Syria: Cognitive dissonance and the myth of redemptive violence

cog-ni-tive  dis-so-nance

noun Psychology

the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, esp. as relating to behavior decisions and attitude change.


The opportunity, if there is one, in the national debate over possible U.S. intervention in Syria is the opportunity to deal a significant blow to the myth of redemptive violence.  This opportunity comes because of the cognitive dissonance created by the rhetoric used to justify the action.

Post 9/11

Following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11, 2001 the United States government made a case for the invasion of both Afghanistan and Iraq.  The case for military action in Afghanistan was straight forward.  We were told that Afghanistan was the “home base” of Al Qaeda, the terrorist group that planned and carried out the attacks.  There were others involved, of course, but it was clear that Osama bin Laden was holed up in Afghanistan.  So, we went in with the goal of disrupting Al Qaeda’s ability to organize easily and safely.

The case for Iraq, however, was more difficult to make.  There were no direct links between the government of Iraq and the attacks.  Therefore, the U. S. government had to make a different argument to justify the invasion.  The path they choose was “weapons of mass destruction.”  (WMD)  We were told that Saddam Hussein possessed WMDs and had demonstrated in the past that he is willing to use them.  We were told that he gassed citizens of his own nation (although I wouldn’t refer to them as “his own people” in a tribal sense).  This is true.  Under the “Bush Doctrine” (i.e. we have to fight terrorists over there to avoid fighting them over here), the U.S. government made the case to both the American people and the International community that this was unacceptable and posed a danger to the U.S. and the world.  Therefore, we need to invade Iraq to secure the WMDs and oust Saddam Hussein.

There is serious question as to whether or not this was the case, the degree to which intelligence information was “fudged” to justify the action, and other possible motivations for the invasion.  Nonetheless, the American people – nursing fresh wounds from 9/11 – and the International Community, got on board and the invasion occurred.  The aftermath of that decision is still being felt today in the forms of lost lives and negative economic consequences.  U.S. troops are still on the ground in Afghanistan.  Most all troops are out of Iraq.  The general feeling is that we entered the war in Iraq under false pretenses and, while some positives came from the invasion, the cost was (is) too high.

The Myth of Redemptive Violence

The ideology undergirding the above decisions is the myth of redemptive violence.  By “myth” I don’t mean a story that isn’t true.  Rather, a myth in this context is a  story that tells us how the world works.   There are many different myths that shape our worldview or ideology.  We learn these myths – what Brueggemann would call scripts –  through a “process of nurture and formation and socialization” (Brueggemann’s 19 Thesis).  One of the dominant myths in American social/cultural/political life is the myth of redemptive violence.  That is the belief that violence, when used by the good guys in the interest of the good guys, is redemptive and can lead to good outcomes.  For example, the idea that Iraq will be better off if we invade their country, destroy their infrastructure, dismantle their military and over throw their government will lead to peace, safety, security and democratic freedoms is an example of the myth of redemptive violence.

Enter Syria

I can’t explore deeply the historical context of the Syrian civil war.  (Click here for a good article in the Washington Post by Max Fisher), but the situation in Syria is being talked about by the U.S. government in similar ways.  Why should we bomb Syria?  We’re told that there is a bad dictator who has used chemical weapons on Syrian citizens.  It is clear that someone did use chemical weapons on Syrian citizens and it was most likely, but not certainly, Assad.  Here’s the rub – the rebels battling Assad include none other than Al Qaeda, the primary target of American’s war on terror.

This is where the myth breaks down

Most Americans are suspicious of the rhetoric used to support war.  Why?  Because we were burned by the U.S. government once along these same lines.  At the same time, those running the show this time are the ones who rejected this kind of argumentation the last time.  It seems a bit like politicians are playing games with human lives.

At the same time, this is a clear instance where the idea that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” breaks down.  Yes, Basher al Assad is a bad guy.  But so are the rebels.  I’m ambivalent about Glenn Beck, but he has revealed a video that shows what the rebels are like (here).

It is clear that missile strikes won’t end the civil war.  It seems clear that peace between the Assad regime and the rebels isn’t in the cards.  It is also clear that our intervention will tip the balance away from a bad dictator, but towards rebels that may be worse yet (some contend that the rebels launched the chemical attacks to bate the US into the conflict).

So there is A LOT of violence in Syria.  But, adding more violence in the form of U.S. intervention will have no redemptive value at all.

Cognitive Dissonance

As people scripted into the myth of redemptive violence,  our instinct is to go back to the same myth.  If the good guys, in the white hats, would just step in and destroy the bad guys in the black hats, things would get better for the Syrian people and the good guys could ride off into the sunset.  But that won’t work here.  Still, it is difficult for us to admit that we can’t add some good violence into the mix that will make everything OK.

The myth of redemptive violence is so powerful that even when we know it won’t work we still want to add some good violence into the mix.  Violence is still the only tool in our tool box.  Our imaginations have been diminished.

So now we are having inconsistent thoughts and beliefs about the use of violence to bring about good.  If we reject the use of violence in Syria what does that mean about our invasion of Iraq?  If we went into Iraq based upon far less clear intelligence than we have in Syria why aren’t we in Syria already?  All of the sudden, we are in a space where we have to ask deeper questions.  Who do we trust?  Do we trust anyone enough to give them this kind of power?  Do we really think that our safety and security rests in politicians?  Are horses and chariots (or tanks and missiles) the key to life?

What is the relationship between followers of Jesus and violence?  Can we begin to explore the possibilities that the way of Jesus has real world, political, power and that non-violence is not passive, but an active way to shape the world into God’s preferred future?

In Syria, violence won’t work.  In reality, it has never worked for humanity as a whole.  Sure, some have profited from war, but at what cost and to whom?  Does Jesus point us to a better way in his teaching and in his model?

Food for thought!  What do you think?


7 thoughts on “Syria: Cognitive dissonance and the myth of redemptive violence

  1. Good stuff here, Michael. I think we’re tracking along the same lines. I would suggest, though, that expecting the US government to act any other way is making the assumption that the US government is governed by the same ethics and principles as Jesus followers are. Yes, the government can be influenced in certain directions, but I think it’s naive to think that any national government will act as the Church would act. This was tried once under Constantine and, while some benefits came out of that partnership, overall the Constantinian shift was “bad” for the global church.

    In any case, I think you put good caution here. In this case, there really are no “good guys”, not even the US . Apparently, with some recent information, petro-politics is playing a role since Saudia Arabia wants to help pay for any US strikes… this along with the revelation of a proposed natural gas pipeline running from Qatar to Turkey through Saudia Arabia, Jordan, and Syria, makes a lot more sense in the big picture.

    Meanwhile… what should we be doing? I think prayer is step 1… and then we need to engage our Spirit led Christian imaginations to find the Kingdom way in the midst of this murky mess.

    1. I think that the opportunity here is that we can see the tangled web that violence leads to without making any particular connection to the way of Jesus. What we have been saying from a Jesus-like perspective is now apparent to all, no matter what their particular frame. Violence isn’t a solution. By following the myth of redemptive violence, we have painted ourselves into a corner.

      I’m certainly not advocating a reformed view of the relationship between Church and state. I don’t think the kingdom expands through Christianizing the state. I do, however, follow Yoder in this respect: The church is called to model in its common life what the world is called to ultimately. The way that the church influences the state isn’t through taking it over, it is through modeling a better – alternative – way of life that DOES provide a model that can be followed by others outside the church and that WILL lead to life when practiced outside the church as well.

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