Late last week one of my heroes died. He wasn’t famous in a general sort of way, though he was well known by many pastors and theologians. His name was Walter Wink, and he will be best remembered for his work on Christian nonviolence, specifically what he called “the myth of redemptive violence.”
Walter started his examination of this myth, that violence is somehow not only necessary but good, in a place I can totally appreciate — in Saturday morning cartoons. In the 1960s, while he was still serving on the national steering committee of Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam, he noticed something threaded through the structure of the stories we tell ourselves and our children about how the world works. He talks about Saturday morning cartoons — Popeye and Bluto, the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote, Tom and Jerry — and how these stories share a similar pattern:
- an indestructible hero and an equally indestructible villain (remember all those pianos they dropped on each other’s heads, or the cliffs they were always running off the edge of?) battle in a never-ending cycle.
- The hero is struggles in what looks like a losing battle, gets tied to the railroad tracks, gets trapped in the warehouse with the bomb, you know the drill.
- Somehow the hero finds his source of strength (the heroes in these cartoons are always hes, aren’t they?) — a can of spinach or a piece of cheese — and his strength returns.
- The villain is caught just as they are about to do something awful — Bluto stands ready to ravage Olive Oyl, Tom the cat is about to eat the caged bird — when the hero steps in and beats the villain to a pulp. Order is restored by the use of force.
The more Walter looked, the more he found this archetypal story everywhere in our culture. But then he realized, it wasn’t just our culture, it was cultures all over the world and all throughout time. Somewhere, a light bulb went off in his head and he remembered the creation myth of the early Babylonian empire.
In that story, a rebellious hero-god named Marduk slays the villainous enemy, Tiamat — the Dragon of Chaos, by tearing her body apart with wind and arrows and clubs. Once she is dead, he stretches her corpse out and creates the cosmos. The creation of the world is rooted in an act of violence that brings order out of chaos.
Versions of this myth existed all over the ancient world from Egypt to Ireland. A male god, usually a sky god, doing battle with some feminine divinity, usually in the sea, and in her defeat establishes order. These are stories, myths, we keep telling ourselves about the ways things are.
So, it was kind of extraordinary that our ancestors, the Israelites, while they were in captivity to the Babylonians began to tell a different story. It was while they were in the Babylonian exile — while they were being held captive to empire — that our mothers and fathers began to tell a different story about how the world was created. In our story God created the world from nothing. No violent battle. No pre-existing evil to be conquered. Just an act of love that resulted in the creation of all that is, and when God looked at this creation, God called it good.
The stories on which we raise our children, the stories we keep telling ourselves, make all the difference in the world. If the world is a place of Marduks and Tiamats, of Popeyes and Blutos, of Toms and Jerrys, then it only makes sense that it is also a place of NATO and the Soviet Union, or NATO and Afghanistan. If the story we tell ourselves is that order can only be secured by violence, then really, hadn’t we all better get on board?
But Jesus, who Christians testify reveals for us what the God of Israel and the God of all creation looks like when wrapped up in a life like ours, did not tell this story. Instead, throughout his ministry, Jesus told other stories, subversive stories, about how to live in the presence of empire and how to transform it.
Walter Wink spent a lot of time teaching Christians about the nonviolence character of Jesus’ words. In a speech he gave almost twenty years ago on nonviolence as the “third way,” an alternative to fight or flight, he said:
When Jesus says, “Do not resist one who is evil,” there is something stronger than simply resist. It’s do not resist violently. Jesus is indicating do not resist evil on its own terms. Don’t let your opponent dictate the terms of your opposition. If I have a hoe and my opponent has a rifle, I am obviously going to have to get a rifle in order to fight on equal terms, but then my opponent gets a machine gun, so I have to get a machine gun. You have a spiral of violence that is unending.
Jesus is trying to break that spiral of violence. Don’t resist one who is evil probably means something like, don’t turn into the very thing you hate. Don’t become what you oppose. The earliest translation of this is probably in a version of Romans 12 where Paul says, “Do not return evil for evil.”
That is a message for us to hold tight to — particularly this weekend as we see all kinds of images that frighten us. Whether it be images of protestors causing havoc, or police forces with plexiglass shields and billy clubs, we have to remember that we have been called to be witnesses for peace, to answer violence with love, and — in the words of this morning’s gospel passage — to proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins to all nations.
The final lesson I learned from Walter Wink, one that seems particularly relevant to this morning’s passage from Luke wherein we see Jesus lifted up into heaven, had to do with how the ancient world understood the orders of creation. In the introduction to one of his best known books, Engaging the Powers (1992), he writes,
In this conception, everything earthly has its heavenly counterpart, and everything heavenly has its earthly counterpart. Every event is thus a simultaneity of both dimensions of reality. If war begins on earth, then there must be, at the same time, war in heaven between the angels of the nations involved on earth. Likewise, events initiated in heaven would be mirrored on earth. There is nothing uniquely biblical about this imagery. It was shared not only by the writers of the Bible, but also by Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Sumerians — indeed, by everyone in the ancient world — and it is still held by large numbers of people in Africa, Asia and Latin America. It is a profoundly true picture of reality.
In the context of that prevailing worldview, the story of the ascension ceases to be a strange coda to an amazing story about the life and ministry of Jesus, from birth to death to resurrection. Instead, it becomes a bold statement of faith on the part of the early church. By proclaiming that Jesus has ascended into heaven, the early church was saying that this way of being — this way of living, this way of loving, this way of giving everything, this way of turning the other cheek and going the extra mile, this way of resisting empire, this way of exchanging violence for love, had been lifted into the heavens and was now a part of the deepest and most transcendent structures of reality itself.
Friends, sisters and brothers by baptism, on this day when we join with the church of every time and place in witnessing to our faith in Jesus that crosses congregations and denominations, that crosses languages and cultures, we also join with the church in proclaiming that in Jesus we see an alternative to the myth of redemptive violence, and that is the reality of love.
This morning we take up the mantle of peacemakers in every dimension of our lives. We reject the idea that order can only come from violence, and we share this good news with all the nations of the world. There is another way! We are not eternally committed to the failed policies of the past. We are not wed to a broken down myth!
We reach out with our hands, with our words, with our bodies, to tell a better story — in which we are reunited with all people, all nations and all of creation through the love of the God that made us and is remaking us.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Christ is risen indeed, Alleluia!