Friday, December 10, 2010
More thoughts on last post
I got an e-mail response the other day to my last post asking an important question. The respondent was asking me for more detailed thoughts on my views of the "conquest" narrative in Joshua in the light of the (obvious) conflict it creates with the teachings of Jesus-and very significant portions of the rest of scripture(something I purposely acknowledged in my post). There are many different opinions and approaches that people take in their views on this matter. Personally, I'm not sure that there can ever be any definitive answer to the overall question-the why question (aside from declaring the book non-canonical-an approach that seems to me to be quite close to procrustean reasoning). My purpose in referencing the "conquest" narrative was to openly acknowledge (and confess) it while at the same time asserting that the "hermeneutical trajectory" of scripture, and indeed God's actual work in the world through the life of Jesus, goes in exactly the opposite direction. It seems to me that whatever ambiguity-in terms of the "Divine" character-exists in regard to the Joshua narrative (and other "violent" OT narratives) is more than surpassed in the theological clarity and actual practice of the life of Jesus (and in the core eschatological vision of the Prophets). I know that this does not completely resolve or erase the issue. But I think it does serve to highlight the stark contrast between where that narrative enters the story and where God chooses to complete the story. In my opinion, among other important things, this gives the very ugly narrative in Joshua a kind of "reflexive" quality wherein we are called, perhaps, to look at the nature of ourselves-to see ourselves in that very narrative. What do I mean?
I've been unambiguous about my belief that the overall teaching of the Torah, Prophets, Gospels and Epistles, make it quite clear that God's vision for the future of his creation is to see the end of all forms of violence and all the manifold ways that nations and people use violence and systemic forms of oppression (often codified and expressed in the form of law) to divide, separate and subjugate others (including "creation")-principally for the self-interested gain of some person, group of persons or nation. I think that Jesus' teaching, especially in the Sermon on the Mount, is very clear on these points; and his actions were even more resolute. It is in this sense that the "conquest narrative" (and related violence in scripture) takes on a "reflexive" quality for me, viz. the "object" of our examination in this instance, the "conquest," refers or bends back upon us, who we are, and prompts the difficult question, "Are we really, truly, any different in the way that we live and act in the world?" In order to judge that story and have any type of moral indignation about it, don't we first have to be substantially different from it? When Jesus says, "First get rid of the log from your own eye; then perhaps you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend's eye,", I think he is pointing to the critical importance of being able to do this kind of reflexive self-examination. And this becomes much more difficult when Jesus teaches that even having a harsh word to say to your brother is essentially tantamount to murder. When we look at the "conquest" narrative (and all of the hideous violence that's falsely been predicated upon such grounds) it is easy to feel justified in conducting a "moral inventory" of God. Is that our job? Perhaps that is part of our job (or maybe part of the Job in us!). Whatever the case, I'm confident that the narrative and the God behind it can bear the weight of reflection. But for me this is the more important question: who's going to do our "moral inventory?"
After the Holocaust of WWII, with the formation of the UN, the world was introduced to the phrase "Never Again!" Since the entrance of that phrase into the world vocabulary-and the shared commitment that it was meant to symbolize-some experts estimate that there have been over three-dozen cases of organized mass-murder, with almost everyone agreeing that there have been at least 7 instances of full-blown genocide. So, what is my point? I believe that in his teaching Jesus is trying to direct us to the fundamental truth that all violent catastrophe and injury in the world (whether to persons or eco-systems) begins and grows from the smallest instances of neglect, abuse, withholding of affection or nurture, dereliction of duty to others for the sake of self-interest (or national interest),etc. When all of these sins of omission and commission become "aggregated" at national or international levels they become enormous crimes against person or planet that make us feel helpless and overwhelmed. What can we do to stop such things? What is the point in trying when the crimes are so enormous and when we didn't commit them in the first place? I think Jesus is trying to tell us that he wants us to be responsible for the whole plot, to follow his example and quit trying to avoid responsibility for the "sins of the whole world" that he gladly accepted-and not just doing this in the abstract sense of "life after death," but in the joy and the misery of the "here and now." But we can't do that unless we're willing to take the hard look inside and stop covering over our own fundamental refusal to "bear the sins of the world" by highlighting or using as an excuse the "sins" of someone else-or the painful lingering questions about our own God.
I know that I've opened a lot of big questions and have only begun to sketch some basic thoughts. I sincerely appreciate the comments and e-mails and want to continue the discussion. I wanted to share one final thought that was brought to mind by some of the questions raised by the last post. This is something from Soren Kierkegaard that I love and thought was apropos in this instance:
What is the difference between criticism of a text and radical
accountability to it?
“Imagine a country. A royal command is issued to all of the office-bearers and subjects, in short, to the whole population. A remarkable change comes over them all: they all become interpreters, the office-bearers become authors, every blessed day there comes out an interpretation more learned than the last, more acute, more elegant, more profound, more ingenious, more wonderful, more charming, and more wonderfully charming. Criticism which ought to survey the whole can hardly attain survey of this prodigious literature, indeed criticism itself has become a literature so prolix that it is impossible to attain a survey of the criticism. Everything became interpretation-but no one read the royal command with a view to acting in accordance with it. And it was not only that everything became interpretation, but at the same time the point of view for determining what seriousness is was altered, and to be busy about interpretation became real seriousness. Suppose that this king was not a human king-for though a human king would understand well enough that they were making a fool of him by giving the affair this turn, yet as a human king he is dependent, especially when he encounters the united front of office-bearers and subjects, and so he would be compelled to put the best face on a bad game, to let it seem as if all this were a matter of course, so that the most elegant interpreter would be rewarded by elevation to the peerage, the most acute would be knighted, etc.-Suppose that this king was almighty, one therefore who is not put to embarrassment though all the office-bearers and all the subjects play him false. What do you suppose this almighty king would think about such a thing? Surely he would say, “The fact that they do not comply with the commandment, even that I might forgive; moreover, if they united in a petition that I might have patience with them, or perhaps relieve them entirely of this commandment which seemed to them too hard-that I could forgive them. But this I cannot forgive, that they entirely alter the point of view for determining what seriousness is.”
For Self-Examination, pp.58-59 (SV XVII 69-73)