When it comes to Remembrance Sunday, the Church of England has a big advantage. With its liturgy, its pre-set prayers, maybe a bit of Scout involvement, the old timer in uniform reading today’s Bible lesson, a nice bit of pageantry – you can quite easily get through the entire Sunday without ever actually talking about what we are doing. I, however, do not have the luxury anymore of avoiding it.
The first world war had an enduring impact as it marked a level of violence previously unexperienced. It crushed an optimistic belief that the 20th century would be a time of progress: onwards and upwards. Colossal events of this nature cannot help but be politicised. They are naturally hijacked by one group or another to further one agenda or another. Following the end of WWI, Armistice Day was thought of on very different terms than when compared to today. It was about the Christian valour of British soldiers bringing militarism to a close, dying not in vain, but ushering in a new era free of war. Great derision was always levelled at those who expressed a belief in the futility of the war; the establishment, both church and state, furthered a narrative of sacrifice for a higher purpose. I wonder now, in retrospect, what was the higher purpose of that war. There has been no end to war, the military machine has not been reigned in. In 1930 the parliamentary Peace Committee asked if the name of the 11th November service could be changed to the ‘peace and memorial service’. ‘Unthinkable!’ cried the war office official. ‘We get more recruits for the army in the fortnight after the Armistice ceremony than at any other time of the year.’ Now why is that? There has historically been an undeniable, unspoken even, blurring between the respecting of the dead, nationalism, and the glorification of war, a romantic view of war. We are now asked not to question why people died, but to simply accept that it was worth it, and that when the time comes it will be worth it again. Remembrance Day is used to perpetuate a myth that war is inevitable, however regrettable, and sometimes necessary. Today then, as I stand here wearing my red poppy, I want to call us back to the lofty hopes of those British soldiers returning home after fighting on the Western front. Let these blood red poppies be a reminder not of war’s glory, but of war’s futility. Let us strive to match their efforts, not for war, but to bring about peace, love, and a more just world.
You know things are about to get serious when I start talking about superheroes. Let’s think about Batman for a minute, I promise it is very relevant. Who is Batman? He is a fictional character obviously. He has two identities, as many superheroes do. By day he is the businessman, philanthropist, billionaire, and womaniser, Bruce Wayne. By night, he is the Dark Knight, the caped warrior, bringing vigilante justice to the underbelly of Gotham City. A billionaire who solves his problems with violence; solves his problems by violently oppressing the most down-trodden within society - I wonder if that reminds us of anyone? Another person who in his own way is larger than life, not with big ears, but big hair! Although admittedly, somewhat less cool, and more orange. The character of Batman conforms to a recurring literary theme – The Myth of Redemptive Violence.
This notion of recurring myths, characters, tropes, and images which emerge within history and society over and over, is the Jungian idea emerging forth from our collective unconscious. Jung’s technical term is ‘archetypes’. The Myth of Redemptive Violence is one such ‘archetype’: ideas which just keep coming back again and again. Other examples are the wise old woman, or the hero, or creation, or the devil, the scapegoat, good vs evil, the quest, the magic weapon. And so on… Ideas which emerge independently in disconnected cultures and religions since the dawn of humanity. Because these ideas are somehow in us already – that’s the idea. The Myth of Redemptive Violence is the idea that violence is an efficient way to solve problems, or bring about prosperity. And note: I’m using the word ‘violence’ in broad terms, not simply the inflicting of physical pain on others, but oppressing, or limiting freedom, or limiting movement, or denying rights. This type of violence can often be worse than the physical kind. So, The Myth of Redemptive Violence: this archetypical theory was developed by the theologian, the late Walter Wink. It’s a story the dominant in society tell their subordinates. It enshrines the belief that violence saves, that war brings peace, the might makes right. It’s a narrative structure found all over the place – in the Bible, in cartoons, in computer games, in films. There is a central character, a hero; he suffers, he seems hopelessly doomed, until miraculously the hero breaks free, vanishes the villains, and restores order. It perpetuates an idea of natural chaos, that humanity is incapable of peaceful coexistence, and therefore, order must continuously be imposed from on high: men over women, master over slave, rulers over the people.
It is the divine duty of the dominant to subdue any who would threaten tranquillity. The Myth of Redemptive Violence is the story of order bringing victories over chaos, by whatever violent means necessary. The violent means are justified in the end. So we, look at these fictional heroes: Batman, the Jedi, James Bond, Popeye, and so on, and knowing they are good, they are on the side of the good, we identify with them, which in psychological terms allows us to project our darker selves, our repressed anger, our violence, on the bad guys. And through taking it out on them, we are, as it were, cleansed, or saved. Saved through violence. This happens in fiction as I have said, but it also happens in organised sport, in nationalism, in the media, in militarism. This becomes the lens through which we see the world – we always locate evil not within us, but out there in the other, in the Mexican, or the woman, or the Muslim, and we are affirmed in our own goodness when they are beaten, repressed, driven from our land. They are scapegoated for the wrong in our world, and the god of order is glorified.
This week the Myth of Redemptive Violence, in all its vulgar stupidity, had a very significant victory. Jesus calls us to turn the other cheek, to go the extra mile, to resist evil in the most challenging way of all, by not becoming evil. By not responding to violence with violence, in the broad sense. By not becoming the Dark Knight, or the caped warrior; that is not the way of Jesus. You have heard it said, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, but I say to you, do not resist evil violently. Do not mirror evil. Do not let your opponent dictate the terms of your opposition. Resist evil in non-violent ways. Through dialogue, through discussion, through substantive debate - something we’re seeing very little of at the moment. And so, this morning, we affirm peace. We deny the Myth of Redemptive Violence its ascendancy. We wear our symbolic poppies as the reminders of peace they were meant to be, and we strive after a message of hope. Hope is not idealistic or silly. It is not naive to believe we can bend the arc of history towards justice. Because it’s been done before. And it will be done again.