Have you heard the Bible story about Joshua and the walls of Jericho? (It is found in Joshua 5:10-6:27. You should read it for yourself if you are unfamiliar.) The story takes place in the Old Testament: after the Exodus from slavery in Egypt, the crossing of the sea, the giving of the commandments and forty years wandering in the wilderness. With the death of Moses came time for the Israelites to enter the Promised Land. Joshua was now the leader. Though sanitized by many children’s Bibles, make no mistake, this was a ‘take no prisoners’ military conquest. Joshua was the right man for the job. Jericho posed a problem: seemingly impenetrable walls encircled the city. Under Joshua’s leadership, the people camped outside the city and began to eat the produce from the land. As soon as they did, the manna that sustained them in the wilderness ceased. They now had a land filled with milk and honey, but Jericho prevented them from claiming it. In a vision, Joshua received an unusual idea for how to conquer the city. For six days, as priests blew trumpets, they were to march around the walls and when they were done, the people were told to shout. On the seventh day they were supposed to do the same thing seven times. In an animated version of this story from the 1990s called “Josh and the Big Wall” by Veggie Tales, the priests wore sunglasses and played “When the saints go marching in” as the guards from Jericho threw purple slushies at them. In the cartoon, the people from Jericho ran away. The Bible version of this story is not quite so tame. When the walls were breached, everyone (except for Rahab and her family – a spy who would later be counted among Jesus’ ancestors [Matthew 1:5]) either fell by the sword or the burning of the city.
I think this story typically gets used this way: we are just like the people of old, we sit encamped outside the city, odds against us, slushies (or worse) being hurled in our general direction. We are unwelcome, overwhelmed, ill-equipped, and unprepared as to how on earth (or even in heaven’s name) we are possibly going to break in to either a system, a culture or a community. We try to answer that question from a leadership perspective (be like Joshua, bold and courageous) or from a creative one (do something outside of the box – like march around the walls). We theologize about it, saying that if God wants it to happen, it will happen. The Divine sanctioned violence is troubling. After all, Joshua led only after God gave him the vision to do it.
Lately I’ve had a different response to this story, leaving me with some lingering questions…
-Didn’t the people inside Jericho think their side was somehow righteous and just?
-How did that work out?
-What did they think of this outside group poaching off their land and threatening their lives?
-Isn’t that the reason they built walls in the first place?
-What did they think of Rahab who betrayed them?
-Did they see her walk away with them from the ashes?
I’m starting to see this story more as an indictment than as a motivator. Maybe we are the ones inside Jericho. Maybe we are not on the outside looking into a culture we don’t feel like we have footing but maybe we are walled up inside a fortress seeking refuge from the changing world around us. Maybe we see what these “new people” look like and their strange ways of living and being look nothing more like a frivolous parade around our walls. Yes the trumpets are loud, but we are safe inside. Maybe we are too busy enjoying a slushie. We know God is on our side, this fortress we call the church is on a sure foundation, and we have centuries of resources, culture, status, and tradition to protect, so let’s check the walls, check the bolts on the doors, and if we see somebody we don’t like coming, we can always launch a slushie at them.
-How often do we (even unintentionally) turn people away?
-How often do we bolt the doors (even in a metaphorical sense)?
-How often do we lack the desire and interest to notice, listen, and seek to understand new neighbors, emerging cultures, different generations, innovative ways people communicate, and expanding discoveries because we like the way things are and would rather secure our walls than step outside?
The answer, of course, is too often. It is probably a primary contributing factor to the decline of churches of all kinds of denominational heritage all across the Western world. As the world continues to change we see those who are outside our experience as a threat, and those who walk outside to greet them as betrayers. We keep systems in place that stopped working years if not decades ago as we feel self-assured that our status within the landscape is secure. We make assumptions that are no longer valid and yet continue to reinforce them like walls against a foreign world –seeing any threat to these structures as a very assault upon God, if not our way of life. So we try to recruit others just like us, to keep the walls in place. And while we might make headway for a while – the walls still tumble and we still sit in the ashes, feeling plundered, left behind, and out of slushies.
There is an alternative: open the doors, go outside, and see who is new in the neighborhood. Who knows, maybe they might like a slushie on such a warm day. Maybe we could meet new friends, and not for the sake of getting them to help secure our walls, but because we have a genuine interest in who they are, where they’ve been, what they find to be important and where they struggle. Maybe we could help. Maybe they can too. Maybe the church can be a place where people want to meet – even if it isn’t for “church.” If God is the God of everyone, why are we so worried about the box we believe we keep him in? Wouldn’t it be more freeing, alive, vibrant, exciting, and faithful to catch ourselves in the act of meeting Jesus all over the place, and hearing some worthwhile stories along the way? After all, he says, “When you did for the least of these, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:39). I’d love to hear more about that. My hunch is…deep down you would too. Let’s meet outside for a slushie and talk it over. And hey, bring a friend, or someone new to your neighborhood.
For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. (Ephesians 2:14)