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UK a Promised Land with streets paved with gold?

Talk I gave at Jamaica’s 56th Anniversary of Independence Service August 2018

Texts: Genesis 12.1-8; Romans 8.31-39

The late American Civil Rights leader, Dr Martin Luther King, is probably best remembered for his 1963 ‘I have a dream’ speech.  Today I recall him for another speech; one he gave in support of striking sanitation workers, at Mason Temple, Memphis on 3rd April 1968 – the day before his assassination.  He said this: ‘God has allowed me to go up to the mountain top, 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’.

In the context of the Civil Rights movement, and based on the contents of this and other speeches, most notably ‘I have a dream’, for Dr King, the Promised Land was an America in which all citizens – irrespective of colour – enjoyed the same freedom, equality and justice under the law.

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Dr King’s murder.  Seven years ago, Clarence B Jones, a contemporary of Dr King, was asked if he thought the dream had been achieved.  Had America reached the Promised Land King saw? Jones replied, ‘as long as there is necessity for such a legal category as hate crime, the Dream remains unfulfilled. As long as DWB (“Driving While Black”) in the presence of police remains a perilous activity for many African Americans throughout our nation, the Dream remains diluted. As long as unemployment among African Americans keeps repeating the historic ratio of double the rate of unemployment among white people, the Dream remains unfulfilled. As long as polarization of wealth and absence of equal access to economic opportunity continue to escalate and disproportionately affect African Americans, the Dream remains unfulfilled.’

There is a lesson here for us, as we mark the 56th Anniversary of Jamaica’s Independence.  Some believed Jamaican independence represented a kind of Promised Land after centuries of Spanish and British enslavement and colonialism, and are disappointed because Jamaica in independence doesn’t meet their expectations of a Promised Land.  After all, ‘independent’ means sovereign, free from outside control, not depending on another for livelihood or subsistence, leading to self-sufficiency and prosperity. Jamaica is idyllic, but a high murder rate, oppressive IMF and World Bank debts, slow to no economic growth don’t seem like Promised Land.

Recently, around this country we marked the 70th anniversary of the arrival at Tilbury Docks of the Empire Windrush in June 1948, including that marvellous service of thanksgiving at Westminster Abbey.  Most of us joined in, but some Jamaicans found it hard to celebrate this significant milestone in British multiculturalism.  One said, ‘given existing conditions for Black people in Britain, highlighted by the Windrush Scandal, we should be on the streets protesting with placards, not gathering in Westminster Abbey worshipping.’  There appears to be a deep feeling of disappointment, even anger, that the dream of the First Generation coming to Britain as to a Promised Land has turned into a nightmare for our community.

Although some of us are doing well, the Jamaican community in Britain, like other African and Caribbean people, continue to be over-represented in many negative indices of inequalities based on race; there are concerns about identity, belonging, white privilege, unconscious bias, exclusion, alienation, over-representation in the prison and Criminal Justice System, and Brexit.

The truth is the lot of the majority in America, Jamaica and Britain has improved, but rightly we look through the eyes of ‘the least of these’.  So, Promised Land? what Promised Land?

Our old Testament text is a good object lesson concerning the meaning and realities of Promised Land.  The concept comes straight out of the Hebrew Bible and western Christian thought. Promised Land has come to mean, ‘a place in which someone expects to find great happiness’.  In other words, Promised Land is, in our corporate minds, utopia.  When we get there all our troubles are over!

For Abram, the Promised Land was some 1100 miles away in Canaan (modern-day Israel and Lebanon), far from his home in Ur (modern-day Iraq).  Promised Land carried the notion of somewhere to be discovered… ‘a land I will show you’, God said. Think of it, 4000 years ago, 1100 miles, in a pre-automobile era! That was a journey of faith, little wonder that Abraham is called the father of the faithful.

The Abrahamic family with their cattle headed into the unknown with God’s promises, lots of them, ringing in their ears.  God repeatedly said, I will never leave you or forsake you, I will make you a great nation, I will make your name great, you will be a blessing, I will bless those who bless you, I will curse those who curse you; through you all the people of the earth will be blessed.  What could possibly go wrong?

In the biblical narrative Abraham and his family got to Canaan, lived there for a while, became even richer.  Every now and then God would remind them, all this as far as your eyes can see, one day it will belong to you, your children and your children’s children.  But then famine hit, and the people of promise moved from Canaan to Egypt to find food.  Did you know sometimes we are where we should be and we don’t even appreciate it? Worse still, did you know sometimes we give up our place of promise for a morsel?

That journey for food into Egypt resulted in Abraham’s descendants being enslaved for over 400 years.  Dr King says it was Pharaoh’s secret weapon to keep the slaves quarrelling among themselves – united they were strong, divided they were easy to rule. After a miraculous escape they set out again, this time with Moses as their leader, to get back to the Promised Land.  But the same godless internal divisions kept them wandering for 40 years more in the desert.

The illusive Promised Land flowed with milk and honey, with grapes and pomegranates in abundance. But! They discovered Canaan was walled, and populated with giants so big, ‘we were like grasshoppers compared to them’, the spies said.  When eventually they entered the Promised Land it was a fight to the death from beginning to end.  Yes, a land of opportunity, but every gain had to be fought over. Promised Land is a hostile and dangerous place. And if you still wonder about the outcome of Abraham’s Promised Land project, take a look at the Middle East today and the ongoing deadly struggle between Israeli and Palestinian peoples.

My fellow Jamaicans, moving forward under God we must help our children to see, Promised Land is not a panacea; it’s a mixed blessing, full of good and evil; there are no streets paved with gold, and the playing field is not level.  The terrain is rough and contested.  Anti-racism legislation may control excessive racist behaviour, but can never put love in a human heart – yet, there are always some dolphins among the sharks. Evil, racism included, won’t go away so we must organise and together resist it – not succumb to its limitations.  And as our New Testament text reminds us, ‘in all things we are more than conquerors through God who loves us’.   Amen.

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