This is the second (and penultimate) installment in my review of Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan’s book Did God Really Command Genocide? For part 1 click here. I recommend readers begin with part 1 before reading this installment.
From ethnic cleansing to genocide
As I noted in part 1 of this review, while Copan and Flannagan accept the broad historical veracity of the Deuteronomic history, they argue that when the texts are properly read, God did not command genocide. But do they succeed in this claim? This seems doubtful to me. In part 1 I argued that their view is equivalent to ethnic cleansing. In this second installment I’m going to go further by arguing that their account of the events does, in fact, amount to genocide.
To see why, let’s start with chapter 10, “Legal and Theological Objections concerning Genocide.” In this chapter Copan and Flannagan begin by reiterating their claim that the texts calling for the mass killing of all Canaanites should be interpreted as hyperbolic. On their view, the real divine intent was that the Israelites would drive the Canaanites en masse out of the land, thereby limiting the slaughter only to those Canaanites that remained behind. While this is somewhat less extreme than the view that God directed the killing of all the Canaanites, nonetheless Copan and Flannagan acknowledge that some critics will consider this picture of killing some and dispossessing the rest as itself sufficient to qualify as genocide (126).
In forming a reply, Copan and Flannagan turn to a closer examination of international law. They begin with the five conditions under which the charge of genocide is warranted as outlined in the International Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide:
(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. (Cited in 126)
At first blush, this seems to make things even worse. After all, even on the somewhat less extreme Copan-Flannagan reading of the Deuteronomic history, the Israelites were still involved in (a), (b) and (c). In other words, they killed Canaanites based on their Canaanite religio-cultural identity, they caused serious bodily or mental harm to Canaanites, and their forcible expulsion of Canaanites and burning of their cities certainly appears to be “calculated to bring about [the Canaanites’] physical destruction”, at least “in part”. So on what basis do Copan and Flannagan purport to argue that this isn’t genocide?
Their rebuttal is predicated on the fact that, according to the ruling of the ICTY court (i.e. the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia), genocidal acts are those which seek to destroy a national, ethnic, and/or religious group (127). Why is this relevant? Because, on Copan and Flannagan’s view the primary divine intent in the Deuteronomic history was not to destroy Canaanites, but rather to force them to relocate. In short, the primary goal of forcing them out of the land is sufficient to deny that the Canaanite campaign was genocidal. As they put it,
“If God’s command was primarily to drive the Canaanites from the land and not to physically exterminate all or even the vast majority of the Canaanites, then the command was not obviously a genocidal one.” (130)
It is important to recognize how much rests on this claim that the military campaign wasn’t genocidal because of this intent to drive the Canaanites out. Given the importance of this point, it is surprising to see just how weak it really is.
To see how weak it is, we can begin with Copan and Flannagan’s choice of phrasing. Look again at that pivotal quote. Rather than conclude, as one might have expected, that “the command was not a genocidal one” (a conclusion which would support the central thesis of their book) they instead opt for the much weaker phrasing that it “was not obviously a genocidal one.” (Emphasis of “obviously” added.) In other words, at most Copan and Flannagan have secured the reasonable possibility that the narrative is not genocidal. This still leaves open the very real alternative that it was indeed genocidal.
Okay, but can they at least say that their reading establishes the reasonable possibility that the narrative is not genocidal? The answer, it seems to me, is no. The problem here is that Copan and Flannagan’s focus on killing vs. dispossessing Canaanites misses the crucial point that the real crime of genocide per se is neither killing nor dispossessing individuals but rather undertaking acts with the intent of destroying a particular ethnic, religious and/or cultural identity. That’s why acts like prevention of births and forced transfer of children are genocidal acts, precisely because they focus on the destruction of the identity, irrespective of whether any individual is killed, maimed, or mentally harmed.
For example, imagine if rather than engage in a campaign of killing Tutsis in Rwanda, Hutus had, unbeknownst to the Tutsis, instead sterilized them in their sleep. Even if the Tutsis never discovered what happened to them and never suffered (beyond the great pain of being unable to conceive), this attempt to eradicate their ethnic identity would constitute a genocide against the Tutsi people. Consequently, any discussion of the relative ratio of mass killing to forced dispossession and deportation misses the point: if there is an intent to destroy a particular ethnic, religious and/or cultural identity, then the act is still genocide.
On the Copan-Flannagan reading do God and the Israelites undertake actions to eliminate Canaanite religio-cultural identity? Indeed, they do. Those actions include threats and public acts designed to terrorize the population, aggressive military invasion, destruction of all artifacts of Canaanite culture in herem destruction, a programmatic attempt to drive the Canaanites away from their homes, markets, temples, and cities and out into the desert, and the killing of all Canaanite civilians that remain behind. If there is one thing clear in the Deuteronomic history (at least on the Copan-Flannagan reading), it is that God wants to destroy Canaanite culture and identity and the Israelites attempt to carry out that desire to the full extent of their abilities.
To drive the point home, let’s take the primary elements of the Copan-Flannagan reading (save the role of the divine actor, since God is not addressed in international law) and adapt them to a case that could unfold in our day. Then ask yourself: does this look like genocide? With that in mind, imagine that you read a newspaper article of the following crisis unfolding in the fictional country of Bungabar:
Bungabar. For the last few months radio broadcasts from the Twee people in the south have been calling for the mass killing and dispossession of the Bungese in the north. Twee leaders claim that the Bungese are squatters on Twee land and that the squatters need to be driven out. In the last week the Twee have invaded the southern regions of the Bungese territory. They have burned Bungese towns and are destroying all Bungese cultural artifacts and religious temples. Thousands of Bungese refugees are presently heading north, fleeing the advancing Twee armies. The Twee soldiers are massacring any Bungese civilians that they find. (Reuters)
If you read this story wouldn’t you conclude that it was an unfolding genocide? I’m guessing the answer is yes. What is more, imagine how dismissive you would be of apologists of the Bungese invasion as they attempt to invoke some hair-splitting legal distinction to defend the actions of the army as not genocide when everybody knows it is?
To sum up, even if the Copan-Flannagan reading is defensible, it leaves us with the double whammy of ethnic cleansing and genocide. It would seem that their answer to the book’s central question should, in fact, be “yes, God did command genocide.”
Why not just accept that this was a justified genocide?
I understand that Copan and Flannagan have a strong motivation to deny that their reading is genocidal given the powerful emotional force of the term and its association with contemporary and modern moral atrocities that have imprinted themselves on our collective consciousness.
However, it seems to me that it would be more consistent for Copan and Flannagan to concede that they accept genocide, albeit under the appropriate conditions secured by the divine command. Indeed, a divine command may not even be necessary. Consider the following passage where Copan and Flannagan affirm Richard Swinburne’s point that in some cases mass killing (perhaps even genocidal mass killing) could be undertaken to protect the wider population:
“many people would think it justified to kill people who had an infectious lethal disease and refused to be kept isolated from the rest of the population. Those who think that an infection that leads to spiritual death is as bad an evil as one that leads to natural death will think that there are reasons (though not of course adequate reasons) for the Israelites to kill the Canaanites even without a divine command.” (212)
Now this is an unflinching defense of the conditions for genocide straight-up, no pained legal hair-splitting and no divine command required! Lest you think I’m being sarcastic, rest assured I am not. Indeed, I readily concede the point that one can envision scenarios under which genocide might be warranted, and Swinburne helps us to see one of them.
Let’s take Swinburne’s lethal disease example and run with it. Imagine if all the members of an ethnic, religious, and/or cultural group were infected with a deadly virus like Ebola and they were intent on infecting the wider population. Moreover, there were no way practically to restrain them from doing so. Finally, imagine that their reckless, destructive actions were driven by aspects of their religion or cultural identity. Under those circumstances, it is possible that a genocide of this infectious, malevolent group might be justified.
This may be possible but are there real world examples of this kind of rationale? Indeed, there are. In fact, these rationales are relatively common in world history. (For a sobering survey, see David Livingstone Smith, Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave and Exterminate Others (New York: St. Martins Press, 2012).) Consider, for example, the case of Adolf Hitler. (Yes, I’ve chosen to use a Nazi example: Godwin’s law is proved once again!) In 1919 Adolf Hitler penned a pivotal letter outlining to the German population the threat that he believed was posed by the Jews. Hitler warned that
“In his effects and consequences [the Jew] is like a racial tuberculosis of the nations.”
If the Jews really did present a seriously dangerous infection, then one could arguably defend the most radical option of extermination to protect the greater number of human beings.
Before I get lynched, allow me to point out the obvious: the burden of proof is upon any would-be apologist for genocide to provide evidence — presumably very powerful, indeed all-but-irrefutable evidence — that this population poses a real threat. Needless to say, Hitler and his hooked-cross cronies offered no evidence to justify genocide beyond their own anti-Semitic, hate-filled nationalistic rhetoric. Consequently we categorically repudiate his noxious claim that Jews were a tuberculosis and instead we consign Hitler to the ignominy he so richly deserves.
But what about the Canaanites? What reason do Copan and Flannagan offer to believe that the Canaanites presented a racial (or religio-cultural) tuberculosis threat to the Jews, one which required a response as distressingly extreme as ethnic cleansing and genocide?
Copan and Flannagan provide an answer in chapter 19 “The Role of Miracles and the Command to Kill Canaanites.” You can probably guess how this argument proceeds: God allowed the Israelites to experience extraordinary miracles (beginning with the Exodus) which served to corroborate the divine will to kill Canaanites.
That’s an interesting argument. Unfortunately, it begs a question the size of the Queen Mary. We will begin the final installment of the review (yes, the end is in sight!) with that question.