Monday, 25 June 2012

Facing the Myth of Redemptive Violence

By Walter Wink                       Pub. By Ekklesia/UK                       21 May 2012

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 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 cartoons. I began to examine the structure of cartoons, and 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. The common people exist to perpetuate the advantage that the gods have conferred upon the king, the aristocracy, and the priesthood.

Religion exists to legitimate power and privilege. Life is combat. Any form of order is preferable to chaos, according to this myth. Ours is a world 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. It is as earnestly believed today as at any time in its long and bloody history. It is the dominant myth in contemporary America. It enshrines the ritual practice of violence at the very heart of public life, and even those who seek to oppose its oppressive violence do so violently. The Myth of Redemptive Violence is the simplest, laziest, most exciting, uncomplicated, irrational, and primitive depiction of evil the world has even known.

No other religious system has even remotely rivalled 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, a substitute for relationships. Violence is no longer the means to a higher good, namely order; violence becomes the end.

[Excerpts from a long article]

© Walter Wink was Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City. He died recently, but his legacy of thought in these and other areas continues to resonate widely.

Article reproduced with the kind permission of Christian Peacemaker Teams (, an initiative of the historic peace churches (Mennonites, Church of the Brethren, and Quakers)


  1. All very true. My view is that this myth is based on a deeper myth, which is that humans are inherently bad and that they need a strong force to keep them in line. This is the state, police, military and various action heroes, etc.

    However, history may show that violence is not a productive way to go about things. The most successful societies are not violent, on large and small scales. They are the ones that flourish and persist, and so humans, and mammals generally, have actually evolved very strong cooperative genes. It takes a lot of brainwashing and fearmongering to convince us otherwise.

    So how did it get this way? We cannot deny that the evil is human, we cannot put it onto others. We all know greed, fear, pride and desire for power, etc. We are capable of mass hysteria. These instincts can be exploited on a large scale where people live in large monocultural groups. Such groups are prone to war (and other woes), and this leads to weakness. Empires may be built with war, but they fall the same way. This process we can see happening now.

    Jesus had it right....

    Matt S

    1. A very perceptive comment. Thanks, Matt. I feel sure Water Wink would agree. And history is piling up evidence that the ability to dominate and subdue opposing forces by superior violence is an inherited habit we must outgrow. Otherwise we face disaster.
      I believe we have the countervailing forces, inherently non-violent, strongly working for a cooperative society. These are what have enabled us to survive and grow, and these can lead us to a more fruitful and creative future.