Overcoming Violence? Watching Gran Torino and No Country for Old Men with St. Bonaventure, Derrida and Kierkegaard.


He who speaks of the twentieth century as the century of wolves still thinks too innocently.

            Peter Sloterdijk, Rage and Time.

            The question mark is casting doubt on overcoming. I do not doubt violence. There is really nothing to doubt about violence. To put it sharply, I do not think that violence is something that can fully be overcome and if it is to be overcome, I do not think that Kierkegaard can provide us with the necessary tools. In what follows, I want to follow the trajectory of where this question mark may lead.

I

            We visit the monuments chiseled from its steps. We inhabit the spaces carved from its movements. It has provided us with the all the comforts we enjoy as it continues to amplify our desires for more.

            We walk through its museums, marvel at the idols it has erected. We even pay tribute to the memories of death it has birthed in us.

            It has etched us, affected us with its effects. It has become efficient in disguising the work it does. Advancing it effaces its own traces only to repeat more of the same.

            We are caught in the snare of its economy. It manufactures its own resistance just to display the evidence that it is, of course, democratic.

            It is the foundation of our world and its cultures. From its source we cultivate our values, practices, customs and meanings. It is the edifice upon which we grow our institutions and upon whose walls we frame words and phrases such as “Love your enemy”, “Blessed are the meek” and “Turn the other cheek.”

            It has established its settlements, safeguarded its power and profits and now are we to believe that what has been so firmly entrenched within our history and psyche can be overcome with two or three pinches a Kierkegaard and a little dash of the messianic?

            What new sensibility will allow us to continue to live under its legacy, while claiming that we are no longer its heirs? Do we continue to live within the home, within the oikos that Father and Mother Violence have so tastefully decorated with their exploits and campaigns, thinking that playing “Give peace a chance” will absolve their crimes?

            The word ethos can mean dwelling place. It is the place we are accustomed to. It is the place where our customs are repeated. To put it sharply, once again, violence is our ethos. It is where we dwell so comfortably. Not simply because we may engage in acts of brutality and violence, but because we remain unaware of how the life we lead is the fruit of an ideology that has been persistent in its impropriety. How will this lineage be overcome.

II

            How does one intend to overcome violence other than through an injustice for the sake justice.  How would we be able to measure the intent, act and desire of such a move? To overcome violence, must we not be as Derrida argues, “ unjust out of a concern for justice.” (AF, 63) How can this overcoming of violence guard itself against yet another instituting violence? In other words, how do you put to death the very thing you oppose without becoming stained by it? What keeps the other from making itself violent? I do not think it is as simple as saying, “Love is all you need” or “Learn to reconcile your differences” These beautiful words have reduced the singular and irreplaceable to ash, not given an archive, except as a distant memory.

            How can a return to the religious selfhood espoused by Kierkegaard overcome violence when what is held as sacred is already tied and tethered to the violent? How can the resources to combat violence come from within religion when most religions at their origin are birthed from a sanctified violence?

            Animal and human sacrifice, the wrath of God, rituals of purification, consecration and restoration all show how the shedding of blood was somehow an act of religious faith.

            The relationship between the sacred and violence has been explored in detail by Rene Girard and Georges Bataille. Walter Burkert expresses it nicely when he writes, “ sacrificial killing is the basic experience of the sacred”. Faith and Blood seem to go well together even as Ave Maria’s are chanted.

            The best example of the link between faith and blood is given by Walter Benjamin in his troubling 1921 essay, “The Critique of Violence”. There Benjamin embraces a divine violence to bring about a new order to things. This divine violence accepts sacrifice. It brings about expiation and is paradoxically lethal without shedding blood. Benjamin believes in the liberating function of divine violence that would challenge everyday mythical violence. Again, how violent means bring about hold ends remains problematic.

            When God spared Isaac’s life from the hands of his father, an innocent ram was slaughtered in his place. The price again was blood. St. Paul continues in this tradition when he claims that without the shedding of blood, there is no redemption.

III

            The Franciscan theologian St. Bonaventure carries on this tradition by mixing love and suffering. Bonaventure sees the crucified as the site where love and suffering are united.  I have difficulty accepting this theology of the cross for the same reason I would have accepting a theology of the electric chair. It takes a symbol of murder and transforms it into a call for martyrdom, such that, the person filled with the spirit of the Lord should be willing to offer their life for the sake of Christ, because he offered it for the world. In Bonaventure’s words, “There is no other path than through the burning love of the Crucified” (ITN, 3, V. 295) Though Elvis might agree with the burning love, I have difficulty with this history of violence posing under the sign of ultimate love.

            The crucifix cannot be a symbol of love for the one who claimed to be the messiah when it was the embodiment of Roman punishment. I can find no doctrine of ecstasy here, even though Bonaventure recommends the ecstasy of the crucifix to be the way to peace. He writes,  “Let us, then die and enter into darkness….with Christ crucified let us pass of out this world to the Father, so that when the Father is to shown to us, we may say with Philip, ‘It is enough for us’” (ITN, 7, 6 (V, 313)

            Bonaventure claims that to pass beyond, to be in mystical transit, can only be attained through Christ in his death on the cross. It seems that the only thing that cries out on the cross, is not, the self-diffusive love of God, but the great brutality of humanity that delights in such lurid spectacles. The crucifix as a symbol of violence becomes for Bonaventure the ultimate sign of agapic love.

            The Coen Brother’s film No Country for Old Men shows us what is wrong with such reversals. The film illustrates the plight of Vietnam Vet Llewelyn Moss who  finds two million dollars at the scene of a drug deal massacre. Moss a down and out cowboy hunting antelope in the desert finds himself acting against his morals as he takes the money and runs. He is pursued by a Kantian trained hitman, Anton Chigurh who like the sweetness of his last name, does not waver from his principles. Chigurh likes to kill his victims with a cattle gun attached to a tank of compressed air. After viewing the film, one soon has the sickening  realization that Chigurgh is perhaps the only ethical character in the film. He can at least be trusted to keep his promises. Unlike the old Sheriff, he does not waver from his principles and carries out his duty without exception. He shows us that violence is unstoppable and when we compromise our principles we will have become  stained by the very thing we pretend to have overcome.

            There is nothing wrong in claiming that love is the highest form of the good. What is problematic, I think, is claiming that the created world is loved into being only through the suffering an death of Jesus on the cross. As if to say, the others who were crucified that month do not really count for much and that Jesus is the only path to salvation.

            This becoming-cruciform in love, elevates suffering and death while side-stepping the resurrection and ascension. I do not see who an image of suffering can become a source of healing  or how it can bring about peace, which for Bonaventure means a perfect concordance between all things.

            As the Franciscan scholar Ilia Delio argues, “By exhorting Christians to imitate and conform themselves to the crucified humanity of Christ, Bonaventure helps redirect human desire to its proper end, to the God who is peace.” (CL, 148) This mystical peace is not a practical peace. It cannot, I think, lead to perpetual peace. Delio writes, “By becoming crucified with the Crucified, the violence within us is overcome and we can be drawn by the mimetic desire into the silent mystery of God where the fire of divine love envelops us in peace.” (CL, 150)

            There is too much here to analyze within this short space. As a first step however, I think we need to eliminate this symbol of Roman capital punishment, of ultimate submission and humiliation, precisely for the sake of a better love. For many reasons, I cannot accept this mystical babble about crucifixions leading to peace. To do so, would be to adopt the totalitarian position that maintains, “Yes of course, crucifixions produce peace, just look at all the peaceful bodies that hang so beautifully.”

            I am in favour of an incarnational spirituality that promises, “All flesh will be saved” but I am opposed to flesh being saved through its reconciliation on the cross. Along these lines, I reject Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s claim that “only the suffering God can help” The obvious response would be that a God who suffers cannot help anyone.

            We find ourselves in a world of strange logic, where suffering is beneficial, where being forsaken builds up faith and where being weak is a really a blessing in disguise. Achieving union with the crucified is not, “the necessary element that can transform our world” as Delio claims. It is rather, the very source that keeps violence so firmly entrenched.

            Simply put, it is bad theology to keep talking about the virtues of the crucifix and raise it to a mystical level if Christ did indeed resurrect. If he did resurrect as the empty tomb shows then the crucifix needs to be dismantled. Yet, we have theologians like Delio arguing, “ Do we truly desire a world of peace, a world of love…a world where God can be at home and we are at home in God? Then we must become crucified with the Crucified.” (CL, 172)

            I think we have failed to consider what we have inherited from the wood of this Roman cross.  We  stand at its cross-roads, much like Oedipus who has to enact the trauma that met him on the road.

            To overcome violence do we not require another kind of sovereignty or what Derrida in Rogues calls, “a force that is stronger than all the other forces in the worlds.” (R, 100)

            How do we overcome violence without lapsing into the Heideggerian pathos of “only a god can save us” In what sense would we be saved, held safe and sound, assured securely of our salvation? Would Kierkegaard’s version of Christianity allow for this being unscathed, untouched, intact and immune from all violence, as if we would have our own private angel to stay the hand of god desiring blood.

IV

            Kierkegaard would argue that the root of violence is located in our turn away from God as we attempt to control the process of creation. Violence happens when we block God’s call to move toward a new creation and when our desires are not consonant with God’s desires. Violence happens due to a feeling of lack. We have not attained the goal of our existence. We do not have a proper relationality that allows us to rest in the power that sustains us.

            For Kierkegaard, the overcoming of violence happens through the works of love. This means, “ to love the neighbour, to love the whole human race, all people, even the enemy, and not to make exceptions, neither of preference nor of aversion” (WL, 19) Neighbour love which is essentially love of the ugly, replaces the preferential love of the friend. In friendship, Kierkegaard argues “the I is intoxicated in the other “I” which unites two selves into “a new selfish self” (WL 56)

            Through love of neighbour the self steps beyond itself to embrace the ugly. Kierkegaard asks, “ And what is the ugly It is the neighbour whom we shall love…the neighbour is the unlovable object, is not anything to offer to inclination and passion.” (WL 373) A good counterpoint to Kierkegaard’s view comes from Ivan in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Ivan says, “ I could never understand how one can love one’s neighbours…one can love one’s neighbours in the abstract, but at close quarters it is almost impossible.”

            A recent film that highlights the difficulties involved in loving the neighbour is Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino. The film tells the story of Walt Kowalski, a Korean war Veteran, cheap beer drinker and racist. Walt’s life changes when his young neighbour Thao is forced to join a gang. His initiation is to steal Walt’s 1972 mint condition Gran Torino. Thao fails and is greater by Walt’s M-1 assault rifle. The attempted car jacking sets up the rest of the film. Walt saves Thao and his sister Sue from the gangs by engaging in acts of violence. Walt’s Dirty Harry interventions come with a price. Seeking redemption and a final showdown with the gang who renews its assaults on Thao, Walt ventures into their territory, pretends to pull out a gun and is swiftly cut down in a hail of bullets while he stretches out his hands in a Jesus Christ pose. The gang members are arrested for murder and Walt has finally overcome violence by offering himself up as a sacrifice. In this very Christian film, the solution to violence is a turn to the crucifixion.

            To overcome means to render helpless, to surmount a difficult or obstacle. To overcome means to conquer and to prevail over. How exactly will violence be overcome. How will it be rendered helpless. How can it be conquered when its seems that we are already reconciled with it ? What is there to overcome when we have become no longer opposed.

             Overcoming violence? To be sure, once we stop travelling on these Greco-Roman roads. Can the kingdom of this day come?

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About Mark Zlomislic

Philosopher. Writer. Artist. My Studio/Gallery Inscape Fine Art is located in Cambridge, Ontario. Viewing by Appointment Only. Please email: zlomislic@hotmail.com.
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