When you draw near to a town to fight against it, offer it terms of peace. If it accepts your terms of peace and surrenders to you, then all the people in it shall serve you in forced labour. If it does not submit to you peacefully, but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it; and when the Lord your God gives it into your hand, you shall put all its males to the sword. You may, however, take as your booty the women, the children, livestock, and everything else in the town, all its spoil. You may enjoy the spoil of your enemies, which the Lord your God has given you. Thus you shall treat all the towns that are very far from you, which are not towns of the nations here. But as for the towns of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. You shall annihilate them—the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites—just as the Lord your God has commanded, so that they may not teach you to do all the abhorrent things that they do for their gods, and you thus sin against the Lord your God.
If you besiege a town for a long time, making war against it in order to take it, you must not destroy its trees by wielding an axe against them. Although you may take food from them, you must not cut them down. Are trees in the field human beings that they should come under siege from you? You may destroy only the trees that you know do not produce food; you may cut them down for use in building siege-works against the town that makes war with you, until it falls.
These rules of war gave the native Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites an unenviable choice. They could surrender and become slaves, or they could fight on and all be killed. It is unlikely that these rules were actually used by the invading Israelites. But they most certainly have been used by invading Europeans as they colonised the world.
The whole genre of ‘Western’ films is based on a choice of this kind, always viewed by most of us from the standpoint of the noble cowboy rather than the foolish resisting ‘Indian’. It certainly influenced my childhood view of the world, only finally shattered when I met First Nations Canadians and Alaskans on a visit there a few years ago.
The effective enslavement and massacres of these peoples, justified in part by passages such as today’s, led to their being subjected to forced conversion to the ‘superior’ religion (see Monday). Residential schools tore children from their families, taught them the English language instead of their own and the ‘superior’ Christian religion, ‘brought civilisation to Alaska’ (as one town museum said) and then expected the native people to be grateful. Only now are we realising that in the languages, cultures and religions of these people there is wisdom which we now need to perpetuate human life on God’s earth which we (not they) have so nearly destroyed.
As I heard and read the stories of the violence inflicted on these peoples well into my lifetime, I concluded that their colonisation revealed that far from ‘bringing civilisation’ to north America, Christian Europeans tore civilisation from that continent. It is not at all remarkable that churches ‘back home’ which fuelled and supported this are now in decline; the amazing thing is that, having connived in such evil, we have survived at all.
Forgive us, Lord, when easy narratives of good and evil – good cowboys and aggressive ‘Indians’, brave missionaries and ‘primitive’ peoples – have enthralled and entertained us, and even been used to raise money for our church. Enable us to ask what we have gained, culturally and economically, from exploiting others in the past or the present and open our hearts to repay our debts. Amen.
The Rev’d Gethin Rhys is the Policy Officer for Cytûn: Churches Together in Wales and a member of Parkminster URC