Imagine Ourselves as Living in the Wilderness Rather than Defending a Promised Land

A Thomas Jefferson-designed seal for the United States depicting the Israelite's exodus in the wilderness.Both Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson embraced the U.S. as a new Promised Land—for white people. But in pitching designs for the Great Seal of the United States, they chose differently. Franklin chose a scene of conquest, the children of Israel triumphing over tyranny as the Red Sea swallowed Pharaoh’s forces. Jefferson chose a scene from the Exodus, too; but he chose the wilderness. I believe Jefferson left us something that might be usefully recovered and reinterpreted.

Last week, I opined about the need for the myth of American exceptionalism, of Manifest Destiny, to die. (Myth in the study of religion is not an untruth or falsehood but is a deep story about the nature and destiny of a people.) But every people needs one or more useful myths. Which myth should replace it?

In this season of liberation stories—when Jews celebrate Passover, Western Christians mark the death and resurrection of Jesus, and Muslims enter the month of Ramadan—imagine America as a wilderness where the rules of captivity need to be unlearned and how to be a free and strong people together is our life-or-death challenge.

Let us acknowledge that the white male Founders did not build the nation we need today. They threw off their English overlords and celebrated God’s blessing of America while turning the U.S. into a new version of Egypt, with themselves as Pharaohs, for other inhabitants of the land.

However, the desires to build a nation of self-governing persons, each recognized in law and society as a human being endowed with conscience and dignity and with a responsibility to respect the conscience and dignity of their fellow citizens, to build a nation where each works for a society which respects and protects life, liberty, and the pursuit of public happiness—these remain powerful and admirable desires. As Langston Hughes wrote in his critique and hope for America:

O, let America be America again—

The land that never has been yet—

And yet must be.

Although in the present moment we are hearing the call to return to the fleshpots of Egypt, I suggest we make our peace with living in the wilderness. The wilderness is our starting point for whatever comes next.

In the Bible, the wilderness was (and consider how many of these experiences are common today):

  • Uncomfortable (both change and transition)
  • Fraught with ambiguities and much anxiety, and with the crazy-making behavior that accompanies anxiety.
  • Marinated in fear of how the people were going to survive together.
  • A space and a time with whole lot of unlearning to do, and a whole lot of learning. Why the 40-year period? The people needed to unlearn the ways of slavery and learn the ways of freedom, including how to exercise freedom within the context of responsibilities to God and to neighbors.
  • A time of conflict, rebellion, and potential splintering.

Think of leadership needs if we are defending threats to “our” Promised Land or if we are living for an indeterminate time in the wilderness:

If we are defending threats: turn to a strong man.

  • Allow the strong man a great deal of authority to keep the beasts of chaos at bay.
  • Play on nostalgia: there was a past Golden Era from which the wrong-headed children of darkness led us astray.
  • Silence the histories in textbooks that do not support Manifest Destiny.
  • Stoke fear.
  • Suppress the vote among populations that might challenge the power base that supports Manifest Destiny.

If we are looking for wilderness leadership for indeterminate time, we would seek persons who can:

  • Foster relatively safe and brave spaces to keep diverse parties “locked together in argument” (John Courtney Murray)—for learning and for discovering enough common ground to thrive together.
  • Deal with fears and anxieties.
  • Help people have productive conflicts.
  • Keep a vision in front of us of the people we could be and the world we could enjoy by making it together.
  • Enable public versions of confession, penance, and forgiveness—because remember, those who Manifest Destiny served and those who Manifest Destiny harmed are all in the wilderness camps together.

Living in the wilderness does not sound like a fabulous national purpose. What is on the other side, if not a new land to conquer? Step back from the nation for a moment and consider the globe. What do you consider the biggest global challenges facing humankind (not just the U.S.) today? Candidates might include:

  • The pandemic.
  • The sustainability and health of planet earth.
  • The protection of the dignity and rights of political minorities.
  • How we are going to achieve as much prosperity and justice in global commerce and national lives as we can.
  • Defining who is my neighbor and how to be a neighbor.
  • How to negotiate life-life agreements between opposing groups (life-life, not win-win, because it makes clear that the opposite of “winning” is not “losing” but is often some form of death).
  • Fitting protections from the parties that don’t care to live in a world inhabited by anyone who does not want to live as they live.

The myth of Manifest Destiny will not get the planet, or any nation, to where we need to be. It will not get the U.S. to what our role should be in meeting global challenges. It is a morally bankrupt narrative and must be abandoned.

If there is to be conciliation among individuals and peoples in the U.S., and indeed in the whole world, sufficient to practice democracy, with enough “neighbor regard” to enjoy a prosperous, just, and compassionate society, we U.S. Americans need a narrative that includes honest histories and that cultivates a more just and inclusive democratic republic. That could happen—in the wilderness.