The Double Vision of our Conquest Narratives
How do you feel about the book of Joshua? It's the story of a conquest, the story of a displacement of a people already living in the land, so that another people can have a place to live. In fact, according to the narrative, God unleashes genocide upon the inhabitants. Consider the story of Ai in chapter 8, where God commands the slaughter of the entire population, including women and children -- 12,000 in all.
What do we make of these conquest narratives? The biblical one and our own? How exactly was the West won?
Dr. Daniel Hawk, an Old Testament Professor at Ashland Theological Seminary, has a new commentary out on this book and this subject. It's entitled Joshua in 3-D. I've not read the commentary -- though if you stop by Allan Bevere's blog you can order it for 40% off (I must do this!). Dan Hawk is in the midst of a series of guest posts at Allan's blog, the latest being entitled "Double Vision." As with earlier posts, Dan weaves together commentary on Joshua with comments about American understandings of Manifest Destiny and the anti-conquest images of Avatar (I must confess to being among the few Americans to have not yet seen the movie).
In today's posting, Dan speaks of the images with which the conqueror uses to describe the other. Often we use negative terms like savage and uncivilized to describe the people in the land, while the invader takes on the aura of civilized and noble. And yet, there is at the same time counter images, that seek to picture the other in a different manner. It's one of ambivalence.
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.
On that last point, I'd suggest another movie adaptation of the idea -- Dances with Wolves.
But in terms of our biblical narrative, the writer of Joshua does find a people in the land, the Gibeonites, who are even more faithful than the Israelites. They become, in a sense, the "noble savage" of our "Manifest Destiny" lore. Both Allan and I -- and Dan -- would welcome your thoughts about conquest/invasion stories, and how they shape us.
One thing that I'll add in closing relates to comments I made on Allan's post -- we have a discomfort with narratives that speak of ethnic cleansing and genocide, especially if God is involved. And so, we create alternative myths. That is, we picture the land as uninhabited and needing settlers. This was true of the American scene. It was true of the Afrikaner conquest of South Africa. It is true of the Israeli conquest of Palestine. If the land is sparsely populated, then surely we have the right to take it -- especially if God has promised it to us (whether we're the old Israel or the new Israel).