What's in a Name?
August 2009

I have just finished reading an article on the Joshua generation and realized that this notion that young Black people make up a Joshua generation unsettles me. In naming our children and grandchildren Joshuaites, what worlds do we ask them to imagine and to build? How do we ask them to imagine leadership? What social, political, cultural, and religious values, concepts and ideologies do we pass on to them? Within a Joshuaite vision, where do we, as humans, place the knowledge that we have learned over thousands of years about the value and efficacy of human beings and the danger of positioning one group of people at the top of God's list and the human chain? How do we, as African-Americans, read the book of Joshua in light of European and European-American invasion, colonization and enslavement of Africa and its people? In the name of God and their roles as God’s chosen people, they scorched the earth throughout Africa, destroying institutions, relations and enslaving more than 60 million women, men and children.

When we name our children Joshuaites without this critique and interrogation, we ask our children to stand over and against this history, while setting their sights and hearts on Empire goals. Despite God’s presence in our lives and human history as an advocate for people who are poor and oppressed, we add historical, political, and theological credibility to an unjust God who is on the side of invaders, marauders, murderers and imperialists. This God gives them the authority and spiritual ground to commit genocide against communities and peoples whom they see as second-class human beings that belong to second-class communities.

Using the name of God (Joshua 1: 2-7) as a rallying cry, and ignoring the rights, existence and humanities of indigenous people, the Joshuaites set about, by any means necessary, to conquer and steal the land that extended from the “wilderness and the Lebanon, as far as the great river, the river Euphrates, all the land of the Hittites, to the Great Sea in the west”. In today’s vernacular, the Joshuaites saw the indigenous people who occupied this land as collateral waste that stood in the way of their impulse for domination and their sense of manifest destiny.

In other words, to the Joshuaites, God is the source and architect of their place in the world as superior people, and as the legitimate heirs of the fruits of God’s bountiful creation. As such, they argue that God supports their acts of conquest and domination. Certainly, this ideology and theology is the rock upon which the generation that followed Moses set their course. In short, the book of Joshua asks us to sign on to a worldview and narrative where God brought Israel out of enslavement to set them above others, like the very people from whom God rescued them - that God wanted them to tear down the walls of a nation (Jericho). As readers, we are manipulated to this viewpoint by all the Joshuaites’ God talk. In our non-questioning state, we fail to ask who lives in Jericho, and are they not God’s people, too? Are they not our brothers and sisters, also? Are they merely objects of Israel’s story, or do they have a story too? If so, what is it?

I believe that, rather than presenting us with a model of how to make a just and ethical transition from oppression to freedom, the Joshuaites show us the dangerous, unjust and inhumane choices we can make when we fail to draw on our ancestors’ suffering and longing for freedom as pathways to connecting with other peoples and communities. When they failed to draw on their ancestors’ stories to tenderize their hearts and elevate their images towards others, the Joshuaties emerged as a dismembered people, separated from their own humanities and the humanities of others. Their dis-memory hardened their hearts and distorted their vision of God and God’s vision of human freedom, not only for themselves, but for everyone. The Joshuaites failed to make these connections, or to remember that God intervened on behalf of their ancestors to free them from their misery. In doing so, they forgot the meaning and nature of their journey. Because they forgot, they shifted their struggle from a struggle for justice to an imperialistic struggle for state power and prosperity. I believe that this story helps us understand that part of being a free people requires from us the same critique and accountability that we demanded of those who oppressed us. When we say that our journey to freedom makes “all of our wants holy”, we slip over to become one with the people who oppressed us.

The Joshuaite tradition resonates throughout the pages of western history, and the United States stands at the center of it. We hear the Puritans, the 17th-century Joshuaites, proclaiming that they are God’s special people, whom God has called to build a city on the hill to glorify God. In the name of God, they stole millions of acres of land and exterminated whole communities of native Wampanoag peoples. These native people did not matter to these European invaders. Moreover, they did not believe that these native peoples mattered to God.

Nor did native people matter to the Spaniards and other Europeans, who invaded and committed genocide throughout every village and hamlet of what is now Central and South America and the Caribbean. The historian David Stannard reminds us that these Europeans, with many priests leading the line, exterminated over 100 million native people in this holocaust. Like their pilgrim brothers and sisters, they proclaimed themselves God's emissaries and chosen people. In this worldview and narrative of divine favoritism and a God that is on the side of invaders and murders, native peoples were barbarians and savages who were as irrelevant to God as they were to them.

As I carefully consider the book of Joshua, Rahab, a native woman, emerges as an object and one-dimensional figure, whose purpose in the story validates the mission and actions of the Joshuaites (Joshua 6: 15 – 27). Her allegiance to the Joshuaites obscures the real nature of their brutal invasion and murder of her people. Simultaneously, Rahab’s acts of betraying her people and placing her family above community are seen as acts that redeem and transform her into a full human being. Her service to the Joshuaties gives life to her and her family. The message comes through clearly that Rahab survives because she bends to the power of the Joshuaites, rather than stand in the circle of her people’s resistance.

Rahab’s actions of rampant self-centered individualism set a dangerous precedent that still fuels the individualism and greed that touch every artery of Western culture. Even as I write about Rahab, I do it with a degree of hermeneutic suspicion, realizing that the reader does not hear her story. Instead, we are asked to believe and accept at face value this portrayal of her, without scrutinizing the root of the story. Additionally, the book of Joshua reminds us that the Bible presents illustrations not only of what we should do, but what we should not do. The Bible gives us a frontline seat to observe the strengths and weaknesses of human beings.

Finally, it is important as we think about movement to understand that it is an intergenerational struggle that engages us all, until we are out of breath and nearing death. Sweet Honey in The Rock put it thusly: "As long as I have breath in body, I will see this struggle through." So it was with Moses. The grace that God gives the Joshua generation is to take a seat in the passenger car alongside others to ride the great train towards freedom and redemption. This includes our ancestors, who still ride with us and above us. They make up this long train. Unlike the western notion of sons killing fathers and fathers killing sons for power, this idea of a long train reminds us that this powerful struggle for freedom does not belong to any generation. No one gets to claim a spot based on age, gender, class, sexuality or religion. It’s open seating and we can board at any stop. Thanks be to God!

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