JUDGES That Israel Might Know War

A reading from the Book of Judges, the third chapter.

1 Now these are the nations that the Lord left, to test Israel by them, that is, all in Israel who had not experienced all the wars in Canaan. 2 It was only in order that the generations of the people of Israel might know war, to teach war to those who had not known it before. 3 These are the nations: the five lords of the Philistines and all the Canaanites and the Sidonians and the Hivites who lived on Mount Lebanon, from Mount Baal-hermon as far as Lebo-hamath. 4 They were for the testing of Israel, to know whether Israel would obey the commandments of the Lord, which he commanded their fathers by the hand of Moses. 5 So the people of Israel lived among the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 6 And their daughters they took to themselves for wives, and their own daughters they gave to their sons, and they served their gods. (Judges 3:1–6 ESV)

Why might Israel need to know war? Why might God need to know whether Israel will do as it is commanded?

God already knows Israel won’t. This is settled. Judges begins with this failure. God knows Israel will fail, will not fight and not separate itself and will, instead, subjugate and copulate with the people of Canaan. (You likely cannot have one without the other.) And worship their gods.

So, is war good for Israel? War is inescapable. As Israel intertwines itself with the people whose land they are settling, they will also be subjugated by those people. The wars Israel will fight will no longer be for conquest, but for survival and liberation. They will need rescuing, redeeming. War will be the instrument of their (all-too-regular) redemption. And so the rest Israel was given briefly at the end of Joshua’s leadership will remain a dream, a distant dream.

In this, I am reminded of the expulsion of Eden, when Adam is expelled from the Garden and the ground cursed. He shall have to sweat and work for his bread from a ground that once gave plenty with little or no work. He shall fight thorns and thistles, and for what? For uncertain daily bread. Fighting a ground for his sustenance he shall be buried in when he dies.

Some days will be good. And some will not.

And so, Israel struggles. Mostly against itself. Mostly against its sin. Against the consequences of its sin. God will continue to fight for Israel — the people of God were no more abandoned than were Adam and Eve. But God does not alter their condition any. War will be their lot, their struggle, their fate. For both subjugation and liberation. We will win, and we will lose.

A day will come when Israel will no longer need to learn war — Isaiah 2:4 promises that day will come — but it is not today. Today, we learn to fight.

Because without our will to fight, God cannot be in our midst.

The Future of War … And Politics

Paul Mason has this to say over at The Guardian about the future mercilessness of war currently on display in Syria, but also in Yemen and elsewhere:

To understand the renewed popularity of killing sick people in hospital beds, it’s not enough to point – as MSF does – to the new techniques of war, such as drones and special forces. Something has been eroded about our perception of humanitarian principles.

The Red Cross was, at its inception, both a global humanitarian movement and an alliance of national, military-aligned volunteer units. The two did not seem contradictory. As long as a nation’s army’s hospitals obeyed the Geneva strictures – separating themselves from defensive military positions – civilian medics could volunteer on the understanding they would not be deliberately harmed.

That could not be further from the ideological framework under which modern wars are fought. Since the Rwandan and Bosnian genocides, and with the fragmentation of numerous states along religious or ethnic lines, the essential story of modern conflict has become “we, the normal folk, against an inhuman, alien and irrational foe”.

I think that pretty well describes what politics has descended to in the United States as well — a contest not of fellow citizens who see that shared citizenship with each other even as they compete, but rather, a no-holds barred contest for victory and supremacy against an “inhuman, alien and irrational foe.”

Who must be defeated at all costs. Who is worthy neither of consideration nor consideration, and who deserves no mercy.

It isn’t that civilization is at stake. It’s more primal than that. We, the tribe, are at stake.

While tribalism has always been with us, one of the reasons it is becoming so intense is because the order created by modernity is so fundamentally alienating for so many people. Whether it succeeds or fails in its promises (such as consumerist individualism, or equal national citizenship and accountable governance), modernity destroys the very flesh and blood connections that make it possible for us to really be human and see the humanity even in others, and even in the stranger.

To borrow a Qur’anic concept, tribalism, a sense of us as a separate and unique people, makes it possible for us see the human in the other.

O’ Mankind! We have created you from a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes that you may know one another. (4:39 Khan & Al-Hilali)

But if our humanity is constantly threatened, so much that we are hard pressed even to see ourselves as human, then it becomes difficult — perhaps impossible — to see others as anything more than alien and irrational.

And the web of tribal organization that thrived in mid-century America — Churches, families (often extended), neighborhoods, civic associations — that made it possible for people to be embedded in a web of human relationships, are gone. This was a often not an ideal web, and it could frequently suffocate (though big cities often provided space for nonconformists to find their way), but it worked for most people and it gave their lives shape, meaning, and purpose.

It made them intelligibly human to themselves. And that gave them a fighting chance of seeing, truly seeing, the human in the other, the stranger, the alien. Of seeing the reason in the irrational.

As Andrew Bacevich writes over at Commonweal in his review of Sebastian Junger’s book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, about soldiers returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan:

Members of a squad or platoon form a tribe of sorts, linked to one another by bonds that Junger believes have otherwise all but vanished from our hyper-individualistic, consumer-oriented society. For boys grasping at maturity, in other words, war offers a rite of initiation, all the more alluring given that elsewhere in American society such rites have fallen out of fashion.

In place of communities, ours is a society consisting of market segments, delineated by personal consumer preferences. So when present-day veterans return from Iraq or Afghanistan, they are duly welcomed and then duly expected to repair to their assigned niche in the marketplace. Thank you for your service. Now shut up and shop.

We aren’t in this together. We were once, but not anymore. A sense of shared obligation and responsibility is gone — everyone, but especially the wealthy and the successful, are angry and entitled, convinced the only people they owe are themselves. The aspiration for absolute equality and absolute freedom — both false and dreadful promises made by modernity — destroy any sense that anyone has a duty or responsibility to another. To their safety or their wellbeing.

This doesn’t get better. It gets worse. None of our institutions is set up to foster this sense of obligation and responsibility, to promote mutual self-giving and mutual self-surrender within a social hierarchy. Between the statism and the libertarianism of the age, we are incapable of even conceiving how a good life could be made when we live together, obligated by ties of kinship and faith and closeness that we didn’t choose. We are spinning, whirring, exhausting ourselves in a fit of unfocused rage that can only end in sorrow and suffering and possibly even destruction.

The desire to belong, however, to be part of something, to owe others as one is owed, is there, it just doesn’t know what to do or how to express itself right now. It will out at some point, when there’s little left, when we have been atomized and consumerized into almost non-existence. When we have become such strangers to ourselves that we aren’t sure we see human beings in the mirror anymore.

The Fatalism (and Hope) of the Doomed

Noah Millman over at The American Conservative laments what politics in America has become:

The sorts of people who show up for a Mitt Romney fundraiser want to hear that 47% of the country should be written off because they are not financially self-supporting for whatever reason. They can’t be reached, but simply have to be defeated and kept away from power.

The sorts of people who show up for a Hillary Clinton fundraiser want to hear that 50% of their opponent’s supporters belong in a “basket of deplorables” because they are racist, sexist, xenophobic, etc. They can’t be reached, but simply have to be defeated and kept away from power.

He goes on to note the alt-right supporters on Donald Trump see civilization at stake — in a way coup plotters like those in Salvador Allende’s Chile did in 1973 — and thus there is no room for conversation or even compromise.

We are no longer a nation of fellow citizens engaged in a common endeavor, even as we differ. We have become a nation of enemies and strangers, living side-by-side. Politics is about conquest and subjugation. About preventing those enemies next door from ruling.

By any means possible.

My fear is, soon, we will actually mean that.

Politics is always about winners and losing, excluding and including, competing visions for the polity, even lording it over those you have defeated. But I have long been afraid, ever since I was in graduate school at Georgetown, that the rhetoric (of the late 1990s!) was such that at some point, someone would be so unwilling to lose that they would consider drastic action. Extra legal, extra-constitutional action.

Violent action.

We are headed there. Anyone who thinks Donald Trump is the antidote to what ails America shares the same deluded line of thinking that prompted Soviet generals to arrest Mikhail Gorbachev in August, 1991, and a handful of confused Turkish military leaders to ineptly try and overthrow Recep Tayyep Erdogan earlier this year. Doomed attempts to save dying states, to preserve collapsing orders. The attempt to impose order simply accelerates the rot, and it will further collapse sclerotic institutions that only marginally function anyway.

I admit, I’m a fatalist. For several decades now, I’ve become convinced that dictatorship and violence are an inevitable outcome of our politics. We invest too many of our hopes, dreams, and identities in political acts, in state power, at a time when the state sprawls so widely that it cannot act quickly, effectively, or all that efficiently. At a time when the state itself is increasingly all we share in common — the only thing that links us to each other.

And we too easily constructs our identities ideologically, writing people out of the common, national story who do not believe what we believe.

It doesn’t help that we still seek an earthly paradise, and we still believe politics can and should give it to us. Such is the curse of modernity in an age when Democratic politics has begun to fail and elites can no longer think straight or govern with much wisdom.

This is what happens when you delude yourself into thinking you have abolished history merely because the notion of history you’ve lived with for nearly (and yet only) two centuries — ideological struggle — has gasped its last breath. It lets you forget history is not so much a struggle of ideas as it is of men and their competing and conflicting desires, their aspirations, their appetites, and their successes and failures. History is still happening, because sinful men still breathe, still want, still struggle, still yearn, and still fail.

The metaphor of a Flight 93 election is an interesting one, because once the hijackers took the cockpit of that plane, there was no saving it. The passengers of that plane only got to choose what purpose they died for, the reason they died, and the meaning of their deaths — they didn’t have any choice about death itself.

They were doomed.

And yet, even as polities rise and decline, as order and civilizations come and go, there are always people. Sinful, blessed, striving, caring, brutal, lost, noble, people. However this election ends, and whatever it brings (I’m not betting on renewal, but I never have), we — humanity — will still be here, still breathing, still begetting, still working and loving and praying and fighting and wondering.

So there is hope. There is always hope. Even among the doomed.

JOSHUA Fighting Faithfully and Loyally

With peace established in Canaan, It is time to send the eastern tribes of Israel — Reuben, Gad, and part of Manasseh — back to their land across the Joran River:

1 At that time Joshua summoned the Reubenites and the Gadites and the half-tribe of Manasseh, 2 and said to them, “You have kept all that Moses the servant of the Lord commanded you and have obeyed my voice in all that I have commanded you. 3 You have not forsaken your brothers these many days, down to this day, but have been careful to keep the charge of the Lord your God. 4 And now the Lord your God has given rest to your brothers, as he promised them. Therefore turn and go to your tents in the land where your possession lies, which Moses the servant of the Lord gave you on the other side of the Jordan. 5 Only be very careful to observe the commandment and the law that Moses the servant of the Lord commanded you, to love the Lord your God, and to walk in all his ways and to keep his commandments and to cling to him and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul.” 6 So Joshua blessed them and sent them away, and they went to their tents.

When Joshua assumed command of Israel upon the death of Moses, the second thing he does is command the people of Reuben, Gad, and Mannaseh, who have all been given land east of the Jordan River, to send their “men of valor” (גִּבּוֹרֵי הַחַיִל) across the Jordan to fight with the other tribes of Israel (10 tribes, because Manasseh has land in the middle of northern Canaan too) to take possession of the land.

When peace has come, the men of Manasseh, Gad, and Reuben will get to return to their allotments when the war is over, when all Israel has taken possession of Canaan.

Gad, Reuben, and Manasseh respond enthusiastically: “All that you have commanded us we will do, and wherever you send us we will go.”

This is loyalty. This is solidarity. This is Israel fighting together, for Gad and Reuben have no share in Canaan between the Jordan and the Great Sea itself, and Manasseh has enough of a share in the east to ignore the fight for its share in the west. They are fighting for their brothers, and not for their land.

We see something similar here when Israel fights for its newfound Canaanite allies in Gibeon.

And now that the land is at least temporarily subdued (hint: it won’t last), and there rest on all sides for Israel (interesting that Joshua does not use the word “peace” here to describe this, as the Book of Joshua does not shy away from using the word peace שָׁל֔וֹם), Joshua is fulfilling his promise to the people of Gad, Reuben, and East Manasseh. They fulfilled their obligations — they fought for the patrimony of others while theirs was already secure — and so they will be allowed to go back home to their wives and children and land with

… much wealth and with very much livestock, with silver, gold, bronze, and iron, and with much clothing. Divide the spoil of your enemies with your brothers. (Joshua 22:8 ESV)

The three eastern tribes have kept their promises, and Joshua is keeping his. Because God has kept his promises.

The only condition they have been given is to remain steadfast in their worship of Israel’s God — a command given to all Israel, not just those who are going back their homes across the river.

JOSHUA Strangers in Their Midst

Today, I find myself in the midst of Joshua 15, the eye-watering description of the allotment of land to the tribe of Judah, and the description of that’s land boundaries and contents.

1 The allotment for the tribe of the people of Judah according to their clans reached southward to the boundary of Edom, to the wilderness of Zin at the farthest south. 2 And their south boundary ran from the end of the Salt Sea, from the bay that faces southward. 3 It goes out southward of the ascent of Akrabbim, passes along to Zin, and goes up south of Kadesh-barnea, along by Hezron, up to Addar, turns about to Karka, 4 passes along to Azmon, goes out by the Brook of Egypt, and comes to its end at the sea. This shall be your south boundary. … (Joshua 15:1–4 ESV)

We have Caleb driving out the Anakim from his inheritance in and around Hebron, after which Caleb gives his nephew Othniel (who will become Israel’s first Judge) his own daughter Achsah in marriage (Caleb promised his daughter’s hand to the man who captured the town of Kiriath-seper), as well as some springs in the Negev as a blessing. Because she demands, as so many have, that her father “give me a blessing.” (This makes Othniel’s and Achash’s union a first cousin marriage, typical of most marriages throughout human history.)

In the desert, spring water would be an actually blessing — ברך barak, literally making camels kneel to take a drink. She chose well, and wisely, this daughter of Caleb.

“This is the inheritance of the tribe of the people of Judah according to their clans,” the ESV Bible reads. What follows is a long list of towns and places containing almost all of the south, save for that land given over to Simeon.

I find it interesting that while both Simeon and Levi are disinherited, forbidden from possessing their own land in Israel, because of their brutal vengeance against the Hivites of Schechem in Genesis 34, as tribes they also survive the coming cataclysm of conquest and exile. Levi survives because they are the priestly clan, deprived of any land whatsoever and utterly dependent on greater Israel for its survival. Simeon survives because it ceases to exist as an independent clan completely, eventually absorbed into Judah.

This is an intriguing lesson about survival. Sometimes one has a future, a promise, and posterity, only if one has nothing to preserve. Only if one gets lost entirely, is subsumed completely into something else.

But it is the end of Joshua 15 that intrigues me the most:

63 But the Jebusites, the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the people of Judah could not drive out, so the Jebusites dwell with the people of Judah at Jerusalem to this day.

The eternal capital, the City of David, is a mountain fortress full of Canaanites — Canaanites who have yet to be defeated. Who won’t be defeated for some time, not until David finally subdues it, and makes in his city. A city smack in the middle between the unruly tribes of the north and David’s own tribe of Judah.

There are still Canaanites in Israel’s midst, even as the land rests from war, even as it is parceled out to among the conquerors and colonizers. It’s worth considering that many of the sojourners, strangers, and foreigners in Israel’s midst — people Israel is commanded to love and treat as equals (“Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.” Deuteronomy 10:19) are also likely Canaanites.

Strangers. Enemies. Captives. Slaves. Subjects. Neighbors. Equals. Beloved.

Eventually, God will command Israel to learn to live as a defeated, conquered, and exiled people in a land that is not their own. But today, Israel is having to learn to live as a conqueror, and treat those it conquers but fails (or refuses, as we shall see) to drive out or kill, as equals, under the same law, with kindness, justice, and mercy.

Vote Against Jesus

For those of you who have complained in the past about the quality of my faith (you know who you are), and that I don’t love Jesus enough, don’t blame me for my headline — blame Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas:

“You know, I was debating an evangelical professor on NPR, and this professor said, ‘Pastor, don’t you want a candidate who embodies the teaching of Jesus and would govern this country according to the principles found in the Sermon on the Mount?’” Jeffress said. “I said, ‘Heck no.’ I would run from that candidate as far as possible, because the Sermon on the Mount was not given as a governing principle for this nation.”

Because what matters, apparently, is power and order.

“Nowhere is government told to forgive those who wrong it, nowhere is government told to turn the other cheek,” Jeffress said.

The conservative pastor said earlier this week that police officers are “ministers of God sent by God to punish evil doers” — which is what he said the Bible calls for in a president.

“Government is to be a strongman to protect its citizens against evildoers. When I’m looking for somebody who’s going to deal with ISIS and exterminate ISIS, I don’t care about that candidate’s tone or vocabulary, I want the meanest, toughest, son of a you-know-what I can find — and I believe that’s biblical.”

This is, actually, solid and fairly straightforward Protestant theology, and dovetails well with the historic teaching of the church. Martin Luther said very similar things about the state and its rulers, whether they faced domestic rebellion or external threat.

But like a good Protestant, he mistakes church teaching for biblical teaching. The Bible is much more mixed and nuanced on the moral nature of government — our teaching is distilled from scripture and the need of Christians through history to be morally right, to be sinless, to be justified, in their thoughts and deeds. Government appears, biblically, to be little more than an inescapable necessity, and is not dealt with in the Bible in any systematic fashion. There is no recipe for government in scripture (just as there isn’t in the Qur’an, despite the belief on many Muslims to the contrary), just a set of rules on how a community people should live and the story of that people’s failure to live by those rules.

Some have taken Samuel’s description of a king in 1 Samuel 8 to be a recipe for government — Martin Luther did, as did James VI/II — but that appears to be a warning to Israel of what they are bringing upon themselves by failing to trust God and demanding regular government rather than a recipe for how a king should act.

What scripture doesn’t appear to believe in is democracy. Or representative government. Certainly not popular sovereignty. If anything, scripture tells the story of a people who are frequently subject to government that is not their own, in which they have no say, far more than they govern themselves. That’s the forgotten context of Jeremiah 29 (“seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile”), the restoration at the end of Chronicles (“Thus says Cyrus king of Persia, The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth…”), and Romans 13 (“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.”) — a community of people conquered, occupied, scattered, and ruled not just by foreigners but by enemies.

The Sermon on the Mount which Jeffress says has no governing value (and to be fair, Martin Luther said it had no governing value either), is actually a set of instructions on how to trust God, have hope, and live under brutal exile — to know that your enemies have not won even as they appear to have all the power in the world — and not merely a guide to good behavior. Whether government should forgive or not is only important when Christians govern, and that does not appear to be a New Testament expectation.

Christians are expected to love and forgive their enemies. Because there is no New Testament expectation (or even an Old Testament one, for that matter) that Christians will defeat, conquer, and kill those enemies. They are God’s alone to deal with.

We do know that, in the Old Testament, when faced with a rapacious enemy (Syria), the Prophet Elisha not only forgave, blessed, and healed that enemy — again and again — he also once sent their army home unharmed after giving them a meal. An army that would, in a later vision given to Elijah, do much evil to the people of Israel:

You will set on fire their fortresses, and you will kill their young men with the sword and dash in pieces their little ones and rip open their pregnant women. (2 Kings 8:12b)

Israel is governed. But God does the governing, through agents God chooses in God’s way. Time and again, God tells Israel “I am your king,” and appoints vice-regents in the form of Moses and Joshua and the Judges and even Cyrus, the king of Persia. But God does the appointing, and not the people. The Judges are emergency rulers, raised to redeem Israel from Canaanite and Philistine occupation — occupation and rule Israel has come to deserve because of its idolatry, its faith in the false gods of its neighbors.

I could see some Christians, like Jeffress, seeing Trump in this way, as a Judge raised up to redeem Christian America. I have a theological problem with this — the work of redeeming God’s people has already been done by the final king and judge, Jesus, on the Cross and from that empty tomb — but it could work as metaphor. However, even that metaphor also misses that this kind of salvation and redemption is always temporary because of Israel’s own inclination toward idolatry:

16 Then the Lord raised up judges, who saved them out of the hand of those who plundered them. 17 Yet they did not listen to their judges, for they whored after other gods and bowed down to them. They soon turned aside from the way in which their fathers had walked, who had obeyed the commandments of the Lord, and they did not do so. (Judges 2:16–17 ESV)

Some of the judges were of sparkling character and solid pedigree, like Othniel (nephew of Caleb, the fearless Israelite spy), and some were not (like Jephthah, a protitute’s son banished from his family). Trump could be a Samson-type, skilled at waging war — killing Philistines with the jawbone of an ass — but easily beguiled by pretty girls of all kinds, including Philistine prostitutes.

And Samson said, [w]ith the jawbone of a donkey, heaps upon heaps, with the jawbone of a donkey, have I struck down a thousand men. (Judges 15:16)

Samson was a mighty warrior, and he judged Israel for 20 years. No mean feat for a people surrounded and tempted and oppressed by enemies on all sides. Yeah, maybe not a bad way to think of Donal J. Trump, if you are a Christian inclined to yearn for such things.

I think it should be remembered, however, that Samson came to a very bad end. At the hands of the Philistines, yes, but one he clearly brought down upon himself. Because even God-given government is tragic by its very nature.

Slavery, Capitalism and Cotton Continued

Over the years, I have learned not to trust economists and, more importantly, not to trust economics as an endeavor. Economics, like a lot of 19th century social science, presents itself as a neutral way of observing, theorizing, and drawing conclusions about the world — conclusions divorced from culture and history because the science itself is divorced from culture and history.

So, for example, economists describe capitalism as an entirely theoretical construct, and then tell the story of capitalism’s rise as a way of “proving” the theory. Ignoring — at least some — that the theory arose in and from that very history.

So, in my last blog about Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton: A Global History, I asked a question about capitalism and labor: if slavery is essential to the creation of capitalism, why is there any free labor at all?

Because … culture and history. While Englishmen, Frenchmen, Spaniards, and Portuguese were busily enslaving Africans to cut cane (and, to a lesser extent, pick cotton) in the Caribbean, they were busy in other ways organizing textile production elsewhere in the 18th century:

As on the continent, cottons [in England] were at first manufactured in the countryside. Merchants, many of them Puritans and other dissenters, advanced raw cotton to peasants, who employed family labor seasonally to spin and weave, before returning the cloth to the merchants who sold it. As cotton cloth demand exploded, spinning and weaving become ever more important to smallholding peasants, and some of them eventually gave up their traditional crops and became entirely dependent on the industry. Some of the merchants who organized domestic cotton production turned into substantial businessmen. As they accumulated capital, they expanded production by providing ever more credit to ever more spinners and weavers, encouraging an “extensification” of production — its geographic dispersal throughout ever larger areas of the countryside. This was the classic putting-out system, quite similar to its incarnations across Asia centuries earlier, or to the British woolens industry. The countryside became ever more industrial and its inhabitants ever more dependent on putting-out work for distant merchants. (P.39–40)

Granted, growing sugar cane (and then later cotton) and actually spinning and weaving (milling) it are two very different endeavors. But these pre-industrial spinners and weavers — completely dependent on imported cotton — were, by the late 18th century, fairly voluntarily linked together by financial incentives into networks of producers. Rural England may have been a rough and brutal place for many, but there was no history of slavery and peasant and merchant were at least nominally bound together by the same set of customs and a common law. This wouldn’t prevent merchants from exploiting spinners and weavers, but it did tie them together in ways Africans imported to the Caribbean — or the growers, spinners, and weavers of Bengal’s many centuries old cotton industry — never were.

Because in Bengal, which came under the formal rule of the British East India Company by 1765, spinners and weavers were organized differently — a lot more violence was used, as were coercive contracts and eventually a “state monopoly.”

The company hired large numbers of Indians to supervise and implement new rules and regulations, in effect bureaucratizing the cloth market. Extensive new regulations attached weavers legally to the company, making them unable to sell their cloth on the open market. Company agents now inspected cloth on the loom, and endeavored to ensure that the cloth was, as promised, sold to the company. A new system of taxation penalized those weavers who produced for others. (P.44–45)

The point here is that whatever economic theory might describe, actual human beings made choices grounded in history, culture, and their relationship to and with the people they did business with, as well as their desire to make a profit. English and Indian spinners and weavers were treated differently, with Indian cloth producers subject to rules the English were not, and this despite the fact that well into the 18th century, Beckert states that Indian cloth was vastly superior to cotton cloth produced anywhere else in the world.

This difference in treatment became baked into, or better, was poured into the foundation of English capitalism, and affected how it thought and worked. Some labor was just inherently freer than others. (Britain would ban slavery once and for all in the 1830s, and yet would see the need for “unfree” labor to build colonial projects from railroads to plantations right up to the 20th century, which is why you find Indians in large numbers in places as varied as Guyana, South Africa, and Fiji.) A lot would be built on this distinction.

Slavery, Capitalism, and Cotton

I picked up a copy of Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton: A Global History at the Gonzaga University library (how I miss the days when I had time on my hands and the resources to blog frequently about books I was reading!) and came across this description of the global cotton trade toward the end of the 18th century:

European trade in cotton textiles tied together Asia, the Americas, Africa, and Europe in a complex commercial web. Never before in the four millennia of cotton had such a globe-spanning system been invented. Never before had the products of Indian weavers paid for slaves in Africa to produce agricultural commodities for European consumers. This was an awe-inspiring system, speaking clearly to the transformative powers of a union of capital and state power. What was most radical was not the particulars of these trades, but the system in which they were embedded and how different parts of the system fed upon one another: Europeans had invented a new way of organizing economic activity. (P.36–37)

Sven notes that cotton production for much of human history was done by small holders, as was spinning (making yarn) and weaving (making cloth). Cotton was already established as a global commodity by the 12th century, and when British and Dutch traders first showed up in India, they bought Indian cloth from relatively free Indian growers, spinners, and weavers. However, things would change by the 18th century, as Sven notes:

This expansion of European trade networks into Asia, Africa, and the Americas did not rest primarily on offering superior goods at good prices, but on the military subjugation of competitors and a coercive European mercantile presence in many regions of the world. Depending of the relative balance of social power in particular places, there were variations on this central theme. In Asia and Africa, Europeans settled costal enclaves and dominated transoceanic commerce, without at first much involvement in cultivation and manufacturing. In other pars of the world, most prominently the Americas, local populations were expropriated and often displaced or killed. Europeans invented the world anew by embarking upon plantation agriculture on a massive scale. Once Europeans became involved in production, they fastened their economic fortunes to slavery. These three moves — imperial expansion, expropriation, and slavery — became central to the forging of a new global economic order and eventually the emergence of capitalism … Not secure property rights, but a wave of expropriation of labor and land characterized this moment, testifying to capitalism’s illiberal origins. (P.37)

Slavery was, as Beckert notes, “the beating heart of this system” and became central to economic development in the Americas because plantation agricultural became central — especially in the Spanish, French, and Portuguese colonies of the Caribbean and South America. Sugar was the primary culprit, at least early on, and it seems that one constant throughout human history is the reality that plantation agriculture requires slavery of some kind because few human beings will labor of their own free will on plantations.

For Beckert, this system of expansion, dominance, and enslavement is best called “War Capitalism.”

War capitalism relied on the capacity of rich and powerful Europeans to divide the world into “inside” and “outside.” The “inside” encompassed the laws, institutions, and customs of the mother country, where state-enforced order ruled. The “outside,” by contrast, was characterized by imperial domination, the expropriation of vast territories, decimation of indigenous peoples, theft of their resources, enslavement, and the domination of vast tracts of land by private capitalists with little effective oversight by distant European states. In these imperial dependencies, the rules of the inside did not apply. There, masters trumped states, violence defied the law, and bold physical coercion by private actors remade markets. While, as Adam Smith argued, such territories advanced “more rapidly to wealth and greatness than any other human society,” they did so via a social tabula rasa, which, perhaps ironically, provided the foundation for the emergence of very different societies and states on war capitalism’s “inside.” (P.38)

Cotton is central to this story, Beckert states, and I am guessing he wrote this book to make the case of cotton’s essential place at the center of global empire and capitalism since the 18th century, when Europe stopped simply encountering the world (and doing business with it) and began to conquer it.

I won’t say much more about this book right now except to note that I believe Beckert here is on to something, about the centrality of slavery — unfree labor — to capitalism. Not just its development, but its very nature as an economic system. I’ve long been suspicious of capitalist rhetoric, and economic “logic,” about how important free labor is to capitalism. Why pay for something when you can simply extract it by force from the unwilling? I realize that, by this logic, there’d be no reason at all for free labor to exist, and it clearly does. But if Beckert is right, and slavery was a central feature of capitalism’s rise, then the fact of unfree, coerced labor was baked into capitalism at the beginning, and is likely something capitalism cannot escape. Even if it wanted to.

A God of Fire and Death

So, the last week has been on of suffering and death. Across the world — because it almost always is the case someone’s at war somewhere — and nationally — with black men dying pointless at the hands of police officers, and police officers dying pointlessly at the hands of a black army veteran — and then in my own life, where another young person with an almost indescribable tale of violence and abuse has come to me.

I was reminded of this passage of scripture in the face of it all:

1 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 2 “Say to the people of Israel, Any one of the people of Israel or of the strangers who sojourn in Israel who gives any of his children to Molech shall surely be put to death. The people of the land shall stone him with stones. 3 I myself will set my face against that man and will cut him off from among his people, because he has given one of his children to Molech, to make my sanctuary unclean and to profane my holy name. 4 And if the people of the land do at all close their eyes to that man when he gives one of his children to Molech, and do not put him to death, 5 then I will set my face against that man and against his clan and will cut them off from among their people, him and all who follow him in whoring after Molech. (Leviticus 20:1–5 ESV)

In the last year, as I have done a ministry of presence with abused, neglected, unwanted, and trafficked foster kids, I have come to see our foster care system as Molech, an altar we have built on a high hill and upon which we sacrifice — we slit throats and we toss into fire — children we do not care about. Because make no mistake, there are children — lots and lots of children — we do not care about. Children who have lost their parents to death, addiction, prison, children who have come to exist only to be bought and sold and traded for sex and/or profit. If they mattered, they would be with family. They would have family to begin with.

They are things, these children, mere objects.

Not human beings.

Children who have no protectors, no one who cares for them, who can be abused with impunity, because no law protects them. They the Bible’s fatherless who have no one to stand up for them, no one to requite or redeem them, no one to fight for them when they are beaten and stolen and raped, but the Lord God of Israel himself.

We have sacrificed them to our violent, angry god. I do not know what we get in return, or what we think we are getting, when we offer their broken bodies up. But sacrifice them we do. Willingly, eagerly, happily, to our god who takes and takes and takes but never gives.

But our children are not the only people we willing sacrifice to Molech. We are an angry, violent people, and we have come to worship our angry, violent god.

We are Americans, torn between our universal proclamation that “All men are created equal” and the fact the only men whose equality and liberty really mattered were Protestant Englishmen. From that, we have crafted a more inclusive whiteness, but our proud confession of liberty and equality has never really included Black men and women. They are, at best, a subject people granted a very partial and conditional place in our grand, American experiment. Mostly, they are a captive and subject people, terror-inducing bodies that must be subdued, an other in our midst who must never rule. Who can never be Englishmen. Never be equals.

Never be human.

We sacrifice them to our violent, angry God. We hang them on trees and impale them on sticks and have compelled their labor, making them hewers of wood and carriers of water. I do not know what we get from their sacrifice, what we earn from our angry, violent God with the spilling of their blood and the breaking of their bodies. But sacrifice we do. Willingly, eagerly, happily, to our god who takes and takes and takes but never, ever, gives.

We seek order. We want peace. But we arm ourselves, we fear our neighbors, we demand all the unruly and unseemly and all the others in our midst be beaten into submission. There is some truth in the adage, “if you want peace, prepare for war,” but not as much as those who speak it think. Because in the end, you are always armed, always ready for war, always seeing threats where none exist.

Always willing to respond with violence.

There is no peace in that.

I am a fatalist. This gets worse before it gets better. We have knives and torches and all we can see is blood and fire, in the hopes that enough blood and burning will give us the peace and security we crave. And so, the streets will run red. The altars will drip with blood. The furnace will reek of burning flesh. We cannot stop the sacrifice. We cannot turn away from our angry, violent god.

He is us. We are his. We are captive to him and cannot free ourselves.

I want to call down fire from heaven and have all the priests of Baal swallowed up in flame. I want to crush their altars and their poles into a thousand pieces. Because there aren’t enough stones in all the world to put to death all those who sacrifice children, Black men, police officers, refugees, migrants, poor whites… I don’t know where to stop.

But I also know … I am not without sin. I cannot cast the first stone. Ask me, and eventually, I will confess there is someone’s life I do not care about. I might not slice their throat and spill their blood myself, but I might — under the right conditions — demand it. I won’t look away, or care, when they are fed into the furnace.

I too could easily feed someone to Molech. If I haven’t already.

And so I weep. For the dead. The broken. The beaten. The cast off. The unwanted. The frightened. The lost, lonely, and defeated. For myself. For the world. For my children. For my countrymen.

We are cut off. From each other. From our creator. Because we continue to sacrifice, to spill blood, to devote souls and bodies to destruction on behalf of a god who offers us nothing in return. Our shattered, alienated, angry society is the inevitable consequence of all this idolatrous sacrifice.

And of our failure to stop it.

Which leads me to a question, one that puzzles me.

What do we expect to achieve by sacrificing those we neither want nor value to our angry, violent, blood-thirsty god? If we do not value them, we do not want them in our midst, do not love or care for them, why do we expect their spilled blood and broken bodies to accomplish anything of value? To do us any good?

Or have we been afraid for so long, been so self-righteously angry, and sacrificed to Molech for so long we no longer know why we do it?

JOSHUA Hanged on a Tree (Part 2)

16 These five kings fled and hid themselves in the cave at Makkedah. 17 And it was told to Joshua, “The five kings have been found, hidden in the cave at Makkedah.” 18 And Joshua said, “Roll large stones against the mouth of the cave and set men by it to guard them…

22 Then Joshua said, “Open the mouth of the cave and bring those five kings out to me from the cave.” 23 And they did so, and brought those five kings out to him from the cave, the king of Jerusalem, the king of Hebron, the king of Jarmuth, the king of Lachish, and the king of Eglon. 24 And when they brought those kings out to Joshua, Joshua summoned all the men of Israel and said to the chiefs of the men of war who had gone with him, “Come near; put your feet on the necks of these kings.” Then they came near and put their feet on their necks. 25 And Joshua said to them, “Do not be afraid or dismayed; be strong and courageous. For thus the Lord will do to all your enemies against whom you fight.” 26 And afterward Joshua struck them and put them to death, and he hanged them on five trees. And they hung on the trees until evening. 27 But at the time of the going down of the sun, Joshua commanded, and they took them down from the trees and threw them into the cave where they had hidden themselves, and they set large stones against the mouth of the cave, which remain to this very day. (Joshua 16–18, 22–26)

I have, previously, looked into this matter of Israel taking a defeated Canaanite king and “hanging him on a tree” (or “impaling him on a stick,” as the Hebrew reads literally). About the humiliation of a defeated, enemy king implicit in this act of torture, likely mutilation, and then public display of his abused, battered, and dead body for all — Israel and Canaanite — to see.

The humiliation here continues. Like cowards, the five kings flee their doomed and defeated people and hide in a cave. Where they are trapped. Joshua has the stone that trapped them rolled away, the kings dragged out, and adds to the humiliation — he tells their Israelite executioners to “put your feet on the necks of these kings.” They have been subjugated, and they will die, these five Amorite kings who led the alliance against Israel’s fraudulently acquired Gibeonite (Hivite) allies.

“Do not be afraid or dismayed,” Joshua tells the Israelites as he prepares to kill the enemy kings, reminding them that this job of conquering and subjugating Canaan will involve a lot of bloody, brutal, inhumane, and conscience-wracking work.

After which, they are “hanged on five trees” (or, “impaled on five stakes” JPS Tanakh), a demonstration to anyone who would look the lengths Israel is willing to go to demonstrate its seriousness about taking this land.

Taken down at sunset as Deuteronomy 21:22–23 commands (otherwise the presence of the dead body hanging/impaled will defile the land), the bodies are laid back in the cave. Which is then blocked up with stones. And they remain there “to this very day.”

We tend to think of crucifixion something exclusive to the Romans, a punishment doled out to rebels, to those who openly challenged the power of Rome, and a very public punishment at that. But clearly it’s something Israel did too. Here, this very public hanging on a tree/impaling on a stick is saved for the leaders of doomed and defeated enemies. Not rebels, but enemies to which no quarter shall be given and none expected.

For those who hang, it says: “We are willing to do this to any who oppose us. This is what we do to our enemies. Gaze upon our power and despair.”

For those who are hung, it says: “This is the fate of the doomed, of those who oppose power. Gaze upon me and despair.”

And these five defeated, enemy kings … are still entombed. Their bones still lie in that cave.

The allusions in this passage — in the treatment of the king of Ai and the five Amorite kings — to Christ are clear. They are enemies punished publicly, in the most humiliating way possible. This is what we do to enemy kings. We hang them. We impale them. We leave them up for all to see. So that the whole world will know what we’ve done.

What we’ve done.

That the killing was done by one whose name was Joshua — ַיְהוֹשֻׁע, one who saves — makes this even more interesting. Because in the gospels, the one who saves is the one who is killed. We pronounced him our enemy, and demanded his death. And we hung him on a tree.

In his humiliating public death at our hands, he says to us: “Gaze upon me, on what you have done, and see the glory of God, your salvation, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

And … there is a stone tomb outside Jerusalem that, unlike this cave at Makkedah, is empty.

It is empty.