The film Elysium and the conquest of Canaan

The film Elysium and the conquest of Canaan September 3, 2013

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After reading a blog post by my brother Micah Murray, I decided to check out the film Elysium. It’s a very uncomfortable movie, and every American should see it. It’s helped me to understand the troubling Biblical book of Joshua, because Elysium is Canaan and America is Jericho. Under the ideology of manifest destiny, the American colonists illegitimately identified themselves with the Israelites taking over Canaan, but we are nothing like the runaway Egyptian slaves who illegally migrated across the Red Sea and Jordan River to take over the wealthy trading posts and ports of Canaan in the perfectly geographically strategic isthmus of three continents.

To share the premise of Elysium without giving away the ending, it’s 150 years in the future and the Earth is an overpopulated, polluted, crime-ridden mess. The wealthiest 1% have built a giant space station biosphere in the Earth’s orbit called Elysium, where in addition to the pollution-free air, medical technology is so advanced that just about every health problem can be healed completely.

One has to be a “citizen” of Elysium to gain admittance there, but an underworld gangster named Spider has found a way to grant fake citizenship to desperate people with health problems and catapult them into the sky on ramshackle space shuttles so they can try to break into the houses of rich Elysian dwellers, which are all equipped with Star Trek-like healing machines, before they get caught.

Adding to the discomfort of this not-at-all-unobvious analogy with our world is the way that everyone on Earth seems to speak Spanish while the main language on Elysium is French. The poor people invading Elysium are referred to as “illegals” and the robot police who apprehend and deport them are “homeland security.” As I was watching the ramshackle space shuttles crash-land on Elysium and the robot police scoop up all the “illegals” and deport them, it occurred to me that this is what the Israelite invasion of Canaan would look like in the 22nd century, except that an angel of the Lord would have been smashing the robot cops into scrap metal.

The conquest of Canaan is a scandal to many Christians for good reason. Why would God order genocide? How is that divine violence consistent with the Jesus of the New Testament who said to love your enemies? Recently there’s been some debate in the Christian blogosphere about how to understand Canaan. Do we say that the Israelites just didn’t understand what God was telling them to do as well in the beginning and the Bible is the story of God’s progressive revelation to Israel culminating in His full and completely accurate revelation through Christ Himself? Or do we say that the Old Testament God and New Testament Jesus are two very different people and that’s precisely why we should be thankful that Jesus died to save us from His brutal Daddy?

The first major heretic in the Christian faith was a guy named Marcion of Sinope. When he looked at the stories of the Old Testament God, he was every bit as scandalized as many people are today, so he simply said the Old Testament can’t be part of the Bible that we use for Christianity. And then he decided to cut away all of the references to the Old Testament in the New Testament (which is most of the New Testament). So he ended up with a ridiculously small Bible.

Biblical inerrantists today would say that anyone who claims that the ancient Israelites didn’t understand and represent God’s word to them perfectly in books like Judges and Joshua is repeating the heresy of Marcion. This may be fair to a point. But I would contend that the widespread evangelical dispensationalism which bifurcates God into two deities, an Old Testament Father and a New Testament Son, is the true modern Marcionism, the only difference being that dispensationalists are completely unscandalized by the Old Testament bloodshed and actually prefer the wrathful Father of the Old Testament to His impotent Son who got jacked up on the cross (the Old Testament Father in any case is where they go to build their theology rather than the stories of Jesus’ life).

The main Marcionite move of the dispensationalists is to render much of the beauty of Jesus’ cross meaningless by making it entirely about appeasing the wrath of the Old Testament Father (thus rescuing Jesus from the scandal of His apparent weakness and keeping God entirely and unequivocally an omnipotent bad-ass), a claim which is then superimposed as an explanation for a lot of other texts but which itself has no explicit Biblical foundation.

Before I go too far afield, is there a third option for interpreting troubling texts like the Canaanite conquest other than saying part of the Old Testament misrepresents God or saying that Jesus and His Father are two very different characters? Do we ultimately just have to throw up our hands and assert that the God who told the Israelites to butcher the Canaanites is somehow the same God who said love your enemies even though we can’t understand it (which is a much more respectful posture than to try to resolve everything through some kind of “covenant theology” chart)?

This is where Elysium comes into the picture for me as a useful backdrop that may help reconcile the Canaanite conquest with the Jesus we meet in the New Testament. Because there were in fact people whom Jesus damned. He tells two parables where the question of one’s eternal destiny is the centerpiece, the story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31 and the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:31-46. In both cases, the people Jesus damns are rich people who haven’t actively done anything wrong per se except completely ignore the beggars at their gate and refuse to take responsibility for addressing the injustice of their condition.

According to the individualist ethos of America, it’s completely nonsensical to consider other peoples’ poverty an “injustice” unless they’re poor because I personally robbed or cheated them. At least in the present-day Reagan era, there is no concept that we are collectively responsible for each other. Building off of this individualist ethos, much of American Christianity has come to serve the purpose of making us comfortable with our selfishness by providing us with a moral system that exonerates us from loving our neighbor, because it focuses on the purity of avoiding bad things rather than the love of proactively responding to suffering.

As long as we avoid extramarital sex, drugs, cuss-words, and a handful of other taboos, then not only are we honoring God sufficiently, but we can reassure ourselves that the disadvantaged people we ignore are probably in their condition because they did the bad things we avoid doing, which they will learn not to do if we have the discipline not to throw our money at them. The “purity culture” moral system of American Christianity actively converts us into the rich man in Jesus’ Luke 16 parable. The one whom Jesus damned. Yeah. That should give us some pause.

Now when Christians who live under the “purity culture” moral system look at a story like the Canaanite conquest, the Canaanites become part of the deviant other whose existence is the basis for their self-justification and consequent aloofness to Jesus’ command to love their neighbor. Why did God punish Canaan? Because the homosexuals and abortionists! I haven’t gone over all the texts with a fine-toothed comb, but all that I’ve found so far are very general pronouncements like the following from Deuteronomy 20:16-18:

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.

The “abhorrent things” that the Canaanites do for their gods may have involved wild sex parties or not; we can only speculate based on this particular passage. But what I most notice here is the necessity of a revolution which utterly annihilates whatever social order existed before. There is no incremental reform in Canaan, only cataclysmic revolution.

Now it’s true that Jesus’ cross and resurrection represent the central revolutionary event of Christianity that should render Canaanite conquest obsolete. But what about when the abhorrent idols of the world infiltrate and co-opt the church into their service so that Christians utterly betray our kingdom vocation? If our “purity culture” moral system today has made us like the one character in Jesus’ parables whom He most clearly puts in hell, then don’t we deserve to be utterly overthrown and conquered by whichever illegally migrating runaway slaves God elects for that purpose?

The reason I can’t be a Christian pacifist and twist everything in the Bible to fit that ideological stance is because the rich man in the Luke 16 parable was a pacifist, technically speaking. He didn’t do anything to actively harm the beggar outside his gate. As long as our definition of violence is limited to actively willing harm to another person, then it’s perfectly nonviolent to sit comfortably and passively in our gated communities while the rest of the world languishes.

Walls that lock people out of having life are every bit as violent as the trumpets that blow the walls down on top of the people inside them. I cannot call myself nonviolent according to the radical standard of my crucified savior if I hold onto anything as my private possession which deprives another person of the life they could receive if they had access to it.

So if God wants to attack the violence of walls with the violence of trumpets so that the poor can trample the manicured lawns of Elysium, who am I to take offense? My need for things to be inoffensive may itself be an act of violence insofar as it reinforces an order which locks people out of life. I myself have no business causing anyone else harm. My call is simply to be a witness of crucifixion and resurrection for the sake of the kingdom where there are no walls keeping us from loving God and each other perfectly.


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