The Church and Charlottesville

“So the people shouted, and the trumpets were blown. As soon as the people heard the sounds of the trumpets, they raised a great shout, and the wall fell down flat; so the people charged straight ahead into the city and captured it. Then they devoted to destruction by the edge of the sword all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys.” – Joshua 6: 20-21

When the Israelites conquer Canaan as described in the book of Joshua, this scene repeats itself over and over again. Israel engages its enemies. God intervenes. The enemy is given into the hands of Israel, and, by the edge of the sword, the entire population of the city is killed. Men, women, children. There are no survivors. There are dozens of verses describing dozens of different military encounters that result in the total destruction of armies and civilian populations in an effort to eradicate the people living in Canaan. It’s impossible to read this as anything other than genocide.

I didn’t learn about this in Sunday School when I sang about the “Walls of Jericho” as a child. Like my peers, I was unfamiliar with and unprepared for arguments against Christianity regarding biblical violence when I first encountered them as a young adult. The church has failed its youth in preparing them for an adult faith by attempting to protect them from the harsh realities of scripture. These texts need to be seriously engaged in every youth program and from every pulpit, or else youth will enter an unforgiving, cynical world unprepared and disillusioned resulting in either fundamentalism or non-engagement. Either the church will teach these texts, or someone else will do it for us. Protection by avoidance has been a disaster.

Instead of addressing difficult questions, the church would rather preemptively defend itself. The battle of Jericho is made into a cute story for children. The text describing the murder of infants has been forgotten. There is no need to defend against charges of divinely ordained genocide when children sing cute songs. There is no need to defend against biblical violence when we have learned, since childhood, to ignore the unpleasant realities of our faith.

The response by the church to violence in Charlottesville has been disheartening. The church should never equivocate over the “rightness” or “wrongness” of opposing sides, especially when one side includes Nazis and the KKK and when that side initiates violence that results in the death of the innocent. Christian moral teaching does not claim that “all sides are to blame” for moral error as if guilt can somehow be reduced if the other side is not perfect. Christian witness does not back away from assigning fault or choosing sides, but it reminds us that we are not blameless before God, so we should be honest in our accusations and gracious in our judgment. We do not seek vengeance or retribution. We seek forgiveness, reconciliation, and justice.

Unfortunately, the self-serving confirmation bias displayed by the church has been shocking. We have been eager to support people whose views match our own and eager to demonize people whose views do not. The information bubbles in the ideological divides of the church has left each group largely unaware of what and how others think, leaving us eager to decide for ourselves what our opponents views are.  This should terrify a global church whose members will never and have never agreed with each other with regard to faith and politics. If someone opposes us, we gleefully label them the “racist alt-right” or the “extremist, socialist left” as if the myriad of people who reacted to the events in Charlottesville can be easily classified into a limited number of groups that the rest of us immediately understand in full. The church should reject and fear such fallacious, reactionary thinking. Our forebearers have made this mistake before and the result was “destruction by the edge of the sword all in the city” and have called such violence “faithfulness”.

Many churches and Christian leaders have rallied to claim that those who marched in Charlottesville to advocate for racial violence do not represent the nature of the church. By immediately claiming the moral high ground and affirming what Christianity “really is”, of course in opposition to the racist nationalists calling for violence, the Christians advocating “true Christianity” have obscured, rather than revealed, the nature and mission of the church. The church, even the “true church”, is not a body without error or sin. There is not some quasi-Platonic “true church” out in the heavens free from the stain of violence and sin. The only “true church” is the one that we have. It is not innocent. Both our sacred texts and history show the church as both victim and culprit of racist, nationalist, and tribal violence.

The Book of Joshua is a prime example. In it, Israel destroys multiple cities and murders all of its inhabitants to take possession of land that God has promised them. This is done at the command of God, and it’s God, not the people of Israel, who is responsible for military victory. Most Christians do not want to think about or seriously engage a text that describes God as ordering the deaths of thousands of children at the edge of the sword. God is the actor in the genocide of Canaan. Israel is just faithful in carrying out God’s slaughter.

Is this the God of the modern egalitarian church who preaches tolerance and love? Or is the Nazi’s God of violence and racial purity? Without attempting to answer, the church has little meaningful response to those who preach racism and violence while claiming to defend a western Judeo-Christian culture.

The church has an opportunity to seriously engage with violence, racism, and tribalism using our own history and theology. We should be well-equipped for this task, but so far, the best we can muster is a faint, generalized criticism of our tribal opponents and praise for the myth of the “true church”.

We could proclaim loudly that those who call for or commit racist, tribal violence are not beyond redemption. The church of Jesus Christ holds the book of Joshua as holy scripture and is comprised entirely of sinners. We could hold up on our violent past. We could confess our sin. We could ask for forgiveness for not living up to our ideals and work together to change.

We could confess that the racist, tribal legacy of the church through the stories of Israel conquering Canaan in the book of Joshua has no archaeological or historical support, but was instead developed centuries later to support a centralized monarchy in the attempt to justify violence. We could claim that the various texts who describe this event in the books of the Bible contradict each other, and that the best historical evidence available to us does not show the rise of Israel as outsiders conquering the land of Canaan through violence as described in Joshua, but shows a social revolution in Canaan in response to local needs and from the threat of outside violence from powerful empires. We could confess that our ancestors “changed history” and codified this myth into scripture. They created this myth of a more violent past to justify desired further violence against its enemies. Enemies who are defined by their ethnic, cultural, and political identities.

We could admit that Christian history, like the rest of human history, is one in which racism, tribalism, nationalism, and violence are the norms, not outliers. Our tradition, our saints, nor our scripture are free from this. Neither can we hold up Jesus as a modern egalitarian who unequivocally loved and accepted everyone. The god who became human, actually was an ancient human whose ministry cannot honestly be ripped from its context of religious renewal and opposition to outsiders into our own context of western liberalism, equality, and universal values. To the Syrophoenician woman (Mark 7: 24-30) who was asking Jesus to cast a demon out of her daughter, Jesus said in reply, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” – meaning, she was a dog and she wasn’t worthy of Jesus’s blessing due entirely to her heritage. No amount of excuses or historical revisionism can remove Jesus from his own context of being a 1st century Galilean in a culture that was historically abused and oppressed by outsiders. Instead, we could admit that the story of God’s history of salvation is one in which God is continually revealed through human action which necessarily involves human mistakes, misunderstandings, and sin, including the evils or racism and bigotry.

We could teach our children that we don’t have it all figured out. That we don’t know the answers. That our heroes, our ancestors, and our saints believed and did things that we find morally outrageous because the church, like our democracy, is always striving for a more perfect union and that the God who acts in history to reconcile and forgive us isn’t finished yet. We could admit that we will not see its conclusion and that our own children will remember us for our many mistakes and errors. We could admit that we don’t have to be embarrassed of our humanity because our God isn’t, but we do have to correct and learn from our mistakes.

By not doing these things, the church robs the Gospel of its transformative power. As we are, God dies for us. God’s plan for the redemption of the world is the church – not the “true church” – but the real one that has let you down. The one we love to hate. The one from which I still run. The church cannot be relevant, transformative, or faithful without also being honest. And the response by the church to Charlottesville has not been. In this response, the church has been co-opted by outside interests who have always been happy to use, and then later disavow, the church according to its own needs. While calling out racism, tribalism, and violence as a moral evil is necessary for the mission of the church, doing so without extending grace and forgiveness and without examining one’s own self is antithetical to our calling. There’s no middle ground when it comes to grace.

To love the church and to love the world that God has created, is to love it in its brokenness and to extend to it grace and forgiveness without condition. To choose to love its myths over its reality or to choose to love it for what it could be instead of what it is, is to engage in an act foreign to the Gospel and foreign to the mission of Jesus Christ.

Advice to pastors, church members, and Christian parents: stop spreading the myth of the true church. Instead of telling everyone how the true church really isn’t racist or tribal but conveniently conforms to everything we already think, tell them the stories in our scriptures that show what we really are. Tell them about Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman. Tell them about the Joshua and its depicted tribalism and genocide. Tell them about how Jonah was upset that God was gracious instead of killing all the Assyrians.  Explore our history of racism and violence and struggle with it together. And tell them about how the church, as we are, is redeemed but not yet made perfect.

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