As we approach Veterans Day (Nov. 11), I am moved to reflect on another year in which our nation has been involved in the Iraq war with no resolution in sight, and now is threatening to attack Iran to involve us into yet another conflict. Meanwhile wars of various intensities go on between forces in Sudan, Palestine/Israel, Turkey/Kurdistan, Pakistan, and many other places. Theologian and political scientist Reinhold Niebuhr (Children of Light, Children of Darkness; Moral Man and Immoral Society;, The Nature and Destiny of Man) said that such conflicts are inevitable and necessary because nations, like individuals, are inherently self-centered, and therefore can only be restrained from forcing the will and way on other nations by the threat and use of violence. Niebuhr, who was a pacifist early in his career as a pastor and activist with autoworkers in Detroit, rejected pacifism as impractical and unrealistic in a spiritually fallen world. However, the pacifism of Niebuhr’s day had not been informed by Gandhi’s concept of satygraha (truth-force), nor had it seen the incredible power of nonviolence used in the U.S. Civil Rights movement or the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. The pacifism of Niebuhr’s day was passive, calling for nonresistance and nonintervention in issues of social injustice. It did not engage injustice or violence; it simply avoided it.
In contrast theologian Walter Wink has called this perspective on the inevitability of violence, the “myth of redemptive violence.” In short the myth of redemptive violence states “that violence saves, that war brings peace, that might makes right. It is one of the oldest continuously repeated stories in the world” (The Powers That Be, p. 42). Wink goes on to point out that this myth is repeated and reinforced in Greek myth, in Saturday morning cartoon shows, in shows like “24” and movies like “Diehard” and in any number of religious texts including the Bible. It is also the ideology of most governments, including our own. Wink concludes: “In short the Myth of Redemptive Violence is the story of the victory of order over chaos by means of violence. It is the ideology of conquest, the original religion of the status quo. The gods favor those who conquer. Conversely, whoever conquers must have the favor of the gods” (p. 48).
The problem is that violence and war give birth to resentment, oppression and eventually more violence and war. The wars mentioned above all were birthed out of previous wars. World War I planted the seeds of World War II, which gave birth to the Cold War, which birthed numerous small “hot wars,” including Korea and Vietnam, which led to our involvement in suppressing countries in the Middle East, which led to 9/11, which led to Iraq and potentially Iran. Now while this analysis is admittedly simplistic, it does illustrate my point: war does not and has not brought peace or order, but rather quite the opposite. Despite the overarching acceptance of the myth of redemptive violence, there have been a few exceptions to this pattern, such as Gandhi’s movement to throw off British rule in the 1940’s, the U.S. Civil Rights movement, and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, all of which used assertive non-violence to fight oppression and injustice rather than war. South Africa took the process to the logical, but rarely tried, next step with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in which whites, Boers, and Africans, oppressors and oppressed, went before the nation to tell their stories, confess their crimes and seek national reconciliation. Instead of hiding one’s crimes and injustice behind a patriotic violence as a “just cause,” the South Africans confessed their crimes and have achieved national reconciliation and healing to an unprecedented degree.
No doubt as we approach Veterans Day we will hear a great deal about how soldiers past and present have “fought for our freedom” as Americans. I would only ask how much freer we feel for having engaged in all our many wars. The notion that fighting a war in Iraq somehow preserves my freedom as an American shows the utter absurdity of the myth of redemptive violence. In this time when war is enshrined, I hope that in our more sober moments we see the myth of redemptive violence for what it is, and seek a better way.