“summer blockbuster #1: the myth of redemptive violence,” july 10, 2016


Responsive Call to Worship
There’s a story pervasive in our culture—
so very well told in books—
so very well packaged on TV and at the movies.
It’s enjoyable—emotionally satisfying—
even cathartic at times—
and comfortable in its familiarity.
It’s the story of violence in the service of righteousness—
an attractive story
that undergirds much of our foreign and domestic policy,
characterizes entirely too much of our life together,
and permeates our daydreams as well.
Yet it insidiously subverts our soul—
our soul story—
the sole story worth our souls—
the story of Jesus—
the story of the God who abhors violence—
who, rather than inflicting it on others,
(and thereby condoning—justifying it),
absorbs it into Self—
the God who, in and through Jesus,
won’t commit violence—
the Almighty who doesn’t not believe might makes right—
committed, as God is, to an alternative story—
an alternative priority—
the priority of an absolute respect
for each individual’s freedom
to believe and act as he or she chooses—
and the commitment to suffer the consequences
in affirmation of that freedom.

The belief that violence saves is so successful
because it doesn’t seem to be mythic in the least.
Violence simply appears to be the nature of things.
It’s 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 certainly functions as a god.
What people overlook, then, is the religious character of violence.
—Walter Wink

The psychodynamics of the TV cartoon or comic book
are marvelously simple: children identify with the good guy
so they can think of themselves as good.
This enables them to project out onto the bad guy
their own repressed anger, violence, rebelliousness, or lust,
and then vicariously to enjoy their own evil
by watching the bad guy initially prevail….
When the good guy finally wins,
viewers are then able to reassert control
over their own inner tendencies, repress them,
and re-establish a sense of goodness
without coming to any insight about their own inner evil.
The villain’s punishment provides catharsis;
one forswears the villain’s ways
and heaps condemnation on him in guilt-free orgy of aggression.
Salvation is found through identification with the hero.
—Walter Wink

The myth of redemptive violence
is the simplest, laziest, most exciting,
uncomplicated, irrational, and primitive
depiction of evil the world has ever known….
Children select this mythic structure
because they have already been led,
by culturally reinforced cues and role models,
to resonate with its simplistic view of reality….
By making violence pleasurable, fascinating, and entertaining,
the Powers are able to delude people into compliance
with a system that is cheating them of their very lives.
—Walter Wink

Witness of the Closed Canon, i.

with some of that lectio divina going on
2 Kings 2:23-25
Elisha went up from Jericho to Bethel
(and as background: in the telling of the story,
Elisha had just followed his master Elijah from Bethel to Jericho.
In both places the local prophets asked him if he knew
that this day God would take his master Elijah from him.
You don’t get the idea it was out of concern—
more a doubtful, “You up for this?”
From Jericho, they went to the Jordan River
where Elijah parted the waters of the river.
They walked through,
then Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind.
Elisha assumed Elijah’s prophetic mantle,
parted the waters of the Jordan,
walked back through—
went back to Jericho where he made bad water good.
And while he was going up on the way to Bethel
(retracing his steps on a kind of vindication tour—
an in-your-face “Yeah, you better believe I’m up for this”)—
while he was going up the way to Bethel,
some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him,
saying, ‘Go away, baldy! Go away, baldhead!’
(And no to those who suggest
the term “small boys” actually refers to adults who should know better.)
When he turned round and saw them,
he cursed them in the name of the Lord.
(Because that’s what you should do if someone calls you names,
Especially children—
especially a group of small boys!
And no to those who suggest calling someone bald
was particularly insulting in that culture at that time.
Because it couldn’t be—just couldn’t be, could it?
that Elisha was feeling the pressure of filling big shoes—
feeling a touch insecure—
in spite of what had been promised—
in spite of what he had accomplished,
because that’s the way we are—
and was so overly sensitive to signs of disrespect,
that he overreacted ….)
Then two she-bears came out of the woods
and mauled forty-two of the boys.
(And no to any who suggest this horror
might be justified
in the name of an unpredictable God
who can’t be tamed, domesticated, or controlled.
It’s rather more boys and feelings that can’t be controlled
and require the discipline of love, not the impulse of cursing!)
From there he went on to Mount Carmel,
and then returned to Samaria.
(He just kept going—
forty-two mauled children in his rear view mirror.
Maybe it’s important to remember
that even those chosen by God—
chosen by God to speak the word of God—
have horror in their rear view mirrors—
have violence and regret.
That might, in truth, be a better reminder
than any warning that God might do terrible things, so watch out!)

Within this, do you hear?
The word of God for the people of God.
Thanks be to God.

Witness of the Open Canon, i.
Consider now the news of the past week in a moment of silence.

Pastoral Prayer
Our God,
We remember with gratitude
that You hear what’s too deep for words—
the grief—the outrage—the fear—the hope.
We claim with awe
the reality that You honor all of what we all feel.
And then we proclaim with commitment—
in the midst of everything—
as light shining in the darkness—
as truth bigger than all religion and bigger than all fear—
as hope bigger than what seems possible—
as love beyond what we can even imagine—
as what we aspire to—
as what we’re called to—
standing against all that is not true—
not hopeful—
not graceful—
not loving.

Nurture what’s best in us.
Help us cultivate the discipline
to name what’s wrong—to name it broken.
Unapologetically—not defensively,
and to reject and exorcise what’s worst in us.
Guide us into the better story
You’ve been telling
and retelling—
the love story You tell creation—
the transformative love story that You tell us—have told us
from the beginning of time,
will tell us—
always in Jesus’ name,

Witness of the Living Word, ii.
This past week, while I walked and sat on the beach,
eating and playing and talking with family and dear friends,
Alton Sterling was killed in Baton Rouge, LA—
and then Philando Castile, outside St. Paul, MN—
the latest killed in an appallingly ever-longer growing list.
532 people killed by police so far this year
depending on your source.
Some say that number’s 488. Some say 604.
All sources agree, the number is disproportionately
black and native american.

And as much as each particular set of circumstances matter—so much,
they also don’t …
in the utter and outrageous tragedy—
that is the toxic brew of our country’s
systemic racism,
the white privilege too many don’t see and acknowledge,
and our idolatrous embrace of violence—

in which deadly embrace five police officers
were murdered in Dallas, TX this past week
in a reprehensible and cowardly attack—
Officers Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol,
Mike Smith, Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa.
And our hearts are made big enough to break for all these deaths—
and not to deny the importance of any.
Our hearts are made to break at this violence—
not justify it—none of it.
And these, we remind ourselves, are just the names we know to name—
not all who have suffered violence this past week.

So we gather in worship
as the people of God following Jesus
on a day like today—
kids going to camp—all excited—
vacations ending—beginning—anticipated—
sun out—

Maybe today’s a day to listen to other voices.
We are so quick to feel we need to speak,
and so quick to feel like others should listen to us.
I’ve noticed, maybe particularly as a minister, that social media compounds the pressure
to almost immediately
have something to say in response to what’s happened.
Something is always happening!
Maybe we just need to listen.
Maybe we need to hear what’s going on.

Alan Green is chair of deacons at Metro Baptist Church in NYC.
he posted this past week:
“I come around a street corner and almost bump into someone;
they scream.
I go into a store; I get followed by undercover security.
I walk into an elevator; a purse gets held a little tighter.
I get pulled over; the officer can’t tell me why I was stopped.
These examples may seem trivial but these types of things
happen to me almost daily. 
It’s real. It’s just a part of my life.
Everyone has false perceptions made about them
but the perception of us – black men – gets us killed.
Sadly for me, it wasn’t until I lived in another country
and that ever present fear was not there,
did I really start to understand
the profound depths of that fear in this country.
God Bless those of us who deal with this fear all the time.
God Bless those of you who will never have to deal with it.
And God Bless those of you who don’t know,
but don’t know that you don’t know.”

A UCC minister in Austin, TX, Nikki, a friend from Waco days,
shared these heartbreaking words from her beautiful black 8 year old cousin,
who told his mother, “Mom, I don’t want to get killed by cops when I grow up,
and I don’t want to be black
because that’s the color of skin that gets treated bad in our country.”
And if you can’t imagine your child telling you that—
if you can’t imagine the child of your siblings—
the child of your friends, saying that,
that’s privilege.

The 4 year old daughter of Philando’s girlfriend,
did you know? was in the car when he was shot—
trying to comfort her mother.
We as a society are not worthy of the children born to us—
born with hearts still big—
undefiled by fear and small mindedness.

New Gingrich—Newt Gingrich said,
“It took me a long time, and a number of people talking to me
through the years, to get a sense of this:
If you are a normal white American,
the truth is you don’t understand being black in America
and you instinctively under-estimate the level of discrimination
and the level of additional risk.”

So it is, within our national toxic brew
of racism and privilege—of fear and of violence,
that we say here’s why Black Lives Matter still matters—
why no one, even today,
should respond to Black Lives Matter with All Lives Matter—
why no one, in response to Black Lives Matter,
should bring up statistics about white crime, black crime,
white on black, black on white, black on black crime—
and why no one, even today,
should use the terrible death of police officers to derail the conversation
about the historical, statistical, and experienced truth
that black lives in this country don’t matter—
not that they don’t matter as much as other lives,
though that’s true too—
that they don’t matter.
And Alan got it exactly right—it’s a not-mattering rooted in fear—
white fear.
A racist is a person afraid.
And an afraid person with power is terrifying.

I came across, by the way, what I thought
was a helpful comment on Facebook
with regards to Black Lives Matter:
when you go to the doctor with a broken bone,
and the doctor tells you, all bones matter—
well, … that’s true.
But not what you need to hear at the moment!

And as much as we talk about second amendment rights in this country—
most of which is fear driven (have you noticed?),
it’s a white conversation—a privileged conversation.
Because carrying a gun can represent a death sentence to black men—
because of the fear we’ve cultivated—
and the consistently violent response to fear we’ve justified.

And police are often men and women afraid.
I certainly would be.
To be a police officer in this culture of ours?

I am invested, by the way,
in promulgating the idea that violence is an expression of fear not power—
that those who exploit violence are afraid not strong—
and more alike in their fear than different from
anyone or anything they say they oppose.

Maybe we need to listen to others—especially those other from us.
Maybe we need to offer lament.
We can do that; we have a tradition of lament.
Lament each life lost—
each life lived in fear—
each child let down.
Lament a broken system
we don’t seem to have the will to address,
let alone fix.
And it won’t fix itself.

James Baldwin wrote, ”If a society permits one portion
of its citizenry to be menaced or destroyed, then, very soon,
no one in that society is safe.
The forces thus released in the people can never be held in check,
but run their devouring course,
destroying the very foundations which it was imagined they would save.”
That’s our trajectory, my friends.
Fear and violence—ever more fear and violence begetting more
in a horrifying sequel we can’t escape.

Maybe it’s time to be quiet enough
to listen to the voices of others.
Maybe it’s time to lament.
But the truth of the matter is we also have things to say—
to remember—to remind each other—
to remind our culture.
We know a different story—
a better story than this one we tell so well.

Traci Blackmon, the acting executive of the UCC Justice and Witness ministries,
a tall, black, beautiful woman with a wonderfully tender sense of humor,
who spoke at the convocation of the Alliance of Baptists, gets it.
Lamenting the so many killed, she wrote
that the guns used this past week
“were loaded by the common enemies of fear and hate …
no matter who pulled the trigger.
We are all connected. We must mourn it all …
and we must all Love ourselves out of this.
Murder is a by-product of people who have lost their love.
Love is our only hope.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. got it.
“The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral,
begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy.
Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.
Through violence you may murder the liar,
but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth.
Through violence you may murder the hater,
but you do not murder hate.
In fact, violence merely increases hate.
So it goes.
Returning violence for violence multiplies violence,
adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness:
only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

But westerns have done more to catechize our culture
than any theologian—
than any program ever devised by any church.
John Wayne.
And why is that?
Westerns are physical at the expense of spiritual—
filling us so full of adrenaline.
They are so tangible—so attractive and immediately impressive—
so quick and easy—
full of characters you admire and despise,
not propositions to process, reject or affirm.
They’re stories, not doctrines—
scary stories in which, amidst fear,
people are saved by violence—
stories in which tragedy is averted by violence—
stories in which goals are reached by violence.
And it’s usually one good guy with a gun, right?
“Typically, an indestructible good guy
is set in opposition to an equally indestructible bad guy
who is beyond hope of reform. Nothing can kill the good guy,
although for the first three-quarters of the story he suffers grievously,
appearing hopelessly trapped. Somehow the hero breaks free,
vanquishes the villain, and restores order again….
The law in fact, is suspect, too weak to prevail
in the conditions of near-anarchy
that fiction has misrepresented as the Wild West”

William Butler Yeats, in “The Stare’s Nest By My Window” wrote
We have “fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart’s grown brutal from the fare.
More substance in our enmities
Than in our love.”

And the stories we tell become the stories we live.
And there are disgusting stories out there—
fear-filled—violence ridden.
To our shame—yet speaking to the truth of who we are,
they’re shot through our presidential campaign rhetoric.
But if it works in the short enough term for me
if I have enough power to be the one determining the circumstances,
and if it improves my circumstances, then it’s justifiable.
Whatever it takes to win—as long as you win,
is okay.

William Moore, writing for the Baptist Peace Fellowship, notes:
“Civilian casualties in the US Civil War were 5 percent of total casualties.
In World War I they were about 30 percent of total casualties.
In World War II they rose to about 50 percent.
In the Vietnam war the people killed were about 60 percent civilians.
In recent US conflicts, they accounted for 75 to 90 percent of deaths.”
Collateral damage
doesn’t matter—doesn’t count—
if you win—
if your cause is just.
And we justify more and more and more and more.
We’re born into it.
We’re raised on it.
We die in it—and, too much, because of it.

April 5, 1968, Robert F. Kennedy, speaking at the Cleveland City Club, said:
“Whenever any American’s life is taken by another American unnecessarily—
whether it is done in the name of the law or in the defiance of law,
by one man or a gang, in cold blood or in passion,
in an attack of violence or in response to violence—
whenever we tear at the fabric of life
which another man has painfully and clumsily woven for himself and his children,
the whole nation is degraded.…
Yet we seemingly tolerate a rising level of violence
that ignores our common humanity and our claims to civilization alike.
We calmly accept newspaper reports of civilian slaughter in far off lands.
We glorify killing on movie and television screens
and call it entertainment. We make it easy for men of all shades of sanity
to acquire weapons and ammunition they desire….
Some looks for scapegoats, others look for conspiracies,
but this much is clear; violence breeds violence,
repression brings retaliation,
and only a cleaning of our whole society
can remove this sickness from our soul.”

Walter Wink, long time professor of Biblical Interpretation
at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City,
was watching cartoons—Popeye to be specific
(could have been watching a western—a thriller),
and it occurred to him that the storyline (the always the same storyline)
struck him as familiar (and not just because it was always the same one!).
You were probably just thinking the same thing—
how so many of our cartoons—
how the popular storylines of so many of our TV shows and movies
resonate with the ancient Babylonian creation myth
(that’s what you were thinking, right?)—
in which “Apsu, the father god and Tiamat, the mother god,
give birth to the gods. But the frolicking of the younger gods
makes so much noise that the elder gods resolve to kill them
so they can sleep.
The younger gods uncover the plot
before the elder gods put it into action, and kill Apsu.
His wife Tiamat, the Dragon of Chaos, pledges revenge.”
the youngest of the gods Marduk kills Tiamat
and creates the cosmos from her body.
so “creation is an act of violence…. Evil precedes good.
The gods themselves are violent….
Violence is no problem.
It is simply a primordial fact”

Genesis, written down while in exile in Babylon,
is a story offering an explicit counter to Babylon’s myth—
presenting good that precedes evil.
And so violence becomes a problem.
Not a given—
not an answer to a problem—
a problem.

Scripture is full of violence,
but it begins in explicit juxtaposition with violence.
We’ve noted that same pattern in Exodus.
The very beginning of the story presenting
the mid-wives’ non-violent effective resistance
of the evil power of Pharaoh,
while the story then unfolds
away from that initial affirmation into violence.

And throughout the Bible, there’s a thread,
even in stories of violence,
questioning violence—rejecting violence.
Remember that’s how we read Revelation!

So what if we more bluntly—more regularly—more loudly—
questioned—rejected violence?
Acknowledged—confessed the violence in our history—
as a country
founded on stolen land and enslaved bodies,
and as a people of faith?
how we have traditionally heard our own story in its terms—
in violence’s terms—
sung hymns with violent imagery—
not questioned a bloody theology.
What if we choose the alternative thread—the other hymns—
a different theology—new images—
question martial imagery,
reject the violence of a sacrificial blood atonement theology,
told stories more explicitly juxtaposed with violence—
more persistently exposing violence as expression of fear?

I was reading Lauren Winner’s book
Wearing God: Clothing, Laughter, Fire
and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God
and one of the “overlooked ways of meeting God” to which she refers
is God as a woman in labor from Isaiah 42.
And it’s fascinating, the image is introduced
by a much more common image:
“The Lord goes forth like a soldier,
like a warrior he stirs up his fury;
he cries out, he shouts aloud,
he shows himself mighty against his foes.”
So masculine—so martial—so violent.
But Isaiah then transitions away—away from that into:
“For a long time I have held my peace,
I have kept still and restrained myself;
now I will cry out like a woman in labour,
I will gasp and pant” (Isaiah 42:13-14).

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich is a Harvard history professor
of early early american history and the history of women,
author of the book Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History,
to which I admiringly refer, while simultaneously hoping
our girls are well-behaved at camp this week!
The title of a lecture she offered at the University of New Hampshire
is often lifted up as a tribute to her work:
“the silent work of ordinary people.”
In her acceptance speech
for the 1991 Bancroft Award at Columbia University
(this one of the most prestigious awards for a written work history),
she included the statement,
“Suppose we admitted for the sake of argument
that motherhood was powerful.”

My former professor—my friend, Bill Leonard,
in a recent Baptist News Global article, wrote,
“In ‘Words from a Witness’ (1967), [Elie Wiesel] told of a rabbi
whose conscience compelled him to declare:
“’Please do not be murderers, do not be thieves.
Do not be silent and do not be indifferent.’”
He continued preaching, but no one listened.
“Finally someone asked him, ‘Rabbi, why do you do that?
Don’t you see it is no use?’ He said, ‘I know it is of no use, but I must.
And I will tell you why: in the beginning
I thought I had to protest and to shout in order to change them.
I have given up this hope. Now I know I must picket and scream and shout
so that they should not change me.’”

Let us not be murderers. Let us not be thieves.
Let us not be silent or indifferent.
Let us not be racist.
Let us not ignore or defend our privilege.
And let us not worship violence.
Our country is dangerously on edge,
and the wrong priorities have led us to the brink.
What other story that has failed
(as completely as this one has repeatedly)
do we nonetheless defend and persist in?
If we do not want to go down
as racist, defending our privilege with violence,
we must change not who they are—
not any of them,
but us.
We must change our story,
and tell a story worthy of our children.

More people want a better story
than the story as it is.
And we need people telling that better story—
living that better story—
turning away from violence as power—
claiming the power of mothering—
laboring to birth that better story,
then nurture it
for the possibility of new life
and a better tomorrow for our children.

Sitting on the beach last week,
stunned at the news—again,
watching children play—listening to their laughter,
watching the waves roll in—hearing the sound of the surf,
thinking of God’s mothering love
inexorably crashing against the way things are—
come what may—
come this past week—
come next week,
washing our edges with everlasting love,
reshaping our landscape with grace,
the EasterTIde that, within the chaos,
never gives up
on the work
and the hope
of peace and justice and love.

What kind of story do you want our children to live?
If we leave it to our world,
it won’t be much of one.
But if we leave it to God …

Witness of the Open Canon, ii.
Consider now, in another moment of silence,
the news of the past week in one hand,
and the good news in the other hand,
and don’t let either go.

Witness of the Closed Canon, ii.
Isaiah 54:1-4a, 7-10
Sing, O barren one who did not bear;
burst into song and shout,
you who have not been in labour!
For the children of the desolate woman will be more
than the children of her that is married, says the Lord.
Enlarge the site of your tent,
and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out;
do not hold back; lengthen your cords
and strengthen your stakes.
For you will spread out to the right and to the left,
and your descendants will possess the nations
and will settle the desolate towns.

Do not fear, for you will not be ashamed;
do not be discouraged, for you will not suffer disgrace ….
For a brief moment I abandoned you,
but with great compassion I will gather you.
In overflowing wrath for a moment
I hid my face from you,
but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you,
says the Lord, your Redeemer.


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