Viewpoint: Mark Beckwith – We must learn how to share the land

By MARK BECKWITH

For the Ledger-Transcript

Published: 05-31-2024 11:28 AM

A couple of weeks ago, I came across this passage from my daily reading – “From the wilderness and the Lebanon as far as the great river, the river Euphrates, all the land of the Hittites, to the Great Sea in the west shall be your territory. No one will be able to stand against you all the days of your life.”

There has been some mild scholarly debate over the years as to when these opening verses from the Book of Joshua were written (Joshua 1:4-5). Some say 1400 BCE; others say 580 BCE. But in recent months, a fierce debate has emerged as to what God’s promise to Joshua means. Many Jewish scholars and leaders insist that the passage is proof positive that the territory God refers to is the Jewish people’s exclusive land – and can never belong to anyone else. Other Jewish scholars and leaders suggest that the promise challenges the Jewish people to integrate themselves into the land which was already occupied by the Hittites (and also by the Canaanites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites and Jebusites – Joshua 3:10). In short, that they must figure out how the land can be shared.

“River to the sea” is thought to be a new phrase, currently being shouted out at various street demonstrations and college campuses. It isn’t. Its origin is from this ancient Biblical text (and several psalms). “River to the sea” has become, for many, code words for justifying terrorist activity. It isn’t, and it wasn’t when the words from the Hebrew scriptures were first recorded. The Joshua passage is a statement about land, and the debate that has raged over centuries has been about who has dominion over disputed tracts of land – who owns it, who rules it.

That debate is currently being fought in violent ways in Gaza, Ukraine, Sudan and Myanmar – and God knows how many other places. A similar violence extends back in time when European settlers arrived on the coast of South Africa in the 17th century, when the local people had moved upcountry, as they did every year, to farm the land. This gave the Dutch settlers the impression that the land was theirs, and apartheid was the cruel manifestation of their dominion. “Manifest Destiny” was a concept I learned in junior high school, when those of European heritage were destined to have dominion over this fertile and vast expanse of fertile land. The violence increased as the country expanded westward, removing indigenous people by force or fiat.

One of my favorite songs to sing at summer camp was “This Land is Your Land,” written by folk singer Woody Guthrie in 1940. Everybody seemed to know it, including my Japanese friends, who sang their English version of it around the campfire. “From California to the New York island” became “from Hokkaido to the Kyushu island” without missing a beat. It is said that Guthrie wrote the song in response to “God Bless America,” which Irving Berlin composed in 1918 (at the end of World War I) and revised in 1938. Guthrie apparently got tired of hearing Kate Smith bellow it out, and wanted an alternative.

Both songs continue to be popular – and each, in different ways, reinforce the idea that this land is ours to enjoy and revere. Of course, the “ours” component continues to be debated. Does the land really belong to everyone? Can anyone literally put a stake in the ground and call it theirs? It turns out that when Guthrie revised his folk song in 1944, he was pressured to remove a verse that complained about fences that kept people out.

One does not need to travel very far from where I live in New England to find a town common or a village green. Originally, they were designated to be “common” spaces where people could freely graze their flocks, grow some crops and eventually be buried. Yet as it is inevitable when it comes to the managing and proprietorship of land, disputes arose, restrictions were imposed and those who had more – money, influence or status – could dictate how the land could be used and who could use it.

I live at the southern foot of Mount Monadnock, a 3,165-foot rock-exposed peak which, though inert and immovable, continues to shape the culture of southern New Hampshire. There are dozens of trails up the mountain, some of which require payment. I am told that nearly 100 years ago, someone (on the north side) tried to develop the mountain, building homes and a future ski area. The locals banded together to stop it, and succeeded in creating a state park and declaring hundreds of acres to be public land. For the most part, the mountain remains pristine.

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The stark beauty of Monadnock feeds my soul – whether it is snow-capped, moon-lit, sun-drenched or fog-bound. The longer I live at its base, the more I like to think that the mountain is mine. Of course it isn’t. I have to resist the urge to think so. Instead, what I have come to realize is that Monadnock has become a vital, indeed necessary, part of my life. I won’t let that go.

But I don’t own it. None of us do. Thank God for that. And we all need to figure out how to share the land where we live and build our futures on. We have a lot to learn.

Mark Beckwith is a retired Episcopal bishop who will be speaking for the Amos Fortune Forum in July.