We, as a people, will get to the promised land.
-- Martin Luther King, April 3, 1968
We are one people . . . and our time for change has come.
-- Barack Obama, January 3, 2008
When the forty-fourth president says he is a “Joshua generation” leader, he both honors and dismisses older leaders of the “Moses generation.” Moses saw the promised land from a mountaintop but died without entering it. Joshua led the people into the land. The Israelites spent forty years – a generation – in the Wilderness. This is no accident. There was an essential difference: the people who left Egypt were not the same people who settled amidst milk and honey.
Joshua has come to Canaan. For centuries the national epic of the Hebrews has blessed the rise of African-Americans out of slavery, their trek through terror, segregation and informal discrimination toward full citizenship. But now that God’s people are crossing the Jordan, we must ask what it means to enter the promise. Now that we sing the epic’s last canto, its tropes have already changed.
It’s time to remember what happens in Joshua’s book; because it must not happen now, and is not happening. The history describes a lightning military campaign of genocide and ethnic cleansing. The Canaanites’ only fault is that they do not worship the god of Abraham – that is, they are not Israelites. Oh, and they have the misfortune of living in the land of promise. For these shortcomings they are “utterly destroyed.” Their towers are knocked down, their cities burned, their populations exterminated. From the Canaanite point of view, the coming of Israel is hardly a blessed event. Thank God this tale, a story the Israelites told about themselves, is not born out by modern archaeology.
I am a Canaanite. I can’t help it. I was “thrown” (geworfen, Heidegger’s word) into this life, this place in history and culture. I can’t claim another location any more than I can be another person. The choice before me is whether I shall own my place, or pretend it is not mine. Only one of these alternatives is authentic.
I am a Canaanite. I was born, according to the language of liberators, in the land of promise, and my life was bathed in its blessings. My brothers and sisters of African descent, having endured slavery and many weary years in the Wilderness, have crossed the river and have come for their share of the land, its milk and honey.
It was precisely at this point of projected history that the Civil Rights Movement broke with its mythical model. Dr. King never referenced the Book of Joshua in his sermons; he never threatened to “burn, baby, burn” our cities or to bring their walls “tumblin’ down.” Why would he? He wanted not to destroy Canaan but to live in it with dignity. He was not Joshua, nor in the wilderness did he cry out for Joshua. He placed an impossible bet against history’s wretchedness – he wagered that Canaan would share its milk and honey, conquered by love and not by force.
The image of our new First Family, of our leader and his cabinet, is both a sign and an achievement. We are not perfect, but we have shared some of our power and its sweetness. Our anti-Joshua president speaks not against a wicked America awaiting destruction but for a suffering America whose patchwork people are united by common experiences. We have all, he says, “tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation.” In this one phrase, he invites me into his dream.
Yes, I in my Canaanite location have suffered from America’s injustice. I have not suffered in the same way as my African brother, and my privations are not the same as those of my African sister. But America’s swill is bitter to me as well. My country’s illness has made me sick in my own white way.
We’ve already had bitter medicine, and we still feel sick; the only cure now is exercise. Teshuvah. We have turned around. We are one people. We must take a long walk together, stopping sometimes to sit under our various vines and fig trees.
To my sibling of color I extend my hand. Sometimes, I say, the somebody who’s calling your name is me.