Frogs know: Doubt can be a good thing (Joshua)

Photo credit: The Beauty of Animals
Photo credit: The Beauty of Animals

  About a year ago, I doubted that I had anything good to say about the Book of Joshua. The Book of Joshua is a horrific tale. Its portrayal of God is antithetical to anything I have ever believed. In Joshua,  God practices genocide and holy war: God choses some and rejects others, killing the unchosen (men, women, children and their animals) simply because they occupy  land that God wants.

I wondered if I could ignore book of Joshua. There are many biblical stories which we ignore. They have been left out of the lectionary. They are not commented upon in sermons or taught in Sunday School. But the book of Joshua is hard to put into that category. A  few bits of it DO  appear in our lectionary, (see the page, “Joshua in the Lectionary”) and worse, as we’ve probably all been told, that Jesus’ name points to Joshua’s. Both names suggest  “God saves.”  Is holy war and genocide the way God saves? I had doubts about that.

About the time I was finding myself with nothing (nice) to say about the Book of Joshua, I learned that there was a new book out about Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  I decided to lay my lectionary project aside for a week or two and read that book. A couple of weeks became a year as I kept reading. At first, I was reading to discover what it was that Bonhoeffer saw that led him to do resist Hitler.  Bonhoeffer’s biography did not answer my question,  so I started reading other books:  In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin  (Erik Larson), The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (William Shirer), Hitler, the Germans and the Final Solution and The Hitler Myth both by Ian Kershaw,  Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (by Timothy Snyder, an account of Stalin’s planned starvation  and genocide of millions in Poland, Belarus and Ukraine starting in the early 1930’s),  The Occupied Garden: A Family Memoir of War-Torn Holland  (Kristen den Hartog and Tracy Kasaboski, The Nuremberg Trial by Ann Tusa, The Wages of Guilt: Memories of War in Germany and Japan, (by Ian Buruma) to name a significant few.

I came away from this year of reading with two impressions. (1) Hitler and Joshua had a lot in common,  and (2) Hitler’s was not an anamoly: it could happen again.

Hitler and Joshua

These two people, one probably a myth and the other very real, had several important things in common.

  • Both were “charismatic personalities” in the Weberian sense, (according to Ian Kershaw.) Both leaders were “saviors” attempting or purporting to lead their people to a better life.
  • Both led a divinely chosen people in a struggle against those unchosen. The chosen were instructed to regard the unchosen as subhuman, suitable only for slavery or death.
  • Both led a nation that felt shamed and oppressed. For both, the acquisition of land then occupied by others was a rallying cry.  For Joshua and the Israelites, it was the Promised Land.  In Hitler’s ideology it was lebensraum – land needed for expansion. Literally, “living room.”
  • Both directed armies to commit massive murder of civilians and non-combatants claiming “rights” which superceded ordinary laws and moral codes. Both treated dissenters very badly.

Given the holy war and genocide and Joshua’s likeness to Hitlera, I believe that the only way the Joshua story can warrant being part of Holy Writ is as cautionary tale. Its moral is: when you see a leader like this, no matter how attractive they may seem, start having some doubts about them and their vision.

It could happen again

I had believed that Hitler’s rise to power was a tragic, one-time anomalous event made possible by some unidentified unique circumstances. It was never clear what those circumstances were, but it seemed unimaginable that they could ever happen again. And of course, if they DID we would all see the signs immediately and put an end to it. In my reading this past year, having learned more about pre-war Germany and I have come to see Hitler’s rise to power as no accident or terrible “perfect storm.” Hitler rose to power because he was a clever politician and a masterful  manipulator of public opinion, and I believe that it all could happen again.

Hitler cultivated the leaders of business and industry. He lied easily and played the media and public opinion. He crafted and adapted his image and ideology to meet the public’s emotional needs and aspirations so that ordinary people felt hope and purpose. Intelligent and thoughtful people supported him for the sake of the nation. Others thought him dangerous, but trusted the electorate to keep him in check.  There was street violence, arrests, disappearances and “concentration camps” (not originally death camps) for communists and dissidents. These were tolerated, sometimes as the excesses of rogue subordinates. They did not seem to be evidence that should give rise to doubts about Hitler or his ideology.

We can imagine that pre-war Germans ought to have had more doubts about Hitler and much earlier. But so many hoped for the best until it was too late, until it was 1933 and the Reichstag had been burned and martial law was imposed. And after that, it was too late for doubts. Hitler was in power.

And are we doing any better now, in this country? We have been hoping for the best for nearly ten years. We still have Guatanamo, and the curtailment of civil liberties of the Homeland Security Act , and I guess we believe the electoral process will take care of these things, even though we know that the electoral process in this country has been hopelessly compromised by special interests.  We have become accustomed to the whittling away of rights the way a frog gets used to steadily warming water. And maybe it is too late for us to express doubts: Seven months ago, the  US  government a US citizen named Anwar al-Awlaki was executed by a US drone missile. Someone or some agency had labeled al-Awlaki an “enemy combatant” and that was the only due process afforded. There was very little objection, very few doubts expressed.

We should be having some doubts, about the denial of due process, about “war” being offered as a justification for otherwise illegal acts even though constitutionally, no war has been declared, about civilians being tried in military courts, about the acceptability of torture, about the thought-policing implicit in the notion of “hate-crimes.” We should be having lots of doubts.

Doubt is a thing to be practiced early and often, because it can become too late. Is it too late for us to start having doubts? Is the water already too warm?  As frogs might remind us, it’s best not to wait to find out.

We need to start doubting whenever we find ourselves believing that our leaders are too good to lie to us or to value their own power more than common morality. We need to start doubting whenever we find ourselves excusing our leaders’ behavior, accepting the explanation that they know something we don’t that makes their behavior a lesser of two evils and therefore not evil at all. We need to start doubting anytime the leadership asks us to suspend disbelief, or civil rights or due process or our innate sense of morality.

The gospel for the second Sunday of Easter tells us that Thomas doubted. Maybe what he doubted that Jesus had risen. But doubters are, in the first instance, believers. Maybe Thomas doubted because he also believed that Pontius Pilate, the Roman occupation system and all those who colluded with it were selling lies intended to pacify the population and quell resistance.  Maybe Thomas thought that a “Jesus, the friendly ghost” story was one of Pilate’s lies and that the disciples had bought it.

Thomas doubted, and it was his doubt which enabled him to see the truth – the Risen One bearing the wounds of Pilate’s brutality, not covered up, not excused or explained away.

It takes a believer to doubt, and doubt can be a very good thing.

Photo credit: Tree Frog- The Beauty of Animals.