Undoing Conquest | Kate Common

Undoing Conquest

The following is an excerpt from Undoing Conquest by Kate Common. It’s a featured Speakeasy selection, and there are still limited review copies available for qualified reviewers. You can invite Kate to speak at your faith community or event here.

The stories we tell shape our identities, who we are as a people, what we come to expect in the world. Stories told together, hold us together, shaping our collective or social imagination. Our religious traditions contain many stories that shape us. Across the world the stories of the Hebrew people have become foundational for the biblical faith traditions. Their stories are canonized in the Bible which many people hold as sacred text, even the word of God. So, what do we do when we begin to realize that some biblical stories contribute to actual violence in the world? What do we do when our stories are harmful and no longer serve us? This book explores one such story, the conquest narrative found in the Book of Joshua in the Hebrew Bible (Josh 1—11).

The conquest narrative is a story that justifies patterns and practices of colonialism, land-taking, and even genocide in religious imagination. The story has enabled violent atrocities to be understood in the minds of primarily Christian perpetrators as not only justified but divinely sanctioned. The European genocide of indigenous peoples across the Americas and the apartheid state in South Africa, are a few of the historical atrocities supported by the conquest narrative in colonial religious imagination. There are no land or peoples safe when any land can become the Promised Land and any people the Canaanites. These horrors do not remain in the past but are part of our present, in large part because an imagination of conquest remains. But what do we do about a story so thoroughly embedded and entangled in the dominant faith, culture, and western social imagination? How do we undo conquest? We cannot undo the past but we must work towards undoing the legacies of conquest within our own communities.

Because stories effect identity, part of social justice work must be to reshape violent historical stories that contribute to harmful and even genocidal social imaginaries. Without doing so, these stories lie dormant as hidden inheritances that are carried forward into an unknown future where they can once again be used to foster and perpetrate violence. The past is never in the past.

The good news is the stories we tell can and do change. In fact, religious traditions themselves, are not static entities but are living communities, constantly on the dialogical move: perennially negotiating the tensions between past and present, reshaping, and reimaging stories in order to meet the current moment. The process can seem slow and even imperceptible, but change is occurring. New stories, new theologies, new practices, new images of the Divine develop as human cultures morph and change. Indeed, change is necessary as stasis leads to death. The task of undoing conquest then is not a unique problem but consistent with processes inherent to religious traditions. Even when stories are part of sacred texts, in this case the Bible, they are constantly up for new interpretation, and new ways of understanding. New interpretations of old stories, and even new histories are important for social change. When new meaning is made from the past new beginnings occur.

Feminist and other critical theorists contend that the key to the future is found in the past: how we perceive the past informs the way we shape our present, which in turn shapes the future. Disrupting the past and re-imagining it can “disrupt the certainties of the present and so [opening] the way to imagining a different future.” History is a site of the political. In some cases, new information or discoveries are made that shed new light on our oldest stories and histories and press for a new interpretation. Sometimes such a historical discovery can unsettle the very foundation of history.

Newly Discovered History of Ancient Israel
During the past century archaeologists made such a finding when they unearthed a new history of the origins of the Hebrew people in Canaan (present day Israel and Palestine), known as the Iron Age I Hebrew Highland Settlements. Archaeologists discovered and excavated hundreds of small villages, found scattered across the highland regions of ancient Canaan that date to the end of the Late Bronze Age and into the early Iron Age. Carefully excavated artifacts like shards of pottery and layers of stones, now provide the foundation for a new history of the ancient Hebrew people in Canaan—a history that counters the story of conquest. Archeological evidence indicates that the social process that led to the origins of the Hebrew people was not a violent military overtaking as the Bible depicts in the book of Joshua. Rather, the Hebrew people emerged in Canaan in a non-militaristic social response to extreme social and climate conditions.

During this tumultuous period in Canaan, people faced severe drought, oppressive socioeconomic conditions, and the collapse of the Egyptian empire. In response to these coalescing dynamics, groups of largely indigenous Canaanites carved out a new way of life in the geographically remote, and rocky hillsides of the Canaan highlands. Though the settlements were near Egyptian controlled land, the rocky terrain kept insulated them from Egyptian military control. Horses and chariots could not navigate the difficult rocky terrain! The lack of military intervention enabled the Highland Settlements to expand for nearly a 150-year period. During this time, these new settlements appeared to idealize, if not practice, a type of heterarchical or even egalitarian social organization likely in response to the harsh and unjust conditions they left under Egyptian imperial rule. The Hebrew and later Israelite identity developed through a process of ethnogenesis as Canaanite settlers begin to shape a new culture through their innovative social, language, farming, and cultic practices.

The biblical story of the Israelite conquest of Canaan covers over the Highland Settlement period of Israelite history. It is then, a miracle of sorts, that archaeology has once again unearthed this buried history. Because Israelite history is a foundational historical narrative for Western cultures, new historical developments concerning Israelite origins, like the discovery of the Highland Settlements can have a wide impact across different cultural and religious spheres.

Many people are familiar with the biblical stories of Hebrew origins, like Abraham migrating to Canaan (Genesis 12—26); the Exodus from Egypt (Exodus 1—15); and the Israelite conquest of the promised land (Joshua 1—11). However, few people outside of specialized academic fields like Archeology, Biblical Studies, and Ancient Near Eastern Studies know of the archeological evidence surrounding Hebrew origins. Yet, the Highland Settlements archeological evidence is too important to remain only within specialized academic audiences because it provides fresh perspectives on the origins of the Hebrew tradition with the potential to reshape social imagination.

Praise for Undoing Conquest

“The story of the conquest of Canaan under Joshua was weaponized by western Christian empires to colonize North America, South Africa, and Australia. The same story is being used today by Christian and Jewish Zionists [to] occupy Palestinian land and ethnically cleanse the Palestinian people … This book is an important read for anyone who is looking for a fresh theological reflection on the Book of Joshua and a justice-oriented praxis for the Christian church today.”
Rev Dr. Mitri Raheb, founder and president, Dar al-Kalima University, Bethlehem, Palestine

“Not since Walter Wink has the church had an invitation and method for engaging the text like what Common offers.”
Patrick B. Reyes, Dean, Auburn Theological Seminary

“Common’s book arrives at a propitious moment when an intractable conflict with scriptural roots cries out for new thinking … this is Feminist Practical Theology at its best and, God willing, just in the nick of time.”
Mary E. Hunt, co-director, Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual (WATER)

There’s also a course version of this important scholarship!

Free Webinar – Register Here
Wednesday, April 23
7:00 -8:00 p.m. ET on Zoom

Undoing Conquest Course – Get a 20% Discount
Sundays, April 28, May 5, & May 12
7:00 -8:30 p.m. ET on Zoom

About the Author

Kate CommonKate Common is the Assistant Professor in Public and Practical Theology at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio. Kate specializes in interdisciplinary research in feminist and queer theologies, biblical studies, ecclesiology, and theopoetics. Kate is available for speaking and workshop events. Find out more at katecommon.com.

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