The ancient way of the world is retold and repackaged in many ways. The vigilante stands over the body of the one he has just killed; vindication has reached its end. A boy’s beginning in life is marred by the violent death of his parents; he spends the rest of his life attempting to defeat crime and evil through violence. Nations oppress and are oppressed in turn; many call for resistance with arms, in their minds always fighting valiantly and righteously for their homeland, their cherished ideals, and/or their families. One nation’s terrorist, after all, is a “freedom fighter” to those who agree with him.
This world is enthralled with the myth of redemptive violence: the belief that the way to overcome evil is with the same tools used by evil. Does someone want to attack you? Attack them first. Have you been attacked? Fight back. Have you been wronged? Get revenge. What if they then try to get their revenge? Get revenge again. Redemptive violence is enshrined in many religions and in state ideology around the globe.
In the first century the Romans held the power. The Israelites resented what they perceived as Roman oppression; empowered by their understanding of YHWH’s promise in the prophets, they looked forward to the coming Messiah of David who would roundly defeat those Romans and begin ruling from Jerusalem. They expected the Messiah to reign in righteousness, assuredly, but that righteousness, in their view, was tilted toward that which would lead to Israel’s physical prosperity. In 66 CE many of the Israelites could endure the Romans no longer, seized control of much of Judea and Galilee, and trusted in YHWH’s deliverance. Within five years Jerusalem was a ruin, its Temple destroyed, and untold thousands of Jewish people lay dead. YHWH had not saved them as they had expected. But why?
Forty years earlier Jesus of Nazareth ministered to Israelites in Judea and Galilee proclaiming good news of the coming Kingdom of God (Matthew 4:17, 23). This Kingdom was not based in military victory, plunder, or violence as seen in earthly kingdoms; it was rooted in humility, service, and sacrifice (Matthew 20:25-28). Jesus’ fellow Israelites rejected His view of God’s Kingdom, consigned Him to a Roman cross, and chose the insurrectionist Barabbas instead (Matthew 27:15-44). In so doing Israel sealed its fate: by rejecting the Messiah God would give them over to their desires, and they were humiliated and lost what was most precious to them (Matthew 23:37-24:36).
Israel on its own stood no chance against the full might of Rome, a great power which fully believed in the power of violence as seen in Revelation 13:7. Jesus was crucified on a Roman cross; those who followed Him would also suffer great indignities at the hands of the pagan Romans, and many died as witnesses to Christ, also seen in Revelation 13:7.
If Jesus were just another false Messiah, dead in the tomb like the rest, these stories would be unremarkable. Plenty of people have died at the hands of a superior power even if they felt their cause was just. Just as the empires before her, Rome would also meet its end, as would those who would replace her in turn over the past two millennia. As long as time continues new powers will arise, and old powers will fall. People will keep putting their trust in the sword or the gun in order to find redemption and salvation.
Yet early Christians proclaimed their witness that Jesus was not a failed Messiah. His death was no accident; it was part of God’s plan to redeem mankind (Acts 2:23). Early Christians testified that God raised Jesus from the dead on the third day, and that He ascended to God His Father where He received His Kingdom that would never end (Daniel 7:13-14, Acts 2:14-36, 7:55-56). Jesus’ suffering exemplified on the cross allowed Him to gain victory over sin and death through experiencing all evil and sin could throw at Him; He overcame all such sin, death, evil, and violence in His resurrection, thus taking the sting out of sin and death (Romans 8:1-4, Revelation 5:6-14).
The good news, or Gospel, of the Kingdom of God in Christ overthrew all expectations and changed the world. Jesus showed that the way of suffering is the way of true victory over evil; the hope of the resurrection of the believer defangs the threats of violent forces opposed to Jesus, for whether we live or die, we will return to life and live forever in Jesus (Matthew 10:28, 1 Peter 2:18-25, Revelation 15:2). So it can be that John sees those killed by the Roman power and calls them those who gained the victory over Rome in Revelation 15:2: yes, they died, but their souls are now with God, and they will live forever in the resurrection, and the Roman Emperor could no longer harm them! Within three hundred years the Roman Empire itself was conquered, in a way, by Christ.
Humans are enthralled by the myth of redemptive violence because it satisfies their deep desire for life to be made right for them. Yet for generations both conqueror and conquered, oppressor and oppressed, or terrorist and freedom fighter, have remained imprisoned under sin and death. Trying to overcome evil with evil simply promotes evil; Jesus provides the way forward. In Christ we are to overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21); we will suffer evil from others, but we have been called to carry our cross and follow Jesus (Matthew 10:38). Jesus suffered evil and thus gained the victory over sin and death; if we wish to share in that victory, we must prove willing to suffer evil and do good anyway as well. Let us reject the myth of redemptive violence and embrace our need for redemptive suffering in Christ!
Ethan R. Longhenry