“The Promised Land” is both a place and a state of mind, and many times, it is both things at once. The promised land represents a place or situation in which someone expects to find happiness, or the potential for a better life.
When I say some names they instantly conjure the image of a promised land that is a physical place. In our collective memories these places are iconically linked to some kind of economic promise: New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo, Mumbai, Paris, Shanghai, Frankfurt, Beijing, Delhi, Karachi, Lagos, Guangzhou, Sáo Paulo, Detroit, Seoul, Mexico City, Moscow, and Jakarta. States of mind represented by words are: Hollywood, Wall Street, Broadway, The Castro, Bollywood, Silicon Valley, and The Emerald City.
It is not an accident that most of the places I listed are among the most populous cities on the planet. The world’s population is becoming increasingly urban. The year 2007 was estimated to be the turning point when city dwellers formed the majority of global population for the first time in history. The trend has steadily continued to this day. By the year 2050 it is estimated that urbanization will reach 66% of the population. Cities grow in three ways: migration, whether internally from within a country or by international migration, the natural growth of the population within the city, or by the re-classification of non-urban areas - otherwise known as “urban sprawl”.
I will return to the physical “Promised Land” in a bit. Now I want to tell you about the Emerald City. The following description comes from a wikipedia article. The yellow brick road starts in Munchkin county and ends in the Emerald City. The Emerald City is located at the center of the Land of Oz. In the first book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, written in 1900 by L. Frank Baum, the walls are green, but the city itself is not. However, when they enter, everyone in the Emerald City is made to wear green-tinted eyeglasses; which is explained as an effort to protect their eyes from the “brightness and glory” of the city, but in effect makes everything appear green when it is, in fact, “no more green than any other city”.
There are hundreds of books written by and about the famous Wizard of Oz franchise, and there are about as many tales about the meanings, metaphors used, and philosophies present in the books and the famous movie. So, I feel safe shamelessly using it as a perfect metaphor for all promised lands. I’ll try not to belabor the point, as I imagine most of you can instantly understand why I employ the Land of Oz and its Emerald City in this fashion. In the book, Dorothy’s goal is to “go home,” or reach Nirvana, with the help of “the Wizard” (or guru), who holds the key. Of course, in the end, the key to self-actualization is not with the Wizard, but within Dorothy herself. By the way, the name Dorothy literally means “gift of God”.
People don’t just decide to take Oz-like treks just for the fun of it. There is usually some traumatic event or situation that induces them to brave the additional hardships represented by evil witches, flying monkeys, vicious trees, rabid beasts, giant ditches, and soporific poppy fields in the book. There is a way to get to the promised land the Emerald City. The road is difficult, but paved. If you need to put your time in as a waitperson in Hollywood or Bollywood before your face or script gets in front of the right people, you do it. If you must work at a parking lot during the day so you can play bit parts in off-Broadway productions, you do it. If you write programming code for sandwiches and a promise of stock in a startup company, you do do it. All these things are done so that you can attain a better life... so that you can get to your personal, internal promised land.
So strong is the psychic pull of the phrase “Promised Land”, and so charged it is as a meme, it is simply used as linguistic shorthand to represent almost any existential struggle. “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” was the last speech Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered, the day before he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee in 1968. In that speech he declared, “Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live - a long life; longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man.”
King did not need to define to his audience what the Promised Land looks like, or where it is, or what it will feel like when it is finally arrived at. He did not need to. Every person in his audience understood that the path towards it is fraught with uncertainty, difficulty, threat of death, resignation, and the moral certainty of God’s will. For African Americans the Promised Land is both a physical and a mental place that is free from fear and persecution.
There is another aspect of the Promised Land meme that speaks to suffering and tragedy. The language almost always has a prophetic quality that refers to the Biblical book of Deuteronomy. Moses, who leads the people of Israel, is not able to go there because of his transgression towards God. God informs Moses that he will not reach the land himself, but he will see it from a distance.
So, to reach the Promised Land, one must be willing to sacrifice for the good of those who will follow behind them: members of their family, their community, or some other disadvantaged group of people. Sometimes the land is already occupied but the fruits of its potential will not be consumed for generations. Such is, of course, the case for African Americans and Native Americans, but it as also true for almost every kind of immigrant.
Sometimes to reach the Promised Land an actual Diaspora is involved, with a scattered population whose origin lies in a different geological place. The term Diaspora is almost always associated with the involuntary mass dispersions of populations and/or some genocidal event. These physical journeys do not necessarily have to take place across continents or nations, like the expulsion of Jews from Judea, Armenians from their homeland, the Greeks after the fall of Constantinople, Native Americans after they lost their homelands, the Irish during the Irish Famine, the African trans-Atlantic slave trade, and the southern Chinese or Indians during what was called the “coolie trade”.
Being free from fear and persecution is the goal of the traveler to the Promised Land. Both the fear and persecution can be real or imagined... and they can often be manifested in both the place being left and the place where the traveler arrives. But the essential thing is the hope for a better situation in the Promised Land.
In my first year of seminary school I took an eye-opening course called “Promised Lands and Immigrants” taught by Dr. Hugo Córdova Quero. The on-line course covered racial/ethnic, gender and religious identity issues of Latina/o migrants to the United States and Japan. We examined the issues around migration and the “Promised Lands” paradigm through the lenses of race, ethnicity, gender identities, and religion. Using a multidisciplinary approach, I came to an understanding of just how difficult it is for both immigrants and their “host” countries to grapple with the needs and expectations of people who are induced, for a wide variety of reasons, to seek a Promised Land.
Imagine what it would like to be gay or lesbian and needing to live in a country that would be hostile towards you. Imagine that you are discriminated against in your host country because you don’t speak the language, you speak too loudly, your mannerisms are considered boorish, you worship differently, your hair is not the right color, and your race is all wrong. This is certainly the case with Latina/o migrants to Japan. Let’s say you are actually of Japanese ancestry but you’ve grown up in a South American country – both your parents are Japanese, you speak Japanese, you were educated in schools that taught in the Japanese language, and you went to live in Japan. You’d think you would be easily assimilated into the culture. You would be tragically wrong!
Although we studied the rather harsh example of Japanese culture, as well as the whacky experience Latina/o migrants have in the United States, the study broadened my intellectual horizons to encompass the experience African Americans and Native Americans have in the United States. Here, the machinations of oppression are the same: you are discriminated against in your host country because you don’t speak the language, you speak too loudly, your mannerisms are considered boorish, you worship differently, your hair is not the right color, and your race is all wrong. Assimilation for these groups, even over many generations, is virtually impossible because of the inherent racism of their “native” country.
So, African Americans for example, experienced their own Diaspora that was “internal” to the United States. They fled the deep South, with its brutally discriminatory Jim Crow laws after the American Civil War, to seek the Promised Lands of the North and (later) the West. There, they became quickly aware that their zip code change did not correspond to a change in attitude about their skin color. On the whole, things were better, but the struggle to find Martin Luther King Jr.’s Promised Land is ongoing.
The indigenous people called “Native Americans” in the United States, have fared at least as badly as African Americans, and mostly for the same reasons. They are like Dorothy in the “Wonderful Wizard of Oz”, who got to the Emerald City but was told that she had to go back into danger to retrieve the wicked witch’s broom before she could go home. After enduring biological warfare, dislocation from their lands, and endless treaty violations, many Native Americans are the in the unique position of being citizens of the United States and also citizens of a federally recognized Indian nation, a nation recognized by the Supreme Court as a domestic, dependent nation.
In a sermon entitled “The Immigrant”, I spoke about the concept of a “melting pot” in the United States. I said: “The ‘melting pot’, in reality, has always been a metaphor that describes how white Europeans can successfully migrate to the United States and acceptably make contributions to the gene pool. The ‘melting pot’, contrary to the hopes of our ‘better angels’, has never described a heterogeneous society becoming more homogeneous by virtue of the different elements ‘melting together’ into a harmonious whole with a common culture.” In that sermon, I pointed out that United States’ immigration policies have always had a strong racist component.... that the original, and still subconscious preference for immigrants to these shores are people who are European, or of European descent.
The name of the game for anyone wishing to live successfully in a Promised Land is to assimilate into the host culture. That is just a fact of life. Unless you are content to claim some plot of land in Antarctica or a new lava-created island in the Pacific, there are very few places where you can go in the modern era that is not already occupied by someone else. You and your friends might go the Israeli route and conquer lands already occupied by Palestinians... you know, the “we had it first a billion years ago” rationale for acquiring a Promised Land, but generally people frown on that approach.
So, how do you get to your Promised Land? How can you get the people already living there to accept you? How do you change the contours of the land to suit your needs without pissing off the natives?
Unless you’re trapped in that land like the indigenous people in the United States, or your ancestors were enslaved there, like African Americans, you’ve got to choose your Promised Land very carefully. Getting to a Promised Land is a somewhat transactional affair. Generally, it is a good idea to have something to offer the host country, like labor or needed skills. Workers from across the globe have been attracted to the United States for that reason. Unfortunately, the United States has a history of sifting by race and ethnicity after a while. Presently we are in another pendulum swing towards the racist right. The people bearing the brunt of our racist scorn are brown people from anywhere south of our borders and/or anyone who had been enjoying Temporary Protected Status, like those from Yemen, Syria, South Sudan, Sudan, and Somalia.
The Gastarbeiter (or Guest Worker) program in what was once West Germany is another example of how transactional arrangements in Promised Lands can go wrong. From the 1950s through the early 1970s, Turkish workers arrived in Germany to fill the demand for cheap labor in a booming post-war economy. Many of them never left, creating a minority community that changed the demographics of Germany forever. According to Wikipedia, “By 2010 there were about 4 million people of Turkish descent in Germany. The generation born in Germany attended German schools, but some had a poor command of either German or Turkish, and thus had either low-skilled jobs or were unemployed. Most are Muslims and are presently reluctant to become German citizens.” I imagine you can already guess what I would say about how Turks are treated in Germany... and you would be correct.
It also helps to have some kind of cultural, religious, racial, or ethnic links to the host country. This can be problematical, though. I already mentioned the problems the Japanese have with Latina/o migrants, who you might think should be welcomed by virtue of their genetic ties. Ethiopian Jews in Israel can tell you a lot about the challenges they’ve faced immigrating there. At first, they were welcomed to Israel, starting in the 1960s. According to Wikipedia “The biggest challenge to the Israeli Ethiopian Beta Israel community probably lies in the very low level of formal education of the immigrants. With few exceptions, when they first arrived to Israel they had no useful training for a developed economy like that of Israel, and in addition to that they did not know Hebrew.” As a consequence, discrimination against the Ethiopian Jews is rampant. In May 2015, The Jewish Daily Forward described the Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel as one that has “long complained of discrimination, racism and poverty.” The absorption of Ethiopians in Israeli society represents an ambitious attempt to deny the significance of race.
We’ve just taken a look at some ways to get to a Promised Land. The other questions I posed: “How can you get the people already living there to accept you, and how do you change the contours of the land to suit your needs without pissing off the natives?”, are fraught with their own challenges. In this dimension, things are not a bleak as you might think. It turns out that acceptance of people in the Promised Land is best accomplished with allies. To put it simply, you must find the bleeding heart liberals in your host country and work with them.
Richard Kearney wrote: “The entire Bible, it could be said, is made up of struggles between two different ways of responding to the alien... The message seems to be this: the divine, as exile, is in each human other who faces us, defenseless and vulnerable, asking to be received into our midst. My hospitable relationship with the stranger, in sum, gives meaning to my relations with all strangers, proximate or distant, human or divine.” In all societies there are people who are fearful of strangers and there are people who are not fearful. For whatever their reasons: religious, spiritual, cultural curiosity, better traveled and educated, moral, or humanitarian... people who are not afraid of the stranger are embedded in a host culture.
It is the individuals and organizations that welcome people other than themselves that need to be sought out if you wish to find a home in a Promised Land. These are the “unafraid” who understand that basic human rights must be applied for all human beings at all times. They are individuals who believe that people share the same fundamental values and that the principles of fairness, equity, justice, and compassion must be set at the center of all civilizations. They will be fine if you make a contribution to that civilization by changing some of its contours.
The search for a Promised Land takes place on both personal and group levels. The search can be induced for many reasons, and can find its expression in countless ways. Whether welcoming others on the journey means inviting them to lunch where you both work, or insisting that your government places human rights at the heart of its immigration policies, or speaking out against injustices experienced everyday due to racism, bigotry, or prejudice; your actions and voice can make a real difference. Any Promised Land needs two kinds of people... those who make it a beautiful place to live and those who wish to contribute to its beauty.
Clovice A. Lewis, Jr.
About this blog.
This blog is a place where many of the confluences of my life can be shared. I am, at the core, a creative person. I approach everything from that basis... whether composing symphonies, playing the cello, being a serial entrepreneur, writing sermons and essays, flying airplanes, or creating software apps. I am deeply passionate about creativity, issues of social justice, and spiritual enrichment. These are fundamental to everything I do. Welcome to my journey!