Getting to the Promised Land , Kevin W. Cosby, Foreword by Cornel West. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2021.
Summary: An argument for the use of the Nehemiah narratives rather than Exodus to ground the appeal by American Descendents of Slaves (ADOS) for restitution for the centuries of abuse they and their ancestors suffered.
Most often, Black preaching and rhetoric appeals to the Exodus narratives to cast a vision for throwing off the yoke of oppression and coming into the freedom of the Promised Land. Indeed, the title of this book might lead one to think that this is another lesson in Exodus preaching. That is not the case.
Kevin W. Cosby, who has served as pastor of St. Stephen Baptist Church, the largest African American church in Kentucky and the president of Simmons College, a HBCU school, contends for replacing the preaching of Exodus with Nehemiah. He believes the advocacy of Nehemiah for his vulnerable people in Jerusalem, which included material assistance in repairing the walls and legal protection against those who would stop these efforts, is a model for the focused advocacy which American Descendants of Slaves (ADOS) need to make for restitution for the history of forced servitude and subsequent oppression under Jim Crow and other forms of discrimination, the cost of which has been passed down through the generations.
Cosby’s use of the term ADOS was new to me. It is his contention that the cause of the descendants of slaves has been weakened by coalitions with other oppressed groups. He uses Solomon’s alliances as an example of coalitions that weaken identity and leave one’s own group further behind. He also points to Daniel and Ezra who maintain the Jews distinctiveness of identity in exile.
But his central argument is about reparations, first under the decree of Cyrus, later reinforced by Darius, and the support raised by Nehemiah make the case for the importance of reparations in restoring a broken people. Along the way, he uses Hanani’s report to challenge the myth of “movin’ on up” that uses singular examples to minimize the plight of a whole people. He notes how Nehemiah first weeps, then mobilizes people to work opposite their homes, giving them tangible evidence of the importance of their struggle. He commends Nehemiah as a servant rather than a celebrity.
The chapters have the echoes of preached material while also making a cohesive argument for focused advocacy of ADOS people, drawing on the example of Nehemiah. I don’t think it my place to discuss the strategy of focusing upon a particular aggrieved group within the larger Black community. I do think the advocacy, the resources granted, the legal protection with teeth in it, and the servant leadership of Nehemiah, as well as the efforts of Nehemiah and Ezra to maintain Jewish identity are instructive in the advocacy for and of ADOS people.
I do wonder about the exegesis that presses the case for reparations from Nehemiah. It is the case under Cyrus, Darius, and Artaxerxes that material resources are provided for the reconstruction of the temple and later, the walls of Jerusalem, important in the restoration of the returned exiles. But is this truly restitution intended to repair a broken, unjust relationship? The Jews are just as much a subject people in Jerusalem as in Babylon and Susa. Unless it was tacit in the restorative grants, there was no admission of wrongdoing, and certainly no restoration to full self-government. From an earthly standpoint, this appears to be nothing more than a shift in the policy of dealing with subject peoples.
What we do see is the significant effect Nehemiah’s advocacy and the material, legal, and enforcement assistance given the Jews. Can these also be the providence of God for ADOS, even if they reflect political expediency rather than profound repentance? Yet this would seem to “heal lightly” the wounds and the relationships of Blacks and Whites, something we’ve been very good at doing ever since the Civil War. I’m increasingly convinced that some form restitution for ADOS is a necessary part of the healing between white and Black if we are to get the promised land of becoming the beloved community. The question remains of whether we know we are sick and wounded, whether we want to be well, and whether we are willing to accept the cost for what is to be gained.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.