Our notion of American exceptionalism and of fighting our enemies to protect our freedom, democracy, and capitalism is a modern version of the myth of redemptive violence. It’s as old as history but its keeps continually evolving into different forms. In Jesus’ day, it took the form of Pax Romana (the peace of Rome)—a peace brutally enforced by Roman legions.
In the fourth century, when Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, it became Christendom fighting against all kinds internal enemies, including Jews and those considered to be heretics, and external enemies such as Islam. This was followed by independent European nations dividing the world between themselves and fighting each other for their colonial empires. That struggle was at the root of the two world wars in the twentieth century. This was followed by the Cold War struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union.
A key part of the myth of redemptive violence is dividing the world between the “good guys” and the “bad guys.” This is Star Wars stuff. Pastor Greg Boyd writes, “To be willing to kill, soldiers must believe they are the good guys who are righteously fighting the bad guys—to defend God, country, truth, justice, equality, freedom, or whatever.”[i]
National and military leaders go to great lengths to perpetuate this myth because they simply can’t sustain an effective war unless soldiers and ordinary citizens remain confident that our cause is just. We need to believe that something more than chance has decided which side we’re on. Many in my generation lost our confidence in that myth during the Vietnam War; we no longer believed what we were being told about that war, why we were fighting there, or the justice of our cause.
Let’s return to the issue that Khrushchev raised about following Jesus’ example of loving our enemies. Christians followed Jesus’ example of loving their enemies (sometimes as great cost) for the first three hundred years. That changed when the Roman general Constantine came to power after winning a decisive battle in a civil war in which he had symbols of the cross placed on his weapons of war. (The incongruence is stunning!).
The wheels had been set in motion for Christianity to become the state religion of the Roman Empire and the enemies of Rome were now assumed to be the enemies of God. Popular American Christianity is another version of this. I’ll expand on this in my next blog post.
[i] Gregory Boyd, The Myth of a Christian Religion (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 93.