Seeking alternatives to ‘redemptive violence’

Operation Infinite Justice was the name given to the first days of the United States’ response to the Sept. 11 attacks. The name was rapidly changed to avoid offending Muslims who pointed out “Allah alone is infinitely just.” Yet, it should have been clear even to those of us who are not Muslim this campaign is charged with religious imagery, within a discourse the theologian Walter Wink has referred to as the “myth of redemptive violence.”

How is this myth played out? For President Bush, the world is divided into two camps and “either you’re with us or you’re with the terrorists.” Evil is completely externalized; our enemies hate us not for our destructive actions in the world, but because we stand for freedom.

The enemy is demonized with the constant use of the label, “terrorist.” The label serves not to describe – since the terror of aerial bombardments and repressive regimes with which the United States is allied is not called “terror” in the official pronouncements – but to designate official enemies of the U.S. government. God’s justice is of course freely invoked.

There’s an amazing but predictable symmetry in the official discourse of the U.S. government and of its opponents, symbolically represented by Osama bin Laden. Like Bush, these opponents have divided the world into two camps, have externalized evil and are presumed to be carrying in their back pockets God’s endorsement for their every act.

There are, of course, many ways to be evil. Evil surely includes the cold-blooded killing in a few instants of thousands of people in New York. Surely it also includes 10 years of sanctions against the Iraqi people, which has killed some 5,000 children per month – a cost our leaders have explicitly said is “worth it.” And it includes enforcement of market arrangements that bring utter impoverishment around the world, arrangements we might imagine are “free” and impersonal, but which reflect political choices on behalf of real interests.

Beyond calculating the relative scales of their evil and ours, we should note the convergence of discourse: Both sides embrace the myth that violence is inevitable, that it can bring about justice, that it is in fact redemptive.

As leader of the Colombian Grassroots Women’s Organization (in Spanish, “La Organizacion Femenina Popular”), Yolanda Becerra seeks in her own country to break the myth of redemptive violence. She is a pioneer in the struggle for non-violence and against the daily terrors of life in a militarized state.

To provide some background, Colombia has a dinosaur elite whose interests are defended by the national armed forces and their paramilitary allies. The paramilitaries have a reputation for dismembering their victims with machetes and chainsaws and, together with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia, are responsible for over two-thirds of the 30,000 political assassinations in Colombia over the last 10 years.

Because of the paramilitaries’ increasing prominence, the U.S. State Department finally, this past Sept. 9, included them together with their rivals, the FARC guerillas, on its list of “terrorist organizations.” While the U.S. government has thus officially distanced itself from the paramilitaries, it continues to supply massive aid to the closely-allied Colombian military.

I first heard about Yolanda Becerra and the work of the OFP this past summer, while I was volunteering in Colombia with Christian Peacemaker Teams. In Colombia, those who refuse to ally themselves with any of the armed parties are at great danger from all of them, and especially from the paramilitaries. CPT has a project accompanying villagers who wish to opt out of the dirty war. The CPTers foreign passports provided us, and the fisherfolk whom we accompanied, a certain security – but they saw three of their neighbors hacked to death last December, and their continuing fear is palpable.

In contrast to CPT workers, the Colombians in the OFP do not have their passports to protect them. Although Becerra and her colleagues receive frequent death threats, they have continued to speak out clearly and forcefully against war and violence. Fear is a daily reality for them, but they strive consciously to “socialize” their fear, to discuss it openly and to use it as
motivation to support each other and serve the community.

Their slogan, “Hagamosle el amor al miedo” (“Let’s make love to fear”) is playfully erotic, but also a strategy for social change. They organize to provide training, medical services and shelter for women and victims of domestic abuse and displacement by armed groups. As the OFP women work in their communities, they have directly felt and seen the relationship between war and violence against women and children.

As Americans contemplate life in a security state, with a public discourse more than ever dominated by the myth of redemptive violence, we each need to envision a non-violent future and make that alternative vision the animating force of our daily lives.

Becerra’s rich experience in organizing within a countervision of non-violence and mutual aid is a great resource. Hosted this week by the Colombia Support Group of Minnesota, Becerra will be speaking in a free public lecture at the Westminster Presbyterian Church (Nicollet Ave. and South 12th St., Minneapolis) on Friday night at 6:30 p.m. For information on Becerra’s visit and speech, call 612-276-0788 x10.


Pierre Gingerich is an ESL graduate student. He welcomes comments at [email protected]. Send letters to the editor to [email protected]