Christians make up over half of the world’s population. But all too many Christians support the use of violence and the idea of violent retribution. Many Christians cheered as the U.S. invaded first Afghanistan and then Iraq. According to pollsters, the majority of people in pews on Sunday morning support the use of torture in the name of security. They support capital punishment. And far too many of them own firearms. Christians are just like everybody else, accommodated to the prevailing culture in which we live. And we all know we live in a culture that supports violence as national policy, celebrates violence in entertainment, and worships their guns.
Today, the United States has military bases in 150 countries around the world. U.S. military spending represents 40 percent of the world’s total outlay on arms and armies, more than the next thirteen highest-spending countries in the world combined, including potential international enemies Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran. (China and Russia combined spend less than one-third of our military expenditures.) Fifty-four percent of our federal income tax dollars are spent on the military: present, past, and future. The military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower warned the nation about requires the constant identification of an enemy to justify increased levels of spending. Yet, while we spend enormous sums to prepare for military action abroad, we are clearly not safe from violence at home.
Apart from those places on the planet actively engaged in civil war or armed conflict, America may be one of the most violent places on earth to live, especially among highly industrialized nations. In the United States, above-average levels of violent crime and particularly high levels of gun violence and homicide define our nation and set us apart from other prosperous developed nations in North America, Europe, and Asia. Way apart.
We live in a “male warrior culture” that is aided and abetted by a deep and abiding love affair with guns. Firearms at Bunker Hill and on the American frontier play a mythic role in our national history. The individual right to keep and bear arms is enshrined in the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution and is often treated as a sacred right above all others, including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Day in and day out, the violent armed male is glorified and celebrated in our media and entertainment. Is there any wonder why a person with mental issues may want to go out in a hail of bullets like one of the fictional heroes of television, film, and video games? Mix a little male testosterone with a touch of depression and anger fueled by alcohol, and you have a gun death in the making. Anger, depression, and guns. It is a perfect storm. The result: the slaughter of coworkers, college students, moviegoers, shoppers, and young children. Mentally ill people exist in every nation. But emotionally disturbed people with easy access to automatic weapons with great destructive capability is a uniquely American problem.
In 2010—a typical year—the United States experienced 31,513 deaths from firearms, ten times the number of people who perished in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The firearm deaths include 19,308 suicides, 11,015 homicides, and 600 accidents. Beyond this, the number of non-fatal injuries from firearms is truly significant—from 75,000 to 100,000 every year, including about 20,000 injuries in children aged 0 to 19 years.
According to the Small Arms Survey, roughly 650 million of the 875 million weapons in the world are in the hands of civilians, and one-third of the world’s guns (280 million) are in the hands of American civilians. Imagine the scope of this: the U.S. which has 5 percent of the world’s population owns 33 percent of its guns. Gun ownership in the United States is unparalleled in the world—nine guns for every ten Americans. (Yemen comes in a distant second.)
At the root of militarism abroad and gun violence at home is a global myth that is as ancient as civilization itself. People in nearly every society are enculturated from an early age to believe that violence is a necessary and inevitable part of human life. Evil and violence often go hand in hand. These two forces have always been a part of human history since the rise of the earliest civilizations, and we believe that they will remain a part of human life forever. We are taught to believe that we can never eliminate the presence of evil and violence, but can temporarily hold their powers at bay. But the only way to do that—the only really effective tool, we believe—is more violence, stronger violence, staggering violence.
Biblical scholar Walter Wink (1935–2012) called this belief “the myth of redemptive violence.” At the heart of the myth is a basic story which is retold ad infinitum: A hero (usually male) is overcome by evil forces. They take his possessions, kill his family, beat him savagely, and leave him for dead. The hero regains his strength and seeks out the evildoers. He takes revenge in a bloodbath of violence. It is a story told in terms of black and white. The hero, whom we identify with, is always good, while the evil forces are always completely evil. There is no hope for their transformation. The only effective solution to the conflict is their inevitable violent defeat. And yet, in the end, we know that even more evildoers still lurk in the shadows, awaiting their next opportunity to terrorize good and decent people.
We’ve all seen, read, or heard a multitude of stories based on the myth of redemptive violence. It is found repeatedly in novels, films, children’s cartoons, and television programs. Moreover, it is a fundamental belief across all civilizations and religions. It is far more compelling than any religious teaching or belief in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. As a result, most of us trust violence—not love—to save us. We trust violence—not God—to deliver us from evil. Wink believed that the myth of redemptive violence was more deeply held in America than anything Christianity teaches. And it is probably a more deeply held belief among Christians than anything Jesus said to the contrary.
It was to people such as us—who are shaped by a pervasive cultural conformity—that Jesus proclaimed a new way of thinking and living. The process of transformation that Jesus proposed requires a questioning of all of our deeply held assumptions and inherited beliefs—political, economic, and religious.
Writer and activist Jim Wallis (b. 1948)—founder of the Sojourners publication and organization—has said, “The call to discipleship, the call to follow Jesus Christ, demands a fundamental break with the dominant values and conformist patterns of the majority culture.”
Our most persistent problem is that we try to make the claims of Christ negotiable with the claims and demands of the world . . . The principal way the world system seeks to overcome the church is by trying to squeeze the church into its own mold, to reduce the church to conformity. Therefore, the church must resist the constant temptation to reduce the claims of Christ, soften the demands of the gospel, ease the tension between the church and the world, and allow the ever radical message to be squeezed into more comfortable and congenial forms and styles . . . The community of believers must expect to find themselves at variance with the social consensus, the political conformity, and the popular wisdom of their society, for they are witnesses to a whole new order. (Agenda for Biblical People)
Jesus called people to transfer their allegiance from the self-serving values of empire to the servanthood values of the kingdom of God. Turn the other cheek, walk the second mile, give up your shirt as well as your coat, forgive seventy times seven, love your neighbor, love your enemy, do to others as you would have done to yourself. These are the words of a non-conformist. And the ethic of love that he modeled is sure to pit us against our culture, our governing authorities, and even our churches.
Some years ago I saw a poster that said “A Modest Proposal for Peace: Let Christians Stop Killing Christians.”
So what if Christians simply stopped killing other Christians and then possibly stopped killing other people as well? What if Christians called for a reduction in our bloated military spending? What if Christians stopped participating in war and sending their sons and daughters into the service of the endless war machine? What if Christians disarmed their homes and removed all firearms? What if Christian churches preached creative nonviolence and the disarmed life? What if Christians actually started following the way Jesus?