Why do so many Christians support violence when their professed Savior seems to have done otherwise? What is behind the merging of Jesus and violence?
The reason for this approval runs deeper than an interpretive divide that exists between Christians who interpret the Bible differently. Could it be that we American Christians support war in order to forget being victims, to forget violence?
Victims of violence desire to forget what has happened. This desire propels us to respond through various means, including causing harm to others. We excuse these aggressive actions through ideologies such as capitalism, democracy and so on. In addition, the war-making process may provide a shelter from the world where we have been, and could be, victims again.
Could it be that this attempt to forget is what the Afghan and Iraqi conflicts have been about for the past seven years?
The former administration created an image of the world where we are in control and no longer the victim. Not to fault the administration alone, this was in response to public outcry. Suddenly the terrorism and violence we saw on the nightly news occurred on American soil. The best way to forget the newly discovered vulnerability of 9/11 was to create a world that is controlled by our violence and ideologies. We needed to re-create the world that existed prior to the event of 9/11. The nation united around revenge, and the wars became an American duty.
This is the goal of making war in a reactionary way. The war projects victimhood away from us. As long as the image of war, violence and poverty are happening elsewhere, we can continue to remain cushioned by capitalistic comforts. As Americans we enjoy and entertain ourselves with violence in movies and video games. Even our Bible stories are violent, but when we have an active role as victims of violence, our entertainment is no longer possible.
To make this point, one need only remember that Hollywood postponed Arnold Schwarzenegger’s action film about terrorism, “Collateral Damage,” after Sept. 11. The movie was about a Colombian terrorist plot that successfully killed the wife and child of firefighter Gordon Brewer (played by Schwarzenegger). After this initial scene, the remainder of the movie was a perennial Schwarzenegger classic. He goes to South America pursuing those responsible. In the end, his family is justified through violence.
At the time, what the movie portrayed was too real. The movie could not be accepted amid the emotions of the nation. The nation would not pay to see something it had just really experienced. This is precisely why Slavoj Zizek said that the events of 9/11 embodied the realization of what America had always seen in movies but not experienced. “The question we should have asked ourselves when we stared at the television screens on 11 September is simply: haven’t we already seen this same thing over and over again,” Zizek writes.
But how deep does this desire to control our world through violence permeate our American mindset? How determined are we to forget we are victims?
Perhaps one needs look no further than our military academies. In an unsettling conversation with a West Point graduate, he informed me that in class the students are told, almost directly, that every decade or so America has to involve itself in conflict.
Why must America engage militarily every decade or so? Simply, there is no other way for America to test its military capabilities, its weaponry and to meet the demand of military promotions. As long as we can create war, we have the power to forget what it means to be a victim.
The life of Jesus suggests we act otherwise. The passion narrative was an event that put an end to violence – not an event that endorsed its global reach. Jesus came to save us from violence by allowing extreme violence be done upon him so humanity could be redeemed from the currency of death. The passion occurred because God chose not to use violence to stop the violent sinning of the world.
Rather, the events of the crucifixion and resurrection are the event from which new life emerges from the tomb of violence and death. The passion event is salvation from sacrificing others. Jesus did say, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10b).
In such an affirmation, the Church can once again find the word of the gospel and distinguish it from American ideology. Therein, we can embody more fully the crucified Lord rather than Pilate, who used violent punishment for national security and peace.
Nathan Napier is a former licensed minister in the Church of the Nazarene and a recent graduate of the McAfee School of Theology.
A bi-vocational minister for over 20 years, Napier currently serves as a lay minister at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Cleveland, Tennessee. He holds a Doctor of Ministry from Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology, and his current research focuses on faith, culture and ethnography as pastoral practice.