God's words - the violence of representation

One of Hans Holbein's the younger highly impressive woodcuts shows Joan's revelation of God and the seven lamp stands. The woodcut was employed as Protestant propaganda and offers the image of a wrathful God with a long double-edged sword, thrusting out of his mouth. The drawing is organized along vertical lines, with God suspended in mid-air, his figure drawing a parallel line to the lamp-stands. Hardly noticeable, the prostrate Joan marks the bottom of the picture. The long double-edged sword conspicuously cuts across this vertical organization in a disturbing way, as it cannot be related to any other line in the drawing [1]

In the early days of the Reformation militant Protestants like Luther were convinced that God was using the apocalyptic sword against the false Roman Catholic Church, identified as Antichrist. The Protestants' belief in God's judgment over the papists was crucial in substantiating the new religious values and dogmas they were promoting. Representations of imminent providential violence against the "godless" were central to the othering strategies underpinning the constitution of the new religious subjectivity.

Martin Luther employed the visual image of God's sword coming out of his mouth to admonish his supporters not to use physical violence in defence of their faith. The reason Luther gave Christian faith, but that God's punishment will be much more devastating. Recourse to violence is not abandoned but the ways and means of its employment are redefined.

In one of his major writings - Eine treue Vormahnung Martini Luther zu allen Christen sich zu vorhüten für Aufruhr und Empörung ( A Sincere Admonition by Martin Luther to all Christians to guard against all Insurrection and Rebellion) Luther gives a surprising twist to the traditional meanings attached to God's sword: he starts from the description of God's lethal breath in Isaiah (11.4) and Paul ( 2 Thessalonians 2.8.) and redefines it as words.

Physical violence is rejected in view of the superior efficacy of the violence of representation. Luther stresses over again that it is the violence of words and not that of physical weapons that can truly defeat and destroy the popish institution.

In Eine treue Vormahnung the relation between God's mouth and His sword is no longer one of contiguity but of identity. The sword is no longer an extension of the mouth like in Holbein's painting but the mouth incorporates the sword. The instrument of speech appropriates the lethal punishing capacity of the instrument of devine violence. Speech becomes synonymous with punishment and destruction.

Luther further revises the image and introduces his own mouth as an extension of God's mouth. Are we to understand that his mouth therefore takes the place of the double-edged sword in the picture? It definitely seems to incorporate God's sword. Luther expresses his confidence that his words are nothing less than God's words and indicates that he has appropriated the divine violence : "Ich bin sehr gewiss, dass mein Wort nitt mein, sondern Christus Wort sei, so muss mein Mund auch des sein, des Wort er redet" (Luther, 682) - ( "I am confident that it is not my word, but Christ's word, so my mouth is His who utters the words." My translation.)

Words, representations, as instantiations of God's violence, become a most formidable, miraculous weapon that renders physical action unnecessary. Luther insists that, as the destructive ensue upon us by reason of sinne and security Would God himself declare war upon his favourite people? Yes he would, if they continued to reject him. (Collinson, 32) The conviction that God's sword was ready to turn against whoever ignored or resisted him, the moral responsibility that they derived from this, justified the preachers' deeply divisive and discriminatory actions that eventually ended up with calls to arms in a civil war.

Religious imagination and religious discourses constituted a major source of nationhood. (Collinson, 17) The spanning of the two domains, temporal and spiritual, was possible since, as Debora Shuger powerfully argues, religion was, "the master-code of pre-capitalist society"; "the cultural matrix for the exploration of virtually every topic: "the discourse through which it interpreted its own existence" (Shuger, 1990,5-6,9) The conceptual terms in which violence was thought of in religious discourses intersected with and informed the meanings that violence was allotted to in a variety of cultural, political or gender discourses.

The incorporation of the sword in representation, be it devine (God's words) or secular (the king's words or the words of the law), makes the subject of the investigations undertaken in the collection of these essays.


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