john davies
notes from a small curate

updated regularly
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Mark 13 - Jesus and the myth of redemptive violence

    Good Shepherd Holy Communion 19/11/2006

    Hebrews 10.11-25, Mark 13.1-8

    The new James Bond film is out this week. Casino Royale is the first to star Daniel Craig as James Bond. Based on the first-ever Bond novel by Ian Fleming, Casino Royale has had rave reviews.

    In the film the new secret agent Bond's first ever mission takes him to Madagascar to spy on a potential terrorist. Soon Bond is pulled into a game of high-stakes poker in Montenegro with the villain Le Chiffre, who provides a global money-laundering service to terrorist organisations. If Bond can win the poker game he saves the world from future acts of terror.

    The plot sounds familiar. The actors may change, the locations may be different, but you always know what you're going to get in a James Bond film.

    You know you'll get unique villains, outlandish plots, and voluptuous women who tend to fall in love with Bond at first sight - and Bond tends to fall in love with them. You get gadgets from Q, death-defying stunts, and all sorts of outlandish adventures. And the climax of the plot is always the same - Bond saves the world from apocalyptic madmen.

    Somewhere in the film Bond's nemesis tries to kill him with a death-trap, during which the villain reveals vital information. Bond later escapes and uses this intelligence to thwart the evil plot. In many cases, Bond then kills his opponent himself, or the villain dies by someone else's hand.

    Bond always saves the world - and he always does it by using violence.

    Hollywood loves this plot. It uses it all the time. The idea that we can be saved by a hero who overcomes evil by force; the idea that we can be redeemed by an act of violence - this is the plot of virtually every thriller you can think of. And every child's cartoon. Think of Superman, Batman, the Lone Ranger, Tom and Jerry... each of them involves a good guy with whom we identify, and a bad guy who represents all that is wrong with us.

    In the story the bad guy gets the upper hand - it looks like the dark side is going to win. But always - it has to be always - by an act of violence (a clobber round the head, a push off the edge of a tall building) the good guy overcomes, and the world - our world - is safe again.

    The writer Walter Wink calls this plot, this storyline, the myth of redemptive violence [1]. The idea that a final violent act can save the world for us. And he says that this is not just a Hollywood thing. He says, in fact, that our modern world believes this myth more than any other. He says that "Violence is the ethos of our times. It is the spirituality of the modern world." And though its devotees are not aware of it, violence is a religion to them.

    Why else would Tony Blair and George Bush still be so sure that the violence reigned on little Iraq will redeem us - when that belief seems very shaky now?

    Why else would some people in our communities be so sure that by attacking people of other colour or other faith, somehow things will get better for us - when there really is no sense in that at all?

    It's not a new thing, this myth of redemptive violence. Walter Wink is quick to point out that it is in fact the oldest story of all. Way before Christianity, way before Babylon, the very first people believed in a story of a god who by brutally killing his mother brings about creation. Evil came first but - by violence - good overcame it, and the world was born.

    And the myth of redemptive violence has infected all our cultures, all our religions even, ever since. It not only provides a story of creation. It also offers a story of the end times, which sometimes we call apocalyptic and sometimes we call millenarianism.

    Millenarianism is the belief that society is soon going to be transformed, and that after this change all things will be better than they are now.

    Millenarian groups claim that the current society and its rulers are corrupt, unjust, or otherwise wrong. And so they will be destroyed soon by a powerful force. The anticipated dramatic change is the only way that things will improve.

    In Medieval times people saw the world as controlled by demons. In the modern world economic rules or vast conspiracies have become our 'demons'. Only dramatic change will make the world better, and change will be brought about, or survived, by a group of the devout and dedicated. In most millenarian scenarios, a disaster or battle to come will be followed by a new, purified world in which the true believers will be rewarded.

    Groups like the Plymouth Brethren and the Mormons hold such beliefs. The Seventh-day Adventist Church believe that we are living in a time when Christian prophecies of a final divine judgment are coming to pass. You may remember the 1993 siege in Waco, Texas, of an Adventist offshoot cult led by David Koresh, where eighty-two members lost their lives.

    And mainstream Christianity is not immune to millenarianist beliefs. Walk into any Christian bookshop and you're likely to find on the shelves a series of books by Frank Peretti, beginning with This Present Darkness [2]. On the back cover you will read these words:

    Ashton is a small town. But when a sceptical reporter and a prayerful pastor begin to compare notes, they suddenly find themselves fighting a hideous New Age plot to subjugate the townspeople and, eventually, the entire planet.
    In this fast-moving thriller, Peretti illustrates the power of demonic forces and the greater power of prayer as a weapon against them.
    The residents of the sleepy town of Ashton, had no idea that their community was about to play a significant role in the ages-old battle between the forces of good versus evil. Ashton was not a big town, or important - just a name on the map. Yet it was here that three very different characters would face the hardest tests of their lives. Marshall Hogan, an ex-city newspaper editor with any eye for a story and a nose for something rotten. Hank Busche, the young pastor of a small church in danger of tearing itself apart. Tal, captain of the angelic warriors summoned to make a stand against an encroaching tide of evil and deception. Each one fighting an enemy that was callous and clever, often hidden, never asleep. And each one needing the others more than any would dare to believe.

    The prayers of the people of Ashton conjure up Tal, the angel who will - by acts of violence - save them.

    Recently we had a visit from Garth Hewitt who spends much of his time in Palestine working with Christians and Jewish peacemakers in that troubled land. One of the things which he talks about is the need to Steal Jesus Back from people who believe that it is ok to use violence to achieve the so-called aims of Christianity [3]. A particular concern is Christian Zionism, which supports the tanks and bombs being used by Israeli government forces against neighbouring civilians because of the millenarian belief that Jesus will return when the people of Israel are all gathered in one place, a belief founded on a misuse of scripture and surely a misunderstanding of Christ's message.

    In Jesus' time people were as concerned as we are to find a way out of what they might have called This Present Darkness. They were as concerned as we are to find a hero who would overcome evil and transform the world. And they were as liable as we are to look for that hero in the wrong place. They were as liable as we are to find themselves a hero who would redeem the world by an act of violence.

    Jesus challenged his followers to be very, very careful that they didn't get caught in that trap:

    Then Jesus began to say to them, 'Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, "I am he!" and they will lead many astray...'

    Jesus told those closest to him to pay no attention to people who come as Messiah, or some sort of saviour, leading many people astray. By saying this Jesus wants us to understand that his own coming will not be of this sort. There will be no doubt about his coming, but he won't be coming like a Messiah, like a 007, like a Tal.

    Now we expect a Messiah, a 007, a Tal, to come when things are in crisis, when the signs of the times are clear to our worried eyes. Like when our world is under threat from massive acts of terror. We expect a Messiah, a 007, a Tal, to come when we are very alarmed. But Jesus asks us to step back from this state of alarm. He says,

    When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come...

    Jesus says: do not be alarmed by the wars, battles and portents which are to come. God is not going to redeem the world through the violent events of this world. Jesus says: my followers mustn't be tempted to think that the violent events of this world are in some way acts of God.

    The attacks on the World Trade Center - were they God's judgment on a greedy rich nation? Jesus says, don't be tempted to think in that way. The execution of Saddam Hussein - is that God's way of bringing about justice and peace for the people of Iraq? Jesus says, such thoughts have no such importance.

    Of course, these things are going to happen, and Jesus knows very well that there will be wars and nations will rise up against nations: he knows, for instance, that the Temple will be destroyed in coming violence in his part of the world.

    But through all of this Jesus wants his disciples to walk with care, for we cannot associate ourselves with the myth of redemptive violence. Jesus wants us to learn to believe in another kingdom, distinct from the kingdoms which are founded on such violence.

    James Bond is a great hero. The books and films about him are rip-roaring and very entertaining. But the follower of Jesus must be aware that the Bond stories are based on a myth.

    The great questions of our day - what do we do about youth disorder? Terrorism? Asylum-seekers? - tend to get answered by people championing violent means - lock them up, attack their countries, send them away. And the follower of Jesus must be aware that such attitudes are based on the very same myth as the myth which the Bond stories are based on.

    The disciple of Jesus doesn't believe in rapid and dramatic solutions to the problem of the world. The disciple of Jesus believes the good news about God, that the kingdom of God will come - but will come slowly and almost unnoticed. In tiny acts of grace and love, in modest faithful lives, in a community of faith whose members encourage and provoke each other to love and good deeds - through these things the new kingdom will come, slowly and almost silently, to all nations.

    We need to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, the gentle and peaceable myth breaker.

    [1] Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers; Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination
    [2] Frank Peretti, This Present Darkness
    [3] Garth Hewitt, Stealing Jesus Back
    [4] Various details regarding James Bond and Millenarianism were culled from Wikipedia
    [5] Concluding analysis of kingdom response to myth of redemptive violence, owes much to this week's Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary, particularly the James Alison passages.