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 11, 2010

Joshua in 3-D: Biblical Conquest and Manifest Destiny #5

This is the last post in a series by Dr. L. Daniel Hawk, Professor of Old Testament and Hebrew at Ashland Theological Seminary. I thank Dan for taking the time to write these posts and to reflect with us on such important matters.

I hope Dan will contribute future posts from time to time on this blog.

Time is almost up for you to receive a 40% discount on Dan's new book, Joshua in 3-D. Order from the website and insert the coupon code "HAWK 40."

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Alien Invasion
L. Daniel Hawk
I would like to take this opportunity once again to thank Allan for his invitation to post to this blog and for those who have responded with thoughtful and incisive comments. It’s been a pleasure to participate in this web-exercise with Allan, whose theological and cultural acumen I deeply respect
Renowned astrophysicist Stephen Hawking has recently cautioned against trying to contact extra-terrestrial life, warning that aliens advanced enough to reach the earth might be looking for a world to conquer and colonize. “We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet,” he says. “If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn’t turn out very well for the Native Americans."
Hawking is speaking to a theme that has acquired increasing cultural prominence in the last twenty years. Avatar is the latest in a flurry of alien invasion narratives that have proliferated in the movies (e.g. Independence Day, War of the Worlds, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Signs, among many others), television (V, X-Files, Alien Nation, Invasion, etc.), and popular culture (e.g. UFO sightings, alien abductions). The current interest is matched only by its original manifestation in the sci-fi films of the late 50’s and early ‘60’s, when the United States emerged into a position of unparalleled global influence and cultural dominance.
I began this series by suggesting that the stories we tell reveal much about how we look at ourselves, our world, and our place in the world. What does America’s present preoccupation with alien invasion motifs, now exemplified by Avatar, the highest-grossing film of all time, say about what might be going on in our national psyche?
It is not uncommon to encounter the claim that the United States used the biblical book of Joshua as a template to legitimize the conquest of the continent. On the face of it, this seems self-evident. The earliest Puritans saw themselves as a new Israel birthed by deliverance from oppression, a passage through the sea, and entrance into a Promised Land. The early Republic then took up Exodus imagery as a way of identifying America as a new people, delivered from tyranny and destined to be a beacon of liberty and emancipation for all nations.
The Exodus, however, is incomplete without the Conquest. Even a cursory acquaintance with American history reveals that the United States replicated the mass killing, ethnic cleansing, exclusion – often with appeals to destiny – that tell the tale of Israel’s conquest of Canaan. It thus seems a foregone conclusion that America, “the New Israel,” looked to Joshua as its paradigm for westward expansion.
The truth of the matter is that references to Joshua have been virtually absent from America’s religious and civic discourse from the colonial period to the present. Whereas expansionist America readily identified with the Israel of the Exodus, it could not seem to face the fact that, in practice, it was more like the Israel of the Conquest. In other words, the United States explicitly and consistently defined itself as an Exodus people, a beacon of salvation and freedom to all, but it repressed actions that suggested it behaved like a Conquest people.
While we easily recognize how repressed memories and impulses influence individual attitudes and behavior, we find it more difficult to recognize how this may also true of corporate entities. Memories repressed by a people, like those repressed by individuals, don’t fade away. Left to themselves, they lurk within the corporate unconsciousness, warping perspectives and practices, until they bubble to the surface in a time of crisis.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that invasion motifs have surfaced in America during a period of economic instability, decline in global influence, and a war on terror, just as it was no coincidence that they arose when the Cold War and the prospect of nuclear annihilation confronted the U.S. What does our preoccupation with alien invasion manifest? repressed guilt and remorse? anxiety that in a just universe, “what goes around comes around”? a realization that the God who gives is also the God who may take away?
It’s time for the Church to enter the public arena with the words and practices of repentance that open the path for healing from the sins of the past and their residue in the present. Native Americans continue to suffer the effects of a centuries-long program to rob identities, cultures, lands, and dignity. The rates of poverty, unemployment, suicide, alcoholism, and diabetes, to name but a few social ills, are many times the national average. It’s time to acknowledge the full scope of what was has been done and to make tangible moves to reverse course and begin to repair what has been damaged or destroyed.
As Israel reflected on its memories of conquest, it could not get around the violent stories and events that had shaped its national identity. But at a later time, in light of its own experiences of suffering and salvation, the nation realized that the dehumanizing and violent impulses associated with those traditions were not consistent with the nation God had called Israel to be. If the American Church is inclined to follow Israel’s example, it might enter this moment with the prophet’s challenge to name America’s original sins, turn from the perspectives and practices they have generated, and bring a justice long denied. In doing so, the body of Christ might more fully reveal the Prince of Peace to a watching world.


PamBG said...

As Israel reflected on its memories of conquest, it could not get around the violent stories and events that had shaped its national identity. But at a later time, in light of its own experiences of suffering and salvation, the nation realized that the dehumanizing and violent impulses associated with those traditions were not consistent with the nation God had called Israel to be.

I'm fascinated by "liberal" Judaism (which includes the Conservative movement for those who don't know) precisely because it has come to this conclusion on its own in contrast to the of-heard Christian attitude that it is the teaching of Jesus which legitimizes a more pacific reading of Hebrew Scripture.

Chuck Tackett said...

"You who turn justice into bitterness
and cast righteousness to the ground
(he who made the Pleiades and Orion,
who turns blackness into dawn
and darkens day into night,
who calls for the waters of the sea
and pours them out over the face of the land -
the Lord is his name -
he flashes destruction on the stronghold
and brings the fortified city to ruin),
you hate the one who reproves in court
and despise him who tells the truth,
You trample on th epoor
and force him to give you grain.
Therefore, though you have built stone mansions,
you will not live in them;
though you have planted lush vineyards,
you will not drink their wine.
For I know how many are your offenses
and how great your sins.

You oppress the righteous and take bribes
and you deprive the poor of justice in th ecourts.
Therefore the prudent man keeps quiet in such times,
for the times are evil.

Seek good, not evil,
that you may live.
Then the Lord God Almighty will be with you,
just as you say he is."
Amos 5:7-14 (NIV)

Thank you Dr Hawk for your posts.
It doesn't matter how clever we think we are. We need to be honest.

Robert Sportsman said...

Well written Dr. Hawk. I enjoyed this post.

Allan R. Bevere said...

So, Dan... if I am reading you correctly, you are suggesting that the biblical Exodus becomes the American cover story that hides the narrative of America as conqueror.


Dan Hawk said...

Yes, Allan, in a way. If the Bible becomes the lens by which a people reads its experience (e.g. Puritans and their successors), then the Conquest explains who the Chosen People are and how they are to live, just as the Exodus does. Exodus and Conquest cannot be separated in the biblical story. God liberates in order to bring to a Promised Land.

So if a people views its experience as a divinely-orchestrated deliverance from tyranny to freedom (Exodus)and finds "pagans" living in its Promised Land, the Bible offers a template for what should be done about them (Conquest). The Exodus motif is prominent in American national mythology; the Conquest motif is virtually absent. The Exodus motif is explicit; the Conquest motif is subliminal. America embraces Exodus; it represses Conquest. Both motifs shape identity, perspectives, and practices.

Allan R. Bevere said...


Interesting... what I had in mind with my observation was a book written years ago by Robert Betsworth entitled, "Social Ethics: An Examination of American Moral traditions." He speaks of the powerful cover stories that deceive us into grasping onto certain more pallatible identities, while hiding the disconcerting truth of who we are in reality. He did not deal at all with Exodus or Conquest. It seems clear to me now that even though it was a very could read, Betsworth could have benefitted greatly from your insights.

Bruce said...

Thanks for your work Dan. Very enlightening. I think much more carefully about what I say and how I say it. I also listen more carefully. The rhetoric of the general media, politcs and sports world has become far too violent. Our assumptions concerning our nation and our theology must be carefully examined in the light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Michael Kruse said...

Thanks for this series. Good stuff.

Dan Hawk said...

Thanks everyone for your kind words and input. I've enjoyed the conversation.

Allan, thanks again for the invitation to post and the note on Betsworth. Looks like something worth checking into.