A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Joshua in 3-D: Biblical Conquest and Manifest Destiny #3

This post is the third in a series of five posts by Dr. L. Daniel Hawk, Professor of Old Testament and Hebrew at Ashland Theological Seminary.

Don't forget that readers of this blog are eligible for a 40% discount on Dan's just published book, Joshua in 3-D: A Commentary on Biblical Conquest and Manifest Destiny. To get the discount you must order from the website and when doing so you must insert the coupon code "HAWK40."

I am reading the book right now. It is an excellent read. After Dan's last post, I will be posting a review of the book.

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Double Vision
L. Daniel Hawk

Conquest narratives work by establishing and maintaining a stark distinction between the invader “us” and the indigenous “them.” Shaping the indigenous “them” into the opposite of the invader “us” enables the invader to soothe moral qualms about conquest. Casting the invaders as “civilized” and the indigenous peoples as “savages,” opposing “moral societies” to “lascivious people,” “pious” vs. “pagan,” “peaceful” vs. “warlike,” or even “human” vs. “animal” implicitly justifies the violence meted out to indigenous peoples, who in some way can be viewed as opposing “progress” or “destiny.” Invaders expend a lot of energy maintaining these distinctions, because if they break down, the indigenous peoples begin to look as fully human as the invaders…which makes dispossessing, exploiting, and killing them look uncomfortably like theft, oppression, and murder.


These are precisely the categories that Anglo-America employed to shape its identity and that of the Native peoples of the continent. Literature, such as Robert Bird’s Nick of the Woods, popularized the image of the bloodthirsty redskin. Political discourse attributed indigenous resistance to Western civilization and Christianity to inferior intelligence or a primitive moral sensibility. Francis Parkman, the foremost American historian of the 19th Century, summed it all up with remarkable simplicity when he described the Indian as “man, wolf, and devil all in one.”


One problem is that reality exposes these projections for the pernicious fabrications they are. The early colonists would not have survived had not indigenous peoples imparted to them their rich agricultural wisdom. The eloquence and acuity of indigenous orators consistently impressed colonial listeners. Indigenous cultures were so strong and sophisticated that many scholars have conjectured that were it not for the epidemics that ravaged Native peoples (at mortality rates that in some cases approached ninety percent), the whole colonial enterprise might have turned out very differently.


The other problem is that even the invader recognizes the falsity of the constructions. Guilt and misgiving leak through in stories that exemplify the nobility of the indigenous peoples and portray invaders “going Native.” The result is an ambivalent, schizoid invader identity.


This bifurcated identity is expressed in Avatar by the earth people’s distance from the peoples of Pandora. The individuals involved in the Avatar Program are in Pandora but not of Pandora; they interact with the Na’vi through their avatars. They remain in an earthlike environment and among their own people but become indigenous through their avatar bodies. They are earth minds and identities clothed in Pandora bodies – not all that different from Americans who put on Native dress and mimic Native practices at summer camps, youth organizations, and sporting events.


Dr. Grace Augustine and Jake Sully comprise a complementary ambivalence: woman and man, brains and brawn, controlled and impulsive. Life among the Na’vi exposes the evil they are a part of and they become renegades. Like all renegades, they expose the Invader’s fiction and thus are singled out for particular hatred and violence.


In the biblical conquest narrative, the Gibeonite story (Joshua 9) dismantles the “godly us” vs. “ungodly them” polarity and humanizes the indigenous peoples. Joshua presents the Canaanite kings as the epitome of hostile indigenous power, but the Gibeonites (like Israel) do not have a king. Like Rahab, their indigenous counterpart, they are cunning and opportunistic. (Traits prized by Israel. Remember Jacob?). They alone praise Yhwh and acclaim God’s mighty acts of salvation. They trick Israel’s leaders into making a treaty and are eventually assigned to service at the altar – the holiest location in Israel and the center of invaders’ community. As a whole, the story presents them as more faithful representations of the people of God than the Israelites.


Avatar and Joshua take invader ambivalence in different directions; invaders are incorporated into the indigenous community in the former, indigenous into the invader in the latter. Both, however, highlight the ways that conquest narratives construct identities in order to justify conquest. And both challenge Americans to consider how Manifest Destiny configures contemporary attitudes and actions.


Robert Cornwall said...


I appreciate your analysis of the issue. Not having watched Avatar (I know my family is the lone family in America not to have seen it), I can't engage that image all that well. But, I do appreciate your analysis of the ambivalence with which we approach the matter of conquest.

I'd add that a typical justification is that the land was unoccupied or at least virtually unoccupied. That was the justification given by the Afrikaaners in South Africa. It is the justification of Jewish migrants to Palestine, and it was the justification our ancestors gave for taking over things here.

By the way, you might add Dances with Wolves into your collection.

Dan Hawk said...

Bob, you're right about "unoccupied" land. The American colonists justified the taking of Indian lands by claiming that the Natives were not "using" or "improving" the land (which meant for them organizing it into plotted fields and communities). They (and subsequent US Indian policy) regarded reserving vast tracts for "hunting grounds" as greedy.

Dances with Wolves is a step in a more conciliatory direction - but a small one. It ends in a way that maintains the settler/savage distinction and thus reassures white audiences. Costner heads off with the white woman, while the Sioux travel a different road to tragedy. The white woman is extracted from the Indian community, and distinction is upheld.

Bruce said...

Dan, I find this discussion to be wonderful. I look forward to reading the book. In an earlier comment, I mentioned some New Testament thoughts that are similar in nature to your posts. Now I am thinking about how the radical Islamic folk use rhetoric to justify terror attacks around the world. "America is the great Satan and must be destroyed" kind of talk is similar to how those taking over from indigenous people talk. It is equally frightening to hear how some respond to the radical Islamic groups by using the same kind of excuses to hate. It appears that there is a similar kind of rhetoric that people use to prepare themselves for and incite violence. What are your thoughts about this?

Dan Hawk said...

Bruce, I think you've made an important connection. Projecting opposite/negative traits onto an opposing group reinforces communal boundaries and diminishes the humanity of those in the other group. Gregory Stanton identifies this as the 3rd Step in an 8 step process that leads to Genocide. See his excellent article, "The 8 Stages of Genocide" on the GenocideWatch website. http://www.genocidewatch.org/resources/bydrgregorystanton.html

Ted M. Gossard said...

Dan, Quite interesting. And I can understand it especially with reference to all the wrong done in America's history, done by Americans.

I do recall an older man, strong Christian recounting to a few of us a book he had read on some of the outlandish, at least alleged, practices of native Americans. For me all this confirms is the reality that humans are both wonderful, being made in God's image, and sinful, that image broken and distorted.

I do wonder at how you seem to be pressing the narrative of Scripture so that what you seem to be suggesting is that God's expressed will is actually Israel's attempt to make them the good and the enemy the evil. Not sure the narrative itself bears that out well given all the judgment Yahweh brings on his covenant people. And to suggest that Jacob's trait of trickery is a model to be emulated, or a positive characteristic at all does not seem to me to reflect what the narrative and later on at least one prophet says.

But I can see how Americans can misconstrue the biblical narrative to justify or at least soothe their consciences regarding their actions. Going to the biblical text and saying that IS us is risky at best, and simply untrue, surely.

Dan Hawk said...

I appreciate your pressing this point, Ted. I'm reading Joshua with a particular question in mind, that is, how Israel is constructing its identity by reflection on its violent past - an operation that I also see happening as the US reflects on its history. It's a fluid process. The history books I read in school presented a different picture than the ones my sons read decades later - as the US was coming to a different sense of who it is as a people.

I don't see Joshua portraying Canaanites as a whole as "good" and Israelites as "bad" but rather using a more sophisticated technique aimed at destabilizing a sense of ethnic exclusivity.

Cunning, opportunitism, and skill in negotiating, exemplified in Jacob/Israel, were I believe, admired traits - and necessary for Israel's survival as a mercantile people caught between powerful empires. When Israelites were reading their patriarchal narratives, they were not reading about a personage in their past; they were in a real way reading about themselves (a feature not often understood by cultures that locate identity in individuals). Jacob was also Israel.

Ted M. Gossard said...

Thanks, Dan for your careful, good and helpful explanation. Yes, I can see your points. And it makes me wish I was more studied on something/ anything myself.

Yes, I think I can see that as well when considering Scripture, and somehow I missed that, though I think it is there in this post.

I look forward to the rest. Thanks!