Vengeance and genocide: sanctified violence in the Scriptures and slasher film theology, part 3

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September 4, 2013 by jmar198013


This is part three of a three-part series on how Christians might be able to appropriate biblical texts of violence and genocide redemptively. For previous posts, see Vengeance and genocide: sanctified violence in the Scriptures and slasher film theology, part 1, and part 2In previous posts, I read the Canaanite genocide narratives through the lenses of three early films from Wes Craven: “Last House on the Left” (1972); “The Hills Have Eyes” (1977); and “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (1984); and suggested that the stories these movies tell about “righteous” communities who undertake total warfare against a threat can teach us something about how to understand the Canaanite genocide stories. In this post, I will discuss how God’s Word embodied in Jesus sits in judgment of those stories, and how that judgment allows us to own and use them well.

I want to begin this post by going back over something I said back in part 1. Let me set the ground work by recalling some passages that are pretty crucial for orthodox christology. First this:

In the beginning was the Word
    and the Word was with God
    and the Word was God.
The Word was with God in the beginning.
Everything came into being through the Word,
    and without the Word
    nothing came into being . . .

The Word became flesh
    and made his home among us.
We have seen his glory,
    glory like that of a father’s only son,
        full of grace and truth. (John 1.1-3, 14 CEB)

Now this:

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.                      (Heb. 1.1-3 NRSV)

This is also important:

The Son is the image of the invisible God (Col. 1.15 CEB)

Which is why it would make sense that Jesus could say this about himself:

Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. (John 14.9 CEB)

And so I said in my first post in this series that:

one of the things it means to be anywhere in the vicinity of orthodox Christianity is to believe that Jesus is God’s first and final Word. That’s the gist of classic Christological go-to passages like John 1.1-14 and Hebrews 1.1-3. This means that whatever we say about God is mediated and interpreted through the words and the life and the cross and resurrection of Jesus. It also means that Jesus is about a bazillion times more qualified to interpret anything his Father ever said than are we.

That Jesus is the first and final Word of God also means that we ought to pay special heed to a passage like Matthew 17.5. In Matthew 17, Jesus took Peter and the Brothers Zebedee–his besties–to a mountaintop (what is it with Jesus and mountains?). And while they were there, Moses and Elijah showed up. Moses and Elijah offered the best that the Hebrew prophetic tradition had to offer, so it was cool that they were giving Jesus props. After all, they had to come an awful long way to be there, seeing as how both of them had shuffled off their mortal coils at God’s behest several centuries earlier. The disciples understandably freaked out. But after an awkward silence, Peter sensibly offered to make three shrines up there: one to Moses, one to Elijah, and one for Jesus. But Peter’s act of devotion was interrupted by the voice of God, who says: This is my Son whom I dearly love. I am very pleased with him. Listen to him! Does this mean that the disciples were just supposed to can Moses and Elijah? You guys are so last covenant. Of course not! Jesus himself had said, Don’t even begin to think that I have come to do away with the Law and the Prophets. I haven’t come to do away with them but to fulfill them. (Matt. 5.17) Anything Jesus said was the word of the Word of God made flesh. He was the reality to which the Torah and Prophets had been pointing. His life embodied the glowing core of justice and holiness that animated the Torah and Prophets. When Moses and Elijah showed up to greet him on the mountaintop that day, it was not a meeting of equals. No, those two O.G. prophet boys were there to tell Jesus, Thank God you’re here! You’re the hope of our people; you’re what we saw in that mirror dimly so long ago. You’re what we’ve been fumbling around in the dark for since we left Egypt.

So God rightly says to the disciples gathered with Jesus on the mountain that day–and to every generation of disciples to come: Listen to him! The point is, Christians cannot rightly interpret Moses and the Prophets unless we interpret them through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. You can’t bind the ancient stories–even the Canaanite genocide–with chains of authorial intent. Those authors hadn’t met Jesus yet.

If Jesus really is the Word through whom everything else came into being; if he is really the word whose power sustains all things; if he is actually the image of the invisible God who reveals the Father–if he is actually all those things, then he is the very meaning of history. His person–his life and death and resurrection–sits in judgement of all histories: even the Canaanite genocide. Listen to him! Listen to him we must. Listen to him we shall. But first, let’s get back to those Canaanite genocide stories and Wes Craven’s scary movies.

In the last post, I highlighted three Wes Craven films, released between 1972 and 1984: “The Last House on the Left,” “The Hills Have Eyes,” and “A Nightmare on Elm Street.” I paralleled these films with the biblical accounts of the Canaanite genocide, insofar as they portray a “righteous” community engaged in total warfare against a wicked outsider. One one level, these films from Craven seem to trade in a dominant cultural ethos of the day–a white backlash, tough on crime, Silent Majority culture war. There’s a real, “I’m mad as hell and not gonna take it anymore” undercurrent. Although Craven’s films on their surface feed into this societal feeling, as we shall see they also challenge and subvert it. That being said, the “mad as hell and not gonna take it anymore” party line was celebrated in many popular films from the time of Craven’s trilogy of terror. You had “Dirty Harry” (1971); “Walking Tall” (1973); “Death Wish” (1974); and the opening salvo of the “Rambo” franchise, “First Blood” (1982). These are films that bought in wholesale to the party line of being mad as hell and not gonna take it anymore. They feature strong male leads who take the law into their own hands, who slaughter the wicked, who engage in total warfare against the neighborhood terror. These films serve to legitimize a brutal realpolitik which teaches us that the only way to neutralize a threat is to slaughter the wicked completely. These films trade in a “kill ’em all and let God sort ’em out” mentality.

Craven’s films, however–while arguably even more unflinching in their portrayals of bloodlust and sadism than their action movie counterparts named above–serve as a stark contrapuntal to those films. Those films challenge the cultural party line. They suggest that, yes, you can simply slaughter any threat you encounter–but not with impunity. You can assume that everyone who is not like you is against you–but you’d be dead wrong. You can neutralize the terror by overwhelming it with superior violence–but you sacrifice your soul and your future in the process. In “Last House,” “Hills,” and “Elm Street,” Craven portrays families and communities who annihilate the threat through total warfare, but are damaged beyond repair in the process.

Question: which of these narratives–“Death Wish” or Craven’s–do you find more true to life?

In the same way, you have biblical narratives that challenge the party line that, “the only good Canaanite is a dead Canaanite.” This challenge to the party line runs as far back as Genesis 34. In that story, after their sister is raped by a Canaanite boy, Jacob-Israel’s sons slaughter the whole village. Jacob is outraged. He knows that you cannot obliterate entire villages with impunity. He informs his sons that all they have done is invite a never-ending cycle of violence and counter-violence (Gen. 34.30). Likewise, in Joshua 2, the reader encounters a Canaanite madame named Rahab. While the Israelite spies sneak into town, squat in her bordello, and end up hiding out on the roof from local goons, the heathen slutbag Rahab delivers a speech that sounds quite . . . well, it sounds like stuff a nice Hebrew girl might say while filled with the Holy Spirit or something. Rahab is literally the first Canaanite the invading Israelites meet on their own turf and she turns out not only to be not wicked, but smart, virtuous, and braver than them. On the other hand, a counterpoint to Rahab’s fundamental goodness is found in Joshua 7, in the person of a naughty Israelite named Achan. Achan decides to keep a few trophies from his Canaanite-slaughtering, and it brings devastating consequences on everyone around him. For instance, Achan was the only one who misbehaved, but the text clearly says that, The Israelites did a disrespectful thing concerning the items reserved for God . . . So the Lord was furious with the Israelites (Josh. 7.1). Achan’s indiscretion ends up getting a few dozen Israelites killed in battle. What’s really interesting to note is that God informs Joshua that because of Achan’s sin, The Israelites can’t stand up to their enemies. They retreat before their enemies because they themselves have become a doomed thing reserved for me (Josh. 7.12). A “doomed thing reserved for me” is the exact phrase that had been used earlier to describe what Canaanites were to God (Josh. 6.17, 21). That’s right: if Israel acts like a Canaanite, she will be treated as a Canaanite. Identity politics mean zilch to God; God thumbs his nose at them. We are what we do.

So these stories–you can’t slaughter whole villages without consequence; there are Canaanites who are pretty cool; and there are Israelites who aren’t worth a tinker’s damn–they challenge the dominant narrative, the party line that the only good Canaanite is a dead one. Not only do they challenge that party line, they are embedded in the biblical tradition right along with instructions to destroy the Canaanites because they are worthless. Our scriptures simply will not let us think binary.

The Bible doesn’t allow us to think binary because it is records a tradition, rather than an ideology. Do you know the difference between a tradition and an ideology? A tradition is able to adapt, to bend. It’s a bit porous. Ideology, on the other hand–to borrow a phrase from George Santayana–redoubles its efforts when its practitioners have forgotten their aim. A tradition connects us to a storied past. An ideology projects us into an imagined future.

We know from the book of Judges that many Canaanites continued to inhabit the land even after the conquest–and they were often at odds with Israel. We also know that Canaanites continued to live on long after. For instance, the awful Queen Jezebel was a Canaanite (1 Kings 16.31-34); as was the Jewish-genocide-advocating Haman in the book of Esther (Esther 3.1). Of course, it could be argued that Jezebel and Haman were bitter mostly because of Israel’s historical mass-killing of their ancestors (which just proves Jacob’s point in Gen. 34, doesn’t it?). Whatever the case, it seems that IRL, the Israelites just couldn’t stomach committing wholesale genocide against the Canaanites. I would suspect that some of the Israelite invaders were stricken with PTSD after massacring a couple of villages; some met Canaanites like Rahab who were pretty okay; and some probably also knew fellow Israelites like Achan who were pretty gross. If you think about it, those points I just made are pretty much how all social barriers end up being broken down. I mean, think about the American Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. White folk who had been taught that black people were just awful turned on their TVs and saw white trash with a badge dismantling blacks with hoses and clubs and dogs. And they couldn’t stomach it. They saw black folks who were decent and white folks who were awful, and they couldn’t think binary anymore.

Okay, so let’s bring it back to Jesus. The first and final word of God. The word who creates and sustains the cosmos. The Word of God become flesh. The One who is able to judge all histories, because he is the meaning of history. What does God’s embodied Word have to say about the politics behind the Canaanite genocide?

From everything we can tell, Jesus wouldn’t have bought into the party line that “the only good Canaanite is a dead Canaanite.” We can probably glean this much from one of his most famous parables, the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10.25-37). Unfortunately, a couple millennia worth of Christian sentimentality has left most of us interpreting the parable to mean, “Be nice to strangers in need.” But Ellen F. Davis picks up on the real heart of the story: by holding up a Samaritan as a model of virtuous behavior (Luke 10.36-37), Jesus is making the point that “the Jew’s best neighbor may turn out to be a non-Jew” (“Critical Traditioning,” in The Art of Reading Scripture, ed. Ellen F. Davis and Richard B. Hays, 175 [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003]). We must remember that the hatred Jews bore for the Samaritans rivaled that of their ancestors for Canaanites (and vice-versa). Remember–Jesus is the Word of God made flesh; the word that created and sustains all things. He is the meaning of history, and his words and deeds judge all histories. Jesus didn’t buy into the mindset that makes such a thing as the Canaanite genocide possible. The parable of the Good Samaritan repeats the challenge raised by the story of Rahab (and echoed in the movie “The Hills Have Eyes” in the person of Ruby)–in that story, the Jew’s best neighbor turned out to be a Canaanite.

By the way, this parable wasn’t just a one-off thing for Jesus, told for shock value.  Jesus always only preached what he practiced. For instance, when a Samaritan village failed to welcome Jesus, his disciples were ready to go ham and turn the village into Sodom part deux. Jesus told them to knock it off and keep walking (Luke 9.51-56). Note that Jesus was singing in harmony with a note sounded in Genesis 34 and echoed in “Last House on the Left”–you can’t slaughter a whole village with impunity. Incidentally, in hindsight it was a good thing that the disciples didn’t call down divine fire-slaughter on that village, for a few years later, Samaritan villages did end up welcoming them (Acts 8.25). Wonder how their reception would have gone if they showed up in a Samaritan village and everyone was whispering to each other, There’s the guys who vaporized our Uncle Mort a couple years back? When he got the chance, Jesus even openly befriended Samaritans, and not just the respectable ones either (John 4.4-30). Indeed, it appears that Jesus was even so well-known for being chummy with Samaritans that his opponents accused him of being one himself (John 8.48). Jesus said no to the party line of his day–which had morphed into “the only good Samaritan is a dead Samaritan.” Okay, now go read that back onto Deuteronomy and Joshua. It’s okay–no matter what anybody says. Be unashamed to read the Bible as a Christian, for Christ’s sake!

The significance of Jesus for our interpretation of the Canaanite genocide is rendered more crucial when we read a story of Jesus meeting a Canaanite woman in the flesh. Matt. 5.21-28 records this rather awkward narrative:

Jesus went to the regions of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from those territories came out and shouted, “Show me mercy, Son of David. My daughter is suffering terribly from demon possession.” But he didn’t respond to her at all.

His disciples came and urged him, “Send her away; she keeps shouting out after us.”

Jesus replied, “I’ve been sent only to the lost sheep, the people of Israel.”

But she knelt before him and said, “Lord, help me.”

He replied, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and toss it to dogs.”

She said, “Yes, Lord. But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall off their masters’ table.”

Jesus answered, “Woman, you have great faith. It will be just as you wish.” And right then her daughter was healed.

Jesus accepts the correction of this Canaanite woman and heals her daughter–a daughter Jesus’ namesake Joshua would have told his fellow Israelites to kill without remorse. Someone who has bought into the party line that “the only good Canaanite is a dead Canaanite” would suppose that Jesus has gone off-book. That’s not the case. Jesus understands the meaning of the contrasting stories of Rahab and Achan. There are virtuous Canaanites and there are Israelites who aren’t worth a cuss (to prove this point, read the story of Jesus in light of what has just occurred, Matt. 15.1ff). Jesus hasn’t gone off-book at all–he’s simply emphasizing an important bit of tension in the plot-line some of his contemporaries have missed.

Indeed, Jesus’ Great Commission at the end of Matthew’s Gospel is a deconstruction of Moses’ speech in Deuteronomy. Standing on a mountain, Moses told the tribes to destroy all the nations (Deut. 11.23). Jesus tells his disciples, by contrast, to make disciples of the nations and baptize them into the name of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit (Matt. 28.19). Moses tells Israel to observe what he has commanded (Deut. 11.22, 28; 31.5). Jesus tells his disciples to teach disciples they have made among the nations to observe what he has taught them (Matt. 28.20). Moses taught the people to kill the nations; Jesus teaches his people to welcome them into the tribe. Jesus wants the nations gathered into him–not slaughtered. We should listen to him, because all authority has been given him in heaven and on earth (Matt. 28.18). [1] The first and final Word from God, who creates and sustains the cosmos, has spoken. His life is the meaning of history, and sits in judgement of all histories–even the Canaanite genocide. Listen to him!

[1] This interpretation of the Great Commission is not original to me–I’m not that cool. You can read a whole lot more about it in Kent Sparks’ article, “Gospel as Conquest: Mosaic Typology in Matthew 28:16-20.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 68.4 (2006): 651-663.


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