Redemptive Violence? An alternative perspective …

THE HUNGER GAMES is a major culture milestone, thanks to Suzanne Collins’ novels and the blockbuster movies coming out of Hollywood. Read The Spirit publishes Jane Wells’ Hunger Games Bible-study book, Bird on Fire. We welcome a wide range of viewpoints—because we are encouraging groups nationwide to discuss these science fiction tales that are so widely celebrated in our culture. This alternative perspective comes from the Rev. Bob Roth, the Chaplain/Director of the Wesley Foundation (campus ministry) at the University of Michigan.

On April 13, 2013, Roth gave this keynote address at the 2013 Keep Making Peace conference in East Lansing, co-sponsored by the Wesley Foundation at Michigan State University.

From The Hobbit To The Hunger Games:
Redemptive Violence?

The Rev. BOB ROTH

Keep Making Peace, people!

Wesley Foundation at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Wesley Foundation at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

I believe I have enough of a sense of those who have come to previous Keep Making Peace events, and of those who are here today, that I don’t think I need to convince you that popular culture has become more and more violent. Those watching and those participating in video games are exposed to more graphic, sustained violence at younger and younger ages. That part you already know.

My task today is not to suggest that a steady diet of movie and television and video violence makes young people shoot up schools. Nor that this culture makes them do anything horrific in the short term or in a reflexive way.

I do want to lift up an idea called “the myth of redemptive violence” and suggest how it lays the groundwork for participation in every manner of present and future wars. I invite you to consider whether the vision of the Prince of Peace—and that of the church tradition of peacemaking—offer an alternative view of human nature, where history is headed, and the ethics of killing other human beings. Does Jesus mean it when he says “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives.” (John 14: 27)

Before we go too far with this critique and alternative vision, let me affirm my belief that more strong female role models in popular culture are urgently needed by girls, by young women, by all of us in the human family. Let me say that I do get it that The Hunger Games protagonist Katniss Everdeen is strong and smart and resourceful and resilient and a survivor. Far more of a survivor than her own mother, whom she berates for weakness and yells at for being what appears to be clinically depressed. And I would have to affirm that Jennifer Lawrence is a great actor and I will probably go see Silver Linings Playbook.

So, in case you just joined us, in the blockbuster book and movie Hunger Games, a totalitarian regime in a sci-fi future holds killing games every year in which each of 12 districts has to offer up two 12-to-18-year-olds in a fight to the finish where 23 of 24 will end up dead. These games have gone on for 74 years to remind the masses whose in charge. As we watch a couple short clips, consider one kind of strength, one kind of resourcefulness. This is survival of the fittest, and the fittest are some of Hollywood beautiful youth…

(Two film clips from Hunger Games are shown, featuring Katniss visiting violence on her foes.)

In the second clip the heroine Katniss commits what she calls a “mercy killing” as she narrates the scene first-person in the book. Sort of like Dr. Kevorkian, but just a little less kind and gentle. Is that the image of what it is to be a strong woman that you want girls to have throughout their lives?

This is situation ethics on steroids. Hunger Games asks you and me to imagine this dystopia. Imagine this is where history is headed. Now, what can we do when it goes there? Therefore, suspending disbelief, imagine that things will go there.

Let’s take a look at one more clip from another recent blockbuster. Let us consider what has become common fare and in the early the 21st century. Not just in “horror” movies, but films aimed at children and youth. I saw The Hobbit at a $1.50 showing at a theater in Allen Park. Families took advantage and I sat amidst dozens of 4-to-10-year-olds throughout the theater with their parents or possibly older siblings. Here is what these little boys and girls watched.

(Film clip of The Hobbit is shown.)

If you watch The Hobbit at 7 or 8 or 9 years old, you will need three cinematic installments of Hunger Games by 11 or 12. Online reviews of 3rd The Hunger Games book celebrate that there is clearly more graphic violence than in book one. And that’s saying something, because even Stephen King’s blurb on the back cover of the first book reads, “A violent, jaring, speed-rap of a novel…” So when the 2nd and 3rd Hunger Games movies come out, the violence will be duly amplified.

The myth of redemptive violence

The myth of redemptive violence says that war is a never-to-be-questioned fact of life.

Past, present, or future: kill or be killed. The only redemption is through violence.

Walter Wink, in Engaging the Powers writes: “Violence is the ethos of our times. It is the spirituality of the modern world. It has been accorded the status of a religion… Its followers are not aware, however, that the devotion they pay to violence is a form of religious piety. Violence is so successful as a myth precisely because it does not seem to be mythic in the least. Violence simply appears to be the nature of things. It is what works… It is embraced with equal alacrity by people on the left and on the right, by religious liberals as well as religious conservatives.” (p. 13)

Biblical scholar Wink traces the myth to at least the story of Eluma Enish in 1250 b.c.e. It lives though the present day, and maybe is as dominate and pervasive today as ever before. Wink writes: “Jesus taught the love of enemies, but Babylonian religion taught their extermination. Violence was for the religion of ancient Mesopotamia what love was for Jesus: the central dynamic of existence.”

One of the assumptions of Hunger Games is that teens can quickly and easily become killers if the need and the situation arise. Ugly, vicious, arrogant killing is bad. Stylized, romanticized, sometime balletic killing, especially if it is to save oneself, one’s family, one’s own town or tribe, is justified. This kind of thinking fits nicely with drone warfare. A handsome or beautiful uniformed person (at least so judged by their own people) pushes a button and wipes out a building or a complex believed to hold someone whose own killing or potential killing is deemed to be most evil. The children or families also killed are never seen.

So, too, in The Hobbit, killing justifies killing, decade after decade, century after century. Time does not permit me to dwell long on Tolkien’s Hobbit but would only suggest the myth of redemptive violence is central throughout. Whoever your enemies are, they cannot be changed. Your only choices are to kill them, violently dominate them, or flee from them. This is true whether they are other humans, animals, or some hybrid between the two. The hybrid notion is significant, because throughout history when we believe the only way to respond to enemies is to kill or brutally occupy them and their land, we describe them as animals or beasts or barbaric. Though I will tack toward reflections on the Hunger Games here, we can come back to The Hobbit later today if you want to.

In both books and both movies, nature is a scary and dangerous place. There are beautiful exceptions to the rule, to be sure, in both. But still nature is to be seized or dominated or shot at or run from… or you won’t survive.

Long before she becomes a kids-kill-kids tribute and later an assassin, Katniss the hunter kills to get food for her hungry family without a smidge of remorse or compassion for the animal. As Katniss says about shooting canines: “We don’t hunt them on purpose, but if you’re attacked and take out a dog or two, well, meat is meat.” (p. 19) Though it would be tempting to parallel Katniss with a Native American in her familiarity with living things through the wooded area, I am reminded of an Ottawa person in Manistee who I recently heard sharing the story of killing an elk and then holding the animal and weeping. No trace of that attitude in Katniss’ killing. Throughout these books, creation is a savage place and you will be attacked. The literary foil is always: you have no choice. Whether killing animals or people, we have no choice.

Does this sound familiar? When occupying foreign lands, if we are attacked “we have no choice” but to destroy the village and everybody in it. It happened in Vietnam and Iraq. It is still happening in Afghanistan.

Author Suzanne Collins says that she first came up with the idea for Hunger Games channel surfing TV one night between a game show and footage of the Iraq War. She later went on to draw inspiration from the myth of Theseus and Minataur and the Roman gladiator games. Those mythologies, Suzanne Collins’ main sources, all hold true to the myth of redemptive violence

It is important to the idea of redemptive violence to keep looping back to the idea of an evil so bad we have no choice, whether in actual wars, uprisings, and riots, or in the books and movies that form our thinking so we will go along with every new war. For Americans, going to war in Iraq meant keeping a focus on Saddam Hussein, whom we supported during the Iraq-Iran war in the 1980s, He was even then a despot committing horrible atrocities, but at least he was our despot. In Afghanistan, the evil so bad we have no choice was one of the 9/11 masterminds and financiers Osama bin Laden (like almost all the 9/11 terrorists a Saudi, not an Afghan). We were bin Laden’s ally during the war between Afghanistan and Russia. During that war, bin Laden was in leadership in the Islamic fundamentalist Mujahadeen we supported against the Russians.

Movies are watched in a context. These incredibly popular movies are watched in a particular context. We are in a time of war. In Afghanistan, we are now in the longest war in U.S. history. We are in a “war on terror,” which is vast and vague and a war that is undeclared and against an idea, or a group of ideas, all of which leads us into a perpetual war, an unending war. Something new in my lifetime; something new in U.S. history.

What is the message of The Hunger Games? Marshal McLuhan’s crucial insight is no less true in the 21st century than it was in the 20th: “The medium is the message.” There is no getting around what is actually going on in the theater or in front of the television: millions of young people are pulling for Katniss to kill, kill, kill so she can survive and her family can survive. As we cheer, it becomes clear that the medium is the message.

If a movie purports to question war and killing and we have the courage as Christians in America in 2013 to discuss war and killing with our young people, then let’s really discuss killing they may well be asked to do some day. We have a powerful teacher to whom we might turn in Iraq War veteran Logan Mehl-Laituri. Logan will be with us here in Michigan in September. On Amazon.com, or wherever you go to check out books, take a look at Logan‘s extraordinary 2012 book Reborn on the Fourth of July: The Challenge of Faith, Patriotism & Conscience. It is on the book list side of your handout. (And out on the book table.)

Logan Mehl-Laituri writes, “American media is replete with romantic depictions of battle… By subtly suggesting that combat is a place we can find honor, glory, or revenge—or worse—entertainment, glamorous tales of warfare threaten to replace the hearts of flesh God has given us with hearts of stone (or maybe polished plastic). They embellish war, captivate our imaginations and condition us to disregard the incredible moral challenges that come with war. I know that for me, by the time I found myself in that ambush in Najaf, my heart had done a great deal of hardening.” (p. 35)

He goes on, “We all wanted to go to war, everyone I talked to. Some were fueled by a desire for vengeance; others simply wanted to know what they were made of, to take the kid gloves off.” (p. 37) Logan writes, “We were all fulfilling roles that we had learned in movies and video games. It was like someone back home had the Xbox controller in their hands and we were just characters, responding dutifully to a gamer‘s keystrokes and flicks of the joystick.” (p. 43).

His book tells the story of how Logan grew in faith, became deeply committed to Christ, and turned from war to peace, from violence to nonviolence. Today, he writes, “Anything I do, I try to do with patient love.” From what he saw in Iraq, from what he did in Iraq, Logan Mehl-Laituri now deals with post traumatic stress disorder, PTSD. Whatever your position on the war in Iraq and the war in Afghanistan, we owe it to veterans to give them the medical and psychological care they need when they come home and throughout their lives. And yes, we can find the money.

For years, during these prolonged wars in Iraq and Afghanistan we were spending one billion dollars a day! It’s down some at the moment because of winding down the war in Iraq but when politicians of both parties tell you we don’t have money for food and health care and roads and education, don’t believe them. If they won’t even talk about massive shifts from these military adventures to human need, it is because they believe in the myth of redemptive violence. Imagine if we spent a billion dollars a day for even one month throughout the developing world—and in the poorest areas of American cities—for doctors and hospitals and clean water and healthy food. We would have so many friends around the world we couldn’t return all of their calls and emails!

The early church, Methodism, and Christian peacemaking today

From the very beginning, Christians sacrificed not by asking what they would kill for, but who and what they would die for. It is no small distinction! For the first three centuries—when, arguably the resurrection of Jesus Christ was most immediate and most in the forefront of Christians’ hearts and minds—Christians would not kill other human beings. Most of the apostles were martyred and would not take up arms against their oppressors, following Jesus lead: “all those who take the sword will perish by the sword.” (Matthew 26: 52) “Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” (Matthew 5: 3) “You have heard it said ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…” (Matthew 5: 43-44)

I dare say everybody in this sanctuary knows most or all of Jesus’ words on peace and nonviolence and what he chose to do and not do when attacked. Do we really believe him? Will we follow his non-violence, truth-bearing, enemy changing way?

To say that I will kill as many people as possible so that my sister does not have to be put in the position of killing and possibly being killed has never been what sacrifice means in the Christian faith. And in The Hunger Games, the reader knows and the movie-goer knows, Katniss is not going to be killed. She is going to kill often enough in every book so that she lives on. She will slaughter and sacrifice others to save herself, her sister, and her circle of friends.

The early church was populated with martyrs who were specifically martyred for their refusal to kill or for their refusal to even be conscripted into an army. Again, check out Logan Mehl-Laituri’s book for documentation and description of these great heroes of the faith.

Then there is John Wesley and early Methodism. He asked a question during the heat of the Revolutionary War that remains strikingly contemporary today: “What then must we do to save (not to destroy) our American brethren? Do my brethren! Why what would you do, if either your own or your neighbor’s house were on fire? We should bring if in our sense, no combustible matter to increase the flame, but water and a helping hand to extinguish it.” (Works, Vol. XI., p. 120) This founder of Methodism preached that a peacemaker “steps over all these narrow bounds” of family, friends, acquaintances and party to “manifest his love to neighbors and strangers, friends and enemies.” (Sermons, Vol. 3, 1750)

Strictly speaking, John Wesley was not a pacifist but adhered to a very strict and limited interpretation of what, for the Christian, was a just war. So strict that he condemned the wars of his time and saw war itself as the No. 1 sign of human sin.

If you believe in some version of just war, can you articulate it in such a way that when a new war starts, or our country moves toward a new war, you know whether as a Christian you are being faithful to God in supporting that war? Do you believe God or military might will ultimately decide the course of history? What do you mean when you call Jesus the Prince of Peace?

Peacemakers in the church as a subculture with a subculture

The Hunger Games and The Hobbit are not counter-cultural. They are part and parcel of a profoundly violent culture and a particularly nationalistic time in history. War fantasies are not counter-cultural. And though they are successfully marketed and sold to children, youth, and yes even to young adults, they are not really youth culture. They are written, publicized in an almost ubiquitous way, and made into a franchise of clothes and toys and movies and video games and Facebook websites by … adults.

It is interesting that one of Suzanne Collins’ favorite books when she was young was Lord of the Flies. Another was 1984. She always been fascinated by how horribly wrong things might go in the future and how justified we will then be with doing horribly bad things ourselves. Human nature is understood in Darwinian terms, survival of the fittest is supposedly the best we can hope for.

In the dystopian future of The Hunger Games the situation has not only gone from bad to worse, it is fundamentally hopeless. That is, the totalitarian government has people offering up their kids to kill each other and the best the parents can come up with over 74 years is either going silent—big dramatic moment in the book and the movie—or making sure their kids learn to be good killers. Killers of other kids.

But there is another image of who we are to consider. It is the notion that we are created in the image and likeness of God, the Imago Dei, that we are fundamentally good and loving. That we are a part of a creation that is sacred and good and to be trusted.

Consider South Africa where the majority black Africans led by Nelson Mandela and others ultimately decided for non-violence and when through non-cooperation and undermining the brutal, evil regime that denied them civil liberties for so long they took power. They opted for truth & reconciliation trials instead of retribution. A wonderful historic echo of India 50 years earlier when Mahatma Gandhi led millions of Indians to freedom in their own Panem without firing a shot. Back out of the hospital a week ago, Nelson Mandela just turned 95. Praise God!

Consider Russia, and the fall of the iron curtain in Eastern Europe. If we go with the myth of redemptive violence we can say the only reason those countries changed is that we had thousands of nuclear weapons pointed at them threatening genocide. Russians, and Poles and Germans tell another story, one of massive non-cooperation and strikes and the prevailing persistence of the human spirit. For decades they met in the basements and back halls of churches. When they regime had the weapons of violence, they had the weapons for faith and truth, of light and love. The Holy Spirit working love and truth through people is more powerful than any bomb, than any torture, than any nuclear threat.

Still think non-violent peacemaking doesn’t work? Consider Liberia just within the last ten years, where the dictator Charles Taylor was brought down by a coalition of Christian and Muslim women called the Liberian Mass Action for Peace. Public protests, work stoppages, hunger strikes, and when the Muslim and Christian men just would talk the woman said, “o.k., no sex until you back to the peace table.” Oh, then they scurried right back into those peace negotiations and before long ousted the President Coin of Liberia, Charles Taylor. Please look at the handout you received and find the title of the book Mighty Be Our Powers by Leymah Gbowee, who received the Nobel Peace Prize for her leadership in non-violently bringing peace and freedom to Liberia.

On your hand-out are listed the books of longtime Harvard prof Gene Sharp: they are filled with hundreds of historic examples on massive non-violent change. They are not taught in our schools as children and youth grow up and only occasionally—so far!—in our churches.

The Rev. Dr. Gene Ransom who was the Wesley Foundation Chaplain/Director at UofM in the ’50’s and ’60’s was a Christian conscientious objector during World War II. Served 5 years of community service instead of killing others. We have a rich tradition, United Methodists! We have to tell our stories, and live our lives so others have stories to tell.

Hope for the future, the Prince of Peace, God’s New Creation

The Prince of Peace is our hope and the hope of our future. JESUS—not the metaphor, not an abstraction, not a philosophized archetype. No, the Jesus who actually was born, lived, died, and was resurrected and turned human history on its ear. The Jesus who is God, now with us in the person of the Holy Spirit—in history, in the events of our time, and the wonderful in breaking New Creation (Wesley called it!) that is unfolding even now, seen and not yet seen.

WHO is going to tell the great stories of faithful people toppling totalitarian regimes without firing a shot? The church. Only the church will do it. We will have to tell the stories, write the books, march for peace, and… make movies!

I implore you, friends, let us stop saying “may the odds be ever in your favor” and start saying “the peace of Christ be with you!”

Peace be with you! Peace be with you! Peace be with you!

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  1. Duncan Newcomer says

    I think this is a powerful sermon and a worthy view that is hard to get around. I’m reading two books now that tell the tale of WWI. No glory there. We know there is a better way. It may not be a possible way. But this sermon says it is both better and possible, and it certainly won’t be possible it we don’t believe it to be. At the very least this sermon brings violence down out of the air we breath and says its just one more religion, and surely not a good one. I thank Walter Wink, my New Testament professor at Union, and this sermon for that!