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, May 04, 2010

Joshua in 3-D: Biblical Conquest and Manifest Destiny #4

The fourth in a five-part series on Biblical Conquest and Manifest Destiny by Dr. Dan Hawk of Ashland Theological Seminary is posted below. It has been a great series to read and interact with. The last post in the series will be published next Tuesday.

By way of reminder, Dan's newly published book, Joshua in 3-D, can be purchased by the publisher at a 40% discount. The discounted price will not be available much longer. When you order from the website, insert the coupon code "HAWK40."

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Scorched Earth
L. Daniel Hawk
One of the pivotal scenes in Avatar takes place when Secops, a security force under the command of Col. Miles Quaritch, attacks the Na’vi heartland, slaughters Na’vi villagers, and burns Hometree, their dwelling place. Quaritch personifies imperialist militarism; Secops works in the employ of RDA, a corporation that has come to Pandora to mine Unobtanium, a mineral regarded as essential for alleviating a global energy crisis on earth. Quaritch hates the Na’vi, whom he regards as savages and obstacles in the way of a resource deemed necessary to earth’s viability. In an early scene he warns newly arrived soldiers about the Na’vi’s vicious aggressiveness, projecting the invader’s violence onto the indigenous inhabitants and implying that invader excursions are justifiable defensive operations. At Hometree, and in the climactic scene at the sacred tree Eywa, Quaritch executes a campaign of indiscriminate killing and devastation, revealing the invader’s moral imperative: the end justifies the means.
Mass killing and wanton destruction were common elements of warfare among the civilized societies of the ancient Near East. Israel was a part of that world, and it is no surprise that its conquest narrative exults in reports that Joshua “killed everything that breathed.” A tone of militant triumphalism is particularly pervasive in Joshua 11-12, which draws on rhetoric well-known in the military literature of its time. Although a few references to the sin of the indigenous peoples appear in preceding books of the Bible, no such reference appears in Joshua. The book itself does not present the annihilation of the indigenous population as an act of judgment but rather as a program of dispossession necessary to achieve a utopian vision of a land inhabited only by Israelites.
Wars of annihilation and devastation do not appear to have been an aspect of war in pre-contact America. Early colonial narratives, supported by Native traditions, indicate that warfare among the indigenous peoples was ritualized and limited. Accounts of early conflicts reveal settler frustration with Indian allies, who left the field after shooting all their arrows or after the deaths of one or two people. It did not take long, however, for the English colonists to replicate the violence of the horrendous religious wars that ravaged Europe in the 17th Century. The watershed occurred when rising tensions, caused in part by the expansion of New England colonies, prompted the colonists to make a pre-emptive strike on a Pequot Village near Mystic River in 1637. Surrounding the village when the warriors were away, the colonial force burned the village and slaughtered almost all of its 400-500 inhabitants, mostly women, children, and elderly. “Total war” was, in other words, a European import.
The practice inaugurated at Mystic Fort would be replicated at Gnadenhutten, Sand Creek, Wounded Knee, and countless lesser-known sites – and when the Native populations had been subdued, would continue westward across the Pacific Ocean to places like Balangiga, Hiroshima, and My Lai. Scorched earth policies, which subjected Native populations to exposure and starvation, became stock elements of American warfare. Campaigns to burn villages and fields were initiated during the Revolution, perfected in the conquest of the Old Northwest, and adapted to the subjugation of Plains nations through the mass slaughter of bison.
In Joshua, the narrative attempts to mask the scope and brutality of the conquest by rendering the wars against the indigenous peoples as defensive operations. The kings of Canaan, representing the hostile powers of the land, are presented as increasingly hostile as the story goes along, beginning with the attempt of Jericho’s king to find the spies, moving to the king of Ai’s attack on Israelites waiting in ambush, and culminating in attacks by coalitions of kings at Gibeon and the waters of Merom. In each case, the Israelites are recast as defenders rather than aggressors.
A corresponding move configured America’s expansion into Native lands; Natives were the aggressors, not the settlers. Among myriad examples, we may note the final accusation made against George III in the Declaration of Independence: He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.” The accusation conveniently omits the fact that “undistinguished destruction” distinguished settler practice to an even greater extent and that a veritable settler tsunami was deluging lands the Crown had promised to keep inviolate for Native peoples, plunging the entire frontier into a maelstrom of reciprocal violence.
Avatar shows us conquest and its aftermath from the perspective of the indigene as well as the invader and in so doing exposes the invader’s rhetoric. Joshua, in ways I have suggested in the prior two posts, makes a similar move. How might both narratives enable Christians to read the rhetoric that renders America’s wars and policies, both past and present?


PamBG said...

I think it's important to be clear how we deal, as Christians, with OT passages which celebrate the violence of Israel/Judah over "foreigners".

In latter years, as a Methodist, I have been taught to read these passages in the light of the teaching of Christ. So, in the light of unlimited atonement and prevenient grace.

In my early years, as a fundamentalist in a denomination deeply committed to "the literal truth" of Scripture, these passages were taken at face value and then became metaphors for God's stance towards believers and unbelievers: God sides with believers and rejoices in the destruction of unbelievers and we too can rejoice in their destruction. Reading these passages through the lens of, say, The Beatitudes, was deemed to be a wishy-washy softening of them and a refusal to deal with the harder verses of Scripture.

I think that this is still a big issue in Christianity and we still very much hear both voices today.

How much was the behavior of early American settlers driven by a "hard" reading of Scripture and how much of it was simply human sin, human greed and an effortless sense of superiority? I think that, at many points in history, human behavior was/is driven by sin and Christian theology is twisted to aid and abet.

[By the way, so far you'd make a great British Methodist. ;-)]

Dan Hawk said...

Pam, I think you've hit on something important. Joshua has a long history of being read as a template for how Christian nations and people are to interact with others. It was not written to be this, nor did ancient Israel did not regard it as such. Rather, Joshua - like all biblical narratives - is a testimony of God's involvement in creation through the affairs of a nation at a particular point in time. It was never intended as a universal template. The Western tendency to read it as normative, as you observe, has prompted the Church to aid and abet violent programs that cannot be fully reconciled with God's revelation through Christ.

Which brings me back to Allan's important question in the first week - on how one responds to the theological challenges of the book. I suspect there is an apologetic impulse beneath that question. I wonder if the watching world questions Christianity's claim of God's love in light of the violence of God, in Joshua and elsewhere in the Bible, because the Church has generated so much violence itself. Like Church, like God?

In other words, I think the Church's collusion with violence has made it much more difficult to gain a hearing for the gospel; message just doesn't ring true for some hearers. To the extent this is the case, it seems to me that the Church can best recover its right to be heard by naming and confessing its sin - and taking tangible steps toward repentance and peacemaking.

Bruce said...

The issues are difficult. When the text makes us face our own violence and justifications for violence we come face to face with sin. I very much do not want to be a violent person. The way of Christ is the way of peace. Yet, on 9/11 a New Yorker on TV said, "I hope the bombers are already on the way to those who did this." I said a mental, Amen! It is tough to face violence within and to discover that we misuse scripture to justify our sin. It is easier to read this work from a detachted historical perspective. It is easier to read the scripture that way too. When I look at what is taking place today, this is relevant and helpful to respond in a way that has integrity with the gospel. For me this discussion is becoming a matter of prayer and very careful responses to the violent world of today.

PamBG said...

In the approximately 10 years I've spent discussing Christian theology on the internet, I've come to realize that there are many Christians for whom the Gospel message is something like[1]: "God will send those who profess faith in Christ as Savior to heaven when they die. Everyone else is not on God's team and will go to eternal torture in hell". Whereas, I see the Gospel message as something more akin to: "Through Christ there is true hope for an eschatological Kingdom of God and for the resurrection of God's faithful people into that Kingdom".

I have come to understand that many folk have the first understanding simply by articulating my own understanding and meeting with the occasional expression of outrage or accusation of heresy or unbelief.

I think that the second understanding of the Gospel is actually a more difficult understanding. I'm not claiming superior faith here because I too find it extremely difficult: In the face of all the sin and evil we see every day we are asked to believe that God's perfect will is eventually to be done in his creation. And we are given no reason why he has chosen to post-pone the manifestation of this will. How much easier it is to grasp and believe the message that "God loves the people on his team and hates the people on other teams so much that he is willing and eager to torture them for eternity."

So I actually think that we need to do more than pussy-foot around the theology of conquest. I think we have to state very plainly that it is NOT the Gospel message.

[1] I acknowledge that trying to sum up any theological view in a phrase or two is very difficult and I beg the readers' indulgence, hoping that "you know what I mean" here.

Dan Hawk said...

@Bruce: I've realized that living in a violent world shapes me more than I realize. If I'm honest, I can see myself in conquest narratives. I'd like to say that if it had been me, I'd act differently...but I'm not so sure. Peacemaking requires vigorous intentionality.

@Pam: If we take the biblical narrative as a whole - from creation in Genesis to new creation in Revelation - the image of the angry, judgmental God recedes before the image of a God who passionately loves the Creation and is working to restore and repair it. I've encountered many students who look at the OT prophets and see a God interested only in punishing. Yet most of the prophetic books end with messages of restoration. "God's anger is for a moment..."

PamBG said...

Dan: I'm honestly not disagreeing with you. But I do think that this really isn't the understanding that many people in our churches have of what it means to be a Christian.

Thinking to myself:
a) I don't know, maybe I have a skewed viewpoint of what people think given my fundamentalist upbringing;
b) On the other hand, I hear the "football team version" of Christianity frequently in church.

Allan R. Bevere said...


Could you clarify what you mean by "football team version" of Christianity?

PamBG said...

The one that I outlined above. You "profess Jesus as savior and Lord" and you become a member of God's football team and this gets you a pass to "heaven". Everyone else is on the wrong football team and is going to "hell".

I'm thinking of two conversations just now.

One is from Sunday School last week when the oldest member of our class (A, in his late 70s and professing apprehensiveness about a surgical procedure he was facing this week) hinted that he hoped that God might hold out some hope to those of other faiths. He promptly got told by our Class Bible Expert (B) all the quotes about non-believers going to hell. At which point the assistant pastor (C, in his early 70s who is also a member of our class) made some vague noises agreeing with A and promptly got told off by B again. I sat there silent and I wish I'd had the gumption to speak up. I think that I often don't speak up because I believe that challenging B involves challenging an entire hermenutical process and received understandings which can't really be done in 30 seconds.

The second incident was a longer interaction I had in my appointment in the UK after making a comment very similar to A's. I subsequently spent a good deal of time in conversation with a couple who protested my hope and who became very worried about my status as a minister, as a "saved" person and teaching authority. Mutually with this couple, we came to the conclusion that we agreed to disagree. But I remember not long before I left the UK that the husband said something about "Never underestimating God's mercy" which made me feel that perhaps they'd eventually taken some of what I'd said on board.

It's very hard to challenge this stuff. As I said, I think it requires challenging a whole system of understanding, learned popular "tradition" and interpretive process.

Ted M. Gossard said...

Interesting post, Dan, and conversation.

It seems like Christendom has a peace in part through the accepted right of the state to carry on violence, justified to the extent that Christians can participate in that violence.

But I agree that this is contradictory and indeed antithetical to the gospel we proclaim, and the Jesus we profess to follow.

Like you state, this is not natural, the way of Jesus, and requires diligence on our part.

This reminds me of just how calm some Christians can be who live somewhat in the justification of the narrative of "just war" which has support from Joshua, I suppose. And on the other hand, just how violent Christians can be (not necessarily so) who profess a witness of the cross as opposed to violent retribution, or violence, period. But that struggle for the peace of Christ is preferable over a trust in the peace of Rome.

Dan Hawk said...

Pam, a strident tendency to privilege one's identity ("saved") and to project the opposing quality ("damned") onto others is an example of the bifurcated thinking characteristic of groups that consider themselves under threat. As you observe, it's hard to challenge that thinking, as there are deeper currents influencing it. The most effective way I've found is to ask questions that blur the boundaries. What about Christians who act like hell or non-Christians who display love and grace? Those who are intent on boundary maintenance have ready answers, which satisfy themselves but few on the outside. (Is it any wonder Christianity is in decline in the West?) Every now and then, however, the light comes on.

Ted, your comments on just war identify an important tension for Christians. My problem with just war is that there have been so few of them (if any). Nice idea; not so good in practice. Nations may start out with good intentions, but once violence breaks out, it takes on a life of its own and humans are swept up in it. The prophets consistently indict divine instruments of judgment not for being violent but for their excess of violence - whether Israel (e.g. Jehu in Hosea 1) or outside nations (e.g. Assyria in Isaiah 10). Once the violence-genie is released, it takes control.

PamBG said...

Dan, again I agree with you but your statement doesn't address the problem that "Christians heaven / non Christians hell" paradigm is what very many people believe Christianity is all about.

You may have touched on the roots of from whence this attitude arises, but I think that there is actually another, simpler issue. The people in my UK church expressed it very succinctly with the question: "If there is hope that non-Christians won't go to hell, why would anyone want to be a Christian?" (extremely interesting question on all sorts of levels!)

I guess my question here is not to understand or explain this view but to ask "What is the Church going to do about it? What are pastors and teachers and theologians and other leaders doing to teach people about a fuller view of the Christian hope?"

I might respectfully want to ask Allan if he could open up another thread on the subject of "Christians heaven / non Christians hell"? I'd do it on my own blog, but experience suggests I won't get much discussion and that good discussion can be had here.

Allan R. Bevere said...

Pam, a great suggestion. I put up a post on that subject for discussion next week.

Dan Hawk said...

Pam, I confess that I don't often encounter the views you've referenced in the last two posts - although I know they're out there. When they come up (as in the Bible study you wrote about earlier), I tend to ask questions that prod at the assumptions behind them. "So we're just here to get fire insurance? Life is basically a test? What does this say about God? about human beings? about life itself? How do your answers fit the biblical picture of God? or life? Why is so much of the Bible concerned with how we treat others?" etc.

Or for starters:
1) Eternal judgment is God's prerogative
2) The God of the Bible gets very testy when humans usurp God's prerogatives
3) Biblical texts about granting forgiveness of sins and binding and loosing may mean any number of things. They should not serve as proof-texts. And they should be read carefully and with humility.
4) There *are,* however, biblical prohibitions about judging other people (e.g. Matt 7:1)

What are pastors, teachers, etc. doing about it? Quite a bit, I think. Many biblicists and theologians are doing excellent work, for example, the work of two Brits: John Goldingay (OT) and N.T. Wright (NT). Their "Bible for Everyone" study guides are rich resources for bible-believers. Clark Pinnock's *A Wideness in God's Mercy,* while heftier, explores the issue in important, thoughtful, and orthodox ways.

Many of us are also working seriously to equip a new generation of Christian leaders to think more thoughtfully, creatively, and faithfully about ministry in post-Christendom societies and a global context. What I'm doing in this series of blogs, I trust, is one example of how that is happening.

PamBG said...

I'll be very interested in any discussion from Allan's upcoming post on heaven and hell.

"Resident Bible Expert" (RBE) came to Sunday School today armed with proof-texts on hell. The Assistant Pastor did not join us and so we got a passionate 15 minute extemporaneous "sermon" on unbelievers going to hell.

RBE said that she was extremely concerned at the Assistant Pastor's viewpoint and thought that he must evidently not be well-grounded in Scripture or was deliberately going against Scripture. If the latter, RBE wondered out loud whether the Pastor's teaching could be trusted and whether he was, in fact, saved.

I confess that I again I just sat there squirming and said nothing. Partly because any challenge - however gentle - gets met with a very long sermon-like answer and partly because I'm fairly certain that RBE has already written me off into the category of not (yet) saved.

RBE comes from a developing country where Christians are a minority religion and, whilst Christans are not officially persecuted, raids against Christian villages are not uncommon.

The elderly gentleman I mentioned previously - back from his successful out-patient surgery this week, praise the Lord - thinks that it is a sign of emotional maturity to let her have her say and to accept her viewpoint with graciousness and not to challenge it.

I would love to find a way in to this sort of conversation and so far I don't feel that I have it.

Bruce said...

Pam, I sometimes will write letters asking the questions I want to ask and addressing issues that need addressing. It is better to speak about delicate things in private. A letter can set the stage for a private conversation. It also allows you to lay out all of your concerns w/o strident interruptions. It is not a bad thing to let RBS know that others know scripture and that RBS may not know everything. You are well versed in scripture and have excellent theological insight. Perhaps RBS has you a bit stuck due to your pastoral care for all invlolved. You truly follow the "Do no harm" rule. You will find a way.

PamBG said...

Bruce: Thank you for the suggestion which I will think about.

To be clear, I am ordained in the British Methodist Church as the equivalent of an Elder, but I am currently an associate MEMBER of a UMC church. We moved back to the US to be near my elderly parents. I do not have an appointment in the UMC and so am functioning something like a "member" in this group.

Without wanting to give too many details away in public RBE comes from a culture where women gain significant power within their own circle as they grow older. There is also the culture of "Mrs. Pastor" and "Daughter Pastor"; the latter applying in this case as her father is a senior church figure in her home country. We are about the same age and I believe that my presence in the group is a challenge to her. In turn - and I was praying about my reaction to her as she spoke yesterday - her definite, authoritative and commanding way of speaking pushes all my childhood "fundamentalist buttons".

Another aspect in play here is that I believe she may also be coming from the mindset of "American Christians don't know the bible and it's now the turn of our people to bring the True Word of God to the West."

I believe that the basic theological divide here is going to be the different processes by which the two of us read the bible. Without wanting to push too many linguistic buttons amongst our group here, she DOES read the bible in an extremely "literal" way and as an instruction book. (And she will quite happily proof-text and contradict herself within the space of 5 minutes!) I read it more as a narrative, as a story of how the faithful people of God experienced his presence in their lives and as a story which evolved and changed over time and which may have been misinterpreted from time to time (as when God's people believed that God was against other nations and ordered the destruction of the populace in order to bless God's Own).

So the challenge here is really how do you change someone's hermenutic in the context of a congregational situation when the person may or may not want to be challenged in this way? And where the person doesn't recognize you as knowledgable? Although seminary classes often (though not always!) achieve a movement in individuals' interpretative process, the people taking the class have an investment in listening to the Professor. And despite your gracious compliment, I'm not a professor, the context is not the same as in Seminary and I'm fairly certain RBE thinks it's my interpretive process that needs changing, not hers.

But your suggestion makes sense and I'll pray about it and keep it in mind as a strategy whose timing might present itself.

I'm actually wondering whether to have a word with the Assistant Pastor. I'm working with him on another project and, although he is new, I think we have a fairly good rapport.