The Myth of Redemptive Violence

John Trumbull (1756-1843) – The Death of General Mercer at the Battle of Princeton, January 3, 1777

There is a commonly-held belief among human beings that their righteous goals can and should be achieved by violence and brute force. This lie has been referred to as the myth of redemptive violence,1 and is culturally reinforced by countless depictions in movies, television, and school history classes.

Not only have we moderns been taken captive by this myth, but it’s also had its grip on all human societies through the ages. Many Jews of Jesus’ day thought their promised coming king, the Messiah, would lead them in a military revolution against their political oppressors, the Romans.2 Surely, this is the kind of king the multitudes wanted Jesus to be when they planned to crown Him by force.3

But Jesus combats the myth of redemptive violence with the sword of His mouth: He teaches His disciples not to retaliate when someone acts in violence toward them.4 In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus rebukes His companion for violently attacking the temple authorities, reminding him, “…all who take the sword will perish by the sword.”5 Ultimately, Jesus practices the truth He preached, refusing to reciprocate violence, even to the point of death on a cross.

And yet, shockingly, all four Gospels paradoxically depict Jesus’ crucifixion as the moment He is enthroned as King.6 Calvary—and with it, the empty tomb—condemns the lie that liberation and power must be gained by the usual means of cruelty, domination, and violence. The sword begets the sword; to defeat one’s enemies this way only perpetuates the cycle of violence. Rather, the One with true power defeats His enemies with the strength of His sacrificial love.

Notes

1. See Walter WinkFacing the Myth of Redemptive Violence; See also: Richard Rohr (Center for Action and Contemplation) – The Myth of Redemptive Violence;  Preston Sprinkle – Fight: A Christian Case for Non-Violence; and Willie James Jennings’ observation: “We are often seduced into believing that killing and destroying can create and sustain peace and order.” – Acts (Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible), p. 10

2. See Dr. James Tabor (UNC Charlotte)The Jewish World of Jesus: An Overview; See also: N.T. Wright – Jesus and the Victory of God (Christian Origins and the Question of God, Volume 2). First-century Jewish Messianic expectation is an oft-repeated theme in this work; and J.H. Charlesworth (editor) – The Messiah: Developments in Earliest Judaism and Christianity

3. John 6:15

4. Matthew 5:39

5. Matthew 26:52b NRSV

6. See, for example, Matthew 27:28-2937; Mark 15:17-18, 26; Luke 23:2, 38-43; John 19:2-3, 14, 19-22; See also: Joel Marcus (Journal of Biblical Literature) – Crucifixion as Parodic Exaltation; N.T. Wright – How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels. Wright references this motif repeatedly; and BibleProject – Gospel of the Kingdom article and video

7. Adapted from previous article – What is Truth? (published December 4, 2020)

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