Violent Redemption – Metanarratives 2

In my last post, I mentioned the story of Redemptive Violence as one of the dominant metanarratives that the media feed to us. I am sure you will recognise it when I describe it – it is the basis for every action movie ever! Whether the story takes place in history, in space, or in some other context, there’s a set pattern to the metanarrative. There is a hero, who we are made to identify with, who loses something to an enemy – either of his own or his communities (yes, usually it is a he). After a long and dangerous quest, he and a band of valiant warriors defeat the enemy who has caused this loss in a violent and surprising fight. The story ends with some kind of depiction of the wonderful state of peace and goodness that this battle has brought about.

It is right for postmodernity to deconstruct this story, for a quick historical review can show how it is the story of Empire and oppression. Wired is far from the first to talk about the Babylonian gods’ relationship with contemporary action movies. The myths that were used to explain the origin of earth and Babylon in particular, that legitimated the rule of the King and priests were all about war between the gods. Violence solved the problem in the story, and violence was the way the empire expanded. Successive empires ruled the near east, ending with the Romans. When an ideological difference emerged, heroes stepped up to take charge and deployed as much violence as they could to take over the supreme position. The era of the end of the Roman Republic and the beginning of the Empire (Julius Caesar and all that…) typifies the internal wars that would plague the empire for centuries.

What does the Bible say about redemptive violence? There are many Christians who struggle with the stories of violence in the Old Testament, especially books like Joshua, Judges and Samuel-Kings. Whole cities and tribes are wiped out, seemingly at the order of God. If we read the Bible as an account of how people have engaged with God, we can read these as an example of how violence is not, in fact, redemptive. The ‘ethnic cleansing’ of Canaan does not bring peace to the Israelites. The wars against Moab and Philistia do not bring peace. Even the great conquests of David do not bring lasting peace. In fact we find that the war-like nature of David makes him unfit to build the Temple of God – violence and worship of God are characterised as incompatible.

Violence was an metanarrative that the people of God had to deal with as they were conquered by Babylon and others. For me, scripture engages with it as a possibility and shows that it is flawed. The most cutting critique is in the life (and death) of Jesus himself. If there was ever a case when violent resistance of tyranny in God’s name was justified, Judea in the first century was up there. Galilee was a hot-bed of anti-Roman activity and freedom fighters – within a generation of Jesus it was devastated by war. Yet Jesus chose a different way, rejecting the dominant metanarrative of violence. He took a deliberately different approach, ‘laying down his life’ and practising forgiveness with his last breaths.

Yet there are some who believe that this approach was only temporary, that the second coming of Jesus is in violence and destruction. I am convinced that this is a mis-reading of the character of Jesus and the kind of ending and redemption that he seeks. I think that passages that speak of a conquering Jesus are supposed to point us back to the way that victory was won – in the ‘defeat’ of the Cross. If we really consider the cross to be important, we will reject any kind of power-play and empire building that seeks to conquer through power instead of weakness.