Decommissioning Joshua

Arden Mahlberg

As with dismantling racism, dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery requires decommissioning its heroes and collaborators. They are only heroes from a narrative that takes the point of view of the victors, not the victims, as more of us are learning to do. As the other side of stories beloved by the victors gets told, the harmful actions of admired figures are revealed. Consequently, these figures cannot continue to have the same role in Christian teaching and practice. To do so would simply perpetuate the worldview that championed the oppression of others.

Such a hero is Joshua, so important to the Christian narrative that an entire book of the Christian Bible is named for him. Joshua is a main figure in the theme of God’s faithfulness to those identified as the people of God. God promised the Israelites a nation of their own and made the land available through the slaughter of the Canaanites under Joshua’s leadership. This has been framed as faithfulness, not the injustice we now see it to be.

The Doctrine of Discovery harkens back to Joshua and his divinely sanctioned campaign of conquest. Joshua engaged in brutal, relentless, God-sanctioned invasion and colonizing of the land of another people. This campaign involved the demonization of the Canaanites, as the Doctrine of Discovery demonized non-Christians who stood in the way of the globalization of Christendom, calling them pagans and enemies of Christ.

The rules of engagement Joshua reportedly got from his god are ones that the popes echo in the Doctrine of Discovery. In Deuteronomy we read that God ordered Joshua to brutally defeat the Canaanites and take them as slaves. Utterly destroy them. Show no mercy. Rob and sack. In the Doctrine of Discovery popes similarly order the overthrow the pagans. Make slaves of the women and children. Sell them. Put them in “perpetual servitude.” Take their goods. It is another chapter in the same narrative.

Joshua is the forefather of Christian colonialism with all its brutality. Christians heroize him to their children in songs and picture books. Especially popular is the story that Joshua’s brutal destruction of the Canaanite city of Jericho. As the story is told, Jericho was well-fortified with a wall around it, thick and tall. There was no way Joshua’s army could penetrate it, so Joshua engaged in spiritual warfare. This is the part Christians especially love. Joshua had his soldiers march around the city wall, blowing ram’s horns to call on the power of their god. They did this day after day, until after the seventh round on the seventh day, the walls crumbled. Then they we able to slaughter the inhabitants. Children are enchanted by the magic of it.

The point of the slaughter of the Canaanites was to create space for the Israelites to colonize. From Jericho, Joshua went on to the next city and the next…. Similarly, the Doctrine of Discovery was to make room for God’s new chosen nation, Christendom, to dominate the world.

Many denominations have followed the lead of the World Council of Churches in disavowing the Doctrine of Discovery. That disavowal carries more meaning when churches scour their stories and songs that celebrate Joshua. He was the forefather of the Doctrine of Discovery, Manifest Destiny, Christian colonialism, and Christian nationalism. It is time to decommission Joshua as a hero.

More by Arden: Was This Land Really Made for You and Me?
The Serpent Constantine & The Fall of Christianity: A Myth