Is America the Promised Land or Egypt?
Social location is vital to understanding how people come to their interpretations, and appropriations, of the Bible and its stories. One of the most popular biblical stories people have historically personalized has been the story of the exodus. America's earliest European settlers understood America as the promised land they were entering after fleeing Egypt. Since, in this telling of the story, they were the new nation of Israel, they were given divine license to commit the genocide of the native peoples, the new Canaanites, that were already living here. The land was theirs for the taking because God had given it to them in advance. Of course, the native peoples already living here, had they had the language of the biblical stories, probably would have identified the European settlers as Babylon or Assyria and themselves as Israel. Social location matters.
African slaves also often appropriated the exodus story as their own. Escaping along the underground railroad from the American South to the North or Canada was akin to crossing through the Red Sea. Harriet Tubman became "Black Moses" and southern plantations the mud pits of Egypt. They understood that God was leading them to safety out of the bondage of slavery just as God had done in the past. Social location matters.
Interestingly, we always assume, because of our social location, that people think of America as the new promised land instead of the new Egypt. We assume that immigrants to this country are coming here because they view it as the promised land full of "milk and honey." Many immigrants just do not see it this way. Let us remember, briefly, the story of the nation of Israel coming to Egypt. They were living in the promised land, but it had become barren and there was no food to eat. Israel sent his sons to Egypt to get food to bring back for the rest of the family. Eventually the famine in the promised land, and around the world, became so bad that they had to move to Egypt to survive because remittances were no longer sufficient. It was not their desire to leave home for Egypt. It was something they had to do to survive. The goal was not to live forever in Egypt, but to survive until the promised land began flowing with its riches and blessings again.
That is the way many immigrants understand their sojourn to America. The promised land, their homeland or village, is experiencing a dry spell. To survive they must go to the nearby superpower where resources are plentiful, but they are sending money home to those struggling. And if it ever gets better, they will go back to their promised land. In this telling of the story America is not the promised land flowing with milk and honey, but Egypt, the only place around with enough food to share with them.
If America is Egypt, who are we? We are the Egyptians. That should cause us to take a step back and examine the way we are treating those who visit our land looking to live. Are we acting the way the Egyptians did? Are we, in our pubic policies, expecting them to make bricks without straw? Are we keeping them in a state of subjection because we are afraid their population will grow to the point they will outnumber us and take us over? Are we treating our immigrants the way the ancient Egyptians treated theirs? If so, will God act the same ways as in the past? Is God on the side of the poor immigrant simply trying to live or the Egyptian exploiting their labor? Social location matters. America can act as both the promised land and as Egypt. Which one are we?
Jimmy McCarty is a student at Claremont School of Theology studying Christian ethics, a minister serving cross-racially at a church in inner-city Los Angeles, and a servant at a homeless shelter five days a week. He blogs at http://jimmymccarty.wordpress.com/.