(Thank you Walter Wink. Your life and teachings have influenced me profoundly.)
Were you afraid of the dark as a kid? Did you want a light in your bedroom? Did you ask your parents to leave the door open just a crack so light from the hallway could seep in? I remember lying in bed huddled under the blankets. I had this eerie feeling that something would grab my hand if I left it dangling over the edge of the bed.
Fear of the dark is not just for children. Why do you think adults are fascinated with horror movies? We watch with fear and anticipation as threatening figures lurk in the shadows. Afterwards the dark corners of our homes are a bit more menacing. The demons of death and darkness never really leave us because they exist deep in our unconscious.
My personal darkness surfaced recently when I took my grandson to the playground. We were playing on the slide when a bigger kid pushed ahead of him and blocked his way. Gus shouted, “You should cooperate!” I told the child to share the slide. He refused. We finally moved to another part of the park.
Gus wailed in frustration, and I seethed. I wished I could beat the crap out of this little bully. I wanted to drag him kicking and screaming to his mom. There I would lecture her about her child's behavior.
Even now my blood boils when I remember how this bully treated my grandson. After all, I was the adult. I was bigger and stronger. He broke the rules. He should be forced to obey or suffer the consequences.
This scenario is played out day after day, not just on playgrounds but in corporate offices and in battle fields around the world. “Might makes right!” ”Violence Saves!” As a result, the powerful thrive and the powerless suffer. ISIS troops capture, rape, torture and kill innocents. Civil wars demolish cities leaving millions homeless. Violence, fueled by poverty runs rampant in large cities. A case in point: More Americans were killed in Chicago since 2001 [7,916] than were killed in the Iraq [4,904] and the Afghanistan [2,384] conflicts combined.i
Theologian, Walter Wink wrote,
The belief that violence “saves” simply appears to be the nature of things. It's what works. If a god is what you turn to when all else fails, violence certainly functions as a god. What people overlook, is the religious character of violence. It demands from its devotees an absolute obedience-unto-death. The Myth of Redemptive Violence is the real myth of the modern world. It, and not Judaism or Christianity or Islam, is the dominant religion in our society today. It is what organizes our inner world. It rings true at our core whether we consider ourselves religious or not.ii
What an amazing insight. Whether we see ourselves as religious, agnostic or atheist, most of us are captivated by an ancient urge that promotes domination, destruction and death.
In my previous post, “How I'm learning to love Donald Trump,”iii I wrote about a cosmic flow that scientists call emergence.iv Emergence is a process whereby larger entities, patterns, and regularities arise through interactions among smaller or simpler entities that themselves do not exhibit such properties. In this sense, the cosmos flows into the future, generating new forms of existence. The evolution of life and the growth of consciousness are two examples.
As I think of cosmic emergence, I imagine a flow of creativity through which new forms are continuously created. These forms compete with one another. The more adaptive ones survive, while the others pass out of existence.
Humankind has evolved to the point where our technologies now affect the evolution of our planet. This means that we affect the dynamic of emergence even as this processes affects us.
This is where the story about my grandson is relevant. It's one thing for me to imagine smashing a little bully. It's something else when nations, corporations and religious groups actually smash one another in struggles for dominance. It's even worse when this belief that “Violence Saves” is considered normal. Our impulse to violence is largely unconscious, unexamined and denied. Even as we bemoan the decline of religion in our culture, the religion of redemptive violence grips us as deeply, if not more so, than the religion of our elders.
When we participate in worshipping violence and domination, we contribute to emergent dynamics that threaten the existence of our species. These include: global warming; extinction of animal and plant species that maintain the stability of our ecosystem; appearance of new viruses and other unintended genetic adaptations; and new forms of warfare. If humankind passes out of existence, the cosmos will continue to evolve - just without us.
Again I quote Walter Wink:v
The Abrahamic religions (Judaism followed by Christianity and Islam) that emerged during the Axial Agevi challenged the more ancient belief that “Violence Saves.”vii The Bible portrays a good God who creates a good creation. Chaos does not resist order. Good is prior to evil. Neither evil nor violence is part of the creation, but enter later, as a result of the first couple’s sin and the connivance of the serpent (Genesis 3). A basically good reality is thus corrupted by free decisions reached by creatures. In this far more complex and subtle explanation of the origins of things, violence emerges for the first time as a problem requiring solution.
The question facing us today is this: Will we succumb to our fascination with violence and devolve as human beings, or will we consciously engage the Powers, the shadow side of our humanity, in ways suitable to this age?
Walter Wink suggests that engaging the Powers is a three step process:
- Naming the Powers
- Unmasking the Powers
- Engaging the Powersviii
When we name the powers, we bring them to consciousness. We note that we are engaged in some dangerous practices.
When we unmask the powers, we examine these practices to learn how they affect our lives.
This is where we are in our history. The negative affects of violence are all too obvious. People are beginning to explore the global affects of strategies based on violence and domination. The Powers have been named and unmasked.
We now have two options:
- We can deny the existence of the Powers and succumb to the religion of redemptive violence.
- We can make the conscious decision to engage the Powers.
Denial takes three forms:
- We can explicitly embrace the religion of redemptive violence. This tactic is obvious in the presidential campaign of Donald Trump and, to some degree, that of Hillary Clinton. Many global corporations, armies and some religious groups embrace this belief.
- We can externalize the Powers and battle them. This is what happens when we project our shadow side onto our enemies. The enemy is all bad, and we are all good. We never deal with our own shadow.
- We can run from the Powers. This is what happens when we watch horror films and relate to people and situations with defensiveness. The shadow is outside ourselves and lurking in the dark.
Increasingly, denial is not an option. The old comic strip character, Pogo, put it well, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” In this realization we are compelled to engage the powers. This requires humility and courage. We have to acknowledge that the Powers are intrinsic to each of us as individuals and collectively, to our social structures.
The Powers in my own life manifested as an inner voice telling me, “You don't measure up.” “Nobody will love and respect you unless you prove you are more capable than they are.” “Just bury your feelings and proceed; use your intellect to separate yourself from the pain of your emotions.”
This resulted in workaholism and other destructive behaviors. It was not until I experienced family problems; a health crisis and the death of my sister and son, that I could name and engage my personal shadow. Engagement led, not to victory in the traditional sense, but to an acceptance of my own vulnerability.
Through my personal struggles, I received a profound gift. I was able to acknowledge my intrinsic self-worth. I no longer needed to earn love and acceptance through my intellectual achievements. I was OK just being me. I understood what spiritual leaders and psychologists have known for years. The Powers, when engaged, offer us a gift. They allow us to become our authentic selves.
Moral/religious leaders in the past (Jewish prophets, Buddha, Jesus, Muhammed and others) knew this truth in their bones. This is why they emphasized love, humility and compassion as the only way to participate constructively in the emergent flow of the cosmos. They understood that violence, domination and manipulation result in disintegration and death.
Our challenge today is to acknowledge and engage the Powers and not to deny them. For many of us, the religious forms of the past have lost their power. If this is your experience, I challenge you to join with others in new configurations that allow you to engage these destructive aspects of our humanity. If faith communities still function for you, I challenge you to promote movements within your religious structures that engage the Powers of violence and dominance rather than denying them.
This is where my grandson enters once again. He teaches and leads me even as I mentor him. His childlike innocence and naivety inspire me. I am captivated by my love for him. I can't bequeath to him a society sliding into the abyss of violence and despair. Even though it seems hopeless at times, I am compelled to live into a future vision of love and compassion – for his sake and for mine.
ii Theologian & activist Walter Wink, “The Myth of Redemptive Violence”
“The belief that violence “saves” is so successful because it doesn't seem to be mythic in the least. Violence simply appears to be the nature of things. It's what works. It seems inevitable, the last and, often, the first resort in conflict. If a god is what you turn to when all else fails, violence certainly functions as a god. What people overlook, then, is the religious character of violence. It demands from its devotees an absolute obedience-unto- death. ... The Myth of Redemptive Violence is the real myth of the modern world. It, and not Judaism or Christianity or Islam, is the dominant religion in our society today.”
In this mythic tale, first told in ancient Babylon around 1250 BCE, the god, Marduk, kills his mother, Tiamat, who represents chaos. He creates the cosmos from her dismembered body and the human race from blood. Creation is an act of violence. Chaos precedes order. Evil precedes good. Violence is no problem. It's simply a primordial fact. Therefore cosmic order requires the violent suppression of the feminine. This is mirrored in the social order by the subjection of women to men and people to the ruler (or ruling class)
The creation myth in Genesis 1, developed during the Hebrew captivity in Babylon, provides a rebuttal to the Babylonian Myth of Redemptive Violence. It portrays a God who creates a good creation. Chaos does not resist order. Good is prior to evil. Neither evil nor violence is part of the creation, but enter later, in Genesis, as a result of the first couple's sin and the connivance of the serpent. A basically good reality is corrupted by free decisions reach by creatures. In this more complex and subtle explanation of the origins of things, violence emerges for the first time as a problem requiring solution.
iii Check it out on my Blog on Facebook, “Living With Soul,” or on line at
The biblical myth in Genesis 1 is diametrically
opposed to all this (Genesis 1, it should be noted, was developed in
Babylon during the Jewish captivity there as a direct rebuttal to
the Babylonian myth). The Bible portrays a good God who creates a
good creation. Chaos does not resist order. Good is prior to evil.
Neither evil nor violence is part of the creation, but enter later,
as a result of the first couple’s sin and the connivance of the
serpent (Genesis 3). A basically good reality is thus corrupted by
free decisions reached by creatures. In this far more complex and
subtle explanation of the origins of things, violence emerges for
the first time as a problem requiring solution.
vi In the ninth century BCE, events in four regions of the civilized world led to the rise of religious traditions that have endured to the present day--the development of Confucianism and Daoism in China, Hinduism and Buddhism in India, monotheism in Israel, and philosophical rationalism in Greece. See <https://www.britannica.com/list/the-axial-age-5-fast-facts>
vii Myth of Marduk and Tiamat
In this myth, creation is an act of violence. Marduk murders and dismembers Tiamat, and from her cadaver creates the world. As the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur observes (The Symbolism of Evil, Harper Collins 1967), order is established by means of disorder. Chaos (symbolised by Tiamat) is prior to order (represented by Marduk, high god of Babylon). Evil precedes good. The gods themselves are violent.In the Babylonian myth, however, violence is no problem. It is simply a primordial fact. The simplicity of this story commended it widely, and its basic mythic structure spread as far as Syria, Phoenicia, Egypt, Greece, Rome, Germany, Ireland, India, and China. Typically, a male war god residing in the sky fights a decisive battle with a female divine being, usually depicted as a monster or dragon, residing in the sea or abyss (the feminine element). Having vanquished the original enemy by war and murder, the victor fashions a cosmos from the monster’s corpse. Cosmic order requires the violent suppression of the feminine, and is mirrored in the social order by the subjection of women to men and people to ruler.
After the world has been created, the story continues, the gods imprisoned by Marduk for siding with Tiamat complain of the poor meal service. Marduk and his father, Ea, therefore execute one of the captive gods, and from his blood Ea creates human beings to be servants to the gods.
The implications are clear: human beings are created from the blood of a murdered god. Our very origin is violence. Killing is in our genes. Humanity is not the originator of evil, but merely finds evil already present and perpetuates it. Our origins are divine, to be sure, since we are made from a god, but from the blood of an assassinated god.
We are the outcome of deicide.
viii Walter Wink originally published a trilogy: Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament; Unmasking the Powers:The Invisible Forces That Determine Human Existence; Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance In a World of Domination. The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium by Walter Wink, is a condensation of his trilogy and is an easier read.