A Review of
Getting to the Promised Land: Black America and the Unfinished Work of the Civil Rights Movement
By Kevin W. Cosby
Reviewed by Andrew C. Stout
In a 1956 sermon, Martin Luther King Jr. grounded the work of the civil rights movement in redemptive history, stating that God “is seeking at every moment of His existence to lift men from the bondage of some evil Egypt, carrying them through the wilderness of discipline, and finally to the promised land of personal and social integration.” This biblical imagery of the exodus is a constant refrain in King’s speeches, and it characterizes his understanding of the civil rights movement in America. Eventually he would say that he had “been to the mountaintop,” situating himself as Moses leading African Americans out of their Egyptian bondage of American segregation and peering into the promised land.
Getting to the Promised Land is a unique and dynamic continuation of the civil rights movement’s religious self-understanding. However, it is a continuation that picks up on different biblical imagery, interpreting the African American experience from a different set of texts. Instead of focusing on the events of the Exodus – a model which has defined the hermeneutic of Black liberation theology – Kevin Cosby sketches a postexilic hermeneutic. By reading the Black experience through the lens of the post-Babylonian exilic context, Cosby makes a unique contribution to Black liberation theology – and since Black theology is inevitably praxis-oriented, he offers a substantive and practical contribution to the discussion of reparations.
Cosby’s hermeneutic is shaped by the movement for African Descendants of Slavery, or ADOS – a racial justice movement that he has been instrumental in establishing. The ADOS movement has set out “to show that the full cost of what it means to be Black in America is knowable and calculable only through a person’s lineage, as opposed to his or her skin color” (xii). ADOS have a unique claim to justice, one that is distinct from other minority groups. Cosby’s book articulates the theological rationale that undergirds this claim. When Jewish exiles began to return to Jerusalem following their exile in Babylon, they pursued the project of rebuilding the city’s walls and restoring the temple. This project of material and spiritual renewal was an exclusively Jewish affair. It required God’s people to see themselves as a specific tribe, rejecting intermarriage and defending against attacks from surrounding peoples. The Black church is in a comparable position as it attempts to build political capital and to acquire justice for the generational theft that ADOS have experienced. The oppression of ADOS is unique, quantifiable, and is not shared by any other minority group, and they must stake out their own history and their own claims to justice. Black theology must be brought “into closer alignment with the language of self-interest that (while it has fallen out of fashion as of late) has in fact traditionally been an essential feature in our group’s political discourse” (14).
This new paradigm for doing Black theology is a creative and constructive contribution that demonstrates the ongoing vitality of the ADOS tradition. From the biblical narratives of Solomon, Daniel, and Ezra, Cosby offers lessons for Black leaders about the importance of maintaining a focused concentration on the specific justice claims of ADOS, and he warns against subordinating ADOS’s interests to more diverse coalitions of marginalized peoples. For Cosby, this is not a matter of disregarding the marginal status of other people of color. Rather, it is a practical recognition that a clear group identity is required to secure rights and privileges that have been denied in a society defined by white supremacy and the specific conditions of slavery, Jim Crow, and ongoing oppression. While this specificity excludes the claims of other minority groups, its ultimate goal is to benefit all people by strategically demanding justice for a specific people. Cosby discerns this same strategy in Ezra’s singular focus on the interests of the returning Jewish people as they reconstructed the city of Jerusalem. Far from benefiting the Jewish covenant community alone, the restoration of Jerusalem was ultimately a blessing to the world. Inspired by this example, ADOS theology is animated by the principle “that there is no liberation without reparation. There is no justice without reparation” (33). In the American context, Black liberation requires repair and restoration of what has been stolen from slaves and their descendants.
In drawing on these Old Testament narratives, Cosby reinforces the inextricable connection between belief and praxis that the Black church has always embodied. In fact, he points to numerous examples in both the Old and New Testaments where true repentance is understood to include economic restitution. He demonstrates what that principle could look like in a contemporary context. Cosby points to the way that, in the context of higher education, many white donors participate in “philanthropic redlining” (50), and he calls for public funding of HBCUs. Even more specifically, he calls on Southern Baptist Theological Seminary – an institution that has documented its own enrichment at the hands of slave labor – to pay reparations to Simmons College, the HBCU of which Cosby is president. This call is an invitation for Christians at an institution like Southern to acknowledge in practical terms that “Authentic repentance for personal enrichment at the expense of other people always demands an economic dimension” (47). In issuing this call, Cosby challenges a privileged community to engage in the difficult work of Christian repentance and repair.
As a white reader of Getting to the Promised Land, I have had the profound sense of listening in on a conversation. I am not so much a participant in this conversation as an invited observer. I am invited to listen as ADOS theologize and organize in the face of generations of oppression, often at the hands of fellow Christians. The conversation is not mine to direct or correct. So, in that spirit, I’ll offer up one question rather than a critique. Cosby insists that contemporary Black theology needs a dose of self-interest. He rejects the language of intersectionality and the claim that categories of race, class, and gender create overlapping systems of oppression. Such language, he believes, obscures the specific injustices of exclusion and disadvantage that Black Americans have experienced. My question is this: Are the specific justice claims of ADOS and expressions of solidarity with other people of color really mutually exclusive? At multiple points, Cosby relies on the work of Allan Boesak, whose prophetic voice helped end South African apartheid. In the post-apartheid era, Boesak has taken the theological insights he used to advocate for Black South Africans and applied them to global inequalities. Boesak’s example leads me to wonder if the justice claims of ADOS necessarily exclude solidarity with other oppressed groups. Cosby might point to differences in the South African and American contexts, or perhaps he would simply say that Boesak’s strategy is ineffective. However, the question is, I believe, worth asking.
In addition to demonstrating how Black theology can remain vital by theologizing on a fresh set of biblical narratives, Cosby also reimagines the solas of the Reformation to speak to the African American context. Citing the need for the Black church to serve as an example for other Black institutions, he calls the church to an agenda of sola lineage, sola institutions, and sola reparations. Through maintaining this mission focus, Cosby boldly challenges the church to recommit to the work of economic justice. While the civil rights movement of the nineteen fifties and sixties was largely a church-based movement, the Black Lives Matter era has primarily been led by those outside the church. Cosby’s robustly Christian contribution to Black activism is a welcome and challenging call to the ongoing work of repentance and restoration.