The Gospel of John Lewis Versus the Gospel of Trump and Barr

As John Lewis lay in state, steps away Attorney General William Barr defended the aggressive treatment of protestors by federal law enforcement officers. The accusation of the judiciary committee, before which Barr was defending himself, is that he and Trump are acting unconstitutionally in suppressing protests and fomenting their own violence. It is not at all clear that in the world of Barr there is room for peaceful protest (he seemed to equate protest with violence) of the kind which Lewis spent his life leveraging to expose injustice. Barr claimed the force used against peaceful protesters (he acknowledged some were peaceful but nonetheless deserving of violent suppression), using pepper spray and clubbing protestors, was warranted. The methods of the civil rights icon and the methods of the President and Attorney General are of two different worlds. The way the New Testament characterizes these two worlds is through the two logics on display in the Capital: in one world we must do evil that good may come (peace is obtained through violence), and in the other the end and the means are tied together.

Lewis taught that the means of violence and peace will bring about their own end. The means of violence fosters violence and the means of peace fosters peace. According to this understanding, the turn to violent protest and violent suppression of protest dilutes the message of peaceful protest – and this may be the goal of some. Extremists on the right or the left (or perhaps both) may have reasons to foment violence, and it may be that the Attorney General and President would prefer undiluted violence. The goal, as is evident in their method, is not peace. As Lewis maintained, there is one “immutable principle that you cannot deviate from. If you want to have a good end, your means must be good and noble. Somehow, some way, the end must be caught up in the means.”

This most obvious principle may be the least noticed and least practiced tenet of the gospel. The way of the world, the necessary logic which orders politics, nations, and individuals, is the presumption that peace can only be obtained by war, that violence can only be halted with more extreme violence, and that force must be meant with more force. This, let us do evil so as to achieve a good end, is the counter-gospel. The method of Trump and Barr is the message of the world and the message of history. In this understanding, if the enemy bombs civilians than we will drop bigger and better bombs on civilian populations. If the enemy resorts to cruel torture we will duplicate and exceed this torture. The federal agents escalating the violence on the streets are following the logic of their masters and their forebears. It is this logic that set state troopers to clubbing and bloodying Lewis on the Edmund Pettus bridge. It is this logic by which we arrive at the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima, Nagasaki, the firebombing of Dresden, and the destruction of civilian populations – even by those who had only a few short years before forsworn such action.

The one thing world history should teach but the lesson it cannot get across, is the message of John Lewis: war does not end war and violence does not stop violence. What is most obvious is that violence begets violence and is most dangerous when it seems to succeed, as it becomes the lure to imitation. The way in which we have arrived at mutually assured destruction, the way which would club down the John Lewises of the world, is the way of world destruction. The truth of Lewis is the living exposure of the contradiction toward which history has been moving. Barr is part of a long history in his escalation of violence. It is this logic in which we are grounded personally and corporately by dint of being enculturated into this world. The dominant force in the world, religious and personal, is not that which animated the life of John Lewis, but the opposite: violence and evil are the way to peace and goodness.

In this world human beings are thought to be incapable of peaceful coexistence. Order must be violently imposed: men over women, masters over slaves, priests over laity, the elite over commoners, rulers over people, and the police over citizens. It is necessary to dominate (“We must dominate the streets,” according to Trump) as to do anything less is weakness. The powers of state, of religion, of logic, call for dominance and unquestioning acquiescence. To cause trouble is by definition bad trouble, as the highest virtue, the supreme religious value, is obedience to the dominance of the powers. In this world, there is no such thing as Lewis’s “good trouble.” We are trained not to resist, not to challenge, as the dominating system is thought to be God’s system. We are not to exercise dominion but we are called to serve it, die for it, sacrifice our sons and daughters for it. In serving the dominating system, after all, don’t we serve God and his earthly representatives? Where violence is the norm, in the words of Walter Wink, “The tasks of humanity are to till the soil, to produce foods for sacrifice to the gods (represented by the king and the priestly caste), to build the sacred city Babylon, and to fight and, if necessary, die in the king’s wars.”[1] Where the President is God’s chosen representative, in the characterization of Barr, there is no other legitimate or legal force.  Peaceful protest against the powers is an oxymoron in this world.

This singular world of legal violence is not new, as the myth of redemptive violence constitutes the oldest form of religion and is the organizing principle, according to René Girard, of human society. For example, in the Babylonian creation myth violence is the primordial condition from which life arises. The god, Marduk, murders and dismembers Tiamat, and from her cadaver creates the world. Order arises from a primordial disorder and chaos. Evil precedes the good and the gods themselves are violent. This basic structure is shared by the myths of Syria, Phoenicia, Egypt, Greece, Rome, Germany, Ireland, India, Japan, and China. Girard maintains that the violence of the myth, whether hidden or obvious, is what generates the mythic form and it constitutes the violent organization of society. As Wink describes it, “Typically, a male war god residing in the sky— Wotan, Zeus, or Indra, for example— fights a decisive battle with a female divine being, usually depicted as a monster or dragon, residing in the sea or abyss (the feminine element).” Once the enemy is vanquished by war and murder, the victor fashions a cosmos from the monster’s corpse. In Japan (a myth with which I became acquainted partly because I lived at the base of the Mountain where the gods descended) the various gods are formed from the body parts of Izanagi while Izanami was shut up in to the place of the dead. As Wink notes, “Cosmic order requires the violent suppression of the feminine, and is mirrored in the social order by the subjection of women to men and people to ruler.”[2] Girard’s point is that myth, or the very structure of religion, is framed around the notion of redemptive violence and murder. The murder mythologized channels violence and organizes society around sacrifice and oppression. The murdered scapegoat becomes the redeeming mythological deity, making all things possible (warding off the chaos of violence and its various representations).

This tendency toward murderous myth indicates the deep psychological ties to the necessity of violence. It constitutes religion because it is already the substance in which we seem to live and move and have our being. It is the personal necessity, Paul describes, in which we experience our own ego. We are continually subject to an agonistic struggle apart from which we cannot imagine our own existence. We are set over and against ourselves, doing what we would not and incapable of doing what we would, and this reality seems to define us. In Lacanian psychoanalysis, to resolve the conflict would be to destroy personhood, as we are born and have our being in chaos and conflict.  The myth and logic of redemptive violence, the world of Barr and Trump, speaks with the voice of God and cannot possibly recognize a prophet, such as Lewis. The deep grammar of deploying evil and violence to gain peace finds the message of peace incomprehensible and totally impractical.

Christianity, rightly realized, is the counter to the world constituted by violence and the logic of doing evil to gain the good. Once violence is identified as the force which would rule and destroy us, biblical redemption can be read as the counter to this all-pervasive dominating force. Beginning with an alternative creation, not by means of chaos but the good ordering the chaos, the anti-myth of Genesis can be read as a direct rebuttal and counter to Babylonian myth and all creation myths. Rather than a primordial chaos and violence, the Bible portrays a good God who creates from an original peace and goodness (he is the good and peaceful origin). God pronounces creation good and this goodness reigns prior to the existence of evil, murder, and violence. Violence is not the means to something else in Genesis but is a product of the Fall and is posed as the primary problem.  

The culmination of the gospel, like the powers that presently divide this country, pits the religion, the law, the powers, of the world against the religion of Jesus. The war that is still being waged is between those who put Jesus on the cross in the name of power and religion (“to save the nation, for the greater good, our religion requires it”) and those willing to take up crosses (to counter the religion and powers of the day). It was the equivalent of the president and the attorney general, not rabble rousers, not protesters, but the religious and political powers, who put Jesus on the cross. What we can now perceive, because of Christ, is that the violence done to Jesus follows the age-old rule of redemptive violence. This violence has always been an attack on God, which would displace him with the god of violence. The peace of the gospel is the counteraction of God, in which the war on God is exposed and is being defeated, through the cross and its warriors.

It is this reality which Lewis’s principle puts into play. Paul describes the enactment of peace, truth, and righteousness, as their own weapons their own means and end. The armor of God (Eph. 6:10-20) does not consist of secondary means or material: truth, righteousness, and peace, are their own armor. The movement called “salvation” is the deployment of weapons of nonviolence which constitute the word of God. These are not simply defensive weapons but are part of the offense against the lie, the unrighteousness, the way of violence which Paul describes in Romans 3. In this world, understanding is obscured as all have given themselves over to the lie of violence. The organs of speech deal in death: throats are graves, tongues deceive, and lips spew poison, and this culminates in the shedding of blood and mutually assured destruction (Ro. 3:10-18). Paul sums up this deadly logic as the perversity of doing evil for the good (Ro. 3:8), establishing the law through sin (Ro. 7:1), and committing transgressions to gain grace (Ro. 6:1). Where the undergirding logic, the feet or the moving force of this way, is bloodshed, Paul describes the gospel of peace as its own moving force (an inherent “readiness”). Only peace can counter the contagion and logic that has gripped the world and only peace brings together means and end. It is not by evil that good shall come but the means to the good – peace, righteousness, truth – foster the end through the means.


[1] Walter Wink, The Powers That Be (47). Potter/Ten Speed/Harmony/Rodale. Kindle Edition.

[2] Wink, 45-46.  

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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