Thursday, May 13, 2010

Alien Invastion -- Joshua, the Biblical Conquest and Manifest Destiny

I have been reading with great interest the five guest postings by Dr. Daniel Hawk at Allan Bevere's blog.  Dan is an Old Testament professor at Ashland Theological Seminary and author of a new commentary on the book of Joshua entitled Joshua in 3-D (Cascade, 2010).  I'm intrigued because Dan brings the story of the conquest of Canaan into conversation with the Anglo-European colonization of North America, and the emergence of the ideology of Manifest Destiny to justify the expansion of this invasion.  Dan has been playing with the movie Avatar, but in this final post, which I've received permission to republish in full, he brings in the idea of the impact of alien invasions in general.  Note that in this conversation he suggests that American apologists for Manifest Destiny rarely used Joshua to justify/explain the expansion, and yet there are important parallels that require our attention.  I hope that you will find this a helpful conversation, and will engage the subject in focused conversation.  


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.