The Narrative of Holy Violence

May 31, 2011
Cheryl Woelk |

I agree that narrative is a major part of human reality. As Paul Loewen said here, the stories we tell make up our worlds. This can be "our" story which shapes our identity and ties us to God and the faith community. Yet, just as easily, humans seem to be able to adopt stories which justify the evil and sin in our world in which we participate. It's incredible just to what extent things we think of as "fact" are really part of a story in which we pick and choose episodes and events that support our way of seeing the world.

The other night, we learned about the Dominican Republic from our new neighbours. Over a delicious meal that they hosted, we shared stories and listened to their experiences of seven and a half years. One story in particular caught my attention. The story of Colombus' "victory" over the indigenous people, the Tainos.

In one bloody battle, with Columbus' army outnumbered, surrounded on a hill, and no hope left in sight, darkness fell and the army camped for the night. As the story is told, the army spent the night in prayer to the Virgin Mercedes (the Virgin Mary, but as a goddess of war). They planted a cross outside their camp, praying for mercy from the inevitable victors.

In the morning, the army awoke to discover the Taino people were gone. They gave thanks to the Virgin Mercedes for protection, then sought out the indigenous people and killed them. According to the narrative, God granted them protection and victory.

More recently, our neighbour explained, anthropologists have compared the Taino culture to that of similar indigenous cultures in the region, and discovered an interesting custom in war. Apparently, the Taino people and similar indigenous groups would likely not fight to death in war. Instead, when it became clear who the victor was, both sides would each go home, the battle having ended.

This would make a very different story than the narrative told today. Columbus' "victory" was, in fact, breaking the rules to kill people and take over their land. How, then, can their prayer and faith be understood?

Empire is a frightening thing and well described in Revelation, according to Kraybill's book which I've mentioned before. The part that frightens me is the power of the narrative told by the empire… and how easy it is to adopt it for myself. The power of story is there, for good and for not.

Can I begin to listen behind the stories to who might be excluded, oppressed, and rejected because of the stories told? What narratives of "holy violence" fill the world today, told as fact, and taken on by whole groups of people without a second thought?

As people who claim the story of Jesus and identify ourselves through the narrative of his victory over death and violence, may we remember, tell, and live our story, and by living it in the midst of societies other narratives, begin to transform our realities in the way of God's kingdom.

Author Name: 
Cheryl Woelk
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