A newspaper article last year stated that a minister told Sen. John McCain that unless he supported a presidential proposal allowing torture, McCain would not receive the evangelical vote in his pursuit to become president in 2008.
When the followers of one who said, “Do unto others as you would have them do to you,” call national leaders to support the worst kind of cruelty, people who have never read the Gospel could think that God condones torture. There is a great disconnect between many who call themselves followers of God and the God revealed by Jesus in his life and teaching.
The life and teachings of Jesus have nothing to do with the myth of redemptive violence, which is the dominant philosophy directing much of our national behavior. Movies, television programs, Fourth of July celebrations and even history taught in grade schools are filled with the glorification and absolute necessity of redemptive violence.
Old cowboy movies were adept at portraying good verses evil. The bad guys wore dark clothes, and sinister music played when they appeared on screen. The hero, wearing a white hat and accompanied by uplifting music, inevitably killed the bad guys so that the world of cowboy movies might be redeemed and made safe for innocent women and children. Indians were often seen as “evil ones” who had to die; however, true historical records indicate that they were more often the innocent victims of violence.
Charles Bronson, John Wayne and Sly Stallone (Rambo movies) all made millions selling the idea of redemptive violence. Their characters are introduced as nice, reasonable people who are finally left with no other option than killing the evil persons who threaten and cause them or their community pain.
This philosophy of redemptive violence was taught in every available media, and anyone daring to disagree with its premises was ridiculed and made to seem less than bright and even unreligious.
Our history classes taught us that America was always right and always victorious and that her enemies were always wrong; heroic American soldiers could redeem the world only by their necessary killing of the bad guys.
As a youth and young adult, I was as strong an adherent of this system as anyone–I could think of no alternative to it.
In college history courses I learned that the first war lost by the U.S. was the War of 1812, and at that very time we were losing the Vietnam War. Most people would now agree that the Vietnam War was a real mistake that killed 60,000 Americans and several million Southeast Asians.
A majority of Americans believe that the present war in Iraq is a mistake and, like all such applications of redemptive violence, an immensely costly mistake with consequences that will be paid for many years to come.
When I became more interested in my faith and daily studied the sayings of Jesus, I quickly came to the conclusion that the precepts of redemptive violence were as alien to the speech of Jesus as any system could be. Jesus saves by absorbing violence.
Jesus says: “You have heard that it was 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, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” Matthew 5:43-45 (NRSV) He warns that, “…all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” Matthew 26:52 (NRSV) When Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan, he says that your enemy may be the only way for you to escape the ditch.
Redemptive violence is the most foolish of philosophies, because it ultimately fails to bring any kind of meaningful resolution to the problems of our world. Everyone believes they are in the right and their enemies are wrong, and when weapons on both sides tear the flesh and bone of God’s children, it is impossible to tell which side is most evil.
Tony Campolo tells the story of a young man at an Air Force recruitment center trying to decide whether he is a conscientious objector. The young man said, “If I am flying a bomber over a target and I pray, “Jesus, is it your will that I drop bombs on these people…” The Captain interrupted, “That is enough of this; everyone knows that Jesus wouldn’t drop bombs on people.”
The church that proclaims “Jesus is Lord” should know this, too.
Larry Wilson is pastor of First Baptist Church in Biscoe, N.C.