THE REVENANT and the Myth of Redemptive Violence


by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)

Walter Wink coined the phrase “the myth of redemptive violence” in his 1999 book, The Powers That Be. The idea behind the myth is that the only way one act of violence can be redeemed is through another act of violence. You hit me and I will hit you back twice as hard. Wink explores the origins of violent responses throughout history. He particularly fixates on a specific influential tale. The ancient Babylonians penned a creation myth called Enûma Eliš, named after the opening words of the epic.

The story centers on the rise of the god Marduk and how he created mankind to serve him and the other Mesopotamian gods. Throughout the course of the narrative, one god enacts violence on another god. Then that god responds with an even greater act of violence in retaliation. Eventually, Marduk reigns supreme as no other god is able to defeat him. Much of modern conflict resolution and warfare is conducted with the same methodology. One violent act is met with another until eventually a singular force arises as ruler – at least for a time. If history has proven anything, even the mightiest empires eventually meet their match if violence is their method of rule.

Alejandro Iñárritu’s latest film, The Revenant, explores this theme of redemptive violence and lands with a much-needed conclusion – that the philosophy is unsustainable. Hugh Glass, portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio, is robbed of what he loved the most early on in the film. He survives indescribable circumstances throughout the course of the story, all for a single purpose – to avenge the violence that was enacted on him and the son he loved. His sole motivation is to repay a tooth for a tooth, an eye for an eye. Glass is convinced that redemption will only be found in delivering back the violence that was thrust on him. As the audience, we root for Glass to have that opportunity. It appeals to our sense of justice. But then something shocking happens. Glass gets his chance and decides not to kill his adversary.

The moment is well earned. On his journey for vengeance, Glass meets up with a Native warrior whose family was wiped out by the Sioux. Glass cannot comprehend why this man chooses to search for other members of his tribe rather than seek out those who committed the atrocity. “Revenge is in the Creator’s hands,” the warrior solemnly tells him. Glass echoes the same words after refusing to end the life of the man he’s been searching for the entire film. The moment is jolting as we consider the fact that if anyone has a right to revenge, it’s Hugh Glass. His refusal to join the system that has led to his greatest pain is stirring. We are left to consider his choice and if we would be capable of such strength.

Glass does leave his adversary in the hands of men who will certainly finish the task for him. However, this is fundamentally different than if Glass had chosen to bloody his own hands. The scenario that Glass and his enemy, Fitzgerald, find themselves in – face to face with men who also are pursuing revenge – is inescapable. Fitzgerald will not walk away from the event no matter what happens. The significance of the decision Glass makes is that it won’t be him who holds responsibility.

The difference is subtle but gargantuan in many respects. We know that there will be evil in the world. It cannot be stopped. However, our participation in it is really what’s at stake. As people, as a culture, as a nation, we can choose to respond with greater violence whenever a horrific act is committed against us or we can choose a higher path. Every situation will call for a different approach, but there must be a third way aside from complete victimhood and buying in to this myth of redemptive violence. Ancient texts of wisdom have a great deal to say about how we respond when we’ve been wronged as well as how we are to treat our enemies. Advancing technology and the sophistication of modern evil do not change those timeless truths. The myths we have lived by are unsustainable. We need new stories. We need better stories. We need new myths like The Revenant.