“As always, when I am ready to throw this promised land story away
because I can no longer deal with it, I hear something new….[But we] must
be extremely careful when we identify the promised land as our homeland.
It is even more dangerous to identify it with someone else’s land.”
Kwok Pui-Lan, Discovering the Bible in the Non-Biblical World
As a southern evangelical, I was raised on the notion of “promised land” as the fruits of a boundless effort to “claim the world for Christ.” While often invoked with the name “Israel” this understanding of promise was really a global colonial vision, one that imagined the purification and homogenization of the world through conversion perhaps but primarily through judgment and purging. It was the idea that there was no legitimate claim in otherness, and the complexity of history should be reduced to the singular march of Christian identity.
As a child and adolescent, I had no sense of the world outside of my immediate context. I never traveled more than 300 miles from my home. The still profoundly segregated black communities in that radius were deemed too dangerous to contemplate. The early influx of Central American migrant workers to the area was an underground phenomenon; I was easily oblivious to its dynamics. So I was able to imagine that the work I was asked to do to purify my soul in the image of Christ in the wake of my baptism was an appropriate metonym for the purification of the world. I did not imagine this as a violent process, and hardly imagined people as its objects at all. Whatever there was out there that was not of Christ was not exactly human anyway; there were shadowy creatures and forces that would certainly be banished by God’s light, leaving “us” free to experience the world without borders as the proper domain of our God.
I will turn 40 this year. While my life choices have been shaped in many ways disregarding this consumptive understanding of promise and inheritance, it was not until our travel to Palestine that I was able to begin a deliberate process of reconciling with this background narrative. I was only recently able to see the need to decolonize my inherited theology, at the same time as I choose to construct a theology from my lived experience of God, humanity, and the world.
Most of the power of this needed work hit me as we stood at the Western Wall. I was confronted in one gesture with the brutality of exclusion and indoctrination in the form of the IDF, the fierce defense of misogyny under the protection of tradition, the emotional landscape that enables a sense of entitlement and a march toward destiny, and the hubris of containing sacredness in a physical location, even while the place vibrates with the accumulated multireligious devotions of centuries. It occurred to me that even in this tiny place, which represents a discrete fault line of the struggle to fully claim a “homeland,” the notion of a boundless claim to truth and divine promise was intensely active. And I realized that my Christian identity carries with it that claim whether I believe I want it or not. It was the first time that I experienced myself as a Christian emblem rather than a Christian agent; that is, the first time I really understood that no matter how I navigate my own relationship with scripture, with Judaism, with Jesus, and with spiritual practice, there is work that my religious identity does in the world with my implicit consent through the Christianity I inherited and have yet to disclaim, if I even could.
Kwok Pui-Lan reminds us to be cautious about the simple equivalence of “promised land” and “homeland.” Her observation stems from extended consideration of the implications of the Exodus concept for communities othered by the biblical narrative. It is one thing, she proposes, to explore the concept of the promises of God for the dispossessed and traumatized, and another to make specific territorial claims—which we experience inevitably as sites of violence and conflict. I have found, in the weeks since our travel through Palestine, that my own understanding of divine promise requires a great deal more theological work. It is, ultimately, not distinguishable from the claim to territory and resources that emboldens the expansion of the Israeli state. It fails to make any sense of the complexity of the historical population of what we understand symbolically as the Holy Land.
One of the most terrifying prospects to me as a future minister is the realization that many theologically sound (or at least coherent and attractive) concepts can be easily commuted to use for purposes I would never intend—the concept of a singular promise of God to a given people chief among them. Our time in Palestine convinced me that the contextualization of theology, making it appropriate and effective in a given time and place, is only part of the work (though a part often inadequately addressed in contemporary Christian communities). Our theology of divine promise also requires continual trueing with the lived experience of all humanity, or else we invite the psychic and physical violence of exclusion by default.
The notions of “homeland” and “promised land” in religious discourse share a common origin as contextual responses to experiences and myths of dispossession and victimization. The theological notion of deliverance depends upon the narrative of harm suffered by a people uniquely, as a decisive moment in the formation of identity and communal purpose. Nowhere is this more evident than in the parallel—signaled by many allied to the Palestinian cause and baffling to many sympathetic to the political position of Israel—between the territorial separation in Israel/Palestine and South African apartheid. The naming is resisted in many quarters as both alarmist and contextually inappropriate. But as we traveled, many of us found abundant parallels between the South African colonial entrenchment and the Israeli strategies of isolation and psycho-physical control.
I would propose that, from a metahistorical perspective, the fear of reaction and revenge in transitions of power is legitimate. But the belief in the inevitability of cycles of dominance and subordination is precisely what keeps those cycles active. What was significant about Nelson Mandela’s response to the moment of the dissolution of apartheid was the explicit commitment to abandon revenge and exclusive claim as an organizing principle of the post-apartheid political structure, despite the revolutionary will among the South African people and the legitimate calls for an end not only to the system of segregation but also to the colonial presence that made such a system possible to begin with. Mandela was able to occupy a place between the narratives, one that charted a path out of the weary story of conquest.
We could instead say that this place between nationalist and identity narratives is itself the “promised land,” the place where God reconciles nations and undoes the will to power. In order to do so, we have to deliberately separate the notion of “homeland” from our understanding of what God promises to and seeks to bring to being in human culture and beyond it. We have good reason to fear retribution in the wake of releasing power, but only if we concede that land and resources are really up for grabs, that there is no way to steward the abundance of creation in the service of all and that we must imagine humans as fundamentally cruel and self-serving.
These last several weeks, I have been humbled by the complexity—political, economic, theological, and psychological—of finding freedom from the anxieties and whiplash of claims to control. At the same time, I have been humbled by the pure desire for free movement, for love and open space, for the right to labor and harvest that are embodied in the Palestinian response to the construction of the Separation Wall. For a vast majority of the world’s population, homeland is borderland, traversing between sustainability and suffocation, acceptance and dehumanization, despair and hope. Our obsession with nation-states serves only temporary security, if that. As our guide so passionately argued during our tour of house demolitions and settlement construction, the irony of answering dispossession and brutality with dispossession and brutality seems entirely lost on the Israeli project, due largely to the narrative of state-building and legitimate warfare.
Our work as American citizens, as spiritual and religious voices, seems to be the articulation of “promise” over “home.” I assert this hesitantly. In so many of the artistic and activist expressions of Palestinian resistance to the Israeli occupation, there is the call to home, to the right of each human being to a site of safe harbor and cultural nurture. But equating territory with home is problematic at best from a spiritual perspective. The current state of Israel/Palestine demands that we see land and identity not exactly as accidents of birth (as K. Anthony Appiah would argue) but also not as theologically ordained.
The Palestinian American poet Naomi Shihab Nye, in her ode to Jerusalem, observes that “[e]ach carries a tender spot:/something our lives forgot to give us.” The steps to peace in a world broken by borders require not that we demand the final resolution of that forgetting, but that we work from where we are, and know that dispossession breeds dispossession unless we counter it with love, unless we see all lands as borderlands. It is this understanding of home that most compels me in the wake of our travel to Palestine. At the border, resilience and vision flourish. People remember what has been taken, mourn it, seek it in new ways that respond to the realities of cruelty. They paint images of windows and flight, of resistance and revolution.
Restoration is a fantasy of an untainted past, and is never the reconciliation that our world desperately needs. None of us—neither the powerful nor the oppressed—can afford the fantasy. I am conscious that the American investment in the Israeli project from its profligate wealth deepens the illusion that we can undo histories of conquest with new histories of conquest. I am conscious that so much of the Palestinian cry for justice and freedom depends on us as American citizens, and I am terrified by the routinization of pro-Israeli politics that makes any effective solidarity with the daily suffering of Palestinians feel like a distant dream. And I am above all conscious that the theological motivations for the march of Israeli land-grabbing are smoke cover for much more human, much more cynical stories of national sovereignty bought, always it seems, at the cost of indigenous people. Nonetheless, undoing that theological justification is a critical part of pulling the veil off of the state-building project, and proposing a political reality that is at once spiritual—as an affirmation of human life and dignity—and practical—as a refusal of empty ideology that ultimately frees no one.