Thursday, January 13, 2011

Tucson and the myth of redemptive violence

by Carol Bradsen

I write to you from Tucson. Many are in shock and mourning. Flowers and notes are piled outside of the hospital where our congresswoman and several others still need healing and our prayers. Thousands have packed into synagogues and churches over the last few days to find solace. To hear that we are not alone. To attempt to make meaning out of this madness.

Meanwhile, across the nation some are saying this act of violence means we must change our gun laws and tweak our political dialogue. Perhaps. But we fool ourselves if we think this is the answer. Guns and tongues are not the root. We need to go deeper.

Tucson is a flashpoint for our times. The loneliness, fear, anger, violence, and misplaced hope that seemed to have spurred the shooter are buried everywhere. In communities. In government policies. Even our own hearts to some degree, if we have the courage to be honest.

Something is clearly broken. Something needs to change.

If we really wanted to get at the root of things, we’ll need to do something much harder than changing some laws and being nicer; we’ll need to discard redemptive violence.

For far too long we have put our collective hope as a nation in the myth of redemptive violence. Redemptive violence is the idea that good, that peace, that healing and reconciliation can come from violence. If we want to see a different future, we will need to loosen our grasp and untangle ourselves from this deeply rooted lie. And it will not be easy.

“But I would never shoot anyone,” you say. “Jared Loughner acted alone. And he seems mentally ill.” “What does redemptive violence have to do with me? With him?”
Redemptive violence is systemic. It is in the air we breathe. And it will shape us if we do not have a clear vision of our true, God-given nature.

Redemptive violence is a spirit that has woven its way into the very fabric of our nation’s life and cultures. Our wars, weapons, military conflicts, execution chairs, gun laws, even many popular movies, are evidence that we as a nation have bought the lie that good can come from killing.

And this unchallenged, and very old belief, is killing us.

Jesus did not provide an easy path to follow. But he did show us another way. A life-giving vision of domination-free community that is just as radical and needed as in his day of Empire. He said to love our enemies. He had a special fondness for those discarded by the powerful. He said our allegiance was to be to God and to God’s way of love. He said to put the weapons away.

Within this new beloved community of God, the dignity of every human being is respected. We have not done a good job of this in Arizona. Many here call other humans “aliens” and “illegal.” It has been reported that a note found in the alleged shooter’s home said, “Die Bitch.” It is easier to dominate, and eventually, eliminate, another if you think they are not quite human. It is anticipated that the alleged shooter, if found guilty will be given the death penalty and eventually killed by the state of Arizona. Where will the violence end?

Are we brave enough to say, “Stop this.” Can we disentangle ourselves, our livelihoods, our language, and even parts of our liturgy from domination, war, and redemptive violence? It may leave us vulnerable. And in some places, we will be seen as un-American.

Are we creative enough to create spaces in our community where we love across our differences to share a meal, stop an injustice, build a home, really listen to one another, and lament instead of plan retaliation? It may leave us uncomfortable.

Are we faithful enough to live counter-cultural lives when the gospel demands it? Are we willing to let go of all violence once and for all as an option, even if it seems “just” or “needed.” It may leave us unpopular.

But this is the path of life. And joy. And hope. And God knows we need it.

The African-American theologian, Howard Thurman once wrote that God’s way will create, “a friendly world of friendly folk beneath a friendly sky.”

May it be so. And may Christians and the church have the courage to really live into this vision and bring it to reality, with God’s help.

* Carol Bradsen, MDiv '05 is a cofounder of the Restoration Project community in Tucson, Arizona, an ecumenical community dedicated to hospitality, playful spirituality, simple and sustainable living, and peaceful, prophetic action. (


  1. Very well said! Blessings on your Restoration ministry

  2. You give us much to think about. This morning, our corporate support group (Hospice workers) came to conclusions that support yours. The changes need to be deeply personal, profoundly prophetic and for our children's sakes systemic.
    Jack M.

  3. Carol Bradsen was my teacher from our earliest meetings in my very first class in seminary together. She has articulated here what I and others have only hinted at and once again she has taught me well. Thank you Carol for your prophetic witness from the heart of the violence.

  4. Beautifully said, that you!

  5. I appreciate the challenge that violence cannot lead to healing, peace (salvation!). Until we unpack our atonement theologies, many in the Christian tradition will continue to worship violence by insisting that Jesus' brutal execution was divinely ordained and redemptive. If we attribute violence to God and celebrate it (drowning the Egyptian army, demanding the willingness to sacrifice Issac, requiring the slaughter of Jesus to redeem humanity, etc.), then how can we ever hope to be less violent that the One in whose image we are created. When we let our God be one that does't delight in violence, maybe we will find ourselves being a little less violent as well.