Breaking the Spiral of Violence
First Presbyterian Church
April 22, 2012
Then they got into an argument over which of them should be considered the greatest. He said to them, “Among the foreigners, it’s the kings who lord it over everyone, and those in power are addressed as ‘benefactors.’ But not so with you; rather, the greatest among you must behave as a beginner, and the leader as one who serves. Who is the greater, after all: the one reclining at a banquet or the one doing the serving? Isn’t it the one who reclines? But here among you I am the one doing the serving.
As we move through the season of Spring, we are walking the path, or dancing the spiral of the via transformativa, the way of compassion and justice-making. This is the path of naming, unmasking, and engaging The Powers That Be.
The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium is a book by Walter Wink. Walter Wink is an interesting guy. He wrote a book on Jesus and Nonviolence and had it delivered in secret to clergy in South Africa. He snuck into to South Africa illegally and led workshops on non-violence. He thus exerted influence in helping the movement against Apartheid be non-violent and have the basis for that non-violence based in the teachings and life of Jesus.
Walter Wink has not backed away from walking with those who are most oppressed by The Powers That Be. He knows Empire’s cruelty and violence. Yet he firmly holds out hope and participates in a way of living and being that is transformative. He really does believe in non-violence and trusts that the human race will get it. He writes:
“The reign of God means the elimination of every form of violence between individuals and nations. This is a realm and a possibility of which the imprisoned by their trust in violence cannot even conceive.” P. 89
We can, from Wink’s perspective, conceive that the human race could move beyond violence as a program of solving conflicts even at the level of nation-states. He believes that believing that humans will always solve conflicts violently and always have is part of the socialization we have received from the Domination System. For Wink, violence is not innate and inevitable. It is learned. It can be unlearned.
That is why I am spending quite a bit of sermon time with his ideas. I think that radical statement that violence is learned needs a hearing. I am spending valuable sermon time on his book because his ideas have been influential to me and because I think they are important. That doesn’t mean of course that I say, “Yes, yes, yes,” to everything he writes. But I say “Yes” often enough.
When I first read about his analysis of the myth of redemptive violence that I spoke about last week, it changed my way of thinking. I can’t see anything now, whether they be cartoons, movies, advertising, propaganda, orchestrated patriotic spectacles, and so called news reports, without seeing that myth playing itself out before my eyes time and time again. That myth is in short: violence saves. Only by violent means can the good guys beat the bad guys. Our salvation is to identify with the violent--yet good--hero.
His understanding of the Domination System as a translation for the word kosmos in many places in the New Testament helped me make more sense of the Gospels and Paul. It brought the scriptures down to Earth in the struggles that we face everyday with the powers. The Powers are not individual people, for people are interchangeable and expendable within these institutions. The Powers That Be are those personalities, commitments, rules, and forces that lie behind and within institutions.
Wink sees the historical Jesus as enacting a program of non-violent resistance with the emphasis both on non-violent and resistance, not passivity on one hand nor becoming the very evil we deplore on the other. Wink sees this message not just in the historical Jesus but as a thread that weaves itself through the whole witness of scripture.
The myth of redemptive violence is presented to us by the powers as part of our socialization into the Domination System. Whenever a conflict rises, we consistently give in to the argument that is offered as the clincher: the only way to save the world is to stop these bad people with force of arms. It is the only way. The Powers have to do one thing. Repeat the myth and insert the enemy of the day as the bad guy.
The myth is necessary to keep the inequity in place between the wealthy and powerful and those without wealth and power. That inequity is as much within a nation as between nations. As inequities increase within a nation, it becomes by necessity more violent both to people within the nation as well as to those outside of it. Stories of domestic spying and harsh crackdowns on protestors are some examples of this.
One of the ways a violent society keeps the lid on things, is to let out its violence in a ritualized, orderly way by way of scapegoating. French philosopher, Rene Girard, saw this by analyzing myths. Collective violence from the perspective of the persecutor against a particular group served to focus the violence of a society on a scapegoat. Blame the troubles on this person or group of persons and focus ritual, programmatic violence upon them.
Girard in analyzing the New Testament saw that that scapegoating mechanism was turned upside down. The gospels were written from the point of the persecuted. Jesus is the scapegoat. But, his violent death showed that the scapegoating mechanism was wrong. An innocent person was tortured and killed. The powers were wrong to do this. The powers were not keeping order and peace by executing bad guys. Jesus’ death unmasked and exposed The Powers That Be as wrong and needing overthrow.
Jesus’ death did not show that he was the last scapegoat. It showed the end of scapegoating. Throughout Western history, Jesus’s torture and execution has been used successfully to show that scapegoating is wrong.
On the other hand, The Powers That Be have had success in getting us to reinterpret Jesus’ death as some kind of transaction to satisfy a violent God. God kills Jesus instead of killing you and sending you to hell and whatever. That is the interpretation of Empire. When Christianity and Empire are in bed together, that is what you get.
But the original and powerful and liberating interpretation is that Jesus’ violent death exposed the violence of the powers and thus defeated them.
One modern illustration of how this was used was during the civil rights movement. In Nashville students, black and white together, sat illegally at all-white lunch counters. They brought their cameras and the news media. They were treated violently but did not retaliate to violence with violence. They resisted. They were not passive. They didn’t leave. They didn’t acquiesce. They received violence but did not back down. The purpose was to expose the violence inherent in segregation.
To see young students beaten and mistreated by The Powers That Be or the Law, exposed to the rest of the country that the Law was wrong. Eventually, enough people could see that blacks were being scapegoated so that the laws would change. These laws, such as segregated lunch counters, were part of the larger systemic violence against black people.
The students used the symbol of Jesus on the cross, the innocent victim, to expose the powers of inequity and violence. The death of Jesus when interpreted as exposing scapegoating and domination as unjust is liberating. This is a way in which the spiral of violence is named, exposed, and defeated.
The Powers That Be don’t want Jesus’ death interpreted in that way. They want it to be seen as Jesus receiving the torture and death you should get because you deserve God’s wrath. That is an incredibly abusive interpretation. It lets the powers off the hook. In this scheme Church and Empire work together to keep people passive and to continue to scapegoat whoever it is they want to direct violence upon whether they be “heretics” or enemies of the state.
Jesus was a Capricorn, he ate organic foods.
He believed in love and peace and never wore no shoes.
Long hair, beard and sandals and a funky bunch of friends.
Reckon they'd just nail him up if He come down again.
'Cos everybody's got to have somebody to look down on.
Who they can feel better than at anytime they please.
Someone doin' somethin' dirty, decent folks can frown on.
If you can't find nobody else, then help yourself to me.
Kris Kristofferson’s Jesus Was a Capricorn is a great song about the scapegoat mechanism. The song itself shows how Jesus’ death exposed the scapegoat mechanism as unjust and exposed the violence of the powers. The song also demonstrates how the powers continually want to turn it back on more scapegoats. “Everybody’s got to have somebody to look down on…”
The reason we call this a spiral of violence is that everyone thinks they are on the good side. Only in cartoons and in silly movies do people think of themselves as an “evil genius.” Everyone thinks that he is the good guy. Whether these guys live in Pyongyang, Tehran, or Washington DC., each one operates from the myth of redemptive violence.
It is no surprise that weapons and militarization are increasing. It is no surprise that individuals are amassing as many personal guns as they can. There are bad guys out there. We are good guys. We have to stand our ground. If we don’t have a scapegoat, “someone to look down on,” what do we do with our violence?
We need to learn a new plan. As Walter Wink writes:
Either we learn to stop the spiral of violence and scapegoating, or, having been stripped of the scapegoating mechanism as an outlet for our violence, we will consume ourselves in an apocalypse of fire. P. 93
We have to die to the Powers. That is we have to die to the socialization and the values we have received by the Domination System. As Wink writes:
“…we have been socialized into patterns of injustice…[we have] become complicit in our own alienation and that of others…we grew to love our bondage, to rationalize, justify, and even champion it.” P. 94
This dying and rebirth is a part of the symbolism of transformation. But it also must include a social dimension. It is not simply private peace. Wink says:
Many North American Christians die to their privatized egos, but not to the arrogance of American imperialism. Thus, dying to one’s ego can be just another false spirituality unless it involves dying to the Powers. P. 96
So when Jesus' disciples debate among themselves who is the greatest, who is the good guy, who is the one on top, he scolds them. Those are the values of the powers. They lord it over others. That is the foundation of the Domination System. Violence is built on that foundation. This is seen in violence and exploitation against people and Earth. This task of dying to the Powers does not happen once and it is over. It is a lifelong process. Writes Wink:
This means our abandoning egocentricity not only as individuals, but as cultures, as nations, even as a species, and voluntarily subordinating our desires to the needs of the total life system. P. 97
The reason we have Earth Day is because of the violence against Earth by The Powers and our complicity with them. On Earth Day celebrations all over the world today, people are resisting the powers of domination and violence to Earth and to all Earthlings.
Here is the take home:
We can do this.
Violence is not inevitable.
Human beings can and do solve virtually all of their conflicts without violence. In fact, in virtually all of our interactions, violence is not allowed as an option. Violence is not the way to solve conflicts in the home, at school, and at the workplace. The members of the Elizabethton City Council do not bring their six guns to work out budget issues. Violence is not an option. We learn violence. We learn nonviolence.
We don’t believe and act as if our family members are so evil and vile that they must be controlled by violence. I am not saying there is not violence in homes. I am saying that we know that is wrong.
We call on our educators, social workers, and counselors and teach people skills to solve conflicts non-violently so that we can live equitably. We teach people to solve conflicts without violence. We help people leave violent situations. Violence is not an option. At almost every level of our individual and collective lives we know that and live that.
If we can do this at the level of personal interaction, we can do it at all levels of interaction if we want to do so. We could declare and live into the reality that violence is not an option. To do that we have to make commitments for justice and equity. We may have to take risks and make sacrifices because The Powers That Be do wish to keep the violence and the inequity gong.
But we could do this.
We can engage the powers and transform them.
We could decide that violence at any level is not an option.
You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.
I think Earth Day is a fine day to make that commitment.
One beautiful blue ball.
One family of Earthlings.
Living in peace.
Living in equity.
What a beautiful world.