Fighting the Myth of Redemptive Violence
Who gets Humperdinck?
I don't understand.
Who kills Prince Humperdinck? At the end, somebody's got to do it.
Is it Inigo? Who?
Nobody. Nobody kills him. He lives.
You mean he wins? Gee, Grandpa! What did you read me this thing for?
If you haven’t seen The Princess Bride, from which the above quote is taken, I apologise for the spoiler. Yes, Prince Humperdinck, the film’s baddie, does indeed survive, and our heroes ride off into the sunset leaving him merely tied to a chair.
Yet the ending, perhaps surprisingly, is a satisfying one.
It’s surprising because we seem to be wired for revenge. I don’t think the entertainment industry has caused this – I’m sure people have enjoyed seeing bullies get their comeuppance since the beginning of time – but I suspect it has exacerbated the problem.
Is it even a problem? Obviously violence against the innocent is a Bad Thing, but not against the guilty the violent, the abusers, surely?
I first had my thinking on this challenged in 2014, at an event to launch Gary Haugen’s book The Locust Effect. On the panel with Gary was Professor Kevin Bales, lead author of the Global Slavery Index, and Co-Founder and former President of Free the Slaves. Bales stated that in Western culture “we employ and constantly repeat, but without naming them, two mythologies”. The first of which is the myth of pure evil.
This myth holds that there are some people who are in some deep, essential way different to us. They are so evil they are like monsters. “And then we address that mythology…with what’s called the myth of redemptive violence – we actually believe that violence can be used to redeem situations in which violence has been used.”
He illustrated this with reference to police dramas in which, week after week, a terrible crime is committed, and instead of bringing the perpetrator to justice, one of the good guys goes against the rules and kills the perpetrator. We find this far more fulfilling than simply seeing a violent criminal go to prison, and Bales says this is because it “provides the redemption that we all feel good about.”
What’s so wrong with that? This week I was sent a link to an article by one of the Sputnik writers, Ian Johnson, who similarly highlighted the trend, and reminded me of the term:
Earlier this year, Richard Spencer was punched in the head whilst being interviewed at the Trump inauguration in Washington DC. The clip soon went viral, with a number of people praising the attack … For those who were aware of Spencer’s status as the president of a white supremacist think tank, the clip represented not just violence against him as an individual but an assault on his views and prejudices. As such, the joyous celebration of the attack on social media can be understood as a natural and passionate response, a public decrying of the evils of white nationalism and an empathetic stand with those Spencer would seek to victimise. As David Benjamin Blower observes in his excellent book Sympathy for Jonah, the normal response when faced with evil is to desire its destruction. In other words, punching Richard Spencer in the head does not only feel emotionally satisfying, but morally correct. [Emphasis added]
[See how Richard Spencer is de-personalized? We would never normally condone punching someone in the head during an interview but his views are so abhorrent to us that it seems less like punching a human being and more like punching a monster.]
This natural desire for cleansing or redemptive violence, is one of the oldest and most reliable currencies employed by the world of film and television. A large number of Hollywood blockbusters, both those aimed at adults and children, will depict physical violence in the hands of a ‘good’ entity as the ultimate solution against evil. Upon viewing them, many Christian movie-goers will satisfy themselves by reading Christ-like narratives into the action. However, biblical scholar and theologian Walter Wink describes this plot structure as ‘The Myth of Redemptive Violence’, stating it has its origins in a Babylonian creation story, to which the central message of Christ stands in opposition.
Christ’s victory is achieved in love and self-sacrifice, not by murdering or dominating his enemies but by being dominated and murdered by them. In other words, he demonstrated that the mechanism of love is to absorb rather than to inflict damage.
The great challenge for Christian artists – including novelists, playwrights, filmmakers and the like – is how to make entertainment with a gospel-flavoured ethic, well, entertaining.
The undeniable reality is that there is a certain carnal thrill to violence which is hard to resist. Many would argue that it is generally more exciting to view cinematic conflict resolved through violence than dialogue (although to some degree this depends on the strength of the writing). Many of us are also lucky enough to experience film and television violence as something of a novelty not present in our daily lives, where hopefully peaceful conflict resolution is the norm.
So why is it such a big deal? What’s wrong with a bit of escapism, with letting our on-screen heroes enact acts of violence that we would never engage in?
First, a comment from Johnson’s article, which he just leaves hanging, but which should give us all pause (emphasis added):
Engaging with violent media allows us a safe space with which to indulge our primal instincts and natural human desire for power and dominance. An example of this is the 2008 smash-hit Taken, which sees Liam Neeson murdering swathes of Albanian sex traffickers in an effort to find his missing daughter. I can only comment on my own experience of the film, which was that it was fun insomuch as it provoked and then satiated a frenzied bloodlust. As a cathartic celebration of my base impulses, it was enjoyable in the same way that pornography is.
Second, a loop back to Kevin Bales. The Locust Effect’s subtitle is ‘Why the end of poverty requires the end of violence’. Its thesis is that:
Beneath the surface of the world’s poorest communities, common violence — including rape, forced labour, illegal detention, land theft, police abuse and other brutality — has become routine and relentless. And like a horde of locusts devouring everything in their path, the unchecked plague of violence ruins lives, blocks the road out of poverty, and undercuts development. [Taken from the cover blurb.]
Bales’ point was, it is inconsistent to decry police violence overseas while simultaneously applauding it on our TV screens. How is it any better for us to dehumanise the rapists and murderers, the white supremacists and the Prince Humperdincks on our screens than it is for police and drug lords, landowners and gangmasters, employers and prison guards and pimps to dehumanise the people over whom they have power? How can we demand an end to violence there while simultaneously pursuing it here?
Following Jesus is costly even in the comfortable West. He’s clear that our thought lives are as visible to him as our actions, and we are just as culpable for what we do with them. The sting of turning the other cheek may for us not come through absorbing injustices or even physical abuse for our faith, but rather through having to sacrifice the carnal thrill of watching a good action movie. Do we believe that God’s way is sufficient for us even if it demands that?
“This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” (John 6:52-69 (yes, it needs the context.))
Image credits: Jens Lelie (cc)