When Bad Things Happen To Bad People (And We Enjoy Watching)
The reliable myth of redemptive violence
The reliable myth of redemptive violence
Earlier this year, Richard Spencer was punched in the head whilst being interviewed at the Trump inauguration in Washington DC. The clip soon went viral, with a number of people praising the attack and circulating musical remixes, among them rapper Killer Mike and comedian Tim Heidecker.
For those who were aware of Spencer’s status as the president of a white supremacist think thank, the clip represented not just violence against him as an individual but an assault on his views and prejudices. As such, the joyous celebration of the attack on social media can be understood as a natural and passionate response, a public decrying of the evils of white nationalism and an empathetic stand with those Spencer would seek to victimise. As David Benjamin Blower observes in his excellent book Sympathy for Jonah, the normal response when faced with evil is to desire its destruction. In other words, punching Richard Spencer in the head does not only feel emotionally satisfying, but morally correct.
This natural desire for cleansing or redemptive violence, is one of the oldest and most reliable currencies employed by the world of film and television. A large number of Hollywood blockbusters, both those aimed at adults and children, will depict physical violence in the hands of a ‘good’ entity as the ultimate solution against evil. Upon viewing them, many Christian movie-goers will satisfy themselves by reading Christ-like narratives into the action. However, biblical scholar and theologian Walter Wink describes this plot structure as ‘The Myth of Redemptive Violence’, stating it has its origins in a Babylonian creation story, to which the central message of Christ stands in opposition. Though worth reading in full (here), the Babylonian myth can be summarised as the idea that violence is an inevitable aspect of the human condition and that conflict must be resolved by greater powers establishing aggressive dominance over lesser powers, thus bringing order to chaos.
It should be noted that the Babylonian myth contains a good deal of insight into human nature. However, the life and death of Christ gives us not only an alternative to the Babylonian myth, but a story which subverts it entirely. As N. T. Wright states:
“People want to defeat force with force and it can’t be done, if you do that, force is still in charge. The only way you defeat force is with love and that remains the great challenge of the gospel.” (reference)
Christ’s victory is achieved in love and self-sacrifice, not by murdering or dominating his enemies but by being dominated and murdered by them. In other words, he demonstrated that the mechanism of love is to absorb rather than to inflict damage.
But the Babylonian myth is very popular in our culture, and this presents a challenge to both the Christian consumer and the Christian artist (particularly those working in television or film). When people pay for an experience with their time and money they expect to be rewarded. With regards to film and television, this expectation is often along the lines of comfort and/or entertainment. It is much more enjoyable for audiences to vicariously live the defeat of their enemies via identification with an action hero than to be reminded of Jesus’ command to “take up your cross”. Perhaps Jesus does not wish us to defeat our enemies, perhaps he wishes us to die. However, that’s a hard sell for a screenplay.
It’s also a hard sell for many as an evening’s ‘entertainment’, at least in my experience. One such ‘take up your cross’ screenplay that did make it to the big screen was John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary. However, despite the clear and powerful analogy between the actions of the protagonist and those of Christ, this film has received a mixed reception among my Christian friends. Complaints are not often levelled at the plot, dialogue or acting but rather the film’s ‘heaviness’, with the comment that ‘I usually watch films to switch off and enjoy myself’. Therefore it seems there are times when even Christians don’t like to be presented with the gospel outside of a Sunday morning!
The undeniable reality is that there is a certain carnal thrill to violence which is hard to resist. Many would argue that it is generally more exciting to view cinematic conflict resolved through violence than dialogue (although to some degree this depends on the strength of the writing). Many of us are also lucky enough to experience film and television violence as something of a novelty not present in our daily lives, where hopefully peaceful conflict resolution is the norm. Thus engaging with violent media allows us a safe space with which to indulge our primal instincts and natural human desire for power and dominance. An example of this is the 2008 smash-hit Taken, which sees Liam Neeson murdering swathes of Albanian sex traffickers in an effort to find his missing daughter. I can only comment on my own experience of the film, which was that it was fun insomuch as it provoked and then satiated a frenzied bloodlust. As a cathartic celebration of my base impulses, it was enjoyable in the same way that pornography is.
As well as being somewhat comfortable and exciting, Walter Wink argues that the myth of redemptive violence also allows the audience something of a moral reassurance. Film and television within the redemptive violence model are often presented as simplistic ‘good versus evil’ stories. Wink states that this allows the viewer to:
“identify with the good guy so that they can think of themselves as good. This enables them to project out onto the bad guy their own repressed anger, violence, rebelliousness, or lust (…) When the good guy finally wins, viewers are then able to reassert control over their own inner tendencies, repress them, and re-establish a sense of goodness without coming to any insight about their own inner evil.”
A clear example of this is Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, a film which allows the audience to gleefully indulge in gratuitous violence, which is guilt-free due to being directed towards an unacceptable enemy (Nazis). The purpose of the film is not to consider the actual nature of humankind’s inhumanity during a horrifying period of our collective history, but to use this tragedy as justification for our entertainment. The audience is left with the reassurance and self-satisfaction that they are good because they hate Nazis, regardless of how they would have acted as a citizen of Germany within the 1930s and ’40s.
A similar approach was taken for Tarantino’s follow-up, Django Unchained, this time the historical bogeyman being represented by 19th century Texan slave-owners. Once again, audiences can cheer for the good guys on their violent conquest against the villainies of slavery and finish the movie with the knowledge that all is well and justice has been served.
Released a year later, a point of comparison can be made between Django Unchained and Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave – a harrowing slog of a film which represents a much more serious piece on slavery and differs wildly from Django in terms of tone, approach and intent. Yet when viewing 12 Years a Slave in the cinema, I was struck by one scene in particular where the protagonist, Solomon Northup, retaliates against the savage treatment from a plantation owner by attacking him with a whip. This was met with cheers of delight from subsections of the audience, yet surely this was because they’d fundamentally misunderstood the scene by interpreting it through the lens of a light-hearted revenge thriller, such as Django. Surely the scene was not supposed to be viewed as the point in the movie where Northup starts ‘kicking ass’, but rather the tragic depiction of a formerly peaceable man driven to animalistic rage by the brutal injustices of his environment. Has the approach taken by films like Django and Inglorious Basterds, often defended as fantasy entertainment, become so commonplace that it can now dominate the way in which we interpret and understand cinematic violence?
Violence remains an intrinsic part of our nature and thus of our culture, its ability to thrill, excite and engage is something which will continue to be undeniable. However, this doesn’t meant that as creators and those who engage with art, we shouldn’t question the stories we are being sold about the role and nature of violence. Christians remain in the paradoxical position of being somewhat tied to their natural and violent impulses, but also given the instruction and example from Jesus to transcend them. They are called to something higher and more difficult than redemptive violence, a call which though painful is given in love. For it should not be forgotten that the myth of redemptive violence often is that – a myth. When the credits have stopped rolling and the action hero wipes the blood from his hands, how often will his actions have truly brought peace and salvation?