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How to handle tales of conquest

by
31 July 2020

It is dangerous to take certain biblical narratives at face value, says Huw Thomas

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An engraving of Moses in prayer during the battle with the Amalekites, from The Bible in Pictures by the German artist Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (1794-1892) (the engraver was F. Obermann)

An engraving of Moses in prayer during the battle with the Amalekites, from The Bible in Pictures by the German artist Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (...

THERE is violence at the heart of Christians’ faith. If they fail to get to grips with it, it can grasp them instead. Over the past few months, the lectionary has offered some grim colonialist fare at morning prayer. In June, God ordered Joshua to slaughter the children of the promised land. In August, those of us who say the Office will skip over David’s massacres (2 Samuel 8) as if we are embarrassed by them. But we do have a corker on Tuesday: the annihilation of the Amalekite people (1 Samuel 15).

Clergy and lay people who have spent months reading such narratives may want to reflect on the effect that they have on us, particularly as these are not simply conquests: the persistent use of the Hebrew word herem indicates utter destruction. We have been having genocide before breakfast.

In the Church of England, schooling in colonialism is a family tradition. The curse of Canaan that is carried out in the conquest stories is the very one that bishops used, around the time of Edward Colston, to sanction slave-trading. They even reversed the logic, finding in chattel slavery “proof” of the inspired accuracy of the biblical curse.

In our day, any such talk of “the land” needs to be tempered by our penitently reminding ourselves that this land is still occupied, and that a Davidic annexation in the West Bank is currently on the cards (News, Comment, 10 July).

Something of the outlook of biblical land seizure lingers among Christians: it manifests itself uncomfortably even in otherwise benign aspects of mission. While there is an aeon of difference to bear in mind here, the story of battling and claiming has been passed down the family. It echoes if we sing the worship song “Our God is greater” (Comment, 8 December 2017), or if we talk about “taking”, “claiming”, “winning”, and “victory”.

The very word “conversion” has an element of violence to it. It depicts spiritual growth as a movement over something — like a Dan Biggar rugby kick. It has the same sense of superiority, too: the spirituality of those who are “won” is largely ignored as an obstacle to the “real” task of making the convert.

The Pentecost initiative Thy Kingdom Come is a great annual prayer event, but it reduces these three words to prayer for individual conversions. You can almost imagine Jesus complaining that its participants have stolen one of his best lines. How ironic this is when you recall that he was put to death because of his resistance to the commodification of religion!

 

THE conquering and converting tendencies can be reshaped by the same scripture as has been misused, however.

Starting with the genocide commands, we need to acknowledge that, whatever the Bible says, God did not, in fact, say these things. These national myths are not records of history: they are tales spun for the people of their authors’ own day. And what spin! Closer to Asterix than accuracy, they and their overblown violence spoke to the troubles of their generation. We need to acknowledge the fiction and allow that to make our hermeneutic the issue — rather than let a dogmatic view of scripture leave us pussyfooting around a Pol Pot characterisation of God.

This will then liberate the image of the land to be as inspiring of our thinking as it is of the Hebrew Scriptures. The readings that follow will recover that sense of gift and dependence on God, and the ambiguity of our inhabiting this place and our risk of losing it. These readings will then also sound more like the Kingdom that Jesus depicted: in which there is filled-out diversity, and we dwell rather than operate as its border police. When scripture is read well, the land again becomes “a blessing in the midst of the earth”.

This way of reading also liberates us to enjoy scripture’s caricatures. Next Tuesday, the lectionary shows us a leader who cannot lead because he is in thrall to populism. Could that speak to the present day?

 

THE notions of claiming the land, of fighting, and of victory have shaped the worst of the Church’s worst moments, and influence the present residually. But, if we problematise our reading of such passages of scripture, and reflect contemporary Christian experience better, we will move beyond the “them” and “us” approach that such stories have been used to sanction.

Instead of talking of claiming and winning the land, we will speak of receiving and dwelling in it — as receivers with our fellow human beings of the place of God, and as people who are trying to figure out what that means in all its fullness.

So, happy reading! And I make one final recommendation: re-read next Tuesday’s story from an Amalekite perspective.

 

The Revd Huw Thomas is an honorary assistant curate of Christ Church, Pitsmoor, in the diocese of Sheffield.

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