An Enduring Culture of Violence

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ICON SET-05I find the story of Joshua and the Battle of Jericho fascinating, probably because it involves shouting, one of my more pronounced spiritual gifts. Jericho’s demise is the hallmark of Josh’s story but in truth, it was merely one battle in a seemingly never-ending series of wars. Joshua was addicted to war in the same way my freshman roommate was addicted to porn; he just couldn’t stop himself.

Josh’s story begins when Moses kicks it. That had to be quite an act to follow seeing as Moses was basically the savior of the Hebrew world at that point. He turned sticks into snakes, both predicted the plagues and kept his people safe from them, and had the ultimate mountaintop experience from which he brought back souvenirs in the form of a list, in stone, of morality clauses the world still adheres to. But now it was Josh’s turn to do what Moses couldn’t: bring his people to the “Promised Land.”

From the jump, God told Josh to, “be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the laws my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go.” [Joshua 1:7]

As a teenager, my friends and I had a chosen mom-friend we went to with the stuff we didn’t want to tell our parents. During a prayer service one Wednesday night, she told me something similar—to never turn away from God because my gifts were given to me for the sole purpose of pointing people back toward my gift-giver—so I understand what God is telling Josh here because in a way, I was told the same thing. Stay the course, remember what you’ve been taught, shout a lot. Done, done and done. That’s pretty much where the similarities between he and I end though.

Joshua was a military general and as much as the “Promised Land” with all its milk and honey was the end goal, the means of obtaining it involved many battles and much killing, the most famous of which is Jericho. But the Jericho story doesn’t begin with the wall falling, it actually begins with two spies being befriended by a prostitute named Rahab.

The spies Joshua sent to scout out Jericho apparently weren’t very good at their job—the king knew they were in town—but when questioned about these not-ready-for-spy-time sleuths, Rahab lied to protect them. This is one of those slippery moments when breaking one of the Ten Commandments was condoned by God; something to think about I guess. By hiding them in her roof, she kept the spies out of harm’s way. She didn’t have to do that, it would’ve been far easier to tattle and move on with her life, but word of Joshua’s intention to take over the city had gotten out and the citizens, Rahab included, were spooked. They’d heard the stories of Moses and his people’s exodus from Egypt so they knew better than to underestimate them. They’d also heard that Joshua and Co. destroyed and set fire to everything in their path, so yeah, I’d be spooked too.

Maybe it was out of fear or maybe it was out of her gut-feeling that the God from their stories might just be real, but Rahab aided the spies by giving them a safe home base. In return, she asked only that she and her family be shown kindness. As in, “Don’t kill me because I could’ve ratted you out about a hundred times by now and I didn’t.” They promised if she kept them safe, they’d do the same.

Rahab let down a rope through her window—her house was actually built into the side of the city’s now-famous wall—to lower them to safety and allow them to sneak out of the city unscathed. The spies instructed her to hang a scarlet rope in that window to let Josh and his men know she was the one who helped them. It might make some people uncomfortable to know God could use a prostitute in the same way as Moses, but that’s what the Bible says. In church, we’d sing “come just as you are” during altar calls and this moment with Rahab is the embodiment of that sentiment. I like Rahab. Her story doesn’t take up much literary real estate but it’s important because nowhere in this narrative is the notion Rahab needed to change in order to be saved or spared. At no point did the spies or Joshua shame Rahab for her profession or for the fact she was a woman, nor does it imply God would only use her if she turned away from her lifestyle.

This is a woman, specifically named as a prostitute, who had a heart and a soul and a sense of whose side she should be on and she’s the hero of those spies’ story. Later, when she and her family were spared, there was also no caveat about how she should change going forward. She, doing what she could, was enough.

When Josh and his troops arrived on the plains of Jericho, God’s marching orders (Jericho pun!) were simple. For six days, Josh and his army were to march around the city walls in utter silence while seven priests carried trumpets made out of rams’ horns in front of the Ark of the Covenant—yes the Ark of the Covenant. On the seventh day, they were to march around the city seven times while the priests blew those horns. When they were done with their laps, they’d blow one long blast on their horns, the entire army would shout alongside them, and the walls of the city would collapse.

In the words of Ramesses via Yul Brenner in The Ten Commandments, “So let it be written, so let it be done.” Josh and Co. marched, played, and shouted and wouldn’t you know it, the walls came a-tumblin’ down. The army was then able to rush in and stab every living thing inside the city—men, women, cows, baby sheep, everything. Everyone except Rahab the hooker and her family. They were kept safe as promised and once they were safely escorted out of the city, Josh’s army burned the place to the ground.

I don’t understand why you’d go through the trouble of taking control of a city, not to mention all the days of miracle marching it took to get there, only to burn it to the ground. Then again, I also don’t understand the appeal of skim milk or Cardi B so what do I know? (I’m actually aware this was a tribe-centric period of history and upon capturing a city, a tribe would then destroy it so it could never rise up to retaliate. But still, what a waste of a city.) News of yet another miracle associated with the Israelites spread quicker than chicken pox in a Kindergarten classroom and Josh became quite the celebrity among the war monger set.

The men in his army were told not to take anything from the fallen Jericho. They may’ve been war mongers but they weren’t pirates; they didn’t loot or pillage. All of the silver and gold was to go into the treasury (to fund more warring later), but one dude, Achan, didn’t listen. He ferreted away some silver and robes under his tent. God, being the angry and vengeful God He’s depicted as being so often, was furious at Achan’s disobedience and thus allowed the Israelites to get attacked. Josh, who thought he was impenetrable, became so forlorn about being attacked and losing men that God eventually had to tell him to “Snap out of it!” a la Cher in Moonstruck.

After an all-out manhunt to apprehend the person who couldn’t follow instructions, Achan fessed up. To reward him for coming clean, Joshua’s men took him, his extended family, and all their innocent animals and stoned them before burning their bodies. That’s like the worst part of a Ridley Scott film. You think The Passion of the Christ was gory? Picture an entire extended family being stoned to death alongside cows and sheep. It’s just people hurling giant rocks at other people with the intention of bashing their bodies into bloody stumps. And this was the punishment on the God-side of things. Just imagine what they did to their enemies. Sadly, the rest of Joshua’s story isn’t any less gory. It’s battle after battle; killing spree after killing spree.

ICON SET-05The violence in the Bible flew past me virtually unnoticed as a kid. We kept more to the larger plot points and rarely dipped into the surrounding chapters. Even when we did the year-long challenge of reading the entire Bible in 365 days, those chapters seemed to scroll past my eyes and disappear like the credits at the end of a movie. Now that I’m older and have a much wider context in which to place these stories, Joshua’s exploits post-Jericho have become really cumbersome to read. Josh’s conquests killed kings—31 to be exact—burned families and destroyed entire people groups. All in the name of God.

Within the Bible, we’re usually meant to only consider the plight of the identified protagonists—the other people in the stories often serve as props to tell a larger story of how God shows up for the faithful—but reading through chapter after chapter of merciless killing, I was confronted with why it’s difficult for many people to reconcile these ancient bloody crusades with a pastor down the street telling them about a “loving, peaceful God.” The point of the story isn’t the violent part, it’s the redemptive part, but when taking the story at face value as a first time reader, it’s a murderous mess.

From a very young age, I became so desensitized to the violence in the Bible that when I woke up to it as an adult and realized no pastor ever followed those stories by saying, “but today, violence is never the answer,” I had to consider if perhaps that’s why so many American Christians are the most pro-gun and pro-war people in the country.

Yes. I’m going there.

Since the 90s, our news cycles have been dominated by one mass shooting after another. In the wake of these shootings and the inevitable cries for gun law reforms that follow, many Bible Belters have made impossible statements about the interconnectedness of their guns and their faith. People go on news stations and say things like, “Carrying whatever gun I want is my God-given right,” and well-compensated NRA mouthpieces extol the virtues of gun possession as if it’s one of the beatitudes. I’m not sure where that idea came from since it is, in no way, biblical, but in reading about Josh, I began to wonder if stories like his have become so subconsciously embedded into people’s thinking that they believe violence and faith are somehow intertwined. A look at the history of Christendom shows this isn’t such a stretch. For example, the crusades were a bloody and violent way to convert people who didn’t prescribe to a specific brand of medieval Christianity. People were ruthlessly slaughtered in the name of the same God to whom Joshua gave credit for his victories.

This also played out all across what’s now America. Anyone who was educated in Texas like I was will tell you Texas history was given the same weight and importance as Betsy Ross, Thomas Jefferson and the Boston Tea Party. In those delineated Texas History classes, we were taught every flag that flew over Texas at one point or another was planted both in the name of a land-grab and a desire to convert people, indigenous or otherwise, to their specific brand of Christianity. They also did this through violent means, just like Joshua.

(This feels like a prime opportunity to point out there were six flags that flew over Texas between 1520 and the late 1800s and this is where the chain of amusement parks got its name. The original park is in Dallas, hence the name Six Flags Over Texas, and within it are areas which represent each of those six nations. That’s not biblical, just bonus.)

Back to Joshua. He gave the okay to murdering and burning the bodies of thousands of people and I don’t really know how to rectify or rationalize that behavior; to rationalize the violence I now associate with a Bible hero I once only saw as a horn-blowing wall-crusher. Maybe this bothers you too. For me, when reading stories like Joshua’s, I think it’s imperative to look both back and ahead. We look back to place it in the context of the day, where tribal warfare was ongoing and primitive ways of thinking prevailed, but we also have to look ahead to what happens after the B.C./A.D. break. The violence associated with Josh was in no way associated with Jesus. Jesus wasn’t a proponent of war nor was he a fan of violence.

Jesus would, in no way, be a member of the NRA.

Again, where Americans got the idea that their guns and their God were somehow linked is beyond me because it’s not written anywhere in the Bible. Rather, Jesus said to “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also.” [Matthew 5:43]

Oh come on Ryan. What about protecting my family? You’re going to tell me I shouldn’t have a firearm because the Bible talks about peace and while that’s the goal, it’s not practical?

No, but I am saying that guns and God are not mutually exclusive. When Jesus showed up on the scene, the narrative was supposed to change. In many cases in history, it didn’t, and the stains of those bloodbaths leave unbleachable marks on our faith, but for a group of people who claim to adhere to the peaceful teachings of Jesus, I have to ask which part of Jesus’ teaching many are reading. Christ-followers should be leading the charge against these preventable forms of violence rather than defending their rights to carry. The Second Amendment is not one of the Ten Commandments.

Why is this such a sticking point for me? I was in high school when 13 people were killed at Columbine High School in Colorado. In the weeks that followed, we prayed for our country a lot but with every news report, I found myself asking God, “Where are you in this?”

Since Columbine, there have been more than 240 school shootings and hundreds of lives lost. When 20 children and 6 adults were murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, the only thing I knew to do was to call my mom. I was so broken that I wept on the phone, trying as I might to form words. None of those mommies would get to talk to their babies again. There were kids who were now left without one of their parents. Even after we hung up, I wept so deeply I had to leave my office. I found a doorway on 33rd Street where I stood and cried, my palms to my face, and after a few minutes, I looked up to Heaven and asked aloud, “Where are you?”

Not just gun violence has prompted me to ask that question. After 9/11, when the deaths of innocent American lives were responded to with the deaths of innocent Arab lives, I asked again, “Where are you?” I can also vividly remember being seven years old watching the night-vision videos of bombs exploding over Baghdad as the Gulf War began. Sitting on the carpet near the television, I asked my parents if what I was watching was real war, not movie war. It was of course and though I was too young to process the full magnitude of what that meant, I wasn’t too young to wonder why the loving, good God from my Sunday School class was letting this happen or why the Christians around me were so gung-ho about it.

Our world has always known war. Since the days when the hot Greeks were running around in their little skirts stabbing each other to today when drones are guiltlessly wiping out entire city blocks, mankind has been on a power trip that’s placed them at odds with each other. But that’s not the plan, that’s not the way this was supposed to go, and the fact that the church hasn’t been the leading voice for peace—leading not just by thoughts and prayers but by tangible actions—should embarrass us. It should provoke us to do better and be better. It should spur us to say, “That may be how it was done in the past, but it can’t be how it’s done in the future.”

Okay, how did this story about a wall falling down turn into a diatribe against gun violence? I think you’ve lost the plot.

I haven’t. The pages of Joshua’s story extol employing violence as a means of obtaining what you believe is yours. Per our Sunday School reading of the stories, we want to focus on the shouting and the trumpets and the miracle of a city wall imploding so it’s understandably uncomfortable for us to contend with the fact God told Joshua to massacre and murder countless humans not just in Jericho, but in many, many cities.

Today, the chief physical weapons of violence aren’t swords and spears like Josh used; they’re firearms. Actually, the most pronounced weapon of violence is other-ness—the method of forcibly oppressing minorities including women, LGBT people, and anyone who isn’t white in America—but the CDC reports that more than 36,000 people die from firearms each year in America. 36,000 people who died and didn’t have to. That’s a small city’s worth of souls slaughtered, so forgive me if that’s where I correlate Joshua’s killing an entire city with today’s American violence that’s doing the same thing.

It’s true God was with Joshua. After doing what God told him to do, the walls between where Joshua was and where he was supposed to be fell down. That’s a good moral to the story: be faithful and the path will be cleared in front of you. But the truth is found in the allegory of it, not the practicality. The American church is as addicted to violence today as they were when Joshua was in charge, the proof of which is seen in the wake of every gun-related tragedy when instead of calling for reforms or an outright cleansing of these instruments of suburban warfare, they defend their “God-given” rights and blame-shift onto any number of factors or statistics to prove their point. Just imagine for a moment what would happen if the American church decided they’d had enough of the unnecessary deaths in our nation. Imagine if the church decided people were more important than politics and demanded reform. Imagine if that was the battle they chose to fight. If the same power that’s put into fighting against abortion was put into fighting for the lives of people who are already alive, it would be change the world.

If you question this or think I’m off my rocker, consider the life of Jesus. Jesus reached people by giving them water when they were thirsty, by feeding them when they were hungry, and by helping them when they were sick. Jesus showed that the way you truly tear down walls is by being kind without condition. Jesus led with peace. So should we.

The biblical story of Rahab, Joshua, and Achan can be found in the book of Joshua.

So what’s this all about? Read my introduction to the Sunday School for Sinners and Saints project here. 

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