The film Elysium and the conquest of Canaan


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.

19 thoughts on “The film Elysium and the conquest of Canaan

  1. One thing about the Canaan story everyone seems to miss. God didn’t originally command genocide. He told the Israelites to drive the Canaanites out, not to kill them. Only after the golden calf incident did he say “leave none alive!”
    Put that together with the Ezekiel passage about God giving commandments that were not good and there you have it. God said kill them all because Israel had shown they always did the opposite of what he
    It’s true that when Saul left just one Amalekite alive he was reprimanded but that, I suggest was because he killed all the innocents while leaving the guilty King alive (Kings showed their power by keeping royal prisoners).
    David never massacred the remaining natives and he was a man after God’s heart.
    In other words God commanded genocide in order to stop Israel committing it. Reverse psychology. It worked. The Canaanites were never wiped out.

  2. In response to your post, and some of the posts you referenced, these are my comments about the subject of the violence of God. I love that you’re loving God’s protection of those in his care, from those who would cause harm…but in my opinion–that can never mean God causes harm to the perpetrators. The perpetrators are God’s children too.

    …the very nature of God is at stake. In my opinion, as long as the reformed tradition and other Christian traditions who place the Bible over Jesus keep rubber stamping divine violence–we will always have a distorted view of God–which will distort our discipleship. I get that Keller wants to say, in light of Jesus, things are different now. But reality is, persons who believe God causes or allows murder, torture, and war, are often the very same persons supporting the death penalty, the torture of terrorists, and the dropping of bombs on persons made in the image of God. What we believe about who God is profoundly shapes our faith. This isn’t just a bunch of crazy leftists worshipping some hippie God…we’re talking about millions of evangelicals and pentecostals saying, we know the Father through the Son by the guiding of the Holy Spirit.

    Grace and peace,

  3. There’s a lot of good points in this, especially how we can argue that passivity and pacifism aren’t necessarily non-violent (and I believe you are right), however, I still am finding issues with this:

    “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?”

    I get what you are implying, but there’s a difference of attacking the violence of walls and what is now deemed as genocide. While one can argue that the Israelites didn’t have that word in their vocabulary, I cannot imagine every Israelite being 100% okay with what they were doing. Even in the most heinous of sins, people are still the image-bearers and creation of God. To me, I have to approach all of these stories seriously. This is not to say, as you have mentioned time and time again, that I am practicing neo-Marcionism; rather, I do try to take the “Thus saith the Lord” stories very seriously, especially with the claim that God is directly commanding said activities.

    I just can’t help but struggle with stuff like this…and I know it won’t be resolved any time soon. I’m okay with it, though, because I know He’s big enough to handle my questions.

    All in all, good post. I may actually go see this today if I manage to finish my homework.

  4. As those examples you gave were parables, I have a problem with saying such people will be damned (as in eternal hell forever). What they need is to suffer themselves to realize the need to help others. I think that will be the primary purpose of hell, if you want to call it that. I believe the fire is symbolic of purification, as it can be interpreted and was interpreted in Jesus’ time to the best of my studying and understanding.. Anyhow, good post. It got me thinking about sacrifice and the way I live my life in general. I agree with you about our purity culture wholeheartedly.

  5. Morgan,

    I recently came across this article by Elie Wiesel:

    In it, he describes some of the Jewish commentary and mythology that sprung up around the story of Joshua. Particularly, it would seem that the popular story of Joshua ends somewhat depressingly. This has colored my perspective on this story ever since. Definitely worth a read.

    I like where you’re going better than where many have gone. One thing I have to keep repeating both to myself and to those who call “Marcionite” at everyone who feels uncomfortable with agonistic cultural norms is that the Hebrew Scripture is not univocal. The sooner I can get comfortable with the idea of multivocality and “testimony/countertestimony” about Israel’s God, the sooner I think I can begin to wrestle with problematic passages more adequately. We don’t have to choose between “truth/untruth” when it comes to the Biblical accounts. We can find sixth, seventh, and maybe even twelfth options. The question is: how willing are we to make peace with the idea that twelve options (and maybe even more!) might exist?

    P.S. The most brilliant insight (and there are many) that you bring here is the part about Evangelicals not being scandalized by the barbarism in the text. Just War man himself, Augustine, was scandalized enough to consider those accounts a barrier to full acceptance of Christianity. He’s in good company, I think. I think I prefer those who are bothered by the texts but keep violently wresting to those who have ceased the struggle altogether, on either end of the spectrum.

    • Oh absolutely. Augustine only said yes to Christianity after he heard Ambrose preach the letter kills but the spirit breathes life. Thank you for that point about multivocity and the article.

  6. Rich and poor; we are to be saved by each other, not by letting Christ suffer for us, but by suffering unearned, as Christ suffered for the love of each other, and God and all God’s works. It is suffering for love that leads to eternal life with God.

    At the recent March on DC rally Bill Clinton paraphrased Dr. King and made me think immediately of the true meaning of the Passion. He said that King reminded us of the “Redeeming power of unearned suffering.” Outsiders suffer being stepped on and cast off without earning that suffering, and because of that they have the power to redeem us all because our hearts of stone see them and we can repent. Our stony hearts can be shattered in this way alone, whether it is the all-too-common suffering mass of humanity, or the far more rarely recognized instance of our own unearned suffering. (Think Job).
    Suffer for love and you will not only negate the power of death, you will begin to sense an existence outside the space-time continuum (my newest way of saying have eternal life).

    Unearned suffering, as referred to by King, is suffering that can make you angry, violent and willing to destroy things, or it can be born (as Christ did), out of love for others who are suffering like you. This can transform all who witness it (witness the Roman Centurion), thus mitigating the us vs. them phenomenon, which never redeemed a soul.

    Don’t you thing that’s what really happened to Saul when he became Paul? Saul was an insider, not an outcast. He was a stomp-er, not a stomp-ee. Luke tells the story of Saul’s conversion as if the story of Jesus’ unearned suffering and the image of Jesus reflected in the unearned suffering of the disciples (they counted themselves lucky to suffer for the name.) had no effect on Saul. Instead, it is as if Jesus just decided to whup him upside the head.

    Of course, that is always the way the redeeming power of unearned suffering for love hits you. It is such a powerful revelation that it stuns and disorients you. For the first time in your life, if you are one of the elites, you see the hideous ugliness and demonic nature of your own wealth and privilege. You taste the real flavor of your disgusting pride and it tastes like you know what. You smell your own figurative rotten corpse.

    And, for most of us, like Paul, you have trouble finding your bearings. That is a stink that can make you dizzy! You can’t see anything. Afterwords, of course, it becomes obvious to you that this was the Christ asking, “Why are you persecuting me?”

    We must remember that the outcasts bear to us rich boys their redeeming power as we are willing to suffer unearned with them; scared to suffer, yes, but willing to suffer for the name. And once that redeeming power gets going inside you, you understand why Christ did what he did.

    He couldn’t help it in a way, because of how he felt about us. It was (almost) as hard as hell, but he did it, and he conquered death and got us going in the same direction he was headed. The whole time they were spitting on him and beating him, he was thinking about how much he loved us.

    Twarn’t no other way he could of done it, I figure.

  7. Whenever I look at the current situation in the Middle East, even though I know European imperialisms are to blame for a great deal of it, I see the shadow of the invasion of Canaan and the genocidal commands in the Old Testament.

    I have been reading the books of Samuel & Kings as part of the Episcopal Daily Office this summer, which can be not unlike watching a lot of HBO, minus commercials. What really disturbed me was God’s (or Samuel’s?) utter rejection of Saul for not wiping out the Amorites, ruthlessly, without mercy, men, women, children, animals, property. Then you have the dynastic warfare between the House of Saul and the House of David, followed by the infighting within the House of David… it just keeps getting worse.

  8. Interesting thoughts, Morgan. I’m wondering whether you’ve read any of Greg Boyd’s posts over at on reconciling the OT God of violence with the NT God embodied in Jesus? He has a book coming out next year called The Crucifixion of the Warrior God, which is right in this space.

    • Good stuff. I’ll definitely be reading that. I’m not sure I’m going to end up with the same position as him, but I listen to him every week and respect him a lot.

  9. I like this post. Interestingly enough I am working on a series on the Canaaite genocide and the early films of Wes Craven over on my blog. If you’re interested, see my posts and I don’t know when I’ll get around to part 3–I’m a bit bogged down just now.

  10. I’ve been meaning to blog about it, but this makes me think of the conclusion I came to after meditating on what it says about God that he made a world of predator and prey. I came to see that there’s a sort of ruthlessness about God. Not that God is primarily ruthless, but there’s a lack of sentimentality which I think many people have a hard time understanding. There’s more to it than that, of course, but it’s something which weighs heavily on my reading of the Canaanite story.

    I think your analysis of the need for a complete destruction of evil systems, the passive evil of the comfortable, etc is spot on, BTW.

    • What I’m increasingly coming to believe is that God gives us two options: live under my mercy and enjoy the justice that is possible for merciful people or live outside of it and I will protect my people from you if you try to oppress them.

      • Hmmmm . . . I’m not going to say I disagree, but from where I’m sitting God’s protection is hard to see. Perhaps the problem is that his timeframe is so much longer than ours. I think I’d say that God’s attitude is more, “you can walk through the fire willingly, gifted by the Spirit and holding the hand of grace. Or you can be cast into the fire and suffer the loss of all that is not me that way. “

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