Mystical Word  |  Weekly Reflection
Mystical Word is a weekly reflection on the Sunday Gospel reading by L.J. Milone, Director of Faith Formation, Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle

The Myth of Redemptive Violence

Through Jesus, God shatters the myth of redemptive violence.

Last summer, director Christopher Nolan released, perhaps, his greatest movie: Oppenheimer. It stars Cillian Murphy as the title character. The movie tells the story of the Manhattan Project, the construction of the first atomic bomb, through the lens of the head of this project, the quantum physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer. The story crescendos with the testing of the first atomic bomb. The fear of a chain reaction happening hangs over the test. The scientists calculated how there was a very small chance – near zero – that the bomb could ignite the atmosphere and potentially destroy the planet. Obviously, this does not happen. But this fear of nuclear annihilation has not left us. The Manhattan Project unleashed this horror upon us.

In the 1980s, the then bishop of Seattle, Washington, Raymond Hunthausen, recognized this horror.  His diocese was highly militarized.  It was home to a trident submarine, which is a sub with nuclear capabilities.  Hunthausen could not abide this military monstrosity because the Gospel flatly opposes such a weapon.  After much discernment and prayer, Archbishop Hunthausen sensed God was asking him to denounce this weapon of mass destruction by an act of civil disobedience.  The archbishop refused to pay taxes as long as the money supported our nation’s nuclear program.  Needless to say, both Catholic and American authorities did not like this.  Still, Hunthausen’s refusal to pay taxes stands as a major witness to peace, to the way God wants the world to be.  God loves the world, as today’s Gospel says, and does not want to see it destroyed.

The nuclear submarine is a symbol of a myth we all take for granted in our culture, namely the myth of redemptive violence.  It is one of the core myths of our culture.  God loves the world.  God does not condemn, but we do.  God sends Jesus, the light, into the world.  But, many of us prefer darkness, that is, the security blankets that we trust in over the Most High, good, and gracious God.  Nuclear arms and weapons of all kinds are these security blankets.  They are the means by which we enforce the myth of redemptive violence.

Did you know that the word “Satan” means “accuser”?  It is the Bible’s way of naming a great delusion all humanity suffers.  We suffer from the lie of accusation.  This means that we think the other is the problem.  We think other people, situations, and even life itself are the problem.  So, we accuse everything and everyone.  We think evil is over there, in the other.  We do not recognize that we are the problem.  We do not see that evil is within us.  Because we are blind to our own complicity in evil, we believe that the only response to evil is to squash it, destroy it, and make it go away.  This is the myth of redemptive violence.  We deal with evil by killing it, blowing it up, or wiping it out.  This myth has cast a shadow over every people, tribe, nation, and country.  In fact, this myth shows up in our movies!  Most of our action and superhero movies bring the myth to life. 

In line with the myth of redemptive violence, the story of conventional society says we need to defend ourselves while the Gospel tells us to be defenseless.  Here we come to a very significant and sorely needed truth of the Gospel, namely, defenselessness means we give up weapons.  We renounce our guns, our knives, and our military arsenal to place all our security in God.  For until we do so, we are trusting in our weapons and not in the Lord.  The conventional ones argue the necessity of weapons.  Crime could flourish if we don’t arm ourselves.  Someone could rob us or kill us!

There is a wonderfully wise story about St. Francis on this topic of defenselessness when he visits the bishop of Assisi. “The bishop of the city of Assisi, to whom the man of God would frequently go for counsel, receiving him kindly, told him: ‘It seems to me that your life is very rough and hard, especially, in not possessing anything in this world.’ To which the saint said: ‘Lord, if we had possessions, we would need arms for our protection. For disputes and lawsuits usually arise out of them, and, because of this, love of God and neighbor are greatly impeded. Therefore, we do not want to possess anything in this world.’”

If we own material goods, we need to protect them through law and through arms. We move into gated communities. We get an alarm system. We pay for insurance. There is an inherent connection between weapons and possessions. Defending our things requires means to defend them. For Francis this implies we’re attached to our possessions.  But living without anything of one’s own is more than physical poverty. It is to be poor in ego.

“For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come toward the light, so that his works might not be exposed.”  Jesus exposes the lies of conventional society.  Through him, God unmasks all our false gods, which enslave us and cause endless misery.  The myth of redemptive violence is one of these false gods, and a rather persuasive one.  The Gospel of God, instead of reinforcing the myth of redemptive violence, commands us to renounce it.  Defenseless is one of the ways we follow Jesus along the path of being reduced to nothing.  We become vulnerable, weak, and exposed to suffering.  This is clearly the way of Jesus who died on the cross for us.

The story of Jesus being reduced to nothingness on the cross shows us how nonviolent, mercifully, and utterly mysterious God is.  It should also tell us that our complacency about the evils of the myth of redemptive violence is a grave crisis.  Discipleship is the answer to this crisis.  Through a way of life based on Jesus’ reduction to nothingness, we give up our security blankets – our weapons – and place all our security in God.  When we do this, we realize the truth of many images in the Psalms: God is “my rock,” a “fortress,” and “our refuge.”  The fresh air of peace then washes over us as we find our refuge in God’s mercy.