The Myth of Redemptive Violence: A Re-Frame That Mattered

March 19, 2018

The new reality Jesus proclaimed was nonviolent . . . The church must affirm nonviolence without reservation because nonviolence is the way God’s domination-free order is coming . . . Jesus has never seemed more relevant. The world has never been more ready.

 Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers

It may be the warmest, most intimate memory with my father. The picture in my mind is vivid. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 6:30 to 7:00 my dad and I listened to the “Lone Ranger.” I picture him stretched out on a chaise lounge sofa with me sitting on its edge and the bronze radio a few feet away. For thirty minutes we are huddled together in a bubble of shared imagination. This regular ritual continued from about my seventh to tenth year.

But more was happening than just a warm, memorable experience with my father. When Walter Wink and his award-winning book, Engaging the Powers, appeared in my life in 1992 our Lone Ranger experience took on deeper meaning. Each Lone Ranger episode followed the same pattern, a pattern also consistent with the other prominent cartoons of the day — Popeye, Batman, Superman, Captain Marvel and others. This same pattern runs through the high-tech games that currently occupy the imagination of our youth.

The pattern. The Lone Ranger and Tonto are the good guys pitted against the bad guys. It looks like the bad guys will win until the good guys somehow overpower the evil threat. And, at the end, the Lone Ranger and Tonto ride away victorious, leaving me as a young boy enamored with their moral greatness and wondering “who is this masked man?” Similarly, Popeye, protecting Olive against the brute Bluto, would at the last minute from the spinach infusion of power pummel him to near death.

Wink makes a bold claim. He builds a case that these seemingly inconsequential childhood stories quietly condition us with the dominant spirituality in America. He sees this same socialization occurring from the stories we tell about our history and current events. This secular spirituality, or if you prefer, this pervasive ideology Wink names the myth of redemptive violence.

Let’s break this bold assertion down into parts. Violence is destructive, overpowering acts that demean human dignity and soul with the goal of winning at all cost (the end justifies the means), as in “winning” an argument or “winning a war.” Redemptive violence is the assumption — violence redeems, violence saves, violence wins, violence deters aggressors, violence solves problems, violence brings peace, violence is trustworthy, violence eradicates evil. Myth is a worldview or belief or narrative that mirrors a particular view of reality. We all have myths or narratives through which we see the world.

Let’s return to the Lone Ranger myth. He and Tonto redeem or save an evil situation by overpowering the enemy through violence, usually gun violence. They are righteous, the opposition is evil. Within the Lone Ranger himself there is no sign of ambiguity, no sense of internal contradiction, no trace of sin, no hint of evil. What fear or outrage he feels is projected on to the face of the enemy. The evil is “out there” to be destroyed. As a young boy, I was being invited to identify with the good guys, to feel righteous, superior, and justified in overpowering what or whoever opposes me.

Walter Wink opened my eyes in 1992. I began to see this myth of redemptive violence everywhere. I observed it being played out on macro and micro levels, for example, from the macro event of forcing with violence democracy (a nonviolent form of government) in the Near East to the micro violence of “winning” an argument with a friend or spouse through a power-play of some form.

Other examples are plentiful. These come to mind: countering murdering by killing murderers; stopping children fighting by spanking them; maintaining control in the home through physical or psychological abuse; establishing security with more guns for citizens; annihilating the evil of terrorism; declaring war on poverty or drugs; defining opposing leaders as enemies, not colleagues; winning the best divorce settlement by whatever means possible.

In all these illustrations of conflict, and those that come to your mind, the desired solution is accomplished through violence, that is, some method of overpowering the other. But this for me is the new insight — all of these violent actions are efforts to save or redeem some problematic situation, large or small.

In retirement I have worked with inmates in a nearby maximum-security prison. Even they, at the moment of their violent act, felt they were solving a problem. They were trying to save or achieve something vital to them.

This pattern of redeeming through violence is an assumption so entrenched in our culture that to think otherwise requires a deliberate, conscious effort. For most of us it’s just the way life works. It’s so common we don’t name it as insane. We don’t notice that violence always breeds more violence.

More to the point of our vocation, I want to name some ways that Wink’s wisdom affected my ministry: understanding of Jesus, understanding leadership and understanding my inner life.

* * *

During seminary years and in my early years as a pastor, like many of my peers I was inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement for racial equality. Along with the nation, I watched the power of social change through nonviolent action. I read in King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail about the concept of breaking an unjust law in obedience to the higher law of justice. Along with an alarmed world, I saw its cost and redemptive power embodied in the children being hosed to their knees on the streets in Birmingham. They and others in the movement absorbed the suffering and loved in return. I knew at the time that Gandhi’s wisdom was informing King, and Leo Tolstoy was informing Gandhi, and all of them were informed by the Sermon on the Mount.

But Wink took me to another level by grounding this wisdom in the very core of Jesus. It was as if Wink was focusing my camera lens. He gave me not a new Jesus, but a clearer Jesus. Direct nonviolent behavior was not just a way for social change. It is the way to live your life. It’s the way Jesus lived and died.

Underneath all this capacity to live nonviolently is Jesus’ rock-bottom conviction, the central commandment — connecting loving God to loving the neighbor (the “other”) as yourself. On the deepest level the “other” is part of you, you are part of the “other.” I acknowledge it does not look that way. We can’t see how deeply we are connected with all that lives around us. But we are. According to Jesus and current physicists, we are profoundly “quantum entangled.” This means what happens to you affects me and vice versa. If this invisible connection is true — for sure, a radical shift in worldview — then any violence toward our neighbor (including the earth) is violence to ourselves. And conversely, as strange as it seems, loving our enemy is a form of loving ourselves.

Let’s assume, as Jesus does, that reality in its essence is relational. Simply, life is relationship. Furthermore, in most relationships some have the power to dominate and violate — what Wink calls domination systems. Predictably when conflicts occur within these relationships, the myth of redemptive violence is activated. Those with the power, either in overt or covert ways, dominate or oppress the other as the way to reestablish comfort and order.

Jesus offers another stance, another kind of power, a third option to fleeing and fighting. We watch him taking stands in the face of dominating power, not fleeing in fear, not responding with escalating violence. He never “takes the bait.” Neither does he define the opposing “other” as foe or victim. The enemy, according to Jesus’ behavior, is to be loved, not hated; prayed for, not ignored; valued, not demonized. We follow his life with amazement, watching him always on the lookout for a third way beyond the polarizing differences fueled by domination.

I hasten to add that to follow this nonviolent third way of Jesus is not only costly. It’s impossible. Our determined will-power to be like Jesus is futile. To follow this alternative way is to be driven to prayer. Only with God’s power as Abba, Spirit and Christ within us can we approximate this Love.

The re-frame is Wink’s gift. He deepened my awareness of the radical good news of Jesus. Against the backdrop of the myth of redemptive violence — the favored secular religion of our time — Jesus could not be more relevant. The church, if willing to offer and embody this radical option of Jesus, could not be in a better position. Without soft-pedaling the cost of those who choose this Way — after all, to love is to suffer with and for — Wink writes of the joy of participating in nonviolent behavior that is history’s only alternative to non-existence. The spiral of redemptive violence spawned within Domination Systems, unless checked, will lead to the non-existence of life as we know it. The Jesus vision is not only relevant, it is urgent.

* * *

And Wink’s understanding influenced my way of leading as a pastor. I have already mentioned one example in another re-frame on the “angel” of a congregation. But, beyond that insight, Wink challenged me to see leadership through the lens of redemptive nonviolence. I mention a few examples.

At a point in my ministry I was planning to change a staff configuration. I wanted a part-time person to become full time and in the process change her focus. Time was short to make this change. I mentioned this hope of mine to a supportive member of the congregation. Matt, let’s call him, immediately became invested in helping me create a strategy for achieving my goal. With a spark in his eyes, he said, “Mahan, let’s figure out your allies. Then let’s name your opposition.” Before I knew it, I was swept up into a strategy to overtake the opposition and win what I wanted. But, thankfully, I woke up, seeing it as a violent plan of action. The more collaborative process, a bit long and messy, yielded a conclusion opposed to my original goal. It became a gentle reminder that this congregation belonged to them, not to me. After all, we are “interim” pastors, privileged to be present only for a season.

Another example of Wink’s wisdom impacting my leadership occurred during a denominational crisis. For reasons I need not elaborate, I became a point person to be attacked in the effort of one faction of our denomination to overpower another faction. I was the enemy. In their mind I must be eliminated. Devious strategies were implemented to discredit me — taping my talks without permission, quoting me out of context, mounting a campaign to fire me as an adjunct professor and “dis-fellowship” our congregation from the denomination on local, state and national levels. They were successful on all points.

I happened to be reading Wink during those years. He gave me a way to see what was happening. These leaders, within my family of faith, saw me as a threat to their vision of our denomination. They were trying to save, to redeem what they feared was being undermined. They were working for redemption. The end — saving the denomination — justified any violent means. I, and those like me, were a cancer to the body that must be destroyed. That’s the conventional approach to cancer.

This knowing didn’t produce any joy but it did help me understand. In understanding I could carry it all more lightly as a season of conflict that would eventually pass. Wink also challenged me to look for active, nonviolent ways of responding. Sometimes I found them, sometimes I didn’t.

At every point in our leadership amid conflict these Wink glasses are there to be picked up. These lenses will bring into focus the power dynamics at work in all relationships. And with such awareness come options.

* * *

The strongest payoff from reading Wink’s Engaging the Powers is in the relationship with myself. And, not only does Wink speak about this inner work, he, with considerable vulnerability, takes us into his own violence against himself. The myth of redemptive violence, so pervasive in our culture, is internalized in all of us. It’s the log in our own eye that keeps us from seeing, not just any splinter in another person’s eye, but hinders our seeing the violence we do to ourselves. Living nonviolently is largely an inside job. This is the place to start — our internal violence.

Just listen to the voices in your head. Your inner voices might be similar to mine. I hear the voice, “You’re not enough. That sermon or idea or pastoral response was not good enough. You can do better. Try harder. Do more. Work harder.” This voice blesses excessive over-functioning that never counts the cost of physical, emotional and spiritual exhaustion that eventually sets in.

Another voice is full of fear. “I fear exposure. I fear being caught in my inadequacy. I fear failure. So, play it safe, don’t risk, hold back.” Another voice is anger. “Who can I blame? Who is at fault? Not me. Who needs to change for me to feel better?”

You know your own self-talk. You also have turned to various modalities that help in understanding these inner parts of yourself. But this insight from Wink might be new to you as it was for me. These self-judgments, he is saying, are a form of redemptive violence internalized. This means that these violent, inner voices are for, not against us. They are attempts to help us, save us, redeem us. They are loud in their desire to assist us in reaching our goals.

Yet these violent messages against ourselves, while attempting to be redemptive, are destructive. Violence is violence. What is true externally is true internally. Violence breeds violence.

Yet, like the Lone Ranger, I want to see myself as right, on the righteous side of conflict. How uncomfortable it is to say, “I am violent to myself. I can be an enemy of myself.” And we all know what happens next. To maintain the illusion of being right we must project our uncomfortable feelings of fear, guilt, shame and anger onto the face of some “other.” We must keep evil and wrong “out there.” The Lone Ranger, as you may recall, had no sense of inner contradiction or evil. For him the enemy was external and must be overcome. Remember, he’s the “masked” man.

I’m challenged by Wink’s conviction that the practice of loving your enemy is the acid test of discipleship in our time. He keeps lifting up the central place of nonviolence and love of enemies in Jesus’ teaching, life and death.

But I am more challenged by the practice of loving the enemy within. According to Wink it means allowing God’s love to engage these voices of “not enough,” fear, shame, anger and self-despising. It means loving yourself with God’s power to heal and transform. Indeed, God’s assurance of grace is the very strength needed to engage these inner, potent, self-judgmental voices. If John the Baptist declared, “Repent and be forgiven,” Jesus declared, “Be forgiven and repent.” God’s forgiveness comes first. It is security of God’s nonviolent, unconditional love that grants us the courage to face the ways we are violent to ourselves. Internally, as well as in external relationships, it is only this force of nonviolent love that truly saves and redeems.

Strange as it might read, the enemy, both internally and externally, turns out to be a gift. The enemy, both within and beyond, reveals what we would not otherwise see. These opposing powers smoke us out and compel us to acknowledge what is being denied, hidden and projected. Only then do the resources of confession and forgiveness make sense. Our inner violence can propel us toward God. This vulnerability of seeing the ways we violate ourselves is a doorway into freedom and grace.

These words of Thomas Merton to his friend Jim Forest stopped me in my tracks with conviction when I first read them.

 “The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form of contemporary violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activity neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”

Wink’s concept of facing and then loving the enemy within puts in perspective Merton’s confrontation. It’s the inner work that makes the outer work of nonviolent shalom-oriented ministry possible.

I hope you can feel my gratitude for this New Testament scholar who wrote for church leaders like us. He focused my lens, making clearer the urgent relevance of Jesus by showing his embodiment of nonviolence within a violent world. This changed my teaching, preaching and pastoral leadership — a re-frame that mattered.


Ministry For Our Transformation: A Re-Frame That Mattered

February 5, 2018

I owe this re-frame to Ted Purcell. It was March 1988. Clergy friends, Ted, Mel, Alan, Anne and I were together for our weekly Sabbath day. Somewhere in our interaction, Ted dropped an idea into the conversation that found no traction. But it must have lodged somewhere in my subconscious because a few days later it re-surfaced during a walk in the woods.

Ted’s idea reminded me of the challenge that I had heard from family systems theorist, Rabbi Edwin Friedman. Friedman said, “What if you treat your ministry as a research project?” That is, approach any aspect of it with the curious question, “What can I discover and learn here?” But Ted’s idea seemed deeper.

Ted said: “Maybe vocation is for our transformation.” The reversal caught my attention. We would expect the statement: our vocation is for the transformation of others, both social and personal. But pastoral ministry as a resource for our transformation — well, that’s another matter. His words, the order of them, intrigued me. From that moment I began to play with the idea that our work itself can be a spiritual practice. I invite you to do the same. If transformation, the stage beyond formation, is the journey we are on — as I suggest in the previous re-frames — then why not see ministry bringing challenges that work toward that end?

Notice the difference between this re-frame and the previous one. Both are about spiritual practices. In the last re-frame contemplative practices prepare us to be active in ministry from a transformed identity as being Love. In this re-frame I am exploring how our work itself can be a source of inner transformation.

I’m raising the question, what if baptism trumps ordination? At the rite of baptism, whether as infants or adults, our deepest identity is declared. It signals our launch into a process of “putting on the mind of Christ,” as the Apostle Paul names it. At baptism, you and I hear, as Jesus heard, that we are God’s delight, God’s beloved or as Merton said, our identity as being Love.

To place as primary our vows at baptism/confirmation is to establish this life-long path of transformation as the over-arching frame into which ordination vows (and marriage vows) are folded. Pastoral work, I’m suggesting, is nourishing soil for this ongoing conversion.

I like to imagine every service of ordination including this prayer: “God, grant that by serving the church I will lose myself, be humbled, broken open to being transformed by your Love into being Love.”

Let’s consider four typical situations in pastoral ministry: situations of criticism; situations of painful loss; situations of appreciation; and the situation of preaching.

Each of these situations contains triggers that invite egoic reactions. Each one is a hook with enticing meat on it that, when grasped, will take you off center into anxiety, fear, and defensiveness.

We can be glad, even grateful for triggers. They bring up what is unresolved in us. Invariably they pull back the curtain, exposing how deeply our self-serving ego is entrenched. Each trigger, if we notice and allow, will grant the option to take next steps in transformation. Each one opens the possibility to re-center your core identity as God’s beloved, being Love.

First, consider those times when criticism and confrontation come your way. Being public, an up-front leader, ensures for us a ready supply of criticism. We are Rorschach tests, easy targets for projection.

Defensive reactions to criticism are inevitable. Our earliest brain, the amygdala, activates at the slightest threat. It’s our friend that’s there for our survival, ever ready under threat to fire off automatic reactions — fight, flee or freeze.

So where is the transformation possibility? Cynthia Bourgeault, a wisdom teacher to many, offers a practice that’s counter-intuitive, simple but difficult. Welcoming Practice is what she calls “a powerful companion for turning daily life into a virtually limitless field for inner awakening.” (Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, pg. 135) According to Bourgeault, this practice is a three-step process. I’ve added a fourth step. This practice is particularly useful in dealing with criticism.

This practice assumes our capacity to observe ourselves, called the inner observer or inner witness. We seem to be unique among animals. We can watch ourselves reacting or responding. We can imagine our selves yesterday at 10:00 am or what we might be doing tomorrow at 10:00 am. This capacity to observe ourselves means that we have choices. We are responsible (response-able) for our responses to the circumstances that come our way. We can choose where to place our attention and with it our energy.

Let’s go through the practice in slow motion. First, you focus and sink in. You focus on the sensation in your body from the criticism being experienced. Your pay attention to what your response feels like inside you. Shortness of breath? Jaw clenched? Knots in your stomach? Fight or flight adrenaline? Whatever the feeling, don’t try to change it. Just be present to what you are sensing in your body. Don’t think or interpret, rather feel and locate these feelings within you.

Second, you welcome. This is the counter-intuitive, paradoxical part. You welcome the particular feeling: “Welcome, anger” or “Welcome, fear” or “Welcome, shame.” You are creating an inner state of hospitality. This is important — you are not welcoming the criticism, particularly negative criticism. Rather, you are welcoming the sensations associated with the confrontation or critique. You accept them fully until the reaction runs its chemical course through your body, usually for about sixty seconds.

Then you face a choice. By observing your inner reactions you come to a point of choice. One option is to attach to the feelings, build on them, and add them to former times of anger or fear or shame that are already alive in your emotional life. It has a “here we go again” sensation. This is an alluring choice — to feed these familiar miserable feelings.

Or . . . you can take a third step. You can let go. Easy to write but challenging to do. But once you have honored the feelings, feeling them in your body, then you can decide to release them. Only after you have welcomed fully the feelings is it time to let them go. You can gently say something like “I let go of my anger . . . or fear . . . or shame.” You do so firmly. Then it helps to intentionally focus on something or someone else. Where you focus is where your energy goes.

And I add a fourth act assumed by Bourgeault. Once you release these reactive emotions, you relax and let yourself fall into your core as God’s beloved, being Love. It’s the shift from feeling caught up in reactivity to remembering who you are, your given identity. You re-center: I am compassion, I am grateful, I am joy, I am love. That’s who I am. You are letting yourself down into the currents of grace that carry you. It’s a choice, a repeated choice, a shift, a practice and gesture of surrender.

Don’t believe that I followed this practice every time I faced criticism. Probably most of the time I didn’t. My ego was bruised every time and quick to defend. But when I could catch myself, pause, watch, and release, I placed myself in a better position to hear what’s true in the confrontation and let the rest roll off my back. That’s possible because our core is not in question. Being beloved and immersed in love are givens, always there to be recognized. This truth gives us a platform to stand on and listen from. A gift from living more and more from our given identity (transformation) is less and less defensiveness when criticized.

Each time you make this internal shift, you walk away having strengthened, ever so slightly, the habit of transcending ego’s dominance, living more fully from your identity as God’s beloved.

The second one — situations of painful loss — names a common pastoral experience. You are invited regularly into heartbreaking crises: “Pastor, Bill is leaving me”; “Pastor, we are just back from the doctor’s office. Anne has pancreatic cancer”; “Pastor, we don’t know what to do with Andy. He never listens to us”; “Pastor, Alice doesn’t have long. You better come.”

Almost daily we come alongside the penetrating grief from pain and loss. My ego, and likely yours, usually is the first voice to show up in self-talk: “How can I fix or solve or look competent?” In each crisis I am up against my limits to save and my pride in wanting to do so.

The invitation is to practice some version of Bourgeault’s counsel. From your inner observer note what’s happening within you. Catch yourself avoiding being fully present to the other in pain. Expect, even laugh, at ego’s need to be at the center of things. Again by shifting to your core you will know a freedom — from your own agendas; from absorbing, beyond feeling, the other’s pain; from a quickness to answer, explain, advise; and from your own anxiety in the relationship. With ego’s needs stepping aside we can better partner with them, joining the Love already present, looking together for ways of healing and hope.

And each time you make this internal shift, you walk away having strengthened, ever so slightly, the habit of transcending ego’s dominance, living more fully from your identity as God’s beloved.

Next, let’s consider the gratitude, sometimes becoming adulation, that comes your way. Because you help people connect with sacred meaning, appreciation for you is certain. And when expressed, these affirmations feel good, real good. Of course they do. Who doesn’t enjoy being validated with gratitude?

The peril in these interactions will not surprise you. Our egos relish the appreciations that easily can morph into adulation and specialness. They feed on it. They savor the adrenaline rush from affirmation. “More, more, not enough, not enough!” is its cry.

You and I have good company here. Jesus encountered in the wilderness the very temptations so familiar to us: “You can be magnificent, even spectacular! You can know power over others! You can make ‘bread” that nourishes! You are special.” Along with Jesus we are vulnerable to the grandiosity that comes with being a leader. The more we feel our ministry is about us and up to us — the ego’s message — the more our specialness is a vocational hazard.

Once again, the opportunities for spiritual practice are present. The practice has a familiar sequence: step back internally; observe the temptation at work; welcome, feel, notice your sensations; then let go gently, returning once again to being rooted and grounded in Love. From that space we are more likely to receive and enjoy the appreciation without yielding to its addictive lure.

Each time you make this internal shift you walk away having strengthened, ever so slightly, the habit of transcending ego’s dominance, living more fully from your identity as God’s beloved.

Then there is preaching, an art form unique to our vocation. It is easy to see preparation for sermons as a spiritual practice. You are working the text, not just for the congregants, but also for yourself. You are always asking of the text, “Where is the good news? What wants to come through me to the congregation?” And there is the question, particularly pertinent to this essay, “How is this text a source for my transformation? How is it reading me, changing me?”

I was asked at retirement whether I would miss preaching. My response was surprisingly immediate: “Yes. Certainly. How will I know what I believe?” It’s true. Unique is the privilege to keep working out within a community what is the meaning of faith, hope, and love in our lives. It’s the journey, not the destination, that keeps the excitement alive.

But the dangerous part for me, and I am assuming for you, is the sermon delivery and its aftermath. That’s where the triggers lay in wait. The danger never left me, the peril to stand before a congregation with truth about God and life to tell. It’s heady. It’s audacious. It’s impossible.

And, furthermore, most congregants assume the sermon is from you, not from beyond you. You hear it in their comments, either liking or taking issue with “your” sermon. And all the while our ego is jumping up and down with delight for this chance to be center stage again.

How can we possibly resist being hooked and taken away into hubris? How can we stay grounded in the deeper truth of who we are during these highly seductive moments? How can we tell ourselves, “Yes, certainly I am in this sermon. But more accurately it’s not about me. It’s about what’s larger than me, some good news coming through me.”

Yet once again, this dangerous act has the promise of transformation within it. The practice is the same: self-observation; welcoming the peril; welcoming ego’s delight, feeling its presence; then detaching, perhaps laughing at ego’s wiles, remembering who you are; then removing your “specialness,” along with your robe, at the end of the worship service. Preaching — the preparation, delivery, and aftermath — is full of potential for practicing this shift from being the message to being the messenger.

Each time you make this internal shift you walk away having strengthened, ever so slightly, the habit of transcending ego’s dominance, living more fully from your identity as God’s beloved.

I have been raising with you the question, what if, in addition to our work of service to the church, this very work itself becomes a fertile field in which, like a seed, our egos are broken open to the transforming forces around and within us? You have limited control over how fully your ministry goals will be achieved. But this you can realize: your vocation can be for your transformation.

With this re-frame in mind, a prayer for the day might look like this:

Grant that the difficulties of today strengthen my capacity to let go of attachments to outcomes, to being right, and to being affirmed.

Grant that preparations for preaching and teaching bring to me a Word that breaks me open to the grace I’m privileged to declare.

Grant that I will harbor in my self-awareness the sobering reminders: my ministry is not about me; my ministry is not up to me; my ministry is not about my worth.

Grant that I find in the joys and sorrows of today the gifts to be seen, named and lived.

Grant that the invisible presence of Christ, the very love that is God, becomes visible in my life today.

Grant today the courage to bear the symbols of God, even be a symbol of God, without playing God.