Violence is the ethos of our times. It is the spirituality of the modern world… [However], its followers are not aware that the devotion they pay to violence is a form of religious piety. Violence is so successful a myth precisely because it does not appear to be mythic in the least. Violence simply appears to be the nature of things. It is what works. 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 is like a god.
So says Christian theologian Walter Wink. It was Wink who coined the term, “the myth of redemptive violence.” This is a viewpoint, usually implicit and unnamed, which believes that through violence the problems of the world can be solved and society can be “saved”.
Wink sees one of the earliest versions of this “myth” in the Babylonian creation story (the Enuma Elish), from around 1250 BCE, in which the god Marduk is asked by a group of other gods to save the day and defeat the evil Tiamat, the Dragon of Chaos. Marduk agrees, but only in return for undisputed power in the assembly of the gods. Marduk kills Tiamat by driving an evil wind down her throat, splitting her skull with a club, scattering her blood and then stretching out her corpse full length, from which he creates the universe.
For Wink, this Babylonian myth is far from finished. This same basic myth can be found in our cinemas, in our comic books and on our TV screens. It is the story of “might makes right” so that good prevails and evil suffers. It is the story of the indestructible good guy who prevails, ultimately through violence and usually in the face of seeming defeat, over the indestructible bad guy who is causing so much chaos in the world. It is the story of Popeye, the gunslinger-hero of the classic Western, Luke Skywalker, Dirty Harry, Jason Borne and most of the superheroes who are currently taking up so much of our contemporary cultural imagination.
In the past few weeks I have been taken aback at how this myth of redemptive violence is being played out so blatantly and unambiguously in Arrow, which is currently showing on TV2 on Thursday nights. Based on the DC Comics superhero Green Arrow, the story centres on a young billionaire playboy, Oliver Queen, who is shipwrecked on a mystery island for 5 years. There he learns a range of impressive skills including martial arts, languages, and most significantly archery. During the shipwreck Oliver promises his father that he will right the wrongs of the Queen family and fight against the evils in society in order to return Starling City to its former glory.
On his return home Oliver proceeds to wage justice, dressed in an Occupy-style hoodie, against a range of corrupt, rich, evil businessmen. His message to each of these bad guys is basically, “change your ways or I will kill you”. Inevitably they do not change, and inevitably he ends up killing them. And that’s the story. Arrow is the classic vigilante story. The general public are passive and foolish, and the law and the police are too weak to prevail against the chaotic forces in society. What is needed is a messiah, an armed redeemer who will transcend the legal restraints of democratic institutions and save us all from evil. And we find ourselves drawn in to the myth as we cheer when the villain is violently killed, despite the fact that he is another being who shares out common humanity.
The myth of redemptive violence is the simplest, laziest, most exciting, uncomplicated, irrational and primitive depiction of evil the world has ever known.
The question for all of us is how much it affects us personally in the way we view the world and the evil we perceive in others. It seems to have become a key element in much Western foreign policy which believes we can somehow drop bombs on the evil villains of our day. However, as Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn says,
If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of [their] own heart?
Note: A version of this post first appeared in the July 2013 edition of The Gardens