Striving for a Just Peace Without the Myth of Redemptive Violence

Dr. J. Nelson Jennings and Bill McLellan Covenant Theological Seminary 2008 The gospel. The gospel is at the heart of what Christians believe and stand for. The gospel is at the heart of what Christians believe and stand for in all areas of life, public and private. The gospel of Jesus Christ focuses on him: Jesus came and lived among us, he died to bear the curse of humankind’s disobedience, he rose in victory over the ultimate curse of death, he reigns over the universe, and he is returning to bring judgment and final salvation. Christians trust Jesus and we rely on what he has done, is doing, and will do. Salvation, of our souls and of the whole created order, is due solely to God’s grace and love in Christ. The gospel of Jesus Christ is so central to the Christian faith that no other alleged “gospel” can ever be acceptable. No other person, agenda, or story can compete with the gospel of Jesus for saving the world from our rebellion and just punishment. That’s why the Apostle Paul so forcefully pronounced a curse on anyone, angels included, who would preach a false gospel that was contrary to the true gospel of Jesus Christ (Galatians 1:6-9). The Gospel and Politics The good news that Jesus lives, reigns, and saves is a specifically religious proclamation. But the gospel permeates and affects Christian belief in all areas of life, public and private. The Christian Church has struggled over many generations to find constructive interrelationships between the distinctive gospel message and other areas of life, especially including political life. Even with the hindsight of an undesirable Constantinian church-crown union, Christians still discuss and live out various church-state options.1 It is tempting to rest our Christian hopes for realizing God’s kingdom on a particular political ideology or strategy. That is, while seeking to fulfill the gospel-influenced responsibility

to be engaged politically, Christians can unwittingly believe in a political, kingdom-promising “gospel” that proclaims how the world’s salvation from wrong, evil, and its cursed condition can be achieved. While being faithfully politically engaged, corporately and individually Christians can become co-opted into being politically confined within a particular party or agenda. One way to correct that temptation is to stay ever mindful of the Christian Church’s fundamentally international identity. Central to the good news of Jesus is that all kinds of people belong to his people: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you all are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). No aspect of Christians’ multifaceted identities is deeper than that of being “one in Christ Jesus” – whereby our Jewish-Greek national-ethnic loyalties are trumped by our transnational Christian unity. Christians of all nationalities can have their politics informed by the viewpoints of others around the world, thus checking the ever-present sinkhole into nationalistic provincialism that affects all people everywhere. False Political Gospels The same story that inspired Roman imperialism is the false gospel we are concerned about today; it is what liberal theologian Walter Wink has called the “myth of redemptive violence.” Expressed in the ancient Babylonian creation story called the Enuma Elish, this myth says that the universe and human beings are the leftovers of a bloody war among the gods. Creation itself is a violent process, and history is naturally the violent struggle to bring order into the realm of chaos.2 Like the Babylonian Empire before it and many others since, the Roman Empire spread with this violent but glorious message of hope for humanity. The Roman Caesars claimed to be gods and saviors of the ancient world because their military conquests brought the good news of Roman order into the realm of barbarian chaos. Paradise lay within the boarders of the Pax Romana, or the Roman Peace, while the war between good and evil continued to rage along the frontiers. Even though he labels the biblical creation story a myth like the Enuma Elish, Wink sees a huge difference between the two. In the Bible, he says, “A good God creates a good creation…Neither evil nor violence is a part of the creation, but both enter as a result of the first couple’s sin and the machinations of the serpent…In

this far more complex and subtle explanation of the origin of things, evil for the first time emerges as a problem requiring solution.”3 Wink is certainly not the only scholar to see a big difference between the biblical creation story and other ancient creation myths. He is also not the only one to talk about the myth of redemptive violence as a subtle undercurrent in fallen human thinking. Wilbert Shenk picks up on Wink’s terminology and says that Jesus’ mission included subverting this violent myth: In Jesus the meaning of redemptive power is redefined. The old order is governed by the myth of redemptive violence and, in fact, is being consumed in the endless spiral of violence (Wink 1993, 13-17). Every attempt to end violence with violence sows the seeds of further conflict…It is the mission of the Messiah to intervene in this reality and break the destructive cycle.4 Contextualization is the retelling of the Christian story in the language of a particular culture’s false gospel; for example, saying that Jesus is Lord instead of Caesar or saying that God is defeating evil through the cross rather than through war. Evangelical Sri Lankan scholar Vinoth Ramachandra demonstrates how syncretism, in contrast to contextualization, holds on to the original false gospel while adding a gloss of Christian language and symbols on top. For the sake of a non-political illustration, consider Ramachandra’s analysis of the syncretistic Indian theologian Aloysius Pieris: Pieris argues that all religions have a common ‘triune’ soteriological structure: there is a ‘salvific beyond’ (e.g. Yahweh, Allah, Nirvana, Tathata, Tao, Brahman-Atman) which is manifested in the ‘salvific within’ of the individual through a ‘salvific mediation’ (e.g. marga, dhamma, logos, dabar) which is also revelatory in character, and a ‘saving capacity’ inherent in humans (citta, atman, Spirit, etc) which orients us towards the Beyond. It is this that constitutes the ‘basic soteriological datum in many of our religious cultures’.5 Later, Ramachandra summarizes the syncretism in the influential thought of the nineteenth-century German philosopher Georg W. F. Hegel: “Hegel’s Geist (Spirit) was the unfolding and coming to consciousness in the human subject of the Absolute. The story of humankind is the history of God’s becoming, the self-evolution of God as Trinitarian Being.”6 Writing in the early 1800s as German nationalism was developing, Hegel used Christian language to express ideas that were patently un-Christian. He fashioned his philosophy of history after the Creation-Fall-Redemption structure of the Christian story while completely identifying God with the historical process itself. As a variation on the myth of redemptive violence, Hegel identified violent struggle between competing political ideologies as the driving

force in human progress. When we hear academics call liberal democracy the “end of history,” and when we hear politicians say that the United States has a “calling from history” or that “the war on terror is the defining ideological struggle of our generation,” Hegel is the quiet elephant sitting in the corner. By the time Adolf Hitler came on the scene a century after Hegel, German nationalism had developed into a full-blown gospel of glorified violence. Tragically, the German Christian church, as an institution, completely melted its message with the Nazi message. Jesus, they said, was their spiritual savior, while Hitler was their social-political savior. Labeling this secular ideology “common grace,” many German theologians taught that life here-and-now was in the hands of the Leader, Hitler, while life in the hereafter was still in the hands of the Lord, Jesus. Two different stories about human restoration and development which should have been opposed, Nazism and Christianity, came together and slaughtered the Jews. But not all German Christians capitulated to this political syncretism. Those who opposed it expressed their objections in the Barmen Declaration, a document that echoed the condemning language of Paul in Galatians. Ramachandra quotes another influential missiologist, Lesslie Newbigin, regarding this important declaration: The affirmations of the Barmen Declaration would have made no impact without the anathemas. The Declaration names and rejects a false ideology. It does not tell the German people what to do in the area of politics. It affirms the truth of the gospel and, in its light, condemns the reigning falsehood. I think that perhaps that is the first thing to say about the duty of the Church in relation to political issues. The Church has to unmask ideologies.7 Since this important, though minority, confrontation with Nazism, Christians from across the theological spectrum have done much better unmasking another ideology that mimics the structure of the Christian story: Communism. Karl Marx, who was a student of Hegel, taught that private property was the forbidden fruit which alienated workers from their work and ruined a mythic human paradise. For Marx, it was the violent struggle of economic classes for material power that fueled the advance of human development, rather than a war of ideas. In the various soviet revolutions, wars, and purges of the twentieth century, this twisted variation on the myth of redemptive violence killed millions of people, including more Christian martyrs than at any other time in history.

Challenges for U. S. Christians

One major challenge for Christians in the United States today, especially theologically conservative evangelicals like ourselves, arises from the fact that two of many Americans’ most valued political ideologies also tell violent grand narratives, Social Progressivism and NeoConservatism. The older one, Social Progressivism, developed in competition with Communism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The newer one, Neo-Conservatism, grew out of Liberal Anti-Communism in the 1970s during a resurgence of interest in Hegel’s philosophy of history. Each of these political ideologies envisions a utopian future brought into the present by efficient violence and skillful use of less violent, but still coercive, soft power. Like Communism, Social Progressivism and Neo-Conservatism both claim to know the inside scoop about human progress and restoration. Both claim that human beings, when organized properly and guided by the right principles, can solve our own problems, even if some of us have to be killed in the process. Over the past few years and across the U. S. political spectrum, clever speech writers and political consultants have decided to use Christian language to communicate their secular ideologies. One political party has begun trying to use “the language of faith” to win back religious voters. The other major party, which has been contextualizing its political vision into Christian language for several decades now, has recently included in its rationale for two wars religious rhetoric claiming that “History” or “Providence” (depending on the audience) has called our nation to vanquish evil. Our president and his speechwriters have taken words from the Bible about Jesus and applied them to American idealism: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it.” Neo-conservative intellectuals and policy makers are talking about a Pax Americana and arguing that the U.S. military is “the greatest force for freedom the world has ever known.” They believe that violent American power, wisely directed at establishing democratic governments sympathetic to the interests of a globalized free market, has the best chance of bringing order to a barbaric and chaotic world of terror. Sincere, Bible-believing Christians often will disagree about particular political issues, including how most effectively the United States should fight hostile terrorism in a post-9/11 world. Even so, when narrowly focused narratives about the political process morph into allencompassing stories about human development and restoration, they have gone too far. Grand

political ideologies about the violent unfolding of human history are false gospels, plain and simple. We see two ways that these false gospels have sometimes become synchronized with American Christianity. In some communities, political ideology is brought into the church and completely melted with Christian language and theology into a single thought system. One of the biggest problems with this form of syncretism surfaces when we observe what it does to Christian fellowship. As with the Galatian Christians to whom Paul wrote, syncretism makes us pass judgment on who really is a Christian, who is in the salvation club and who is out. In America, depending on which denomination you’re dealing with, becoming a Christian can be synonymous with becoming a conservative or becoming progressive. At least, new Christians are expected to learn very quickly which side God is on. Support for particular political agendas becomes proof of one’s personal righteousness. But syncretism also happens when political ideology gets artificially sealed off from the rest of our theology and assigned to the task of political, social, and material salvation. As the German Christians did under Nazism, we can try to keep Jesus as our spiritual savior while making the glorious violence of the U. S. military our hope for a better world. The only way to confront this compartmentalized form of syncretism is to do what Paul does in his letter to the Colossians: announce that Jesus is Lord Redeemer of all areas of life, including all powers and authorities, and that his victory over the forces of evil happened on the cross and in his resurrection. In general, conservative evangelicals in the U. S. are behind when it comes to identifying and publicly denouncing the myth of redemptive violence in our culture’s political ideologies. Why have we been so slow? We have been slow because this terminology first developed among liberal theologians like Walter Wink in the early Nineties. We have been slow because much of the impetus for denouncing the myth of redemptive violence has come from the Sojourner’s movement and from others who identify themselves as theologically evangelical and conservative but politically progressive, a scary label for many of us.8 We have been slow because the helpful concepts criticizing the redemptive violence myth have been inappropriately used to criticize God’s violent judgment upon sin and the sacrificial atonement Jesus offered to his Father on the cross.9 Finally, our natural alliance with U. S. socio-economic-political power

(domestically as well as internationally) might cause us to lose a great deal in terms of our socioeconomic-political comforts if we criticize the ideology that helps to underpin that power. Moving Forward Because we conservative evangelicals think in terms of redemptive history and believe that Jesus is Lord over all of life, we should be the first Christians to protest when violent political ideologies are expressed with the language and structure of Creation-Fall-RedemptionConsummation. We should be the first to protest when politicians use biblical language about Jesus to describe American ideals spreading violently around the world. And we should be the first to distinguish carefully between the judgment of God, which is appropriately violent, and eschatological progress in this age between the two advents of Christ, which has nothing to do with the violent advance of benevolent empires or political ideologies. In the Bible, violence is punishment, not progress. Law enforcement and self defense are different from redemptive war. Combating all forms of terrorism, whether by Al-Qaeda or sovereign states, is a necessity, even if the particular political-military strategies for doing so are ambiguous. Proper patriotism is okay too. In any case, as Christians we rightly espouse the reign of justice and corresponding peaceful environments. But advocating the enhancement of God’s kingdom through intentional violent strategies seems to us to be wrong-headed and difficult to square with Jesus’ reign over his world. Embracing God’s mission around the world means opposing false gospels that compete against Jesus’ way of bringing God’s reign to earth. Like all human beings, Christians will always have hopes for the future, political and otherwise, and we might communicate those hopes in the form of stories. But we shouldn’t pair Jesus up with a political ideology and teach that each is sovereign over their respective realms. Some of us might continue to identifying ourselves as progressive or conservative on Election Day, but without a syncretistic gospel, we might not accuse Christians from another political persuasion of working for the Enemy. A just peace is a goal toward which all Christians can gladly aspire. We will disagree on how to move toward that goal, especially regarding political-military issues. Surely, though, we can agree that espousing military violence as the primary means by which a just peace will be

achieved is a false gospel. Jesus reigns, and he is returning. May that gospel shape the contours of our hopes and dreams for God’s redemption of his world.


Two recent books by popular U.S. Christian publishers demonstrate the ongoing vibrancy of discussing the church-state issue: P. C. Kemeny, ed., Church, State and Public Justice: Five Views. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007), and J. Budziszewski, with responses by David L. Weeks, et al, Evangelicals in the Public Square: Four Formative Voices on Political Thought and Action. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2006). 2 Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 14-16. 3 Ibid., 14. 4 Wilbert R. Shenk, Changing Frontiers of Mission, American Society of Missiology Series, No.28. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1999), 12. 5 Vinoth Ramachandra, The Recovery of Mission: Beyond the Pluralist Paradigm. (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2002), 48. 6 Ibid., 85. 7 Ibid., 155. 8 For a statement against the use of the myth of redemptive violence in American politics, signed by both evangelical and mainline theologians, see “Confessing Christ in a World of Violence” at 9 For example, see Wink, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 28 and 149.