[Ryan] Horror Cinema and “the Myth of Redemptive Violence”

The newest installment in the Rambo saga has a rather cynical salvo. The Vietnam vet escorts a group of optimistic missionaries onto the war-torn shores of Burma. They come bearing medical supplies, and hope. But no weapons.

“It’s never right to take a life,” their mouthpiece pontificates in an effete half-whisper. Stallone was sure to cast as frail a face as possible in the role, lest we miss the symbolism: ambivalence to bloodshed is milk-and-water.

The narrative unfolds as you’d expect. The naïve humanitarians are taken by a Burmese militia with nauseating sexual proclivities and absolutely no reticence toward butchery. Only Rambo can save them now and, of course, it will be violent.

Stallone’s penchant for unsubtlety is impressive, as always. I may laugh about it, but I can’t hold it against him; I’m not quite sure how to write conflicts whose resolution does not involve a “good guy with a gun,” either. My own limitations came most vividly to the foreground as my writing partner and I tried, in vain, to conclude our most recent screenplay.

On a remote planet (sparsely populated, of course), a young woman is captured by a rogue outfit of cultists and brought to their compound to be added to the communal harem. She escapes, however, and tries to warn the other settlers about the impending threat. Inadvertently, of course, she leads them to settlement, the men are killed, the women and children are taken. She proves remarkably adaptable, and manages to instigate an riotous escape attempt, which is subdued only by a razor thin margin. Now confined to the mess hall, chained together like cattle, surrounded by Sicarian brutes – what? They do what?

The obvious conclusion would be a kind of violent uprising. The would-be harem of captives lash out and slay their captors – an explosive finale, drenched in the blood of belligerent patriarchs is certainly the conclusion I’m most immediately inclined to dream up. The problem, of course, is that I hail from Baptistic circles, the earliest of whom were mostly pacifists.

It’s not a coincidence that quite a few of them were also Calvinists. It’s largely on these terms that it was engrained in our consciousness that violence is something with which we oughtn’t trust ourselves.

The corruption wrought by the Fall, their story went, is so thoroughgoing that even self-defense affords an opportunity for the devil or us to make mockery of God’s justice. Throughout the Old Testament, of course, we’d see God sanctioning the use of lethal force in specific situations, all of which regulated so mightily as to render the act of ending a life too much trouble for the average person. Per Mosaic Law, killing, for revenge or passion, was shrouded in bureaucracy and most of the time it was more expedient to let God cut your enemy down sooner or later.

Few Baptists are pacifists anymore, and few of them are Calvinists. Both declines are largely post-war phenomenon. After Auschwitz it’s hard to look a person in the eye and tell her to succumb to her oppressors. It’s hard to say to anyone that we oughtn’t take up arms to stop a monolith from mowing down the weakest among us. More yet, after Hiroshima who can say straight-faced that God decreed, from the beginning of time, that the streams of history would converge such that little could be done to prevent society’s undoing except to destroy a whole city of people with faces and dreams and daughters. We’re ‘realists’ now, and the measure of a good theological proposition, so they say, is its coherence within a narrative that says that the world is cruel and we all have to fortify ourselves lest it bloody us or our children.

But the Baptists of old had a strange refrain: The scriptures were ‘their eyes’, they might say say, taking Calvin’s famous turn-of-phrase, and turning up the heat. They were not simply the lenses through which we’d see the world but the eyes through which we read the past and present and by which we might become, hopefully, the hands through which the Good Lord wrote the future. And the world they knew was bloody. They weren’t the impartial observers of ‘systemic oppression’, they were the systemically oppressed. By crown and clergy, they were slaughtered and driven from their land, made refugees and subjected to the vilest of slanders. They were Hiroshima, and the European Jewry. And they were predestinarian, and they were pacifists.

Even when they weren’t committed to absolute nonviolence, they kept a strange commitment to non-aggression. One might be found ‘propitiating’, substituting oneself in the place of a would-be victim – or oppressor. Or purchasing the life of an intruder in their homes. Those who come to rob them would, perhaps, meet no resistance but rather be greeted warmly and surrendered to, offered their choice of whatever they can find, or the combination to the safe, and told the gospel as they rummaged the house. The Baptists of old were strange fellows.

And they might die in the process, or be brutalized. And their families, too. But their reference point, evidently, was the cross, and it deformed them, pulled their limbs out of joint and rent their bodies and their souls such that they were unsettlingly peaceful. So they’d face death or trauma like a cross to bear, shaking and sweating, but submissive, because their life wasn’t their own, it was God’s, and now, it was their assailant’s, in a way, but only by “substitution.” Their murderers’ life would become theirs, now, bought with blood – not their own, but His, inasmuch as a blood-bought life that bore His name went under so their murderer could stay. All forgiveness is “substitutionary,” all benevolence. And all nonviolence, too.

Today, Baptists are famous for their stubborn adherence to what is called ‘Substitutionary Atonement’ when other Protestants have largely left it behind. And perhaps this is ironic. We’ve embraced the sharp end of the sword, and not the handle, so often in our history, traded our own lives for that of our oppressor, that the “substitution” of Jesus’s life for ours – of His “faithfulness” for our “sinfulness” – is embedded deeply in our consciousness. Very probably the reason that contemporary Baptists have held on to “substitutionary atonement” when others have left it behind is because the earliest Baptists lived it out in a cavernous devotion to pacifism. But almost none of us are pacifistic anymore, or even vaguely committed to “nonviolence” in any capacity. Most of us have no qualms echo the popular maxim that “the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

Nevertheless, even if today very few of us are quite as extreme as the radical Baptists we descended from, we share the same “grand narrative” with them – of the Good Lord’s good creation, of the Fall, the cross, and the resurrection, and our role between the empty tomb and the Lord’s return. And so long as that’s our “grand narrative,” we plenty well ought to be disturbed by smaller narratives that suggest that the only solution to the problem of evil is to point a “good guy with a gun” in its direction and pull the the trigger.

One theologian whom I only half-recommend has written extensively about what he calls “the myth of redemptive violence.” Reading the article, you’ll find he takes the notion in directions I would never advise, but his central point is salient: The stories that we tell, as a community, tend to echo and recur, taking new forms, and henceforth shaping the rest of the stories we concoct or conjure up. One of the through-lines that undergirds our stories is the notion that violence, properly applied, has redemptive qualities. That is, whatever shrapnel it produces in the short run, it is ultimately permissible in the long run, because it “gets the job done.” Society, we generally agree, would be ungovernable if violence were forsaken altogether.

It’s nearly impossible to find anyone who would seriously dispute these claims – and it should be. Because almost all of that is true. So long as there is more than one person in the universe – and so long as those people who exist have different wills and agendas, intend to live in groups instead of solitary enclaves – the threat of “force” looms large. There has to be some way of doing things that the whole community is bound to. There have to be some boundaries, like “Don’t steal people’s property,” and “Don’t kill people on a whim,” and those boundaries have to be policed.

Even if we never employ a “Death Penalty” of any sort, the existence of “boundaries” and the necessity of policing them means that violence of some sort – whether a left hook to the chin or a police baton to the ribs – will be almost inevitable. There’s no arguing with that.

But it’s entirely too easy to lazily fall back on the “inevitability” of violence, and in so doing reinforce the notion that violence, of some degree, is an acceptable solution to most problems. So the problem is a lack of creativity. It’s a foregone conclusion, most of the time, that our stories will converge in an epic showdown between Good and Evil – the assumption hanging in the background that there is no “overcoming evil with good” (Rom. 12:21), but only by landing more punches.

The result, of course, is not that we produce a community of “serial murderers,” but that we produce communities of people who often lack the patience to pursue reconciliation rather than retribution. Or compromise rather than victory. Or, at the policy level, diplomacy rather than warfare. The way we conclude our stories has consequences.

It shapes our instincts. Not just our “storytelling” instincts; All of them. The problem, of course, is not that there is no such thing as “redemptive violence.” There is. The problem is that falling back on stories of “redemptive violence” slowly strip-mines us of our ability to envision “redemptive nonviolence” as a genuine option.

So those of us who make films, perhaps especially horror films, probably owe it to our audiences to tell them better stories. Falling back, time and again, on the notion that violence is the only viable option in the face of horrendous evil is not simply bad storytelling. It’s bad theology.

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