The Temptation of Redemptive Violence
Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.
Two weeks ago we explored the story of Jesus transfigured on the mountain. If you recall, that message centered on the idea of cruciform discipleship. Today’s gospel story is the scene that unfolds immediately prior to the ascent up the mountain, making today’s message something of a prequel.
The scene begins following Jesus’ question to the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” To which Peter replied, “You are the Messiah.”
Today’s gospel scene makes a pretty bold and startling claim about what being the Messiah actually means. Namely, it involves great suffering, rejection, and death. Resurrection, yes; but by the time that bit of good news gets to Peter’s ears, he has already stopped listening. And chances are, we have stopped listening also.
Peter rebukes Jesus for talking about suffering, rejection, and death; just as he will do again a few verses later on the mountain in the presence of the transfigured Christ. Peter suggests Jesus has it all wrong because that’s not how the story is supposed to go. Suffering? Rejection? Death? No, no, and no. Their ancestors already been there and done that for far too long.
The Messiah was to usher in a new age of peace and prosperity for God’s chosen people; an age of peace and prosperity that would come about once they have had the chance to engage in all the nasty, violent, angry, evil stuff against their enemies. The people who had endured generations of great suffering, rejection, and death were ready to dish it out in kind, teaching their enemies a lesson. Peace would follow, but only after more violence. It would only be fair and just.
It was an approach to peace-making modeled efficiently by millennia of occupiers; most recently, Rome. Caesar was Lord. Caesar promised and brought the good news of peace to the nations; albeit, a peace produced by the blade of a sword. All who threatened the peace were killed. This system had worked incredibly well for the Romans as their boundaries spread into multiple continents. The Hebrew people were simply awaiting their turn, when their Lord would come, lead them into battle, and vanquish all their enemies so they could finally enjoy the blood-stained peace for which they had fought.
There’s something tempting about the notion of repaying violence with violence. Something exciting, invigorating, alluring, and even instinctive. It’s a very human thing. Repaying an insult with an insult. Passing and cutting off a driver who cut you off. Wishing some degree of bad fortune on “those people.” Killing people who kill people. Repaying violence with violence…the examples are everywhere.
Last week I went to the theater to watch a movie and most of the movie previews preceding the show were about a man who had something awful happen to him so he sets off to kill everyone who could have had a hand in it. There are so many movies that tell this same story because it is a fool-proof formula for profit. People are willing to pay to watch someone use violence to rectify the world and rid it of the violent people. It speaks to a very human part of our nature. And it is tempting to see this as an appropriate way to engage with the world.
If there had been theaters instead of gladiator games for entertainment in these times, Peter would have wanted a Bruce Willis-type Messiah. After all Die Hard is a much better title for a movie about a Savior than Suffer, Be Rejected, and Die.
The desire to use violence to rid the world of violence is a human thing. Which is why Jesus rebukes Peter’s rebuke with the statement, "Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Revenge is a human thing; not a divine thing. The myth of redemptive violence (the idea that violence is an appropriate response to violence) is a human thing; not a divine thing.
Notice, that Jesus refers to Peter as “Satan.” The first reference to Satan in Mark’s gospel was when Jesus went into the wilderness following his baptism, where he was tempted by Satan for 40 days and 40 nights. Satan is temptation personified. And the only things that tempt us are the things we crave but know that we should avoid.
We confess Jesus was fully divine and fully human. In this exchange with Peter, Jesus’ full human-ness is on display. Peter tells him he should walk down the path of victory through violence. Jesus is tempted; otherwise he would have not have called Peter the name of temptation personified. For an instant he peers into that probable future of might, conquest, and revenge. But then he turns his back on the tempter. Jesus looks at his disciples and fully commits himself to the path that will lead to victory through suffering, rejection, and death. Not only does he commit to follow this path, but he instructs any who would follow him to pick up their cross and walk the same path.
There is much that needs to be said about the myth of redemptive violence – the idea that violence can be used as an instrument of good. I cannot adequately unpack this profound idea in a few minutes here, but I would like to point to the words of theologian Walter Wink, who writes,
"The myth of redemptive violence is the simplest, laziest, most exciting, uncomplicated, irrational, and primitive depiction of evil the world has ever known…. By making violence pleasurable, fascinating and entertaining, the Powers are able to delude people into compliance with a system that is cheating them of their very lives."*
Violence begets violence; and violent actions are just as deadly for the perpetuator as the victim.
Jesus’ instruction to pick up crosses and follow him are not just prohibitions against violence. It is more an invitation to live a full life that exudes the divine force of peace throughout the world.
Consider Jesus’ call as an invitation for you to notice when the tempting tunes of violence and revenge sing their siren songs. Notice when the voice in your head turns violent, insisting that either you yourself or those people over there deserve to be punished. Boldly proclaim the same mantra Jesus used when he was tempted, “Get behind me, Satan.”
* Walter Wink. The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium