MYTHING THE POINT - Gareth Higgins
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For years, the work of Walter Wink has been a guiding star for how I think about the world. Walter was one of the most important thinkers of the twentieth century. And in the twenty-first, if we pay attention, he’ll be one of the most influential. His focus was on the power of myths—the stories we tell with sacred or transcendent meaning—to shape our beliefs and behaviors, and especially how violence and power become the consequences of those stories. He coined the term "the myth of redemptive violence" to describe the belief that we bring order out of chaos through force. In short, if a bad guy gets in your way, just blow him up. Everything will be fine. The act of blowing up the bad guy will actually have a cleansing effect. It will make the world better.
This myth, for Walter, was at the foundation of Western culture. Further, he said, the true religion of America was not Judeo-Christian, but the religion of violence. We might resist acknowledging this, but it’s hiding in plain sight, from the obvious, literal violence surrounding the nation’s founding, to the genocide of indigenous peoples and the murderous torment of the people brought here in chains, to the violence of inequality and a winner-takes-all economy, to the worship of militarism, and the way we do politics by ignoring the legitimate needs of the “other” side, resorting to oppressive insults (or worse) rather than dialogue toward the good of all.
Of course, there’s another side to this story: the vision of a country that would enshrine equality is found in the Declaration of Independence and has continued to evolve. And the role of enlightened religious activism in shaping a better world is everywhere we are willing to see it, from Buddhist detachment into selflessness to Gandhian nonviolence to Dorothy Day and Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Dr King’s prophetic challenge to nationalism, materialism, racism, and militarism. Those are only some of the most obvious, famous names. The truth is that actions for the common good are carried out daily by millions of ordinary people like you me, arising from a commitment to a vision of wholeness for everyone, whether that vision is called “religious” or not.
These days, it’s easy to speak mostly about the ugliness in politics and religion, but I think a better way of looking at it would be to say we seem to be living in a moment of great awakening, in which we can witness and participate in an unprecedented diversity of hopeful creative choices by activists, artists, and citizens, who believe it is our responsibility to live into a world of union, not separation; of mutual support, not selfishness; of gratitude, not aggression. Learning and sharing a better story, making a better world, together.
The myth of redemptive violence is part of what the better story must overcome, exchanging the brutality of denying the humanity of our opponents by killing them for a story in which even the oppressor can be redeemed. Recently, I saw a couple of striking examples of just how easy it is to fall into dehumanizing narratives without noticing it, and of how imagination can be put to the service of healing, well, everything. Two movies, of course: The Shape of Water and Downsizing.
The Shape of Water, about a mute woman and a swamp monster falling in love against the backdrop of the Cold War while her two best friends challenge racism, sexism, and homophobia, dares to believe in magic. The magic of romance between people who see each other’s wounds and love each other because of them, not in spite of them; the magic of friends banding together to help someone unable to help themselves; the magic of the ordinary being interrupted by the choice to resist oppressive institutions; the magic of the human voice—whether spoken from the lips or in sign language. It’s one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen. Spoiler alert: it’s truer to say that it’s one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen, until the last five minutes, when all the imagination put to the service of understanding and honoring the marginalized characters disappears, and the story is reduced to a “good” guy killing a “bad” guy. It’s not even self-defense: the bad guy isn’t posing an imminent lethal threat, and the “good” guy’s actions are more like a combination of revenge and summary execution. And so a beautiful, tender, elegant, humane film ends up supporting the death penalty, without even due process to claim its own justification. “Good” guy gets the girl, “bad” guy dies in the rain, the world is made anew. Everything’s fine.
This is the myth of redemptive violence: when we assert the use of lethal force to bring order out of chaos and pretend that the only consequences of the force are dead bad guys and a clean slate. But we know from experience that violence begets violence until one side stops. Often, one ceasefire is followed rapidly by another, and the backing away from lethal threat will call forth the energy of hope. The societies which have most successfully emerged from conflict have done it through negotiation that seeks to meet the legitimate needs of opponents, not through destroying the other side. But we keep telling stories and acting like blowing stuff up is a solution.
Well, not always. Violence is reducing worldwide, empathy is evolving, women are being empowered, and we know so much about how to heal diseases of the body, mind, and society, and amid all of this, movies like Downsizing are being made. It believes in magic too—the magic that happens when a small group of people realizes that a truly lived life is the one lived toward reconciliation with others, with the ecosystem, even with the thing we call love.
Right now we need a cultural ceasefire, an agreement not to use violence, either literal or in our use of power and language, in seeking the common good. We need stories that will help us rehearse such nonviolence. The Shape of Water is nearly one of those stories. Downsizing definitely is.
I believe that the best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better. If that’s true, then I wonder what might happen if we dedicated ourselves to imagining alternatives to the myth of redemptive violence in how we make and think about movies and television, in how we think about and make politics and community, in how we think and talk about each other. There is a kaleidoscope of choice here. Deciding to arrest rather than kill Alan Rickman at the end of Die Hard, enacting national policies that honor kaleidoscopic diversity rather than racial hierarchies, and speaking well of the neighbor who votes differently are of varying significance. But I have a feeling that the way we tell stories about good guys and bad guys, even in movies as silly as Die Hard, has more to do with how we decide to deal with enemies in the real world than we usually think.
There’s a continuum of how we deal with enemies in the real world, of course. We don’t always just summarily execute them (thank goodness). I just think it could be enormously transformative if we imagined less lethal solutions in the stories we tell, solutions that allow for the possibility of protecting those who are vulnerable while offering something other than the perpetuation of the cycle of violence to those who seek to harm them. This isn’t prudish or puritanical, and I’m not shying away from reality, suggesting that we only tell stories with happy endings or fluffy beginnings. I grew up in a society where the old idea of "an eye for an eye" and the assumption that killing could bring justice were used as the premise for nearly 4,000 murders. Violence only stopped when the people responsible accepted that you cannot build a peaceful society on the torment of your opponents. That path leads to only two options: keep fighting and killing forever or shake the hand of your enemy. Someone always has to go first.
So here’s an invitation and a challenge: this year, each time I have the chance to harm someone in a story, I’m going to try to imagine a less lethal solution.
It could be a story about politics, about religion, about love or anything else that I think matters. It could be as big as real decisions about how to relate to nations I might feel threatened by, or individuals whose behavior leaves me feeling intimidated, or politicians I don’t trust. All these feelings may be legitimate and need to be released in a life-giving way. Because if I’m honest, there’s a part of me that feels good when the bad guy gets killed in the movies. And even though the bad guy in the movies isn’t “real,” my desire to see him destroyed and the catharsis I may feel when it happens, is a form of assassination. If it is true that we can only do the things we imagine doing, then imaginary murder is a premise for the real thing. So even if it’s just imaginary assassination, instead of imagining ways of killing more spectacularly, I’d like to imagine stories that help us all live better.