by Paul Gilk
“The disclosure of a myth is deemed academic as long as the myth belongs to somebody else. Recognizing one’s own myth is always much more difficult, if not down right dangerous.”-The Lost Gospel by Burton L. Mack, page 237.
As a modestly long-time reader of Washington Report on Middle East Affairs—in the ten to fifteen year range of persistence—I’ve been repeatedly puzzled by that magazine’s apparent bewilderment in regard to Israel’s out-of-all-due-proportion influence on American foreign policy. But it’s not as if this influence has been caused by Israel. Although it has certainly taken advantage of the persistent and pervasive attention, Israel just happens to be the metaphysical recipient of, perhaps even the metaphysical golem for, American Christian mythological conviction.
Christian conviction and journalistic bewilderment reflects a major—we might even say foundational—mythological blind spot that serves to protect the sanctity of any deeply sensitive myth that resists and declines scrutiny. The Right of Christian Discovery is such a myth.
Steven Newcomb opened my eyes to the religious etiology of the Right of Christian Discovery and to its profound and deep saturation in American law and cultural sensibility. To walk that construct back through its medieval papal portal to its pre-Christian origin—that is, to its founding religious expression—is to tread into a hyper-sensitive landscape, a mythological psychology, that declines critical scrutiny into its sanctity. Israel’s importance in American political process and religious discourse reflects and embodies that sanctity. And it generates an enormous magnitude of protective influence that few people seem to want to talk about, at least openly.
One could say Israel’s influence is the direct and ongoing consequence of Euro-American guilt for Hitler and the death camps—the systematic expropriation and murder of European Jews. But white America doesn’t seem to harbor a big load of collective guilt for the expropriation, murder, dispossession, and enslavement of Native Americans, black Africans, Hispanics, or Asians; so American guilt for the Holocaust—even if we narrow that to white Americans—is a balloon without a lot of air in it. Guilt by no means explains Israel’s astonishing influence on American foreign policy. Guilt may be a minor factor, but it’s not the gorilla in the room.
What’s difficult about exploring Israel’s influence is not so much its intellectual complexity as the “sacred” nature of its mythology—or, as the famous Swiss theologian Karl Barth put it in his Dogmatics in Outline, “Israel as representing God’s sovereignty on earth.” That is, orthodox Christian doctrine has for centuries postulated Israel as representing God’s sovereignty on Earth; and, since 1948, many Christians anticipate that Israel’s political re-establishment denotes End Times and the Second Coming of a Christ who will return to Earth with a sword in his mouth to separate the saved sheep from the unsaved goats. Israel represents a key mythological dynamic in a broad and powerful swath of Christian eschatology with a fervent anticipation of End Times. Israel’s influence is rooted in this Christian myth and in the psychic space—the psychic energy—this myth commands in political process and religious discourse. And, as we’ll soon see, this myth has its roots in the Hebrew “promised land” story.
But to politically identify this mythology, to consciously grasp what it represents in our cultural disposition, is to risk triggering an explosive reaction from those to whom this mythology is historically true and religiously sacred. Therefore the pervasive silence. Better to let sleeping dogs lie and to refrain from poking a stick into a hornets’ nest. To deconstruct foundational myth is to arouse denunciation and provoke reprisal, more or less as Burton Mack suggests. Or, if the anger is passive, stony silence. Such deconstruction hammers people—or at least certain people, and there are a lot of certain people—who, at the core of their identity, their self-understanding, and their anchoring in what is perceived as reality, believe this myth to accurately reflect—accurately depict—actual history.
Let me put it this way. In a library-sponsored event in my hometown in northern Wisconsin, in early December of 2016, the moderator asked, in turn, the Jewish man, the Christian man, and the Muslim man, whether in their respective understandings all three Abrahamic religions worship the same God.
Well, no surprise. All three men immediately said yes. Of course we worship the same God. Who would think otherwise? Religiously speaking, we’re all of the tribe of Abraham.
Since Judaism is by far the oldest of the three Abrahamic religions, yes, yes, and yes means that Yahweh (or YHWH in pious tetagram) is the primary God template. That is, if we want to grasp the identity of this common Abrahamic God, the Old Testament (from the Christian perspective) is the place to go for an exploration into who this God is, what He stands for, and what His behavioral characteristics are. From this exploration we might be able to both discern and clarify the linkage between Israel and America.
(Now there are, of course, people who call this linkage merely mythic, without political consequence, just meaningless religious gobbledegook, silly but harmless. But that is to wildly underestimate the deep and enduring power of myth, especially this myth. Myth has shaped and will continue to shape human consciousness in ways so psychologically deep and politically powerful that myth slides into a state of historical factuality. This “factuality” is upfront and obvious in Christian fundamentalism. “Factuality” is much more shy and coy within liberal Christianity, but the myth is very much part of the Christian baseline story, and is therefore foundational to both conservatives and liberals. That is, the mythic story is for literalists a religious—and therefore, ultimately, a historical—fact. Liberals may have their doubts about the historical veracity of myth, including this myth; but they prefer to ignore or downplay the God of murder and wrath at the core of this myth, invoking instead a God of tender mercy and love. Their ethical disposition may be admirable, quite aside from the mythic context they continue to venerate; but their downplay of the literalists’ God—and this is the God of the celebrated and venerated story—both avoids looking that story in the face and, by avoidance and evasion, perpetuates in political discourse a corresponding evasion and avoidance. The ensuing silence embodies in ghostly form the fear of confronting this religious mythology and of identifying the ecocidal consequences of that myth’s globalized manifestations. This silence is both numbing and toxic.)
The most obvious starting point—considering the United States a “Christian nation”—is to say that Israel’s God is America’s God. If Yahweh was the God of the Jewish people, He became, via Christianity’s kidnapping and adoption of Israel’s Father God Almighty, and with His subsequent transit to ancient Rome, the God of the Holy Roman Empire. And, after the Constantinian accommodation and the Augustinian apologetics by which that accommodation was theologically justified, the most powerful thrust of Western civilization became explicitly Christian. The God of Israel displaced the “pagan” gods of the Roman Empire and steadily “Christianized” the very Empire that had been a key participant in the torture and killing of Jesus. (I say “pagan” gods because—pagan from pagus, country district—empires don’t have “pagan” gods. Empires have civilized gods. To call the gods of the Roman Empire “pagan” is to achieve two ideological hat tricks simultaneously: the Roman Empire was spiritually bad, not because it was an Empire, but because it was “pagan,” and the onus of spiritual negativity gets magically transferred to the hapless countryside and, more broadly, to rural people, indigenous people, and to nature in general.) All European and American “pagan” gods—gods no longer worthy of capitalization—fell before or were crushed by the aggressive Christian (and civilized) God. The church may have preached mercy, but mercy was in the hands of those who bandaged the surviving wounded after the pagans had been properly chastised. And perhaps christened.
This means—leaping forward roughly a thousand years—that the early European explorers, conquistadors and settlers in the New World, whether Catholic or Protestant, justified their imposing behavior in religious terms that were explicitly Christian: The Right of Christian Discovery. And here, for carefully focused analysis on where this construct comes from and how it has ramified in America, we can turn to the Native American legal scholar, Steven T. Newcomb, with his 2008 book Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery.
In chapter 3, “The Conqueror Model,” Newcomb explains what he means by his chapter’s title:
“In the context of the conqueror’s moral system, the ‘divine right’ to conquer and subdue includes the divine right to forcibly convince ‘new’ peoples in ‘new’ lands that they owe the conqueror tribute and obedience. Because the conqueror deems himself to be divine, or else to be imbued by ‘God’ with divine authority, this means that even those peoples he has not yet subdued nevertheless have, from the conqueror’s viewpoint, a duty and an obligation to obey him and pay tribute to him. Those who do not immediately recognize this obligation—by dutifully bowing before the conqueror with an attitude of meekness and submission when he arrives to their country to conquer and subdue them—must be ‘justly’ dealt with in the harshest and most coercive terms. This is because the conqueror’s so-called divine authority includes the responsibility to teach those whom he has been destined to conquer and subdue the moral lessons that, from the conqueror’s viewpoint, they are required to learn. . . . [T]he conqueror is divinely required to teach those who owe him unquestioning and unwavering obedience the moral lessons that they are divinely required to learn.”
“The resulting sense of conqueror morality leads to arguments that automatically justify conquest and the process of conquering (e.g., George W. Bush’s ‘preemptive war,’ his decision to invade Iraq). In the morality system of the Conqueror model, coercion, terror, fear, and dread are considered the most effective means of winning and ensuring absolute and continued obedience to the conqueror’s authority (think ‘shock and awe’). No one is completely free except the conqueror, and freedom in this context refers to the conqueror being absolutely free to conquer, subdue, and establish and maintain a reign or state of domination. . . . The divine source of the conqueror’s authority makes him a sovereign, which . . . means that he has ‘supreme power over citizens and subjects, unrestrained by the laws.’ . . . According to the conqueror worldview, it is self-evident that the conqueror is being most virtuous, morally sound, and obedient to God when he uses the tools of coercion, terror, fear, and dread to fulfill ‘God’s will’ by conquering and subduing new lands and new peoples not yet conquered.”
Newcomb traces the Doctrine of Christian Discovery back to a series of papal bills and to the 1513 Spanish Requerimiento, written for King Ferdinand his daughter Dona Juana:
“Addressed to ‘barbarous’ non-Christian nations that were considered destined to be subdued, the Requerimiento declares that, from a Christian standpoint, ‘the Lord our God, Living and Eternal, created the Heaven and the Earth’ and that he created ‘one man and one woman, of whom you and we, and all men of the world, were and are descendants, and all those who came after us.’ In the five thousand years that the Requerimiento said had transpired since God created the world, ‘it was necessary that some men should go one way and some another, and that they should be divided into many kingdoms and provinces, for in one alone they could not be sustained.'”
“Out of all ‘these nations,’ says the document, ‘God our Lord gave charge to one man, called St. Peter, that he should be Lord and Superior of all the men in the world, that all should obey him, and that he should be the head of the whole human race, wherever men should live, and under whatever law, sect, or belief they should be; and he gave him the world for his kingdom and jurisdiction.’ The Requerimiento correlates with the point made previously that the Conqueror model posits a central figure, such as monarch (whether king, queen, or pope), who is considered divine or whose power is considered to come from a divine source.”
In chapter 4, “Colonizing the Promised Land,” Newcomb says it is “entirely accurate to frame the Lord of the Old Testament in terms of the Conqueror cognitive model.” He goes on to say the “Old Testament narrative”—and he explicitly means the taking of Canaan by “the so-called chosen people”—is the “origin of the Chosen People Promise Land cognitive model. . . .”
“We might say that the story of the Lord’s promise to the chosen people is the tale of a divine land grant, analogous to a papal bill and to the various royal colonial charters that were issued by Christian European monarchs during the Age of Discovery. From a biblical point of view the Lord of the Bible gave Abram and his people the right to take possession of the land of Canaan, despite the fact that indigenous peoples were already living there.”
Later in the same chapter, on pages 43 through 45, Newcomb elaborates:
“Thus in the narrative of the Old Testament, the Lord and his chosen people were the conquering colonizers of the land of Canaan, and the Lord assigned the chosen people two colonial tasks in keeping with the metaphor of Abraham’s seed, both of which can be stated figuratively in terms of cultivation. The first task was to extirpate or ‘uproot’ the non-Hebrew Canaanites from the ‘promised’ land. The second task was to ‘replant’ (repopulate) the promise land with the seed (offspring) of Abraham.”
“During the fifteenth, sixteenth, and later centuries, the monarchies and nations of Christendom lifted the Old Testament narrative of the chosen people and the promised land from the geographical context of the Middle East and began carrying it over to the rest of the globe. Genesis 1:28’s directive to subdue the earth and exercise dominion over all living things, for example, and Psalms 2:8’s mention of the “uttermost parts of the earth” provided a cognitive basis for the globalization of the Chosen People-Promised Land model during the Age of Discovery. . . .”
“The presumption by Christian potentates that they had the divine right to take possession of heathen lands (lands not possessed by any Christian prince or people) was a direct result of their belief that God had previously commanded the Hebrews to take possession of Canaan and that they, as Christians, had “become” God’s ‘new chosen people.’ . . .”
“The monarchs and conquistadors of Christendom transformed Yahweh’s command to the Hebrews to take over the land of Canaan into a globalized Christian version of the same doctrine. In keeping with a Christian perspective, the Old Testament story was changed from ‘Yahweh’s command to the Hebrews’ into ‘God’s command to the Christians’ to take possession of all the lands throughout the world that had not yet been subdued and possessed by Christians. . . .”
One could go on quoting these astonishingly clear passages from Steven Newcomb. But, in the interest of space, let’s turn to the final paragraph in chapter 2, “War & Inter-Group Violence in the Hebrew Scriptures,” of W. Michael Slattery’s Jesus the Warrior? :
“In conclusion, we may observe the following principal tenets on the treatment of war and lethal violence in the Hebrew scriptures. The earlier scriptures of Exodus, Joshua, Judges and I and II Samuel implicitly accept the use of war and refrain from moral questioning of its validity because they essentially accept that war is conducted at the behest and direction of YHWH. It is YHWH who delivers the enemies of the Israelites into defeat and it is YHWH who is the actual warrior; the Israelites are merely the agents or instruments for enactment of the will of YHWH [Yahweh]. That the practice of the brutal ban was employed by the Israelites at the direction of YHWH cannot be contested in terms of scriptural interpretation. . . .”
In regard to the term “brutal ban,” Slattery quotes from Joshua 6 and I Samuel 15 that “all living creatures,” including people and animals, were to be put to the sword in acts of conquering those “under the Lord’s ban”:
“By contemporary standards, the murder in war of civilians, women and children, elderly, etc., non-combatants, would have to be considered immoral, particularly if done indiscriminately. That the Hebrew scriptures depict God, the Lord, commanding such would seem unfathomable and contrary to the perception of an all-loving, all-caring, omnipotent and personalized (but not anthropomorphized) power. Nevertheless, the aforenoted two passages cannot be considered irregular or exceptional in those scriptures.”
There’s more that could be quoted from Slattery’s carefully documented book. But let’s move on to a single paragraph in chapter 4, “Breaking the Spiral of Violence,” in Walter Wink’s The Powers That Be:
“The violence of the Old Testament has always been a scandal to Christianity. The church has actually ducked the issue, either by allegorizing the Old Testament or by rejecting it. Biblical scholar Raymund Schwager points out that there are six hundred passages of explicit violence in the Hebrew Bible, one thousand verses where God’s own violent actions of punishment are described, a hundred passages where Yahweh expressly commands others to kill people, and several stories where God irrationally kills or tries to kill for no apparent reason (for example, Exod. 4:24-26). Violence, Schwager concludes, is easily the most often mentioned activity in the Hebrew Bible.”
Wink goes on to say that such violence “is in part the residue of false ideas about God,” and that the “actual initiative for killing does not, originate with God, but is projected onto God.” But if the actual story conveys false ideas about God, then how are we to understand the Jericho genocide as the portal for the chosen people to enter the promised land of milk and honey? If the actual initiative for conquest does not originate in God but is only a false idea about God, then how are we to understand how Christianity can continue to religiously invoke the story of the chosen people and promised land as the justifying template for the Right of Christian Discovery? And, as Steven Newcomb so ably documents, the Right of Christian Discovery is foundational to the European conquest of America, just as the Chosen People-Promised Land construct is foundational to the Right of Christian Discovery. So we should not allow ourselves to be distracted or diverted from recognizing, with painful honesty, that the Doctrine of Christian Discovery is, as Steven Newcomb documents, in direct line of succession from what he calls the Chosen People-Promise Land cognitive model, and that the designated divinity authorizing, in both cases, the brutal taking of land inhabited by others is none other than the Old Testament Yahweh. Those who cling to this story, who embrace it as ethically valid, perpetuate its atrocity.
If Yahweh is the God of Israel, He became the God of the late Roman Empire, Christian Europe, and eventually the God of American Christianity—the God of Manifest Destiny and the God of American Exceptionalism. So why does Israel have such disproportionate influence in American politics and on American foreign policy? Here again is Steven Newcomb, as taken from his Conclusion:
[T]he dominating moral system that underlies federal Indian law and policy is the same moral system that underlies U.S. foreign policy; it is predicated on the presumption, in keeping with the Conqueror model and the Chosen People-Promise Land model, that the United States has a divine right of empire, not simply in North America, but throughout the world. Ezra Stiles, president of Yale University, capably expressed this attitude in a sermon in May 1783 when he predicted that in the future “the Lord shall have made his American Israel, high above all nations.”. . . [T]his same type of thinking has been extended and perpetuated around the world by U.S. foreign policy throughout many generations. . . . Today, powerful forces both within and without the federal government envision the United States maintaining imperial plenary power on a planetary basis.
The answer to the question of Israel’s influence is obvious. Israel’s Yahweh is America’s God, and Christian America remains committed to the Hebrew Father God template whose genocide at Jericho was not only a model for the taking of Canaan, but also the Christian template for grabbing the Western Hemisphere and for its subsequent global dominance.
It’s our collective refusal to first recognize and then acknowledge the psycho-mythological depth of the hidden-in-plain-view common Father worship that keeps this disproportionate influence destructively intact. Worship of this Almighty Father, and veneration of the sacred mythology in which that worship is embedded, saturates cultural sensibility at a reflexive emotional level. It is mythic fuel for the prevailing politics of both major political parties. To undo this deadly influence is to face into and then dissolve the murderous religious and mythological foundation on which that influence is based.