A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 26, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  1 Corinthans 1:10-18
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I went to see Starstruck Theatre’s[1] production of “Peter Pan” on Thursday.  It was an impressive performance – which is exactly what I’ve come to expect from Starstruck.  And as I watched the show, I thought to myself, “Yeah, this is going into my sermon on Sunday.”

I suspect you know the basic storyline of “Peter Pan.”  If you don’t, I apologize in advance for this spoiler.  Peter is a boy who refuses to grow up and, thanks to fairy dust, is able to fly.  He has a tendency to fly from Never-Neverland to England to peep into windows to see how children with real mothers live.  One day, he meets the Darling children, teaches them to fly, and takes them to Never-Neverland, where they join the Lost Boys and Wendy Darling ends up pretending to be their mother.

Now, on the Island of Never-Neverland, there are some fairies (including Tinkerbell), the Lost Boys (led by Peter Pan), the pirates (led by Captain Hook), and an Indian tribe (led by Tiger Lily).  The Lost Boys, the Pirates, and the Indians are all in conflict with each other, but the Lost Boys and the Indians form an alliance when Peter saves Tiger Lily and Tiger Lily saves Peter.  Now the conflict is two-sided, and the Pirates end up defeating the Indians and then capturing the boys (including the Darlings).  There’s a battle and, thanks to the intervention of the crocodile, Hook jumps overboard and Peter throws some dynamite after him (at least in this production).

Ka-boom.  The end.

Except it’s not, because the Darlings go home with many of the Lost Boys who are adopted into the Darling family.  Peter, who refused to grow up, doesn’t go.  And he doesn’t come to visit Wendy, like he had promised.  So Wendy grows up and Peter doesn’t.  Then Peter finally does return and teaches Wendy’s daughter to fly, and we assume to go off to Never-Neverland where the story of the conflict between the Lost Boys, the Indians, and the Pirates will be repeated.

The psychology of the story is pretty messed up.  There seem to be Oedipal issues, issues about growing up, etc.  Those aren’t the issues that interest me today.  What interested me is how the story utilizes the myth of redemptive violence without even thinking about it.

What is the myth of redemptive violence?  I’m glad you asked.  The myth of redemptive violence is, quite simply, the belief that violence saves.  According to Walter Wink, the “Myth of Redemptive Violence is the real myth of the modern world.  It, and not Judaism or Christianity or Islam, is the dominant religion in our society today.”[2]

I would argue that the myth of redemptive accumulation is the other dominant religion in our society.  This is the myth that the accumulation of stuff, especially wealth, saves.  But certainly the two are the primary, operative myths in our culture.

Look at how pervasive the myth of redemptive violence is.  How is the conflict in Never-Neverland solved?  Violence.  Except the solution is only temporary.  That’s what make the myth of redemptive violence so enticing.  In the short term, violence might actually protect, so it appears to save.  But it doesn’t.  Peter Pan and Wendy’s daughter return Never-Neverland and the cycle of violence is repeated.

The Popeye cartoons are based solely on the myth of redemptive violence.  “In a typical segment, Bluto abducts a screaming and kicking Olive Oyl, Popeye’s girlfriend.  When Popeye attempts to rescue her, the massive Bluto beats his diminutive opponent to a pulp, while Olive Oyl helplessly wrings her hands.  At the last moment, as our hero oozes to the floor, and Bluto is trying, in effect, to rape Olive Oyl, a can of spinach pops from Popeye’s pocket and spills into his mouth.  Transformed by this gracious infusion of power, he easily demolishes the villain and rescues his beloved.  The format never varies.  Neither party ever gains any insight or learns from these encounters.  They never sit down and discuss their differences.  Repeated defeats do not teach Bluto to honour Olive Oyl’s humanity, and repeated pummellings do not teach Popeye to swallow his spinach before the fight.”[3]

It is not only in children’s literature that the myth of redemptive violence holds sway.  Consider how easily our nation goes to war.  But the invasion of Granada didn’t save us from communism.  The invasion of Panama didn’t save us from the ravages of drug addiction.  The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan haven’t ended terrorism.

Think about the pressure President Obama was under to invade Syria.  And in many ways he is still under that pressure.  Why?  Because people believe that violence will save us.

It is important to point out that the myth of redemptive violence isn’t new.  Walter Wink has traced it back to the Babylonian creation stories that are over 3,200 years old.[4]  There in the stories of Apsu, Tiamat, and Marduk, the myth of redemptive violence is holding sway.  And in Jesus’ time, the myth was equally a part of the Roman psyche.

The myth of redemptive violence is so strong that it has led Christianity to misinterpret the meaning of the crucifixion.  It is a common human instinct to try to make meaning out of senseless events.  A child develops a cancer and dies.  It is a meaningless event.  It doesn’t mean anything; it’s just tragic.  The actions of the child and the child’s parents, family, and friends leading up to the death mean something, but the death itself is meaningless.

A rabbi is executed by the state.  The death itself doesn’t mean anything; it’s just tragic.  The actions leading up to the death by the rabbi, the government, the rabbi’s friends, and society at large (and, I would add, the actions of God before and after the death) have meaning, but the execution itself is meaningless.  Unless you look at the death through the myth of redemptive violence.  The myth of redemptive violence says that violence can save us, so violence of the execution must have salvific meaning.  Surely the rabbi’s blood being spilt saves us, the myth says.

So, by the third century, we get Origen explaining the meaning of the rabbi’s death – it’s a ransom payment to Satan to free humanity from the bondage of inherited sin.[5]  And by the 11th century, we get Anselm explaining the meaning of the rabbi’s death – it’s the payment of a debt to God owed by people for their sinfulness.[6]  So it’s a punishment meted out upon a substitute that brings us into rightrelationship with God – penal substitutionary atonement.

But let’s go back to the early church.  In the gospel of Mark – the first of the gospels to be written, probably some 30 years after the crucifixion – Jesus speaks of the cross and ties it to the meaning of discipleship:  “If any want to be my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34).

Think for a moment what the cross meant for those who were listening to Jesus and for those who were hearing Mark’s gospel.  “Ched Myers puts it this way: ‘The cross in Mark’s day was neither religious icon nor metaphor for personal anguish or humility.  It had only one meaning:  that terrible form of capital punishment reserved by imperial Rome for political dissenters.’  Myers goes on: ‘The cross was a common sight in the revolutionary Palestine of Mark’s time; in this recruiting call, the disciple is invited to reckon with the consequences facing those who dare to challenge the hegemony [the domination and control] of imperial Rome.’

“With this ominous invitation, the cost of discipleship got much, much bigger.  Embracing Jesus means embracing that cross.  Mark doesn’t say it, but I suspect that after these words, the crowds around Jesus got smaller.”[7]

Paul takes up the theme of the cross in his first letter to the church at Corinth, in the passage we heard today:  “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18).  Taking up the cross and following Jesus not only entails great cost, it is also viewed by the world as an utterly foolish thing to do.  Yet it is where the power of God lies.

Think for a moment about Martin Luther King, Jr.  He was a man who understood the falsehood of the myth of redemptive violence.  Violence was not going to and is not going to save our nation from the sin of racism.  So, as a disciple of Jesus, he took up is cross and dared to challenge the hegemony of racism nonviolently.  Utter foolishness.  Except it worked.  We made great progress, until racist thought that they could save racism by killing King.  But violence doesn’t save, and anti-racism work continues.

“If I’m honest with myself – perhaps if we are all honest with ourselves – there are ways in which we, each in our own way, resist the foolishness of the cross.  The cross, Paul says, seems like foolishness to the part of us that is attached to the world, the part of us that is perishing.  The cross is God’s foolishness and is wiser than our wisdom.  The cross is God’s weakness and is stronger than our strength.  Yet to the part of us that [has been indoctrinated] with the assumptions and values of our culture, the cross doesn’t make sense.  Rarely do we choose to be foolish or weak.

“Will Willimon has asked some good questions about this foolishness of the cross.  What kind of sense does it make to worship a God who, instead of rescuing us out of trouble, rescues us by entering into the trouble with us?  A God who, instead of helping us to avoid pain, heals us from our pain by entering the depths of our pain with us?  A God who, instead of fixing things for us, addresses them by becoming weak with us in our weakness?

“But this is the [foolish power] of the cross.  All of us know pain and grief and disappointment in our lives.  Our human wisdom wants a God who will heal us and make us feel better.  The foolishness of the cross is a God who enters into our pain and bears our pain with us.  To the part of us that is human and perishing, this is incomprehensible and we want something more.  But to the part of us that is [human and] being saved, it is the very power of God.

“And even more foolishly, this very same God expects us to do the same with each other: to enter into each other’s pain, to bear each other’s burdens and those of the world around us.  To the world, that is an utterly foolish way to live, but to those who embrace the cross, who take up their cross and follow Jesus, and who are ready to lose their lives to save their lives, it is the only way to live.  It is the power of God within us.

“Each of us bears the responsibility, daily, of taking the cross more and more upon our selves, losing ourselves and finding ourselves in the process.

“If we want to take Jesus seriously, if we want to go deeper in our discipleship, we must follow in the way of God’s [foolish power.]  That’s where God calls us to be.

“As Frederick Buechner writes: ‘In terms of human wisdom, Jesus was a perfect fool.  And if you think you can follow him without making something like the same kind of fool of yourself, you are laboring not under the cross, but a delusion.’”[8]


[1] Starstruck is a community children’s theatre in Fremont.  http://www.starstrucktheatre.org

[2] Walter Wink, “Facing the Myth of Redemptive Violence,” Ekklesia, http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/content/cpt/article_060823wink.shtml (posted 21 May 2012, accessed 22 January 2014).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ransom_theory_of_atonement for much more detail about this.

[6] See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penal_substitution for a bunch more about this.

[7] Joe Roos, “The Foolishness of the Cross,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/foolishness-cross (accessed 19 January 2014).

[8] Ibid.  Yeah, I know it’s a long quote, but when you find something that’s written well and makes the point you want to make, why not just use it.  I did modify it a bit [in brackets] to replace a word so it would be more understandable and to make it echo the sermon title [replacing “foolishness” with “foolish power”].