The Myth of Redemptive Violence

The Myth of Redemptive Violence July 23, 2012

I had a veteran friend once tell me, “The biggest lie I have ever been told is that violence is evil, except in war.”  He went on, “My government told me that.  My Church told me that.  My family told me that… I came back from war and told them the truth – ‘Violence is not evil, except in war… Violence is evil – period’.”

Every day it seems like we are bombarded with news stories of violence – a shooting in Colorado, a bus bombing in Bulgaria, drones gone bad and the threat of a nuclear Iran, a civil war in Syria, explosions in Afghanistan and Iraq.

This week’s cover story of Time magazine is — “One a Day” — showing that soldier suicides are up to one per day, surpassing the number of soldiers that die in combat. The US military budget is still rising — over 20,000 dollars a second, over 1 million dollars a minute spent on war, even as the country goes bankrupt.

Our world is filled with violence – like a plague, an infection, a pandemic of people killing people, and people killing themselves.  In my city of brotherly love, Philadelphia, we have nearly one homicide a day – and in this land of the free we have over 10,000 homicides a year.

Today, Barack Obama called the shooting in Colorado “evil”.  And he is right.

But perhaps it is also time that we declare that violence is evil, everywhere – period.  It’s obvious that killing folks in a movie theater is sick and deranged, but the question arises – is violence ever okay?

Our kids keep getting mixed messages. A few years ago there was a national news story about a second grader in Rhode Island who wore a baseball cap to school with soldiers carrying guns on the front. The school authorities ruled that his hat violated dress code, which did not allow for weapons on clothing, a code established with the kids best interest in mind, for their safety and protection. But then school authorities pushed for an exception, working to allow for clothing that had soldiers with guns, in the interest of promoting “patriotism and democracy.”  No wonder our kids are confused by our double-speak.  Even for those who believe violence is a necessary evil in our world, maybe there can be a renewed commitment to still call it evil.

Martin Luther King was one of those prophetic voices that insisted that we must challenge the violence of the ghettoes — or those who massacre people in theaters —  and we must challenge the violence of our government.

We must not forget that Timothy McVeigh, who committed the worst act of domestic terror in US history, said that he learned to kill in the first Gulf war.  It was there that he said he turned into an “animal”.  He comes back from war, mentally deranged, and continues to kill.  And then the government that trained him to kill, kills him, to show the rest of us that it is wrong to kill.  There is something deeply troubling about our logic of redemptive violence.

Even though western evangelical Christianity has not been known for its consistent ethic of life (as it has often been more pro-birth than pro-life, opposing abortion but not always opposing death when it comes to capital punishment, gun violence, militarism, and poverty), Christianity throughout history has had a powerful critique of violence in all its ugly forms. One of the patriarchs, Cyprian (African Bishop in the third century), critiqued the contradictory view of death so prevalent in our culture where we call killing evil in some instances and noble in others:  “Murder, considered a crime when people commit it singly, is transformed into a virtue when they do it en masse.”

Contemporary thinkers like Renee Girard contend that this challenge to violence inherent to Christ-like Christianity is, at least in part because, at the center of the Christian faith is a victim of violence — as Jesus was brutally murdered on the cross.  And there is a triumph over death as rises from the dead, a final victory over violence and hatred and sin and all ugly things.

And yet, even in the face the evil that Jesus endured, he consistently challenged the myth of redemptive violence.  He looked into the eyes of those killing him and called on God to forgive them.  He loved his enemies and taught his disciples to do the same. He often said things like, “You’ve heard it said ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’… but I want to say there is a better way” and  “You’ve heard it said, ‘love your friends and hate your enemies’… but I tell you love those who hate you… do not repay evil with evil’””   He challenges the prevailing logic of his day, and of ours.  He insisted that if we “pick up the sword we will die by the sword” – and we’ve learned that lesson all too well.

When one of his disciples picks up a sword to defend him and cuts off a guy’s ear, Jesus scolds his own disciple, picks up the ear, and heals the wounded persecutor. Christian theologians have said Jesus teaches a “third way” to interact with evil.  We see a Jesus who abhors both passivity and violence and teaches us a new way forward that is neither submission nor assault, neither fight nor flight.  He shows us a way to oppose evil without mirroring it, where oppressors can be resisted without being emulated and neutralized without being destroyed.

We can take courage that Jesus understood the violence of our world, very well.  At one point he wept over Jerusalem because it didn’t know the things that make for peace.  No doubt Jesus is still weeping.

And lots of us are weeping with him – from Colorado to Kabul.  Perhaps it’s time for a united, nonviolent assault on the myth of redemptive violence.  Perhaps it’s time for us to declare that violence is always evil – period.  There is always a third way.


Shane Claiborne is a prominent activist and faith leader.  Resources related to the theme of this article that Shane has recommends are Conspire magazine with a latest issue on Violence:,  Shane’s books Jesus for President and Jesus, Bombs and Ice Cream, and a book by his friend Logan Mehl-Laituri Reborn on the Fourth of July.








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131 responses to “The Myth of Redemptive Violence”

  1. Sometimes, violence IS necessary.

    To defend one’s home and family and freedom, yes I would resort to violence.

  2. 1 Timothy 5:8 “But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”

    How does this not include protection of ones household? Would God ask that we provide food and not safety? Shelter but not security?

    Exodus 22:2 “If the thief is caught while breaking in and is struck so that he dies, there will be no bloodguiltiness on his account. 3“But if the sun has risen on him, there will be bloodguiltiness on his account.”

    So clearly, if the thief is a threat (coming in the darkness where he cannot be identified), there is no guilt in his potential death. Frequently people misunderstand that shooting a home intruder is not about retribution, its not about “redemptive violence”, it is about ending the threat that is posed to the lives of you and your family. If it is dark and someone is breaking in, it is impossible to know in what way they might be armed. If killing is the only means of eliminating a direct threat to life, it is just and right. However, if it was day time and we saw the intruder make off with something and they were not a direct threat to life, then there would be guilt in harming them.

    1 Samuel 13 mentions that the Hebrews were without arms because the Philistines banned metal smiths for fear the Hebrews would make weapons. Who were the bad guys and oppressors in the conflict? The people enforcing weapons control laws on others.

    Were I ever in a situation like that which took place in Colorado, I would have no problem firing back in the defense of those around me. There is a huge difference between true defense against an immediate threat to life and the unlawful and unjust wars in which the U.S. military has been engaged.

  3. I completely agree, and to those of you throwing around old testament scriptures, remember that Jesus covered that by dying on the cross. We no longer have to die for sins committed, because of what He did and the cross, so why should we have to kill? Jesus says to do the opposite. “Turn the other cheek” “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.”

  4. It’s fascinating to me that Bible believers claim to have an absolute standard for moral authority and yet there are as many differences among their moral codes as there are among non-believers and those who believe in other religions. There is absolutely no advantage to having an absolute standard that is so elastic that it accomodates the pre-emptive invasion of a nation, conscientious objection to war, the treatment of illegal aliens like criminals, resistance against the enforcement of laws intended to apprehend and deport illegal aliens, rejection of violence except in self-defense, the execution of people who are mentally ill or seriously subnormal in intelligence, acceptance of abortion, divorce and homosexual sexual activity, prohibition of abortion, divorce and homosexual sexual activity, imposition of taxes on the well-off to provide the necessities of life to the poor and rejection of imposing taxes on the well-off to provide the necessities of life to the poor.

    The only difference in arguments between Christians and non-Christians over these matters is that the Christians offer dueling Bible quotes to support what they feel is right, while non-believers offer arguments to support what they feel is right. The result of both is morality that is effectively relativist. Someday it’s going to dawn on Christians that guidance provided for people living in an occupied nation 2,000 years ago by someone who thought that the end of the world was imminent isn’t particularly helpful in the present day. The practical and unambiguous principle one can derive from the Bible amounts to “Be excellent to each other,” which humans knew was required for their survival and enjoyment since they hunted and gathered as extended families.

    Unfortunately the devil is in the details.

  5. I very much appreciate the thoughts above and wholeheartily want to live a life in the Kingdom, according to Jesus’ way of living, rather than a tit-for-tat escalation of violence, etc.

    I do want to add to the conversation, however, that Jesus clearly isn’t a pacifist. According to the book of Revelation and other NT texts, for example, He is going to be bringing some heavy wrath, judgment and violence upon his enemies in the future.

    He may want us to live different lives on earth, today, as His followers, but I would challenge the notion that Jesus believes that all violence is evil. I just don’t think that the NT bears that out. And you don’t have to take my word for it, just read of Jesus in the gospels (his conflicts with Pharisees and pronouncement of judgment on them, turning over tables and threatening with whips, his coming judgment of his enemies, etc.).

  6. What about rape? Your body should be as a temple, why then would you allow it to be defiled? If Christ went flipping tables and chasing out those which defiled his Father’s house for changing money, would he not also fight the rapist who seeks to destroy and defile your body, his temple?

  7. While I believe that war and violence are inherently the product of man’s sin nature, I do believe that there is true evil that cannot be reasoned with or resisted passively. I hate to be the first person to bring Hitler into an internet discussion, but the atrocities committed by Hitler were enabled by people calling for peace and appeasement. In order to stop the atrocity that was Nazi Germany, many nations had to go to war. Otherwise, the Nazis would have exterminated not merely the Jewish race but ultimately all “non-Aryans” they could lay their hands on.
    War is evil. There should be no bravado or lightness about its horror. Yet, all the same, there ARE times and places in this fallen world where war and violence must be justified.

    I leave you with this:
    “We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.” -Dietrich Bonhoeffer

  8. Often we like to boil everything down to these two, noncreative options:

    1. Fight evil with force
    2. Avoid violence, passively submit

    When confronted with only these two no-brain-cells-firing options, then the appeal of force is undeniable.

    Rather than box people into these either-or situations, ask:

    1. What creative responses might be generated?
    2. What could we do to hilariously resist, throwing the oppressor off his or her game?
    3. How might we stand up without fighting back, increasing the odds of survival for both perpetrator and victim?
    4. What can we learn from the creative responses Jesus taught?

    Instead of just one choice, violent defense or submit, come up with a multiple choice, cafeteria of possibilities.

    People like Shane are trying to get us to imagine these alternative possibilities.