By Edward Sloane
Proper 26 (31)
Joshua 3: 7-17
The movement of crossing-over offers a theologically rich metaphor, but one that is not without troubles. The Israelites crossed-over the Red Sea and the Jordan River to establish a Promised Land; Jesus crossed over from death in the resurrection; the colonization of indigenous communities and the exploitation of more-than-human communities are the result of crossing oceans and bioregions; enslaved black bodies in the United States travelled the Underground Railroad to cross over into free territories; migrants cross borders seeking refuge from political, economic, and climate instability. Crossing over suggests a happy ending—we have arrived. Leaving behind a troubling, or unsatisfying, past, we are on our way to something better, perhaps even salvation. Depending on who tells the story and how, it is easy to read such crossings in multiple ways.
I want to suggest that learning how to read these narratives, and learning how to practice crossing over in ways that enrich life rather than produce death, requires cultivating a response to philosopher of science Donna Haraway’s invitation to “stay with the trouble.” Haraway describes this invitation by observing,
we—all of us on Terra—live in disturbing times, mixed-up times, troubling and
turbid times…Staying with the trouble does not require such a relationship to
times called the future. In fact, staying with the trouble requires learning to be
truly present, not as a vanishing pivot between awful or edenic pasts and
apocalyptic or salvific future, but as mortal critters entwined in myriad
unfinished configurations of places, times, matters, meanings (Haraway 2016:
I offer this extended quote as a sort of guidepost for my own meditations on today’s readings. The invitation to “stay with the trouble” seems especially appropriate as a strategy for sitting with today’s troubling account of imperial conquest that serves as a fulcrum for the Israelite account of exodus and liberation.
Today, in the book of Joshua we read the account of the Israelite’s crossing-over Jordan. We hear the words, “Joshua said, ‘By this you shall know that among you is the living God who without fail will drive out from before you the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites’” (3: 10). The power dynamics here contrast with the earlier account of crossing-over in the Biblical narrative when Moses leads the Israelites out of an oppressive present through the parted waters of the Red Sea.
How quickly the Israelites forget the troubles they experienced in Egypt! In their rush to secure for themselves a Promised Land they develop their own imperial aspirations. Enamored by the future promise of salvation and security, Israel has gone from liberation to invasion and cast the Canaanites, among others, as a necessary sacrifice in constructing a divinely ordained happy ending for themselves. It was these imperial aspirations that would later draw the anger of prophets such as Micah, whom we also read today, issuing the warning “because of you Zion shall be plowed as a field; Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins, and the mountain of the house a wooded height” (3: 12). The trouble continues and the Israelites become the target of the imperial aspirations of others.
In my home state of West Virginia displacements in the name of empire intersect in troubling and multiple ways. The exploitation of working class people and communities by coal companies and the destruction of multispecies habitats through Mountain Top Removal coal mining are built on the displacement and slaughter of indigenous populations. Christianity shares complicity in this narrative. The ethicist, Miguel de la Torre, illustrates this by referencing a book, History of Christianity, once on display at the Iliff School of Theology, which contains the following inscription from 1893 “this book was published 150 years ago and is covered with the skin of an Indian who was killed after a desperate struggle by General Morgan, proprietor of Morgantown, West Virginia and presented to my father, William Barns, M.D. by the hand of General Morgan himself” (De La Torre 2017: 55). Salvation history is literally wrapped in the bodies of its unnamed victims.
West Virginia is a microcosm of global ecologies in which dominator narratives position people of color who cross-over as invaders, but forget the colonialist invasions that necessitated these movements. The slave trade, U. S. free-trade policy and support for dictatorships in Central and South America, the displacement of indigenous communities seem to be forgotten. These histories are buried in the effort to ‘make America great again,’ returning to an imagined past without those people, or a future in which the world is “safe for Democracy,” which seems to be a stand-in for a future that is hospitable to American economic interests. If the illusory character of Israel’s own search for paradise lost via an imperial Promised Land is any indication, the future of the U. S. Empire is anything but secure, and if the changing ecology of our planet is any indication the human species itself does not have much in the way of an assured happy ending. So what does this mean for salvation history and our place within it?
Salvation has a geopolitics, which is often obscured by the histories of so-called victors. In the troubling present salvation is found in staying with the trouble, becoming responsible to those who are displaced through acts of material and symbolic violence. This is not a paternalistic promise to save the victims nor is it to make excuses for the perpetrators. Staying with the trouble means paying attention to how bodies and ecologies are mixed. Again, salvation history is wrapped in the bodies of its unnamed victims.
I want to turn to telling multispecies stories to trouble our imaginations further. Crossing over is the stuff of life. The zoologist, Margaret McFall-Ngai observes how microbes play an important role in ecological systems. She observes, “we are now beginning to realize that ‘individuals’ aren’t particularly individual at all. The organisms of developmental biology, along with Darwin’s species, all turn out to be complex assemblages, typically made up of more cells of others than their ‘own’…every ‘I’ is also a ‘we’” (in Tsing, et al 2017, M52). Cross-species interaction, entanglements with others, is the very heart of life. Our very bodies are ecosystems.
New understanding has shifted evolutionary theory away from a model based on evolution through competition—the survival of the fittest. Evolutionary scientists are beginning to see that cooperation and symbiosis are much more the rule than was previously thought. These insights into multispecies interaction allow us to imagine a new geopolitical terrain for our theopolitical ecologies that is not based on ‘our’ religion, socio-cultural group, or species ‘winning,’ or being ‘saved.’
These days, I am less interested in happy endings. The very real possibility of human extinction on a warming planet—the result of the imperial overreach of colonial-industrial capitalist human societies—has led my theological imagination into some interesting territory. Can we imagine salvation history without humans? It is disturbingly clear, from the Babylonian exile, to the crucifixion, to the collapse of a climate that is congenial to agricultural human societies that God, in the words of José Comblin, “created a world that could fail” (quoted in Sung 2007: 150). How are we to stay with this troubling insight?
Cultivating a response returns us to the question, what does it mean to cross over, mixing our stories and lives? Ecological health is nurtured through connection as opposed to the false securities of borders and walls, which only choke off life. Becoming responsible and mixing together in the troubling present holds out the possibility of ‘re-wilding’ salvation, imagining the Promised Land as a Promised Commons. Through multispecies, cross-cultural collaboration we till the soil of our collective histories and place-making habits so that painful histories of death and false narratives of victory mix and comingle into something shared and, therefore, richer.
Ed Sloane is a doctoral candidate at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. His research focuses on ecological justice, adolescent development, and place and community based religious education. He was raised and currently resides in the Upper Ohio River Valley South Watershed of West Virginia on the Allegheny Plateau. This bioregion is the traditional home of the Mingwe (Mingo) Peoples.
De La Torre, Miguel A. Embracing Hopelessness. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017.
Haraway, Donna J. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham:
Duke University Press, 2016.
Sung, Jung Mo. Desire, Market, and Religion. London: SCM Press, 2007.
Tsing, Anna, Heather Swanson, et al., eds. Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet:
Ghosts/Monsters. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017.