Friday, April 11, 2014

The Bible and Colonialism

What would it mean to read some of the biblical narratives from the point of view of a Canaanite?

That is one of several questions that has emerged in my study of narrative criticism. My supervisor pointed me in the direction of Michael Prior's book The Bible and Colonialism: A Moral Critique, which offers a somewhat scathing assessment of both the interpretation of the conquest narratives and the narratives themselves. Prior speaks of "racist, xenophobic, and militaristic" traditions within Israel's scripture that, unsurprisingly, lead to racist, xenophobic, and militaristic applications by later readers. Due to the problematic nature of these traditions - which for Prior have no historical merit, but reflect perhaps a post-exilic attempt to reconstitute national and religious identity - it is up to civilised, morally sensitive readers to subject some portions of the Bible to ethical critique.

There are numerous problems with Prior's book, not least its theological and moral shallowness. But it nevertheless addresses a topic in need of addressing. If scripture as the norma normans non normata (the unnormed norm of norms) cannot be subject to "moral critique," then what must give way - the understanding of scripture, or the moral critique? By what "norm" might scripture be tested against? Prior's "civilised" individual? Other competing traditions in scripture? Prior gives a couple of examples of scripture being used as a form of encouragement for both colonizers and those colonized. (Interestingly, Noah actually picks up on this phenomenon, with the good character emphasising that part of the oral tradition that promotes creation care, and the bad character emphasising that part of the oral tradition that promotes human dominion.)

The church, it should be noted, has undertaken a de facto moral critique of scripture by leaving morally dubious passages out of the lectionary. Even those churches that eschew a lectionary tend to steer clear of the difficult passages when they prepare their preaching calendars. Most Christians, then, are semi-Marcionites in practice if not in theory. The passages are there, and unlike Marcion we will not remove them, but we will do our best to ignore them into theological irrelevance.

Prior notices this pick and choose mentality among liberation theologians. The Exodus narrative is taken to be paradigmatic for the likes of Gutierrez. Here God's action on behalf of the oppressed is displayed. But Prior asks: what about the Eisodus? That is to say, what about the violent movement from Egypt and into the territory of another people? The Exodus paved the way for a conquest, with Canaanites on the receiving end. Surely South Americans, while identifying with the experience of Israelites in one movement of the narrative, will identify more with the experience of the Canaanites in the next? Where, morally speaking, does that leave ancient Israel?

If only I was well acquainted with a Latin American who could give me the answers I seek...

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