I guess I’m not the first to note that violence pervades our culture. Iraq, the streets of Cleveland, cop shows – everywhere you look, there’s killing. And somehow, those responsible for violence always find a way to justify it. “Thugs” deserve to die, as do neighbors who make too much noise, and so do other kids who pick on us at school. Walter Wink, the noted theologian, says that our culture is awash in the “myth of redemptive violence.” This is the idea that in killing bad guys, we redeem ourselves. Popular media drum this myth into our heads. When we kill a terrorist, we all win.
A few years ago I watched a cop drama that illustrated this principle.
The episode concerned the murder and rape of a little girl. A police map showed this girl’s home surrounded – surrounded – by child molesters. (In our current culture, archetypal evildoers.) Raines, a detective played by Jeff Goldblum, suffered from a psychiatric disorder that “enabled” him to see and interact with dead people. So, in this episode, Raines carried on cogent conversations with the articulate little victim of a horrific sexual assault and murder.
In one chilling scene, Raines hallucinated that the murderer was going after the little girl again, but this time, in his imagination, she was holding a gun. She turned on her killer and blew him away, then exchanged a victorious glance with Raines. It’s a lesson about what we need to protect us from the bad guys, isn’t it? We need guns. Even little children need guns, because good little children must kill the evil men.
But more horror is in store. By the time Raines has figured out who the killer was, the little girl’s daddy has already gotten to him. There’s one exquisite touch: the father didn’t just kill the sexual pervert. He drove a knife into his eye. The other guy is totally evil. The avenging father is totally good.
At the end of the show, Raines finds the dad holding a gun and planning to kill himself. Raines talks him out of suicide by saying, “The jury will be sympathetic to you.” The father walks away in handcuffs, presumably soon to be exonerated for stabbing a guy in the eye with a knife.
Wink’s essay, “Facing the Myth of Redemptive Violence,” is apropos. He argues that in popular culture, people are either innocent and good or guilty and bad. The good hero suffers the abuses of the villain for a little while and then, at last, destroys him and thereby triumphs. Good kills evil. No shades of grey. No negotiating. No compassion. No forgiveness.
You see the pattern everywhere, not just on TV and in Bruce Willis movies. The state of Ohio kills people on death row because they are evil, and they deserve it. We kill Afghans because some people in their nation helped plan 9/11, and then we kill Iraqis because they might plan something evil, too. And Dylan Klebold, Eric Harris, and Seung-Hui Cho? They also subscribed to the myth. Just read their words. In their own minds, they were the good guys: injured, bullied, ignored, and persecuted. They had internalized the moral — if you’re hurt, strike back. The other is evil. Destroy it.
Wink demonstrates how the complexity of life is reduced to a cartoon: Popeye pummels Bluto. We good people will shoot the bad men dead, or, if we have only a knife at hand, stab them in the eye. And after awhile, if enough of us kill enough bad guys, they’ll all be dead, and there will be only good people left in the world. It’s the dominant myth of our time. In Iraq, in our schools, on the streets of Cleveland, and in popular culture, we can see how well it’s working. The “victory” achieved by violence, as Gandhi said, is always temporary. Bluto takes many forms, but he always comes back for more.