Violence, Empire and Christianity – Metanarratives 4

Read the previous ‘Metanarratives’ posts: 1, 2, 3

Previously I said that though postmoderns reject metanarratives (in favour of smaller, local narratives) on account of their violent totalizing, my view of scripture is that it does not have to be read as presenting that kind of metanarrative. Here’s why.

We can discern two metanarratives woven through both Old and New Testaments. There is an Empire narrative, the ‘violent redemption’ narrative – we can’t pretend that it’s not there, especially in Joshua, Judges, the Samuels, Kings and Chronicles. But secondly, there’s an anti-Empire narrative of redemption and grace. It’s at play in Exodus in the freeing of the people of Israel, not by their power and skill in war, but God’s wisdom (though we see through the Old Testament that the two stories interweave). In Leviticus, it sets out Jubilee provisions for debts to be broken after 7 years (whether this actually happened or not, the story is there). In Samuel, the blessing of God is on the fugitive, David, not King Saul, but David refuses to fight him or hurt his enemy, despite being a better fighter (again, interwoven with the violence of the struggle with the Philistines). The prophets again and again cry out against the ’empire’ tendencies of Israel/Judah, the way the poor are exploited because they are weak. In the New Testament, the ultimate anti-Empire manifesto is set out in the Sermon on the Mount – Jesus says that the only way to beat the Empire is to refuse to play its games, to be different. The Zealots were just the same as the Legions of Rome, no better for worshipping God. The only way to win was to play a different game, one where love scored points, not hatred.

So without doubt, you can find passages that legitimate violence and the destruction of enemies. But if Jesus is the pinnacle of revelation to the Christian, we must take his words most seriously. Someone has taken Brian McLaren‘s analogy of Scripture as a library of books further, let’s imagine looking at Scripture as a collection of films, the lifetime’s work of one Director. There are different script-writers, different actors, different ‘SFX’, different storylines, locations, morals, but in all the films the same creative genius and vision. There are repeated themes. There are hints, references and in-jokes (just like JJ Abrams does). Each film has to stand alone in some way, even if it’s part of a series within the wider picture. Each one should change you, in a different way for each one, a different way each time you see it. McLaren describes an unfolding revelation and understanding of God though the scriptures – each writer understood God in different ways, we must see their writing as reflecting their individual understanding and interaction with God. This in no way counts out inspiration, unless by inspiration you only mean ‘autowriting’ as Muslims understand the Koran was given. It rather has a realistic view of the human involvement in writing scripture. Everything is interpretation (that’s the postmodern philosophy of Derrida), but it is guided, shaped, guarded and passed on by a community of faith, in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Most metanarratives we come across are ‘univocal’, that is they have one voice, a narrator. The Bible is different – ‘multivocal’ with so many speakers and voices from inside, outside, the rich, poor, men, women – each is represented. These voices are often misunderstood and diminished, but the very structure of Scripture delegitimates its own use to oppress and exclude. The bigger structure backs this up, tending towards the reconciliation of all things in Jesus; a reconciliation not of violent oppression but loving acceptance. I know there is much more to deconstruct in how we actually realise this and bring it into being, and much more to repent of, but that’s my reading of the Christian metanarrative.

Secondly, above I said  that the violence of the Cross is real and central to the Christian message, but that it is an inversion of violence. Art and films like ‘The Passion’ emphasised the brutality of the killing of Jesus, but it was preceded by another violent act, the incarnation. Peter Rollins (in his upcoming book ‘Insurrection’ and other places) talks about the kenosis, or ’emptying’ of Jesus and its place in Christianity (drawing on the work of Gianni Vattimo). The kind of violence that is accepted, even encouraged in Christianity is the dying of self, the identification with Jesus on the cross. This is two fold (probably more, but not fully worked out in my thinking) – one, in our identification with Christ crucified, all the power of sin on our lives if broken, dead; two, we become open to the possibility of joining in the transforming work of Jesus when we too empty ourselves of all that we count as value and instead dedicate ourselves, even if for a moment, to the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God, the actualisation of the reconciliation of all things.

It’s the violence of death that brings us life. In that death, all that crushed us and separated us from life is killed. In that death we find we are able to live a life that is truly alive. In paradox, violence inverts itself when we empty ourselves and choose not to take the way of violence to others but accept it upon ourselves, destroying it in the process.