Myth of Redemptive Violence

Within a short span of only a few weeks, we have witnesses two tragic mass shootings in Aurora, Colorada and now in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. It seems that neither movie theaters or even spiritual places of peace such as Sikh temples are safe from this epidemic of violence. Each time a new episode of violence explodes on the national scene, there are the urgent calls for saner and more rational guns laws and the equally lame and predictable responses of denial reflected in statements such as "Now is not the time to be talking about gun laws." While enforcing stricter gun laws would be a good start, the level of violence in America is a symptom of a larger wound in the American pscyhe. It's common knowledge that people that perpetrate these kind of violent killings often come from dysfunctional families where sexual, physical and/or mental abuse are the norm.

In "Engaging the Powers", Christian theologian, Walter Wink says that our culture is devoted to violence. He says, "Violence is so successful as a myth precisely because it does not seem to be mythic in the least." It appears to be inevitable. Wink calls this the Myth of Redemptive Violence. You can identify the pattern of this myth running through many movies, stories, comic books and novels. The protagonist is basically an indestructible good guy who is badly humiliated or abused by the villain. For the first three-quarters of the story, our hero suffers grievously, appearing to be trapped by the despicable bad guy until somehow he breaks free. He vanquishes the villain and restores order. And the more humiliated, the more despicable the acts against the hero, the more vindicative, we as the audience become, until we feel completely justified when the hero kills the bad guy, often in an act of vigilantte terror outside the bounds of all law and due process. The message: violence works.

Could this myth explain the intractable nature of the NRA and it's advocates in resisting any kind of rational gun laws that would prevent automatic and semi-automatic guns from being so readily available in the market place? A Chicago policeman in one of my classes at the Zen Life & Meditation Center tells me he encounters these kind of semi-automatic guns on a daily basis in the streets of Chcago. In 2010 there were 30,550 violent crimes committed in Chicago alone.

So while I would be the first to advocate for stricter gun laws, I also think the problem is much deeper and more systemic. The Myth of Redemptive Violence helps us begin to understand just how deeply committed and attached we are to a culture of violence and vindictive retaliation.

Where does the violence come from? It starts in the American family. Attachment theory, one of the best established findings in psychology today, predicts that children who grow up with insecure attachment, due to dysfunctional relationships with their primary care givers will pass along this same kind insecurity to their own children once they are parents. In the most extreme form of insecure attachment called disorganized/disoriented attachment, the child is raised by parents who are frightening, violent and often abusive and unpredictable. The child adapts to this by internalizing a paradoxical injunction: come here and go away. Children with this kind of insecure attachment are often observed freezing into a trance-like expression. So they grow up with no sense of trust or security in their world. They grow up seriously impaired and unable to easily regulate and connect with others who might help them.

Are we ready to acknowledge the level of anger we have towards our own children? Can we shine some light on the way we treat children in our culture? Years ago, Robert Bly wrote a scathing indictment called "Anger Against Children". When he submitted it to the Atlantic Monthly they rejected it and wrote back to him, "Why are you so angry?" Why indeed. You be the judge. Why aren't we more angry? Why do we accept this kind of treatment of children in our culture?

Anger Against Children by Robert Bly

“Parents take their children into the deepest Oregon forests. And leave them there. When the children Open the lunchbox, there are stones inside, and a note saying, “Do your own thing.” And what would the children do if they found their way home in the moonlight? The planes have already landed on Maui, the parents are on vacation. Our children live with a fear at school and in the house. The mother and father do not protect the younger child from the savagery of the others. Parents don’t want to face the children’s rage, Because the parents are also in rage.

This is the rage that shouts at children. This is the rage that cannot be satisfied. Because each year more ancient Chinese art objects go on display. So the rage goes inward at last. It ends in doubt, in self-doubt, dyeing the hair, and love of celebrities. The rage comes to rest at last in the talk show late at night, When the celebrities without anger or grief tell us that only the famous are good, only they live well.”

Violence is not inevitable and it doesn't work. It's a symptom of impotence and a culture that has surrendered it's spiritual and moral strength to gun runners, mercenaries, men who beat women, and parents who abuse their own children. We can do better.

by Robert Althouse