Cities you did not build, wells you did not dig

Sunday’s sermon text was

Then when the Lord your God brings you to the land he promised your ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to give you—a land with large, fine cities you did not build, houses filled with choice things you did not accumulate, hewn out cisterns you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant—and you eat your fill, be careful not to forget the Lord who brought you out of Egypt, that place of slavery. (Deuteronomy 6: 10-12 New English Bible)

These lines echo today. They are typically interpreted by feel-good Christians spiritually, as reminding us that we are provided with good things not of our own making. And maybe as reminding us that we are dependent on others, not just ourselves. But these passages are explicitly and unambiguously about conquest and the displacement of the previous occupants of a territory. This can be readily seen in the parallel passage in Joshua:

You crossed the Jordan and came to Jericho. The leaders of Jericho, as well as the Amorites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hittites, Girgashites, Hivites, and Jebusites, fought with you, but I handed them over to you. I sent terror ahead of you to drive out before you the two Amorite kings. I gave you the victory; it was not by your swords or bows. I gave you a land in which you had not worked hard; you took up residence in cities you did not build and you are eating the produce of vineyards and olive groves you did not plant. (Joshua 24:11-13 New English Bible)

The Biblical writers know this history and make no apology for it. They believe that a one-sided war god backed them against their enemies and gave them the land over the dead bodies of their enemies. They remember their own victimization and their time of slavery and rejoice that it has ended, but they simply have no compunction about killing other groups and taking their land, and they are sure that is what their god wants them to do. (See more references below if you have any doubt that this is a persistent theme.)

The launching point of the sermon was a tour the pastor and other church members took to be educated about immigration issues in Arizona. This stressed the overlain history of the area: indigenous inhabitants partially conquered and partially assimilated by Spanish; the Mexican people who are the amalgamation of indigenous and Spanish who moved around in Mexico; the Anglo-Americans who conquered Northern Mexico and finished conquering the indigenous and now have the audacity to complain about “foreigners” in the area. Our pastor also spoke of touring old Jaffa in Israel-Palestine today with Palestinians who can point to the exact houses that were occupied by their parents and are now occupied by Jews who forcibly removed them. There are plenty of other examples. White South Africans still occupy areas from which they forcibly removed Black South Africans in the 1940s and 1950s. European settlers on the Atlantic coast of North American were able to gain a foothold because they occupied villages that had been built and farmlands that had been cleared by indigenous Americans who had recently died of a plague. All European Americans live on land that was taken from indigenous Americans in a multi-hundred year war of conquest.

Some White American Christians believe in the war god who favored [White] America in its genocide and conquest just as the war god of the Old Testament favored Israel. In fact, the sense of American exceptionalism and American divine right to rule cannot be understood outside this religious context, this understanding of America as the new Israel and Americans as the new chosen people.

Biblically literate atheists point to these passages and these interpretations as a reason to reject Christianity and the Biblical tradition wholesale, and it is hard to blame them.

What is a progressive White American Christian to make of this? How can we reject the one-sided war god and make sense of our position if we believe in a god that is God for everyone? We must sit with the understanding that we are living in houses we have not built and drawing water from wells we did not dig. We are living atop the graves of others, and we are only here because our ancestors brutally displaced other people from their homes. This is plain historical fact. Either we believe only in the one-sided war god, or we believe that somehow there must be some just accounting for the sins of our ancestors. To continue to benefit from the consequences of past injustice is to perpetuate the injustice. And yet, we are not volunteering (I am not volunteering) to relocate myself to my ancestral homeland in Europe, and moreover (and perhaps ironically), Europe considers me to be a foreigner. It seems to me the only way forward is to sit humbly with the burden of history, to try to make justice or at least to get out of the way when others try to make justice.

 

* Passages which are explicit about killing and displacing others: Deuteronomy 2:33-34, 3:6, 7:2, 13:15, 20:13-14; Numbers 21:3, 31:17-18; Joshua 6:21-27, 8:22-25, 10:10-40, 11:8-15, 21-23; Judges 1:4, 1:17, 3:29, 7:19-25, 8:15-21, 9:45, 20:43-48, 21:10-12; 1 Samuel 4:10, 7:7-11, 11:11, 14:31, 14:48, 15:3, 7-8, 27:8-11; 2 Samuel 8:5, 8:13, 18:6-7; 1 Kings 20:29-30; 2 Kings 14:5-7.

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Author: olderwoman

I'm a sociology professor but not only a sociology professor. I keep my name out of this blog because I don't want my name associated with it in a Google search. Although I never write anything in a public forum like a blog that I'd be ashamed to have associated with my name (and you shouldn't either), it is illegal for me to use my position as a public employee to advance my religious or political views, and the pseudonym helps to preserve the distinction between my public and private identities. The pseudonym also helps to protect the people I may write about in describing public or semi-public events I've been involved with. You can read about my academic work on my academic blog http://www.ssc.wisc.edu/soc/racepoliticsjustice/ --Pam Oliver

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