We may be set free, but let's beware the post-pandemic Promised Land

This modern-day plague has given us the mindset of the exile, writes George Pitcher. But we must resist the idea of a summer flowing with milk and honey

There’s a pub about a mile’s walk through the woods behind our land in Sussex and I’m longing to be able to go there again – perhaps, I hope, in time for my birthday in May. But I’m conscious of the work that phrase “to be able to” does here. Because, more often than not, when out with the dogs, I’ve walked past it.

It’s a lovely pub, but sometimes, halfway through a pint, I’ve regretted going in because I’m on my own and I’d rather be in the woods. Similarly, I’m much looking forward to being allowed back to London. But I realise I don’t really want to go. What I really want is the freedom to choose not to go there, once we’re liberated from the strictures of this lockdown.

I think partly this is down to the psychology of exile. There is a sense of salvation in the freedom to return to a locus that defines our identity. So there is something comfortingly salvific in the idea of a pint of foaming ale in an English pub – possibly connected to the historical safety of a young man accompanying his father, or something.

Likewise, London serves to reinforce one’s identity as a player, someone who matters in the world of work. We can choose not to go to these places, but it’s important for who we are to know that we can. So our territories are part of our narrative, our telos. And we’re in a state of exile when we’re separated from them.

Existential situation

On a far grander scale, this factor of self-identity – and an internalised or enforced exile from it – is something that has pertained particularly to Judaism. In his book, The Invention of the Jewish People, Shlomo Sand argues that, for Jews, being in “exile” became “an existential situation of diminishing territorial significance.” It was one reason why historically Jews did not always seek to return to their ancient homeland – the future that would annul their exile was wholly messianic and therefore nothing to do with human geography.

For Christians, the idea of location is both similar and radically different. For us, the concept of salvific grace is contained within the resurrection of a crucified saviour. That has both a very specific location – a garden outside the walls of Jerusalem – and a metaphorical, worldwide location, which is the New Jerusalem.

For Jews, as Sand writes, the “longed-for salvation, the antithesis of exile, could come only with the End of Days” and, therefore, “was not a location away from the homeland, but a condition that is not salvation.”

By contrast, the Christian faith is characterised by a kind of continuum of salvation, recurrent little resurrections which reflect a re-starting of the life clock, the idea that the world is full of evidence of redemption if we’ll just look. So we’re already in our Promised Land – we just need to cultivate it so it flows with milk and honey.

The Church’s season of Lent, which we’ve now started, is redolent of exile. We fast, we isolate, we deny ourselves – all of which have been characteristics of the past year’s pandemic. So this year’s Lent particularly follows a rhythm of return from exile; if we continue to deny ourselves, we’re promised in this land, then our return from exile at the beginning of April, at Easter, can be a particularly jubilant one.

At the festival of Passover, Jews celebrate their liberation from slavery in Egypt. Many Christian churches, ours included, adopt a version of their Haggadah Seder meal to commemorate the last Passover supper that Jesus of Nazareth shared with his friends on the night before his torture and death, at the climax of Lent in Passion Week.

When the Angel of Death “passed over” the homes of the Israelites in the last of the 10 plagues visited on the Egyptians, the Jews were led into their wilderness years in search of their Promised Land. By contrast, we emerge from a single wilderness year into ours.

Consciously or not , the secular world has adopted the rhetoric of this Promised Land. Admittedly, our prime minister sounds more like the wrap-up script at the end of an episode of BBC Radio 4’s I’m Sorry I haven’t A Clue, with his talk of “the crocus of hope poking through the frost.” But his talk of spring being on the way and moving “cautiously but irreversibly towards reclaiming our freedoms” has the echo of a liberation from oppression and a kind of slavery.

The hailing of a “Great British Summer” may have more to do with beer and barbecues than milk and honey, but its implicit yearning for an idealised country is a promised-land state of mind, much like Boris Johnson’s predecessor John Major’s invoking of “old maids bicycling to Holy Communion”. It might be a hankering for a past that never existed, but it’s also an eternalism – and the Promised Land is nothing if not the eternal birthright of God’s own people, for which we’ve been saved.

The huge danger of a political adoption of this kind of rhetoric is that it promotes national isolationism and patriotic exceptionalism, because a Promised Land can only be covenanted to a chosen people. We saw a whole lot of the deployment of this mindset, simultaneously delusional and sentimental, during the peddling of the Brexit campaigns’ idyll of a stand-alone UK.

Act of divine providence

Jeremy Young, a fellow Anglican priest, writes in his book The Violence of God & the War on Terror, that an American mentality of being a chosen people (or new Israel) has its roots in the predestination and determinism of the first Puritan emigrants to New England: “Since the settlers were the new ‘chosen people’ and the North American continent was the new Promised Land, the settlement was not a mere colonial occupation, but an act of divine providence...”.

The “dark underside” of this self-identity with a New Israel “meant that the existing inhabitants of the land were regarded as Canaanites whom they were justified in displacing or annihilating.” And Young’s book was published a decade before Donald Trump, the Proud Boys and Oath Takers.

So we need to be very careful of an exilic zeal for what is coming our way. We need to beware the potency of the prospect of a Promised Land. Revival and renewal are different – the Revelation of St John has the vision of “the one sitting on the throne” who says “see how I make all things new.” And we’re entitled to escape this plague, like those ancient Hebrews, with renewed purpose and direction.

But the self-identity of a pilgrim people can too easily morph into the self-entitlement of a chosen people. Whatever we’re promised for the land that’s coming, it may be as well to remember that we’re likely to be disappointed if we think it’ll make us feel great, that it’s ours by right and that we’ll be safe there.

Just because we’re promised a feel-good utopia doesn’t mean we have to go to it – any more than I have to go to the pub through the woods.

George Pitcher is a visiting fellow at the LSE and an Anglican priest.