Cartoons and the Myth of Redemptive Violence

I grew up watching a lot of cartoons. The Transformers held pride of place in my life, while many others that came and went never ceased to be a source of endless fascination to me. They all portrayed what seemed to my credulous little mind the endless battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil.

autobots vs decepticons

Every episode would culminate in a violent showdown between good and evil, with good invariably staving off evil… until the next episode of course. Some (rightly) complain about the quantity or explicit depiction of violence in cartoons, but this is actually only a secondary problem. The problem, in fact, is that these cartoons perpetuate the myth that violence is necessary in dealing with evil.

Walter Wink expounds more on this in his The Powers That Be, having previously shown that what he calls “domination societies” need a myth to justify their constant and systemic use of violence:

The story that the rulers of domination societies told each other and their subordinates is what we today might call the Myth of Redemptive Violence. It enshrines the belief that violence saves, that war brings peace, that might makes right. It is one of the oldest continuously repeated stories in the world.

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 conflicts. 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. (42)

Wink goes on to talk about the archetypal pattern of a good vs. evil cartoon:

The psychodynamics of the TV cartoon or comic book are marvelously simple: children identify with the good guy so that they can think of themselves as good. This enables them to project out onto the bad guy their own repressed anger, violence, rebelliousness, or lust, and then vicariously to enjoy their own evil by watching the bad guy initially prevail. This segment of the show… actually consumes all but the closing minutes, allowing ample time for indulging the violent side of the self. When the good guy finally wins, viewers are then able to reassert control over their own inner tendencies, repress them, and reestablish a sense of goodness without coming to any insight about their own inner evil. The villain’s punishment provides catharsis; one forswears the villain’s ways and heaps condemnation on him in a guilt-free orgy of agression. Salvation is found through identification with the hero. (49)

It’s a small wonder then, that most people mutter something about pacifism not “working.” We have been formed by the system of the world to believe precisely this. And although I’ll probably want to go see the new Transformers movie when it comes out, it’s also a bit surreal to see how it’s played its part in making me hesitant to believe that non-violence is a tenable position. I’ll conclude with Wink’s chilling words on this very point:

The myth of redemptive violence is the simplest, laziest, most exciting, uncomplicated, irrational, and primitive depiction of evil the world has ever known. Furthermore, its orientation toward evil is one into which virtually all modern children (boys especially) are socialized in the process of maturation. (53)

14 responses to “Cartoons and the Myth of Redemptive Violence”

  1. Nice one, though I’m not quite clear about what the alternative is. I know, I know, it’s nonviolence, but how do you confront evil without, in a sense, doing violence to it? I guess this ? is easily diffused by just drawing a distinction between physical violence and other violence (if that distinction can be made).

    Anyway, I still wonder whether pacifism “works”. I don’t think either are tenable solutions (violence or pacifism).

  2. Good musings brother. The alternative, according to Wink, is direct, assertive, nonviolent resistance of evil. This walks a third way, taking the nonviolence of pacifism and the assertiveness of violence, while discarding the passivity/fatalism of the former and the violence of the latter.

    While some would argue that any resistance is violent, I think that this is false. While violence is not exclusively physical, it is still in the physical realm that it really takes place. It is in the non-material realm that we are truly equal, but people who would rather not have this be the case attempt to marshal all of their available physical forces to attempt to perpetuate the myth of inequality.

    At least, that’s what I’m thinking right now…

  3. The idea of countering evil with nonviolence sounds nice, but I honestly don’t see how it could possibly have any real-world applications. It could only work if all societies across the world adopted the policy simultaneously.

  4. Hey Jonathan

    Thanks for the comment, and expressing the sentiment that most of us have. All I say in reply is that this is the response that we would expect, having been so formed by the Myth of Redemptive Violence.

  5. Heya Matt

    By sheer chance, yesterday I came across some good stuff by Augustine that directly relates to some of the topics you’ve been throwing around (domestic and political applications of the commandment not to kill, turning the other cheek, etc.). It looks like you’re pretty buried under books as it is, but if you get the chance, I recommend taking a peek at St. Augustine’s “City of God,” book 1, arguments XXI and XXVI. Even more relevant is his “Epistle 138,” (written to a chap named Marcellinus in the year 412). These writings are particularly interesting given their historical context…the city of Rome had just been sacked. They can both be found in the Loeb Classical Library series put out by Harvard in 1957.

  6. Hey Jonathan

    Thanks for the ongoing comments, I appreciate the discussion.

    It is indeed impossible to have any serious discussion about nonviolence without talking about Augustine, for he has been the great legitimizer of occasional violence for Christians.

    The fallacy that Augustine commits is that he believes that rejecting the use of violence leaves you helpless and passive in the face of evil; even complicit in allowing the evil person to prosper.

    But the even larger problem lies in that Augustine conflates the essential purpose of the Christian with that of the state, failing to recognize that Jesus began a new society—or family, rather—of those who are a part of the coming Kingdom of God.

  7. But honestly, is that really a ‘fallacy’? I think Wink, in this context, is a complete idealist, whereas Augustine simply acknowledges the ugly face of reality. Again, practically I have yet to see how a complete rejection of violence does anything BUT ‘leave you helpless and passive in the face of evil.’ I’ll gladly acknowledge that the notion of a ‘just war’ is abused more often than not (who couldn’t?), but I still believe that there are indeed times when a just war is in fact necessary, such as to halt the advance of Nazi Germany in 1939-45 (interestingly, a conflict in which the Vatican, the originator of the just war doctrine, remained neutral…something I am not altogether proud of).

    Also, if you can spare a moment, I wonder if you could clarify your statement that “the even larger problem lies in that Augustine conflates the essential purpose of the Christian with that of the state, failing to recognize that Jesus began a new society—or family, rather—of those who are a part of the coming Kingdom of God.” I’m just not quite sure exactly what you mean.

    Not trying to be difficult. I simply like these sort of discussions.


  8. Jonathan:

    By all means, be “difficult.” That’s how we actually get into issues that really matter, because this stuff is hugely important.

    There are plenty of ways to assertively respond in nonviolent ways to violence. I believe that we never try most of them because we start out believing that violence will probably be necessary.

    As for your WWII example, I’m still sorting out my thoughts towards it. Wink actually addresses this in his book, giving attention to little-known nonviolent resistance that was taking place during WWII. There were countries where the Nazis found it nearly impossible to get their hands on the Jews because nobody would cooperate with them. And as difficult as it may be, somehow even the Nazis were enemies that we would be called to love.

    As to the statement you asked for clarification on, here’s what I’m trying to say. Augustine was writing in a period of time (post-Constantine) where I believe the Church lost its way to some degree, becoming too closely identified with the state. The goal of the state is essentially to preserve order. The Church, on the other hand, are the “called-out-ones” who are already beginning to participate in the life of the age to come, where violence has been done away with and love rules over all. Their primary allegiance is to the Kingdom of God, which causes them at points to be disruptive to the order of the state, since the state has invariably institutionalized injustice in a myriad of ways. So, the Church’s call to love all is not one and the same as the state’s mandate to preserve order.

    Now, here’s a little of my process: I grew up in a Mennonite context, but later rejected my pacifist heritage, seeing it as an idiotic teaching from a bunch of irrelevant religious-types. Almost against my will, however, I am being drawn inexorably towards nonviolence.

  9. Hey Matt

    Sorry for the delay. Thank you for kindly responding and clarifying your statement.

    Chances are that you know more about Augustine than I do, since presumably you study theology. I wouldn’t be so quick to cast him aside on the basis of being post-Constantine (do that, and you limit yourself to a rather meager selection of Christian writers!). From what little I’ve read of him (the Confessions and books 1-3 of City of God), I don’t see any of the “by this sign, conquer” attitude that Constantine introduced. Furthermore, I think it was primarily Byzantium that was influenced by Constantine (or the Eastern Orthodox church). The Vatican and the Eastern Orthodox have always been at odds with regards to politics, I believe. This has been brought to my attention just last week when Pope Benedict urged Chinese Catholics to refrain from trying to change the condition of the government, and then reprimanded Cardinal Zen for having marched in a pro-democracy protest in Hong Kong.

    I think the Catechism offers a fabulous set of teachings on war and peace, and is worth a read even if you’re not a papist (I’m certainly not). These are found in sections. 2307-2317. In short, the just war doctrine states that: “1) The damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain; 2) all other means of putting an end to it must have been exhausted 3) there must be serious prospects of success; 4) the use of arms must not produce evils graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.” Thus, virtually all wars ever fought have, by this definition, been unjust. However, not all of them. I’d have to suggest to Wink that pacifism would have been an absolutely disastrous and appallingly irresponsible response to the London Blitz.


  10. Hi Jonathan

    I dabble in theology, which is dangerous because it makes me think I understand a whole lot of things that I probably don’t.

    I do not cast aside Augustine on the basis of being post-Constantine. I do, however, cast aside a number of his ideas on the relation of church and state. For instance, he was (as far as I know) the first theologian to justify the use of state violence against heretics (the Donatists). The Inquisition’s lineage and rhetoric are therefore heirs of Augustine’s thinking on violence, church, and state.

    You are quite correct when you say that virtually all wars ever fought have failed to meet the very stringent so-called “just war” criteria. One thing that Wink suggests is that we should call these “violence reduction criteria” and fight for them as hard as possible. I believe that this is something that everyone can agree on, that we should be working towards less violence.

    As to the London Blitz, I honestly can’t say. There may have been opportunities for nonviolent action. Maybe there weren’t. As you say, the vast destructive capabilities of modern warfare certainly make this a difficult thing.

  11. It sounded to me at first that Wink advocated absolute pacifism. But if Wink allows for a “violence reduction criteria” more-or-less akin to the Vatican’s Just War doctrine, then I have no quarrel with the chap.

  12. Wink does advocate a complete renunciation to violence. He also recognizes that reaching this goal will require working with those who disagree with him (such as yourself) to reduce violence as much as possible.

  13. Hey Matt

    I hate the whole “we’ll just have to agree to disagree” resolution to a discussion; it’s so miserably cliche that it practically makes my skin crawl…but in this situation I guess we may just have to, since we’ve effectively come full circle. I think my argument lies more with Mr. Wink himself anyway. Through the glorious medium of the internet, I was able to track down some contact information and an e-mail address for the bugger, and I’ve taken up this discussion with, yes, Wink…if he’s kind enough to respond, that is. And if he doesn’t I won’t begrudge him.

    At any rate, I have in fact been invited to see Transformers this weekend, and as I watch it, Augustine, Constantine, Wink, and indeed Wiebe shall all be on my mind.

  14. Hey Jonathan

    Well, this is certainly the most pleasant conversation I’ve had with someone who disagrees with me. Thanks!

    “Agree to disagree” is often pathetic, but I think that it is valid in this case.

    Enjoy the movie! I will most likely go see it myself as well.

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