First came God’s paradise, Eden, which mankind was kicked out of for not following instructions. After that came floods, slavery, fratricide, and a whole lotta smiting. The three great “Religions of the Book” – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – differ as to when and where it happened, but all agree that at some point God became weary of it all. Those who managed to get through it and somehow achieve Righteousness are given the charter to a Promised Land. To a surprising number of faiths that Promised Land is right here in the USofA, and the delivery of the righteous to a land of great wealth is what Thanksgiving is all about.
The Puritans were not known as a particularly fun bunch, even though this is a bit unfair. They had their own ideas about what was sinful, and openly opposed the established Church of England. That meant persecution, and for some it was so severe they thought about finding their own lands. When they came to America, it was not in search of a Promised Land but refuge. By the first Thanksgiving, however, they had come to see that they had been delivered across the sea by Divine Providence itself. The Thanksgiving we celebrate as a show of the great bounty of America comes from the biblical depiction of a Promised Land. They were not only free, they had achieved the blessings of paradise.
Later in the 17th century, another group found themselves under imperial oppression. The Amish and Mennonites discovered that the Treaty of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Year’s War in 1648, protected rights for Catholics and Lutherans but not anyone else. The pacifists who followed Jesus’ teachings literally were routinely forced into the military or killed when they refused. Their elders were burned at the stake. They fled to Holland where they could be free, but these rural people were crammed into cities that didn’t suit them. When William Penn sent word that he was founding a colony of religious freedom, they voted to come over and settle immediately. Here, they found they could live exactly as they wanted and still practice their own ways on the edges of society. Their textbooks today teach their children that this is, indeed, the Promised Land.
By the 19th Century, this was a common belief in many circles. The “Little House” series of books show that Laura Ingalls Wilder believed that somewhere out on the prairies of the Dakotas or the hills of Arkansas, this was the Promised Land. To her, this land where there is “No king but God” was everything the Righteous could ever want.
Joseph Smith founded the Mormon faith in the 1830s, centered on the idea that this was indeed the Promised Land. In this depiction, Jesus had already returned and shown himself to the Messiah to the natives of this continent. For this and many other unusual teachings he was killed and his followers were forced to flee, but they made good on the story. Utah became Zion to the Mormon Pioneers, and while it doesn’t look much like a Promised Land it has enough water to make it one with effort. To a people who really know how to count their blessings, that’s good enough.
The idea lives on today. Several practicing Jews have told me that, after seeing Israel, the USofA looks much more like a Promised Land to them. It’s not something that is said openly most of the time, since it is the view of a tiny minority, but there is no doubt that Thanksgiving is a major holiday to every Jewish family I know. When European Jewry was extinguished by the Holocaust, those in America remained safe; many do not forget how good this nation has been for them.
Will refugees from nations like Somalia and Iraq come to see this as the Promised Land as they sit down to celebrate Thanksgiving like any of us? Some certainly will. The passage across the water to peace and prosperity is not merely an event, it becomes a series of legends that define a people. At some point, the grandkids will have to know just how bad it was and how lucky they are. Telling them they are in the Promised Land may be the only way to do the stories justice.
So is this the Promised Land after all? I leave it to Dr. Martin Luther King:
“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. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
Perhaps we have reached the Promised Land, a land where just about anything is possible. Glory, Hallelujah!
Please give thanks for everything we have as a people and share what you have with those who are lacking. Whether or not this is a kind of Promised Land is up to all of us. Thank you.