A few days ago Matt Flannagan took issue with my claim that William Lane Craig is defending biblical genocide. In Matt’s view, what Craig is defending is not genocide at all. It soon became evident that Matt and I disagree over how the word “genocide” is to be defined. This is an important issue and I will be responding to Matt in a few days. But the disagreement got me thinking about the broader trend of Christian theologians, pastors and apologists adopting tendentious definitions of the terms “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing”, definitions which seem to have little purpose other than ensuring that the biblical accounts of (and directions for) mass killing in passages like Deuteronomy 20, Joshua 6-11 and 1 Samuel 15 do not qualify.
Examples are not hard to come by. For example, Paul Copan argues this way in his book Is God a Moral Monster? by claiming that while “Ethnic cleansing is fueled by racial hatred” (163), “xenophobic attitudes didn’t prompt the Israelites to kill Canaanites.” (163) This is erroneous reasoning and I offer a rebuttal to Copan’s claims here.
Justin Taylor redefines ethnic cleansing and genocide
Unfortunately Christians keep making these indefensible claims. I recently came across a particularly bald example of such redefinition in Justin Taylor’s article “How Could God Command Genocide in the Old Testament?” (I wrote an earlier rebuttal to Taylor’s article here. ) Taylor lists several points in his article but it is the fifth one that attempts to redefine genocide and ethnic cleansing as Taylor argues that “God’s actions were not an example of ethnic cleansing.” Taylor explains:
“The Pentateuch (Genesis-Deuteronomy) provides laws for two types of warfare: (1) battles fought against cities outside the Promise Land (see Deut. 20:10-15), and (2) battles fought against cities within the Promised Land (Deut. 20:16-18). The first type allowed for Israel to spare people; the second type did not. This herem practice (the second type of warfare) meant “devotion/consecration to destruction.” As a sacred act fulfilling divine judgment, it is outside our own categories for thinking about warfare. Even though the destruction is commanded in terms of totality, there seems to have been an exception for those who repented, turning to the one true and living God (e.g., Rahab and her family [Josh. 2:9], and the Gibeonites [Josh. 11:19]). What this means is that the reason for the destruction of God’s wicked enemies was precisely because of their rebellion and according to God’s special purposes—not because of their ethnicity. “Ethnic cleansing” and genocide refer to destruction of a people due to their ethnicity, and therefore this would be an inappropriate category for the destruction of the Canaanites.”
Let’s focus on that last sentence which I bold-faced for emphasis. Here Taylor defines “ethnic cleansing” and “genocide” as the “destruction of a people due to their ethnicity.” Since the mass killing undertaken by the Israelites against surrounding nations is not due to the ethnicity of those peoples (it is due, rather, to their sin), he concludes that the mass killings of those people do not qualify as instances of ethnic cleansing or genocide.
Unfortunately Taylor’s reasoning is completely spurious as becomes clear when we take a closer look at each term.
The term “ethnic cleansing” is of comparatively recent vintage, for it first arose in the 1990s during the conflict in Yugoslavia. While the term lacks a formal legal definition, Klejda Mulaj provides a working definition in the book Politics of Ethnic Cleansing. (Dr. Mulaj is a senior lecturer at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter and did extensive doctoral research on the cases of ethnic cleansing in the Balkans in the 1990s. Thus, she is one uniquely qualified to speak to the issue.) Mulaj writes:
“Ethnic cleansing is considered to be a deliberate policy designed by, and pursued under, the leadership of a nation/ethnic community or with its consent, with the view to removing an “undesirable” indigenous population of a given territory on the basis of its ethnic, national, or religious origin, or a combination of these by using systematically force and/or intimidation.” ((Lanham: Lexington, 2008), 4.)
The first thing to note is that ethnic cleansing carries a “top-down” policy dimension which is not necessarily present in cases of genocide. In other words, ethnic cleansing is a state-based, or at least state-supported effort. Second, the primary goal is to remove a people from a territory and while this can include killing the targeted group, it also encompasses other means to remove them from the territory. Third, the targeted group is not limited to those of a particular ethnicity. The cleansing can also be directed against those of a particular national and/or religious identity.
One caveat is in order. We should be careful not to be too strict in limiting ethnic cleansing to targeting based on ethnic, national and/or religious markers. The Khmer Rouge-led attack on the intelligentsia (which absurdly even went to the length of targeting anybody who wore glasses) is a clear example of ethnic cleansing, though it is one based on education and perceived political affiliation.
Ideally, it would be more accurate to distinguish between a general type action — “land cleansing” — and various token examples thereof — e.g. ethnic cleansing, religious cleansing, class-cleansing, and so on. But for now we are left with a single term — ethnic cleansing — which imperfectly describes all these violent policy actions.
Now let’s spend a minute looking at the definition of genocide. The original definition, adopted at the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, declared that “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group” would constitute acts of genocide. The document then lists the following:
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
When I engage with Matthew Flannagan later I will be focusing on the importance of including (a)-(e) in our understanding of genocide. But for now we can simply note that Taylor’s attempt to restrict genocide to ethnicity faces the same problem as his attempt to limit ethnic cleansing. In short, both terms are regularly applied to a much broader set of criteria including national and religious identity and (as we see in the case of Cambodia) social standing and political affiliation.
Taylor and the Rahab Principle
Ultimately Taylor rests his case on the claim that the Israelites provide evidence that the mass killing of Canaanites and Amalekites was not motivated by ethnic, religious or nationalist concerns simpliciter. Instead, that killing was motivated by the sin of the Canaanites and Amalekites. And thus for this reason, this killing is neither ethnic cleansing nor genocide.
In the passage quoted above Taylor appeals to the cases of Rahab and the Gibeonites as evidence that the Israelites were not motivated by the desire for ethnic extermination simpliciter that defines ethnic cleansing and genocide. This reasoning is spurious. In the case of the Gibeonites their lives are spared because they tricked the Israelites. Moreover, even if their lives were spared, that hardly means there wasn’t ethnic cleansing or genocidal actions against the other tribes!
So everything depends on the case of Rahab. What should we make of the fact that her life was spared? Taylor seems to be assuming a principle like this:
The Rahab Principle: if group A targets group B to be forcibly removed from a territory (through displacement or killing), but then spares one or a few individuals from group B, we ought to conclude that group A was not involved in ethnic cleansing or genocide of group B.
This kind of reasoning simply staggers me. Consider: if we applied this principle consistently then it would follow that the Germans were not engaged in ethnic cleansing or genocide because they spared many Jews, people that they pressed into service. I suggest that Taylor should take a Saturday afternoon out to read through historian Bryan Rigg’s book Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers: The Untold Story of Nazi Racial Laws and Men of Jewish Descent in the German Military (University Press of Kansas, 2004). (Keep in mind that Rigg’s scope is limited and does not address the many other instances of Jews being pressed into service for the Nazi war machine.)
This leaves Taylor with a real dilemma: either accept the consequences of his position that the Nazis were not guilty of ethnic cleansing and genocide, or adopt a hopeless inconsistency by arbitrarily applying the Rahab Principle only when it suits him.
Taylor and the Pure Motivation Principle
Taylor claims that the mass killing of Canaanites and Amalekites did not constitute ethnic cleansing or genocide because these were actions due to the sinful behavior of the targeted groups rather than their ethnic identity per se. For example, consider this excerpt from Deuteronomy 20:
16 However, in the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. 17 Completely destroy them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—as the Lord your God has commanded you. 18 Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the Lord your God.
In Taylor’s reasoning verse 18 would presumably exempt the policy outlined in the previous two verses from constituting a mandate for ethnic cleansing or genocide.
Once again, we can focus Taylor’s claim with a principle:
The Pure Motivation Principle: if group A attributes their desire to remove group B forcibly from a territory (through displacement or killing) to a more complex nexus of factors than the ethnic identity of group B, we ought to conclude that group A was not involved in ethnic cleansing or genocide of group B.
And so, since the killing of the Canaanites and Amalekites is attributed to sin rather than their ethnic identity simpliciter, it follows that this killing was neither ethnic cleansing nor genocide.
The only problem is that the Pure Motivation Principle would also exempt virtually every other historic instance of ethnic cleansing and genocide. The fact is that when ethnic cleansing and genocide occur, the ethnic, national and/or religious identity may mark the target, but it doesn’t provide the justifying framework for the killing. That framework is inevitably applied by supplemental reasoning. Thus, the Nazis motivated the extermination of Jews relative to a broad and complex range of justifications from the Jews’ historic roles as “Christ killers” and “greedy money lenders” to the alleged Jewish atrocities and plans for world domination outlined in the “Protocols of Zion”. At a popular level this justifying framework reduced to the claim that Jews were “vermin”.
Similarly, the Hutus explained the need to kill Tutsis by appealing to the target group’s relation to the Belgian colonizers and their historic role in oppressing the Hutus. At a popular level this justifying framework reduced to the claim that Tutsis were “cockroaches”.
This pattern is repeated over and over in cases of historic genocide. And it is hardly surprising that this should be the case. After all, human beings have an enormous aversion to killing other human beings, and simply invoking the ethnic, national and/or religious identity of those other human beings is in itself insufficient to overcome that aversion. Thus, extraordinary justifying frameworks are necessary to motivate the killing once the target group has been identified through the particular ethnic, national and/or religious identifying markers.
So we see that in fact the Canaanite and Amalekite cases of mass killing conform perfectly to the informal definition of ethnic cleansing and the formal definition of genocide, as well as the many other historic cases to which these terms are commonly applied. It is ignorant at best, and disingenous at worst, to attempt to rebrand these biblical cases of mass killing as anything other than what they are.