There’s something about a musical that draws me in. I’m not gifted in any way when it comes to the fine arts, so don’t expect to see me headlining any show requiring singing, dancing, or painting. But I enjoy watching talented people do these things.
One of the musicals that I enjoy watching is “West Side Story.” This musical is really a 1950’s version of Shakespeare’s tragedy “Romeo and Juliet.” So if you know one story line, you pretty well know the other as well.
West Side Story is a tale of forbidden love that crosses the boundary between two rival street gangs in New York. There is the Jets, a group of young men from blue-collar backgrounds, and then there are the Sharks, made up of men of Puerto Rican descent. These two groups battle for power, they battle for respect. I believe that this was the first movie ever made where it became acceptable for fights to be settled by entering into a dance competition. And yes, one of the reasons that I enjoy West Side Story is because you often see tough guys pirouetting across the screen and clicking their heels and shouts of “Mambo!” can be understood as a challenge.
So there are two clear groups: the Sharks and the Jets. It is us and them. The white people and the Puerto Ricans. But then one day, Tony, a former Jet and best friend to Riff, the leader of the Jets, falls in love with Maria. Now let’s be honest, how many of us sing “I feel pretty” each morning while brushing our hair to give ourselves a confidence boost? Maria is pretty–pretty much off limits because she is Puerto Rican, and she is the sister of Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks.
As the love between Tony and Maria grows, so too does the division between the Sharks and the Jets. They plan a rumble, a fight in the street, which worries both Tony and Maria because these people are their friends, these people are their families. Just as the rumble begins, Tony runs into the middle of it all to try to stop it. Bernardo and Riff pull out switchblade knives and Tony tries to prevent either of them from getting hurt, but Bernardo kills Riff, Tony’s best friend. In a fit of furry, Tony grabs a knife and kills Bernardo. Tony kills Maria’s brother.
As Tony and Maria plan their escape, the Sharks plan their retaliation. A lie gets back to Tony that Maria has been killed by Chino, the new leader of the Sharks. Tony then faces Chino and is shot as Maria watches.
If this story sounds familiar, even if you have never seen West Side Story, that’s probably because it is a very common story. Turn on the television set on a Saturday morning, and every superhero cartoon is based on this concept. The bad guys do something bad, the good guys come in and do something back to them. The bad guys try to retaliate, but the good guys stop them and all the world is safe again.
This is the story that plays out in politics, war, sporting events, and every bad relationship out there. I’m not just talking about killing, but getting people back in general. There is them and there is us. They do something to us, we do something to them to make it right again. This is what Bible Scholar Walter Wink calls “The Myth of Redemptive Violence.”
A myth is a story that may or may not be true that gives shape to a community and its beliefs. Redemption is a word that should not be unfamiliar to us as Christians. There are usually two definitions given to the word redemption. 1. the action of saving or being saved from sin, error, or evil. And 2. the action of regaining or gaining possession of something in exchange for payment, or clearing a debt. The first, more common understanding of redemption comes out of the traditional second definition.
The second definition fits our actions when we have a gift card from a restaurant. The restaurant pays us back with food in exchange for the gift card and we are even. The restaurant’s debt has been redeemed. Things are made right. So when we as Christians talk about being redeemed, we are saying that God has essentially bought us back and cleared our debt. God has made things right.
The myth of redemptive retaliation says that if someone hurts you, offends you, or even embarrasses you, there is only one way to make things right: you must get them back. It is even biblical: an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth!
The myth of redemptive retaliation just isn’t true. You can’t make things right by hurting someone in an equal way. If someone steals from you, you don’t make things right by stealing back from them. Even if you are even financially, you’ve still lost something. You’ve lost trust. You’ve lost honor. If someone says something bad about you, you don’t make things right by saying something bad about them. If your spouse cheats on you, you don’t make things right by cheating on them. As Tony found out in West Side Story, if someone kills your best friend, you don’t make things right by killing them.
One of Jesus’ friends tried that. When the Roman soldiers showed up with their swords drawn, ready to arrest Jesus, Peter pulls out his sword and cuts off the ear of a soldier. Jesus turns to Peter and tells him, “Put away your sword. For all who live by the sword will die by the sword.”
This could be perceived as a sign of weakness, but that’s not what’s going on. Jesus said he could call down 12 legions of angels to defend him. And that’s what you would expect if you were operating within a system that believed in redemptive violence. But rather than return violence for violence, what does Jesus do?
He heals the soldier. He heals the man who was trying to arrest him.
Real redemption doesn’t come from getting someone back. Real redemption doesn’t come from doing unto others exactly what they did unto you. Real redemption comes through forgiveness.
Recall that some of Jesus’ last words on the cross were words of forgiveness. Here he is, experiencing the worse violence possible, death on a cross. He is publically humiliated, stripped down and bared for all the word to see. And in his last breath, he calls out, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
As people acted violently against Jesus, he forgave them. Not because he was weak and couldn’t do anything about it. No, Jesus was breaking the myth of redemptive violence, ending the cycle of violence.
Yet on that Good Friday, it seemed as if violence, hatred, anger, and sin had one the day. And the day after that. In fact, early on the third day, it seemed as if all hope was lost. In their condition of despair, two women go to Jesus’ tomb, not sure if it is all really over or not. And when they arrive they hear a large rumble and the find an angel sitting upon a stone that has been rolled away from the opening of the tomb. They also find two very scared guards, but they aren’t really a part of the story.
The angel speaks to them in Matthew 28:5-6, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said.”
Just as he said, duh! I believe Jesus actually says three times in Matthew’s Gospel that he had to die and rise again. But this is understandable, we are a slow sort, we humans. We are slow to pick up on the teachings of Jesus, and we are slow to follow his actions. We still think that redemption comes from getting even with someone.
But from the cross to the resurrection, those with eyes to see and ears to hear realize something else altogether. We can only redeem our relationships, we can only be made right with others, if we forgive. And we can only be made right if we are forgiven. The cross is the means by which we are redeemed by God and set right with him. He has bought us, saved us, and made things right. The empty tomb is a sign that true redemption is more powerful than retaliation.
Surely, if anyone had reason to retaliate, it would be God. We have sinned, we have gone our own way. And on the cross God said the only way to make things right is to forgive you, because redemption is more powerful than retaliation.
So on that first Easter Sunday, I’m not surprised that Jesus repeats the words “Don’t be afraid” several times. First of all, who wouldn’t be afraid to see a person walking around after you had seen him killed and buried? And who wouldn’t be afraid after they had disserted their leader and allowed him to be tortured? By all means, Jesus should be justified in taking out his aggression on these “former” disciples of his.
No, he says, “Don’t be afraid.” Redemption is more powerful than retaliation. And redemption comes through forgiveness.
For all the sins we’ve committed, all the shortcomings in our lives, surely God could make us pay. But my friends, the tomb is empty, just like Jesus said it would be. Jesus doesn’t get even by doing back to us what we did to him. He gets even by forgiving us. Redemptive violence, redemptive stealing, redemptive cheating, redemptive whatever, they are all just myths. Real redemption comes through a cross. Real redemption comes from forgiveness.