Brixton team leader Josh Grear speaks about the complicated idea of redemptive violence found in the Old Testament, and how this continues to play out with young people today as he carries out detached youth work on the Angell Town estate. 

In recent weeks, Paul, Lucy and I have been discussing the myth of redemptive violence. I have picked up Walter Wink’s fantastic book Engaging the Powers and started reading about Wink’s ideas around the Babylonian religion of violence.

It has been helpful and interesting having these conversations with the team, as I have begun to notice particular interactions and behaviours of the young people. Though I have witnessed and seen a wide range of violent interactions, ranging from verbal domination all the way through to physical violence, there is one event that I remember that proves to be emblematic of the role that violence plays both in society, but also the minds of the young people on the estate.

The incident revolved around a football, that one young person claimed was theirs, two others claimed he had stolen it from a local youth centre. The event came to a head with the two boys refusing to return the ball to the young man in question. When he finally admitted that it wasn’t his ball, one of the young men said “you lied to me, so I should bang you in your face, but I won’t”.

This seemingly insignificant event, that is not nearly as aggressive as other moments I have seen, is incredibly important in revealing the normative function of violence to mediate the interactions of these young men. Although there was no physical violence in the end, it is the statement that he should use violence to redeem the wrong done to him.

Recently something has struck me about the ideal of redemptive violence and revenge as the normative response to a perceived wrong. It seems to me, to be rooted in a desire for empathy, a desire for the other to understand your hurt, your pain, how you have been wronged. It seems, that the wronged party wants the other person to feel their pain by inflicting it upon them. But does so through an absence of relationship and mutual encounter.

Redemptive violence teaches ‘justice’ by inflicting the same or similar wrong upon the person who wronged you. It is a means of projecting your own hurt onto the person who hurt you, it is a desire for empathy with an absence of vulnerability or relationship. It can, and often does, spiral into a circular conflict of increasingly damaging wrongs done. A never ending cycle of violence. We can see many instances on all levels of cycles of conflict and violence that never cease.

IF redemptive violence is borne out of a desire for empathy then we must turn to explore what empathy is, and why violence can never be a part of it.

Empathy that is open to a mutual encounter of vulnerability. Where people are open to hearing, and experiencing, the wrong, the hurt, the pain, the suffering that they have been involved in. Empathy demands mutual vulnerability, the vulnerability to share your hurt with the person who caused, and the vulnerability to hear and feel the hurt you have caused.

Empathy cannot be a one way relationship, you cannot claim to feel what has not been revealed, and you cannot force someone to feel your hurt, without resorting to redemptive violence.

It seems that I may be stating the obvious, but empathetic relationship is key to the process of healing and reconciliation on an individual and communal level.  Finding the courage and strength to bare all to the other, to the one who we have wronged and been wronged by, to share that hurt and pain, would appear to be an important and fruitful approach to ending cycles of destructive conflict.