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The Myth of Redemptive Violence: What Christmas Tells Us About the Two Brooklyn Cops


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Mark Gordon - published on 12/23/14 - updated on 06/07/17

The way out is a way pioneered by the Child whose birth we celebrate this week.

The American penchant for violence continues unabated this Advent and Christmas season. Last Saturday, a Baltimore man drove to New York City and executed two policemen, Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, while they sat in their patrol car near a Brooklyn housing project. The killer claimed on social media that he was carrying out the execution to avenge the death of Eric Garner, the Staten Island man who died while being arrested by police last July. Earlier this month, a grand jury cleared the officer who held Garner down while he repeatedly complained, “I can’t breathe.”

In response to the killings, Patrick Lynch, president of the NYPD police union, accused New York Mayor Bill DiBlasio of having “blood on the hands” for his statements, offered in the wake of the grand jury decision, which acknowledged the fears of many African-Americans when confronted by police.

Later, a memo was leaked to the press in which an unnamed police union official seemed to be counseling precaution to officers. “The mayors hands are literally dripping with our blood because of his words, actions and policies and we have, for the first time in a number of years, become a ‘wartime’ police department,” the memo said.

The mimetic logic of violence—in this case in the redemption of Eric Garner’s death by gunning down police officers and whatever violence that might inspire, God forbid—creates a circular momentum that eventually engulfs parties on every side of a dispute, twisting even noble intentions like achieving justice or protecting the community into righteous rationalizations for further injustice and violence.

Many of our contemporary debates originate with and revolve around the myth of redemptive violence. What those locked in this mimetic whirlwind fail to see is that there is a way out that doesn’t require either further bloodshed or servile submission, a way that preserves the moral integrity of the one seeking justice while preserving an avenue for reconciliation, even with an unjust aggressor.

That way out is nonviolence, a way pioneered by the divine Child whose birth we celebrate this week. Nonviolence shouldn’t be confused with absolute pacifism, which holds that physical violence may never be deployed under any circumstances. As Catholics, we have received a body of teaching that prescribes highly restrictive conditions under which individuals and nations may defend themselves using limited recourse to violence. We have also received a conception of government as the guarantor of the common good, which allows the legitimate use of force in the maintenance of public order, again under strict conditions.

Nonviolence isn’t pacifism, but neither is it non-resistance, the supine surrender to evil.  On the contrary, nonviolence is a form of positive, active, creative and persistent resistance to evil. And it is highly effective, even in the modern world. Under Gandhi’s nonviolent leadership, the people of India (and what is now Pakistan) ended a hundred years of British rule. In 1986, a Catholic laywoman, Corazon Aquino, and a Catholic prelate, Jaime Cardinal Sin, played decisive roles in the nonviolent overthrow of the Philippine government. The nonviolent revolutions in East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and the Baltic States brought the Cold War to an end in 1989. And, of course, the American Civil Rights movement under Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., nonviolently brought a hundred years of segregation to a close.

People often ask, “what about Hitler or today’s Islamic terror organizations?” It’s a legitimate question and one even proponents of nonviolence must wrestle with. But consider that Hitler and al-Qaeda and the Islamic State didn’t spring into history out of thin air. They were themselves responses to conditions that might have been very different if nonviolent solutions had been brought to bear earlier.

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