages from Walter Wink’s 2007 article, Facing the Myth of Redemptive Violence.
The belief that violence “saves” is so successful because it doesn’t seem to be mythic in the least. Violence simply appears to be the nature of things. It’s what works. It seems inevitable, the last and, often, the first resort in conflicts. If a god is what you turn to when all else fails, violence certainly functions as a god. What people overlook, then, is the religious character of violence. It demands from its devotees an absolute obedience-unto-death.
This Myth of Redemptive Violence is the real myth of the modern world. It, and not Judaism or Christianity or Islam, is the dominant religion in our society today. When my children were small, we let them log an unconscionable amount of television, and I became fascinated with the mythic structure of cartoons. I found the same pattern repeated endlessly: an indestructible hero is doggedly opposed to an irreformable and equally indestructible villain. Nothing can kill the hero, though for the first three quarters of the comic strip or TV show he (rarely she) suffers grievously and appears hopelessly doomed, until miraculously, the hero breaks free, vanquishes the villain, and restores order until the next episode.
the Myth of Redemptive Violence is the story of the victory of order over chaos by means of violence. It is the ideology of conquest, the original religion of the status quo. The gods favour those who conquer. Conversely, whoever conquers must have the favour of the gods.
Religion exists to legitimate power and privilege. Life is combat. Any form of order is preferable to chaos, according to this myth. Ours is neither a perfect nor perfectible world; it is theatre of perpetual conflict in which the prize goes to the strong. Peace through war, security through strength: these are the core convictions that arise from this ancient historical religion, and they form the solid bedrock on which the Domination System is founded in every society.
The psychodynamics of the TV cartoon or comic book are marvelously simple: children identify with the good guy so that they can think of themselves as good. This enables them to project out onto the bad guy their own repressed anger, violence, rebelliousness, or lust, and then vicariously to enjoy their own evil by watching the bad guy initially prevail. This segment of the show – where the hero suffers – actually consumes all but the closing minutes, allowing ample time for indulging the violent side of the self.
When the good guy finally wins, viewers are then able to reassert control over their own inner tendencies, repress them, and re-establish a sense of goodness without coming to any insight about their own inner evil. The villain’s punishment provides catharsis; one forswears the villain’s ways and heaps condemnation on him in a guilt-free orgy of aggression. Salvation is found through identification with the hero.
No other religious system has even remotely rivaled the myth of redemptive violence in its ability to catechise its young so totally. From the earliest age, children are awash in depictions of violence as the ultimate solution to human conflicts. Nor does saturation in the myth end with the close of adolescence. There is no rite of passage from adolescent to adult status in the national cult of violence, but rather a years-long assimilation to adult television and movie fare.
Not all shows for children or adults are based on violence, of course. Reality is far more complex than the simplicities of this myth, and maturer minds will demand more subtle, nuanced, complex presentations. But the basic structure of the combat myth underlies the pap to which a great many adults turn in order to escape the harsher realities of their everyday lives: spy thrillers, westerns, cop shows, and combat programmes. It is as if we must watch so much “redemptive” violence to reassure ourselves, against the deluge of facts to the contrary in our actual day-to-day lives, that reality really is that simple.
Redemptive violence gives way to violence as an end in itself. It is no longer a religion that uses violence in the pursuit of order and salvation, but one in which violence has become an aphrodisiac, sheer titillation, an addictive high, a substitute for relationships. Violence is no longer the means to a higher good, namely order; violence becomes the end.