With a huge boost from his Bill Moyers interviews, Joseph Campbell became a celebrity in the 1980s, a New Age guru with his insights into the religious history of the world. Folks would cherry pick the ideas that suited them best, do what they had already chosen to do and cite his expertise as a justification.

          That expertise was real. From 1959 to 1968, Campbell’s four-volume The Masks of God devoted more than 2,200 pages to tracking the origin, development and demise of the belief systems that have attracted adherents.

          The first three volumes deal with Primitive, Oriental and Occidental religions. The fourth one introduced the notion of Creative Mythology, centering on the Western development of the concept of romantic love during the Middle Ages.

          By the start of the fourth volume, it was apparent that all previous religions had also experienced creative evolutions.

          An obvious example of this developmental process is the fact that the concept of original sin was not a tenet of Judaism in antiquity – and still isn’t. The idea of original sin was created by Bishop Augustine of Hippo in North America sometime around 400 A.D.

          (Campbell famously sang his own version of “That Old Time Religion” with Moyers: “Let us worship Aphrodite./She’s beautiful and flighty/and she never wears a nightie/and that’s good enough for me.”)

          The knights, ladies and quests of Medieval romances contain the germ for the redemptive violence that dominates our era. Dragons must be slain, bad knights vanquished, order restored. But, a Zoroastrian warfare between the forces of good and evil has devolved from quests of Cosmic import to an personal level.

          Road rage exemplifies this condition. Or, the case in July where a 63-year-old man in Florida told a young man that he was sitting in his reserved seat – only to have the younger guy  attack him, knock him to the floor and then beat him while he was prone.

          Don’t tread on ME, I reckon.

          I have not been able to track down my first introduction to the idea of redemptive violence. It was at least 35-40 years ago. I thought it came from theologian Matthew Fox, but I have yet to find the reference.

          Whoever clued me in cited western movies as the best examples for redemptive violence. But, that was before Charles Bronson’s five Death Wish films simplified the very profitable template for the genre.

          We see some regular guy going about his daily routine. What’s not rosy already is coming up roses. THEN, heinous villains attack his loved ones – the more brutally the better – and he finds that the only justice achievable involves his vigilante revenge against the perps.

          And, women are given their chance to exact violent vengeance, too, from the notorious I Spit on Your Grave in 1978 through Jodie Foster’s The Brave One in 2007.

          The Punisher movies (three so far) are based on a Marvel comic book hero. The proliferation of movies based on the Marvel and DC comics “universes” adds a dash of unreality to the violence to further desensitize us.

          The fascination with the lawlessness of gangsters escapes me. The popularity of gangsta rap among young White guys while I lived in the Texas Panhandle confused me until I realized that the misogyny and violence was a common bridge.

          The U.S. finished the first six months of this year in dubious fashion. As documented by Stefanie Dazio and Larry Fenn of the Associated Press:

          “From Jan. 1 to June 30, the nation endured 28 mass killings, all but one of which involved guns. The death toll rose just about every week, a constant cycle of violence and grief.

          “Six months. 181 days. 28 mass killings. 140 victims. One country.”

          Assessing motives for such carnage risks providing a quasi-justification. But, we can be sure that someone thought he was being/had been disrespected, harmed in such a way that the only answer was violent retaliation.

          A sampling of movie titles or clips touted on my YouTube menu this year include:

          •  Five men take advantage of this poor girl, thinking that she’ll leave them alive

          • They unknowingly tortured Ireland’s most feared special forces (soldier)

          • When an engineer excels in revenge

          • A local thug constantly threatened the soft-spoken bartender, unaware of how dangerous he was

          • Her husband was killed by gangsters while they were on vacation. She takes revenge alone

          • A man finds his wife’s head in a box and gets revenge

          • Girl wakes up from death and takes revenge on bad guys who nearly killed her

          (Some of the awkward English probably reflects foreign postings.)

          So, where does American society go from here?

          Well, we need to consider a disturbing trend as well.

          Why are there so many bad dogs in the country today? Not your disobedient pooches, but vicious, snarling brutes – that all too often turn on the youngsters of their owners or unlucky strangers? 

          I guess pre-emptive violence is the logical development from redemptive violence. People “standing their ground” by gunning down people turning around in their driveways or knocking on their door – or looking at them without proper deference. Road rage again.

          Getting my daily dose of Catalonian news, I ran across an interview in Barcelona’s El Punt Avui with visiting songstress Suzanne Vega, whose “Luka,” in 1987 dealt with the horrors of child abuse.

          She averred (a good crossword puzzle word) that America was troubled by a lack of culture, that with more emphasis on the arts, young men would have better outlets than gun violence with which to express themselves.

          I believe in the arts. I have tried my hand at several of them and reviewed others (dance in particular) where my natural limitations preclude participation.

          But, Ms Vega is wrong. It is not a lack of culture that plagues us.

          We have created a culture based upon a new American mythology of redemptive violence. When in doubt, lash out.

          (Gary Edmondson is chair of the Stephens County Democratic Party.)

Violent revenge sets societal tone

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