I have never really cared for the popular and cute definition of insanity that calls it “doing the same thing over and over and expecting to get a different result.” I don’t care who is supposed to have said it, whether Benjamin Franklin or Albert Einstein or someone else. Perhaps this is one of your favorite sayings, and you’re presently asking your computer monitor what’s so bad about it.
Well, many things, I think. First of all, even if the claim made by the saying could be fairly well established as true, it would not be a definition of insanity. That much, it seems, is quite clear. But if not, I would suggest looking here.
More importantly, this saying mockingly precludes the virtue of persevering in one’s endeavors. What if it takes one-hundred Chinese university students to perish under the tracks of the tanks in Tiananmen Square before the government stops its injustice? Would we say that the thirty-first through the ninety-ninth were all insane for trying something that the first thirty could not accomplish?
Another problem with this saying is the fact that it always comes on the lips of a hypocrite. Every time I’ve heard it, the person who says it seems to think it only applies to the specific course of action they don’t like. It doesn’t seem to occur to them that they do the same thing in other ways; that is, in some other area of life, they can be found doing the same thing again and again, as if it might possibly go differently or better this time. In fact, we all do this.
The saying really bothers me when it is used by those who have been working to block the success of the people they are calling “insane.” So Democrats and Republicans work to oppose each other’s efforts, then point to their opponents’ failures—which they themselves helped to ensure—and then call them “insane” when they want to try again. I feel for the person who cries foul and says, “Well, if you would just get out of the way and really let me try to do this, maybe it would work!”
But this brings up what is perhaps the worst thing about the saying. Its pithiness seems to keep people from noticing its assumption of a sort of hyper-pragmatism as a worldview. Doing something that “succeeds” is sane. Doing something that “fails” is insane. I suppose all worldviews look at others and see them as examples of faulty thinking. But the pragmatism implied by this saying sets up earthly, measurable success as the measure of a person’s very sanity. It turns out to be rather rude to anyone who does not embrace the pragmatist’s worldview.
Having given all of these objections to the saying, however, perhaps we could admit that there is some kernel of a good point trying to make its way through the rude utterance. Perhaps if we added some qualifying words to the saying, it would become something more worthwhile, if a lot less pithy. I suggest this modified version: One major kind of foolishness is that which does the same thing over and over, expecting to get a different result without having good reasons to hope for such a difference.
“Redemptive Violence” and the Question of Pragmatic Sanity
Now let us take a moment to bring this idea to bear on the myth of redemptive violence.
In my many discussions with people who believe in redemptive violence, one theme that continues to surface is the pragmatic anxiety over whether Christian nonviolence could actually “work.” My conversation partners who bring this point forward usually misunderstand me to be claiming that, if we just hug those who hate us and mean to do us harm, their hearts will soften toward us, and we’ll join hands and sing “Kumbaya.” Rightly, then, they tell me that Christian nonviolence will not work. That is, it will not bring about this happy, hippie result.
The problem here actually lies with what we view as “success.” If the goal is to win my enemies over to my way of thinking, or even to prevent them from doing violence to me and others, then Christian nonviolence is not likely to “work.” If, however, the goal is to bear faithful testimony to the Lamb who has already conquered, by His death and resurrection, the wicked and violent powers of this world, then it cannot fail. And we cannot lose. This is the argument of Romans 8:31-39:
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things? Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies; who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? Just as it is written, “FOR YOUR SAKE WE ARE BEING PUT TO DEATH ALL DAY LONG; WE WERE CONSIDERED AS SHEEP TO BE SLAUGHTERED.” But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
On the other hand, we might do well to consider the “success” record of the pragmatic approach to securing the good. The mentality that says that the “only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun” has ruled the world since the days of Cain. And how has it done? Has there actually been a “war to end all wars”? Just who is it that keeps doing the same thing over and over, expecting to get a different result?
The truth is, if we believe that a good and necessary violence is actually a solution to problems, we will always, ALWAYS be involved in necessary violence. Even in our fleeting, momentary reprieves from live battle, we will necessarily be training for war.
The vision of the prophet Micah tells us that there is a day when
“… they will hammer their swords into plowshares
And their spears into pruning hooks;
Nation will not lift up sword against nation,
And never again will they train for war” (4:3).
The world simply does not have the resources of the Messiah and His shalom. In their own powers and efforts, the people of this world will never be able to see this day come. Yet the Messiah Himself will one day bring His shalom to the world.
But what about now? In the meanwhile, do we not need to protect ourselves from the forces of evil in a fallen world? The answer is No. We do not. We have already been protected. In fact, the people of God, the church, is to be the firstfruits of that coming day of shalom. Here. Now. In this fallen world. We follow the way of the Lamb who conquered the powers by letting them kill Him. His resurrection proved that He won and they lost. It’s over. Now we follow Him. And we too have already won.
What could be more sane than that?