As a boy, I was puzzled (and disappointed) that God seemed to impose deserty country on his chosen peoples. Palestine? That parched land hardly seemed like bargain real estate. The Great Basin? Who’d want that passed-over, sagebrushy parcel? Did the great Promiser-in-the-Sky think dry hardship would be desirable for those he loved most—or was he a con artist who perversely persuaded us to take the leftovers? Why couldn’t he offer his former- and latter-day saints a bit of landscape lushness to confirm their chosenness?
Nevertheless, I accepted the notion that Americans—and Mormons in particular—had gotten the best possible land deal. Didn’t the Book of Mormon tell us that ours was “a land choice above all other lands” and that this nation would be exceptional, with special Divine providence in its inception? Of course, where “this land” began and ended was not precisely clear. Did the promised choice land encompass the entirety of Central, North, and South America, or was it bounded by the 49th parallel and the Rio Grande? And did it really include Alaska and Hawaii?
In my youth, the notion of America’s and Mormonism’s promised status and reward was reinforced by the Article of Faith statement that Zion would be established on this continent, and even more specifically by Mormons in the mountain valleys of the West. That prophesied historical inevitability would show the “rest of them” that we chosen people must be taken seriously.
Then, about fifty years ago, things took an unexpected turn: Mormonism became a world church, and, accordingly, our leaders told Saints in distant missions to stay home, to forego immigration to Utah, and instead to build up “Zion” where they were.
Well, I have come to like the implications of that message. In the intervening years, I had traveled and lived in some other parts of the world, and I’d learned that quite a few other places compared favorably with America in natural beauty and resources, climate, fertility, good government, and cultural richness. I learned that people in some of those countries loved and appreciated their native land in ways similar to what I felt for Idaho and the United States. Increasingly, to be fixated on the notion we were somehow exceptional seemed both inaccurate and provincial. You can spend too much time contemplating your own navel.
So, are there better ways to view what it means to dwell in a “promised land”? I like the implications of this passage from Psalms: “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein” (24:1). Read that verse again! It indicates to me a more healthy way to look at things. The fullness of the earth is promised land to all of us who are fortunate enough to dwell on it; all the earth’s inhabitants are God’s, able to share His good gifts, wheresoever they find themselves. Didn’t Peter in a vision learn that same lesson? “Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons; but in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him” (Acts 10:34–35).
It’s easy to understand why the conjoined notions of special status and special promises have been prominent in religious discourse, including scripture. Claiming superiority on the basis of emphasized difference aids in forging religious group identity and loyalty, and these in turn can make external persecution easier to bear. But such discourse also encourages, however subtly, an “us-versus-them” mentality, the most likely fruits of which are exclusion, rejection, and dismissal. This language expressing feelings of specialness, chosenness, and dwelling-in-promised-landness tends away from respect, love, and cooperation, which seem central to the gospel Jesus taught. It encourages provinciality. It weakens the hope for a unified humanity. It obscures our responsibility for the health and integrity of the entire planet. Surely, that is unfortunate.
We need to grow beyond such language of privileged identity of special advantage. In today’s world, we need to focus more on what we share ideologically, socially, and ecologically, and less on what divides us—which is the bane of our current political climate. We need to be focused on what the Psalmist hints at, focused on how we can make the earth a land of promise for all. That is the best way forward.
H. Wayne Schow