Rev. Robert H. Tucker
Sermons on the Web

Into the Sunset:
The American Myth of Redemptive Violence

Part of the continuing conversation on the faith journey
with the members and friends of
First Congregational Church of Houston


the Reverend Robert H. Tucker
July 6, 1997

The Bible is, in parts, a very violent book, especially the Old Testament. One of the most potent arguments against the verbal inspiration of the Scriptures, in my mind, is the bloodthirsty commands put in the mouth of God. But, the Bible understood as the evolving human understanding of the creative force of the universe from a God of violence and war to a God of compassion and love makes the early passages understandable.

By the time we get to Jesus, a very different view of violence is found. We are told to love our enemies and to forgive them. We are told to be peacemakers. One incident in which Jesus condemns violence is while he is being arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Jesus was still speaking, when Judas the betrayer came up. He was one of the twelve disciples, and a large mob armed with swords and clubs was with him. They had been sent by the chief priests and the nation's leaders. Judas had told them ahead of time, "Arrest the man I greet with a kiss."
Judas walked right up to Jesus and said, "Hello , teacher." Then Judas kissed him.
Jesus replied, "My friend, why are you here?"
The men grabbed Jesus and arrested him. One of Jesus' followers pulled out a sword. He stuck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear.
But Jesus told him, "Put your sword away. Anyone who lives by fighting will die by fighting. Don't you know that I could ask my Father, and right away he would send me more than twelve armies of angels? But then, how could the words of scripture come true, which say that this must happen?"
Jesus said to the mob, "Why do you come with swords and clubs to arrest me like a criminal? Day after day I sat and taught in the temple, and you didn't arrest me. But all this happened, so that what the prophets wrote would come true."
All of Jesus' disciples left him and ran away.
Matthew 26:47-56 (CEV)

Anyone who lives by fighting will die by fighting (who lives by the sword will die by the sword). Today, I want to explore with you the issue of violence in our national life, and the Christian response to it.

Each year the Fourth of July causes me to pull out my large dogeared college reference book, Documents of American History
1 and reread the Declaration of Independence. Three things always strike me.

First, I find the beginning two paragraphs of the document truly inspirational, and therein are those famous words:

We hold these truths to be selfevident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

Next, I am always startled by how radically dangerous that Declaration is to any established order. For example, what do these words convey to today's militias who see the U.S. government as the enemy?

That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its power in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safely andHappiness."

Finally, I am always humbled by what these men of privilege and substancewere willing to do in the name of freedom: to place their names on a document which was so dangerous to each of them personally:

And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the Protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

That was not an idle pledge since, if the British had won the war, people like Samuel Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson would certainly have lost their fortunes, most likely their lives, and be obscure footnotes in history. After reading these words, I then pause and wonder if I would have signed this document knowing the probable consequences of failure.

Thomas Jefferson, the primary (but not the only) drafter of the Declaration of Independence, died on the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration (4 July 1826 and just a few hours earlier on that same day as did John Adams, his erstwhile political enemy). The last decade of Thomas Jefferson's life was not a happy time, for financial reverses brought him to bankruptcy. Even more, he became quite depressed as he viewed the sad state of the American nation.

The American public, also, has a fairly dismal view of the Republic today.

Daniel Yankelovich, chairman and founder of the public opinion research firm carrying his name, gave a keynote address at the conference, "Religion and the American Family Debate: Deeper Understandings, New Directions," held at the University of Chicago (10 September 1996). His paper is an incisive look into the American psyche, worth reading and rereading. At one point, Yankelovich writes:

The depth of public disaffection with the present imbalance is profound. In the United States, public distress about the state of our social morality has reached nearly universal proportions: 87 percent of the public fear that something is fundamentally wrong with America's moral condition (up from 76 percent a year ago). In general a widespread feeling of moral decline has sharply expanded within the public over the last two years, regardless, of gender, age, race or geographical area.

And he adds:

I share the public's conviction.

The cause of this sense of moral decline is worth exploring, and Yankelovich is worth reading. But, it is in another direction from which I, as a Christian, offer a critique of American life. I do so through the media of movies and television.

Hollywood's movies and television programs are often referred to as bubble gum entertainment, that is, their product is seen as a trivial aspect of our lives and diversionary to real life. Some strongly disagree with this view and work at effecting change in what is presented to the public. One such group is the American Family Association which monthly lists situations and dialogue in TV programs which have a strong sexual and violent base. Another example of an attempt to effect programming is the Southern Baptist Convention boycotting Disney enterprises. These Christian groups want a society in which the violent and the sexual is not so persuasively prevalent in our media. Although the two groups just mentioned are Christian, many others in our society who would like to see a change.

Personally, I find that more disturbing than the violent and sexual imagery that flashes before our eyes is the underlying mythology of our media: its effect on the way we Americans understand the world and on the way we live out our lives. Frankly, I find it highly antiChristian.

I first speak of mythology. That may be a strange concept to occupants of the twentieth century with a scientific world view. But, just because we have discarded the old Greek and Roman myths and just because the old biblical myths of a Garden of Eden and a snake no longer occupy our imaginations, it does not mean that we have discarded myth.3 A myth is an uncritically accepted story that tells us how the world works, what is the source of evil and the means of redemption, and what is deeply meaningful to human life.4 Myth is the uncritically accepted story of how things 'work.'

I believe we find this unChristian myth embedded in the Western and its successors on the screen and TV. Even deeper than the Western as escape literature, Westerns provide us with a specific mythologythe myth of redemptive violence.

The Western is thoroughly American and deeply rooted in our history. James Fenimore Cooper's novels of frontier adventure known as the Leatherstocking Tales feature Hawkeye, the Westerner who negotiated the wilderness of upstate New York. He was supplanted by the 19th century figures of Westerners Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett. Then later in the century, we had Wild Bill Hickok, General George A. Custer, Jesse James, Doc Holiday and Billy the Kid. So pervasive are these stories that there is an immediate recognition by everyone here of who these individuals are.

With this centurylong history in mind, it is not too strange that the first movie of any complexity was the 1903 "The Great Train Robbery." One person estimated that Westerns make up more than a quarter of all the movies produced since.

Why are Westerns so popular? Of course, a large part of the reason is that the Western serves as escape literature. One person wrote:

Americans love Westerns because we think of ourselves not as city folks leading tame and mundane lives, but as rugged and daring men and women packing up and moving out onto the frontier, adventurers settling and taming the wilderness. The city corrupts and weakens our spirits. The wide open spaces of the frontier, on the other hand, give us the elbow room we need, as well as a place to start over, to be reborn or redeemed. In Westerns we never had to deal with all the messy constraints and bureaucracy of civilization. Here was a place were the police never needed to read anyone their Miranda rights, where defendants never got off on a technicality, where killersnot juriesgot hung. In Westerns one often didn't have to worry about the law at all. The circuit judge wasn't due in town for another six months or the marshal was dead or in the pay of corrupt ranchers. If there was any real problem, you needed to solve it yourselfusually by strapping on your sixgun and walking out into the noonday sun.5

Westerns have supplanted the Biblical and Christian myth of redemptive suffering with that of redemptive violence. No longer is evil destroyed by Jesus who submits to his own death, but redemption takes place in a burst of destructive violence against others.

Westerns present us with a common theme:

Think of movie "High Noon" with Gary Cooper. With the fearful community unable to defend itself, Gary Cooper kills the killers, and then, although wounded, disdainfully drops his sheriff's badge into the dust just before he rides off into the sunset. Or think of "Shane" with Alan Ladd. Seeking to leave violence behind him, Shane rides into a valley in which a war between a rancher and the settlers is about to erupt. Reluctantly, Shane puts on his gun, wipes out the evil men, and then, wounded, rides off into the sunset.

That `Western' theme of redemptive violence pervades our other popular movies and television programs as wellextending into foreign affairs and our explorations of the universe. What half a million American soldiers could not do in Vietnam, Rambo did all alone. Or consider "Star Trek." Its creator described it this way: "The Enterprise IS a cosmic `Mary Worth,' meddling her way across the galaxy to spread truth, justice, and the American Way to the far corners of the universe." The crew of Enterprise acts as a galactic redeemer in episode after episode often after a burst of violence against the Romulans (similar to the Vulcans in ability and technological development but are "highly militaristic, aggressive by nature, ruthless in warfare, and do not take captives") and the Klingons who are even worse though less intelligent.

Or, to see how the Western myth of redemptive violence is transferred into modern urban life, we have the movie "Death Wish." The story of Death Wish opens with Paul Kersey and his wife vacationing in Hawaii. Vacation over, they return to New York and get caught in irritating stopandgo traffic and miserable winter weather. The ugliness of nature is reflected in the brutal murder of Kersey's wife and the brutal rape of his daughterinlaw. His inquirers at the police station finally end in a statement that the killers many never be apprehended.

Bitbybit, Kersey begins to take action, eventually roaming the streets at night with a gun, inviting the attention of hoodlums whom he begins to kill. He becomes a vigilante. Crime statistics take a nose dive, and there is an enormous outpouring of sympathy from the public. On his eleventh killing, Kersey is wounded, identified by the police, and then is invited by the police to leave town. The movie closes with Paul Kersey arriving at O'Hare International Airport. There four Chicago toughs harass a woman. Helping the woman pick up her parcels, Kersey responds to the obscene gesture from the retreating figures by aiming his trigger finger at them with a gleam in his eye. Shane has arrived in yet another desperate, lawless community that needs redemptive violence.

Such popular movies and TV programs have been called bubble gum, lacking significance and serious intent, devoid of deep meaning, pure diversion. I don't believe that is the case. On the surface, that is the story line. But underlying the story is the pervasive American myth of redemptive violence.

No wonder Westerns were so popular for the two decades after World War II. They provided a context for the ordering of our livesdomestically and externally.

The rigidity of the boundaries separating the saloon girls (even with hearts of gold) and the schoolmarms, the gunslingers and sheriffs, cowboys and Indians easily kept sharp borders between the genders and races at home and friends and foes abroad. Borders always had to be defended with force; only violence kept chaos at bay. Only Wyatt Earp in Dodge City or the cavalry's charge could maintain public order. The United States was the world's marshal defending democracy in the world, not depending on otherslike the United Nationsto contain the "demonic force" of communism. Violence had worked against the Apaches and Comanches, and General Westmoreland, Robert McManara and others convinced us that it would work in Latin America and Southeast Asia.

It was not so strange that the new President John F. Kennedy would, in 1950, take as his theme: the New Frontier.

Much has happened to buffet the mythology of the Western: race riots at home, extensive and deliberate lying by the government in the Pentagon Papers, the inability of power to prevail in Vietnam, feminism, and Native American activists. We discovered that there were problems with the world's marshal. We found out that our cause wasn't so true or pure or our history as unblemished. as we thought. By 1990 "Dances with Wolves" and in 1993 with "Unforgiven,"both Academy Award winnersthe cavalry and become the bad guys, and the marshal was a villain.

But. it is when we turn to the Gospels, that we get the strongest critique of this myth of redemptive violence.

The Parables of the Good Samaritan and the Pharisee and tax collector, for example, ridicule the dividing lines drawn between friend and foe, saint and sinner. In the parables of the unforgiving debtor and the prodigal son, it is mercynot a sixgunthat's called for.

When violence does show up in the gospels, it has none of that redemptive power attributed to it in Westerns. Instead it is a brutal weapon of oppression and injustice that crushes the weak and the powerless. Then, at the climax, twelve legions of angels are not called in for an OK corral shootout in the garden, but it is the hero who is hung on a tree between two thieves.

The parables of Jesus undermine our the view of redemptive violence. More to the point of the Gospel is the poem by Edwin Markham:

1 Henry Steele Commager, Documents of American History, AppletronCenturyCrofts, New York, 1949, pp.100-103.

2 Daniel Yankelovich. "Trends in American Cultural Values." Criterion, Autumn 1996, p. 5.

3 I call this the myth of mythlessness.

4 A"myth " is an uncritically accepted story that provides a model to interpret current experience, disclosing the meaning of the self, the community, and the universe." Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence, The American Monomyth, 2nd ed. Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1988, p. 208

5 The book by Wills is published by Simon & Schuster, 1997. The quotations are from Patrick McCormick, "Things aren't so great at the OK Corral." U.S. Catholic, June 1997, pp. 41-42.

6 Jewett, p. 6.


Commager, Henry Steele. Documents of American History. New York: AppletonCenturyCrofts, 1949. [P]

Greenberg, Paul. "The Fourth of July is the American Idea." Houston Chronicle, 4 July 1996.

Jewett, Robert and Lawrence, John Shelton. The American Monomyth, 2nd ed. Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1988. [STM E 169.12 J48]

McCormick, Patrick. "Things aren't so great at the OK Corral." U.S. Catholic, June 1997, pp. 4043.

Yankelovich, Daniel. "Trends in American Cultural Values." Criterion, Autumn 1996, pp. 29.

©Robert H. Tucker
6 July 1997


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