Conquest Narratives and the Destructive Myth of Privileged Status and Promised Land
Sunday I preached one of my favorite texts which is the beginning of the fourth chapter of Joshua. The crossing of the Jordan and the pile of stones to remember, and call to mind the memory for generations to come, that God saw the people of Israel through the waters of the Jordan (book ended to the Red Sea earlier), out of danger to a place of safety.
Later that day I remarked to myself that sadly from here on out it becomes a very bloody book. A book I want nothing to do with. There are a lot of Christians who want to point out the violence in other traditions and other holy books. They need to spend some time reflecting on how our holy scripture presents God as violent and genocidal. (You might begin with Deuteronomy 7 and 20 with commands from Moses to wipe out whatever settlers are in the way when we get to the Promised Land, and then Joshua 8 and 10 which are some examples of living that out).
The entry into the “Promised Land” is a conquest narrative. The land wasn’t empty. It wasn’t waiting with a reserved sign hanging on it. It was populated with families with dreams and hopes and people with long memories of having worked that land. It was already a home to a people, to individuals we should call neighbor, at least it was until they were killed by those who felt they had greater claim to it. They were promised that land, and that we were promised that land meant we didn’t have to recognize the humanity of those already on it. They weren’t a people, they were obstacles. Like stones in the field you need to plow for seed. And when you do not recognize the humanity of the other than you do not feel any moral need to check your behavior toward them. All things become right and good.
Even slaughter. Genocide.
It was a war of aggression. On an individual level you would call it assault and battery which turned into murder and theft. We just call it the gift of a promised land. It was a home prepared for us after years of being homeless on the streets of the wilderness. We don’t want to look closer. We don’t want to examine what is really happening. We prefer to put blinders on to the harsh reality and buy into the myth we tell ourselves to justify our acts. We buy the myth that God created this land for us alone and we are its rightful inhabitants. We buy into the myth that we are better fit to make the most of this land. That we have a better claim. And that our fitness and claim means we can do whatever is necessary to maintain our vision of the world without regard for those who have a different view.
Never mind that if we were presented this scenario as a case study we would NEVER countenance the act. If this was done today to us, a neighboring country, or any country (or at least one we had financial investment in) we would likely go to war to help to stop it. Never mind that. Because we are justified. We look close at other people’s crimes and allow no introspection that might reveal our own. We do not look closely so we don’t have to think about what we have done.
The problem is… this isn’t a one-time thing. This whole conquest narrative – unexamined – has come to dominate our history, our present, and our future. With great religious fervor we fought Crusades. Not simply to the Holy Land (isn’t all land holy?) but to Northern and Eastern Europe, to pagan and Jew (from whom we took the story) and even other Christians who got their theology “wrong.” We took the sword to them because we had a divine right… a divine right that somehow invalidated their humanity. But we didn’t stop there. The Conquistadors did it around the world. Spanish conquests arm in arm with the Church took the sword (and the Bible… and an empty ship waiting to be filled with goods) around the world. There is no land unscarred by our conquest narratives. Our myth of Promised Land.
So here is what got me going down this road. I’m starring at Thanksgiving just a few weeks away. A holiday to be thankful for a native people who helped a fledgling people survive in a world in which they were strangers woefully lacking in the skills to survive. But you and I know how that story goes. Manifest Destiny; Promised Land. Thanksgiving is a myth with two very different sides. We are thankful but a native people have nothing but regret…
But its okay, look what we’ve done with the place! We are good at cultivating civilization, what does it matter if some people who stood in the way of that had to die to make space for us? The Conquest Narrative goes on… it fueled us from shore to shore, it fueled us around the world in Imperialism and wars for democracy became a stand in for religion but whose borders are messy (American democracy and our non-state religion of Christianity are very close bedfellows whatever our rhetoric may claim).
The problem with not looking closely at the horrors of Joshua – at the horrors of the conquest narrative and the Promised Land myth – is that it continues to power our actions on the world stage. We never stopped to acknowledge its existence and check its power, so its power only grows like a viral infection. Like a cancer in everything we do.
Now I will confess – proudly – that I am an American who loves my country. Given the choice I would be born here again and live here today. I am a passionate follower of Jesus and clergy in an institutional church that I love: that I would choose again and give my life and work to promote. I put my trust in the God attested to in Holy Scripture and I number the book of Joshua as part of my cannon that speaks a history of God and God’s people.
This story – this horrific narrative – it is my story. It is a part of me. I claim it as it has claimed me.
But I do not endorse it. And I pray we can transform how it operates in our lives.
I do not critique the violent narratives of my country and my faith to judge the whole thing evil. I critique the evil within our story because I love and value the whole. Because there is much to be loved and valued about it. But there are also scary tendencies within them both that have to be paid attention to in order to keep us from living into the more hurtful aspects of who we have been and all too often are. I do this in my own life. I do this in my family. I do this in my culture. I do this in my civic life, and I do this in my faith. I have to name and claim the ways I am capable of being a terror in the life of the other so that I do not actually become it.
And we must do it regularly and repetitively because our addictive narratives and myths (be they family past, national stories, or faith foundations) cannot simply be cut out like a tumor and be done with – they are insidious cancer we must constantly monitor. There are powerful blessings to our stories, and damaging baggage. I do not, will not, discard the narratives that give my life meaning whole cloth. But I will call attention to the strands that unravel the fabric of life – and do my best not to let them spread.
I have no promised land. I have no promised rights. I have no promised status. At least not any more than everyone else. And my life is not lived to secure my good, but our good. The good of all people. And yes – I’m not equal to the task… but I sure will do my best to work towards it. As I heard said once before: it’s not only an idea worth dying for, it’s an idea worth living for.