|Statue of Mars, Hotel National des Invalides, Paris|
The conversion to Christianity of European peoples with strong warrior cultures was slow and convoluted. The hold on the imagination shaped by the pagan mythology of the warrior hero was strong. Myths die hard because myths give meaning. Perhaps the conversion was never complete in the first place.
Those who say America does not have a gun problem, but a sin problem are actually onto something. We do have a sin problem. We have a sinful imagination problem. A sinful myth problem. What those who say we have a sin problem, not a gun problem miss is that guns and our infatuation with guns and the potential violence they represent are a manifestation of the Sin at the heart our imagination/mythology. We are in the thrall of the notion of redemptive violence, i.e., violence is normal, in some situations good, and often necessary to “save the day”. Violence is redemptive and salvific. It presumes that some people who resort to violence are simply “good”. Most of our fictional heroes, from Westerns to superheroes, resort to it and we glory in it. We recount it in our history. It pervades our entertainment. It excuses vigilantism. I admit that I, too, am fascinated by aspects of the mythology of the warrior. I have a sin problem.
I am referring to "myth" here not a something that some people believe that is untrue though that is certainly the case for much that is part of the myth of redemptive violence. What I mean by myth is a narrative or set of narratives, some more or less historical, some fictional, that are are told and retold to make sense of our lives and the world in which we live. More than just stories, myths are symbolic. They give our lives meaning and shape our imaginations and our sense of right and wrong. Through our myth(s) we understand who we are and how the world works. This is partly what C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien meant when they referred to Christianity as the "true myth".
The myth of redemptive violence is not the true myth. It is but a continuation of the old pagan myth of the violent warrior hero who slays the enemy. It is a bloody redemption. But not the blood of the cross. The myth of redemptive violence is at odds with the truth myth of redemptive sacrifice and love we see in Jesus. But it remains compelling. It continues to shape our imaginations even of Christians. We might go to church. We give thanks that Jesus died so we don't have to go to Hell. But in our heart of hearts we often still worship the quite different god whose name is Ares, Mars, Tyr, etc. Do we really want a savior who looks like Jesus or one like Beowulf or John Wayne or Dirty Harry or Batman? When we imagine ourselves as martyrs in the way of Jesus or warriors- in the way of the warrior? The pagan myth of redemptive violence shapes our imagination and how we engage the world. And it persists.
This is partly due to a bad or at least an incomplete theology of the cross and redemption, i.e., Jesus died only to deliver us from Hell, from God's vengeance. That theology is too narrow to account for the fullness of the witness of scripture and tradition. It also leaves the myth of redemptive violence unchallenged. It misses the point that in the death and resurrection of Jesus Death itself is defeated and with it the fear of Death. If Death itself is defeated in the death of Christ, then protecting ourselves from Death, whether our ultimate physical death or all the little deaths along the way, is unnecessary. Even more, it is an unfaithful witness to what Christ has accomplished. It reveals a lack of trust in the resurrection. Because Death is defeated, we are free from fear and free to imitate Christ, free to turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it (Psalm 34:14) with non-defensive, non-retaliative patience, gentleness, generosity, hospitality, forgiveness, etc. That is where Christian conversion takes us. It is a reordering of our myths, our imagination, our values, our behavior. Otherwise, our conversion is incomplete.
We have a sin problem. But another problem with the myth of redemptive violence is that it does not take sin seriously enough. In fact, it mostly denies that the one exercising redemptive violence on our behalf is all that much of a sinner in any radical sense. In our fantasies, that includes ourselves potentially being the violent savior hero. Either way the hero, however flawed, is the good guy and the enemy is clearly the bad guy. Christianity, though, asserts that even if we get our theology right and are as close to Jesus as we can be and rejoice in whatever healing and forgiveness we have experienced, we will still be infected with sin. This is true even if we are as sure as we can be that our cause is just. Our hearts are still prone to selfishness, greed, deceit (not least, self-deceit), and violence. Our hearts. My heart. Your heart. Not just the “bad” guys. If we believe in sin at all, we believe it is pervasive and universal. There are no “good” guys. Even the best of us is prone to being a bad guy at crunch time. We all need redemption. We all need conversion.
And so, the myth of redemptive violence makes it hard to see the need for repentance and conversion. It allows us to presume that our violence is good and our cause is always just, simply because they are ours. It makes it easy to assume that our security or freedom are all that matters. It excuses, even celebrates, vengeance. It allows us to pretend that we do not belong to one another – even to our enemies. It creates a social environment in which violence is acceptable, to be expected even. It allows us to presume our own innocence. It minimizes or ignores the awesome gravity of the taking of any human life – the very image of God. It minimizes or ignores the savagery, suffering, and trauma inherent in all violence and experienced on all sides. It excuses or pardons whatever "excesses" of violence are committed by our hero. Or denies them. It suggests that some people's suffering and trauma don't matter as much. Or even that they don't really count as people on the same level as us.
And that is where it really gets hard for us. Because the myth of redemptive violence is often interwoven into the way we like to imagine our nation's history. And we are resistant to acknowledge sin and the need of repentance there. But there is nothing redemptive about the violent taking of the land and decimation of native peoples. Or the violence of slavery and racism. Or the violence against minorities and new immigrants. And given the pervasiveness of sin it would hard to argue, from Christian perspective, that every war any country including America has fought has qualified as a just war. Fundamental to Christianity is self-reflection, confession, and repentance. Such things are anathema to the pagan myth of redemptive violence.
It might be, given our broken and sinful humanity, that under certain prescribed and circumscribed circumstances a degree of violence as a last resort is necessary and therefore just. But that violence is reserved for those trained and authorized to exercise it under the law and with discipline and dispassion (there are reason the rest of us are called civilians). We are grateful for their service. Even so, that use of violence the is a concession to tragic human reality shaped by Sin and not something – for Christians, anyway – to bless, revel in, or glorify.
Still, we have a sizable portion of our fellow citizens – in the political society of the Church as well as the political society beyond – who are enchanted by the mythology/theology of redemptive violence and vengeance. That myth won't just go away. Myths die hard because they give meaning. Attacking them head on might not be the most effective strategy. We need to advocate for reform of our gun laws and ensure that weapons are in fact "well regulated". But the problem that needs addressing is much deeper. It goes to the heart of what makes so many think that the idea that sinful unregulated civilians should possess weapons designed to kill humans is a good one. Our hearts and imaginations need healing. The myth of redemptive violence needs to be addressed. And we need to help each other as we wean ourselves from it. It is about conversion.
See also Gun Violence. Again . . .