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‘How Far to the Promised Land’ by Esau McCaulley

Following his father’s untimely death, Esau McCaulley knew that however uncomfortable it might be, he was the right person to deliver the eulogy at the funeral. To what biblical text do you turn when talking about a man who walked out on your mother and siblings, didn’t keep the promises he made to you, stole your money and surrendered to addiction?

McCaulley, associate professor of New Testament at Wheaton College and New York Times columnist, opened to Luke 18 and told the parable of the self-righteous Pharisee and of the tax collector who prayed, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

The grace and humility of that sinner’s prayer permeate the personal memoir How Far to the Promised Land: One Black Family’s Story of Hope and Survival in the American South. With beautiful prose, McCaulley tells the story of growing up black in Alabama, navigating the challenges of poverty, and loving a family that experienced both triumph and tragedy.

How Far to the Promised Land: One Black Family’s Story of Hope and Survival in the American South

Esau McCaulley

How Far to the Promised Land: One Black Family’s Story of Hope and Survival in the American South

Esau McCaulley

Convergent Books. 240 pp.

For much of his life, Esau McCaulley was taught to see himself as an exception: someone who, through hard work, faith, and determination, overcame childhood poverty, anti-Black racism, and an absent father to earn a job as a university professor and a life in the middle class.

How Far to the Promised Land is a thrilling and tender epic about being Black in America. It’s a book that questions our too-simple narratives about poverty and upward mobility; a book in which the people normally written out of the American Dream are given voice.

Convergent Books. 240 pp.

‘They’ Are Complicated

Sitting in a seminar with public school teachers and administrators at my church, I heard a wise high school principal casually remark, “Every behavior makes sense in its context.”

Her point was that it’s easy to direct your anger—or worse, condescension—toward a problematic student until you know his or her family, economic, and relational context. Then you’re reminded that people are more complicated than we initially believe. Without context, caricatures thrive.

People are more complicated than we initially believe. Without context, caricatures thrive.

The book opens with McCaulley on a panel alongside Lecrae at the University of North Carolina (UNC). Awkwardly, he declines to answer a question posed by the event’s host because “the most racist things you have experienced” can’t be shared without context (xvi). The rest of the book provides the context necessary to share how his life was shaped by both race and his complicated family.

But McCaulley isn’t offering cheap grace that conceals family history. His is the grace that confronts reality and tells the truth without reducing anyone to her worst mistake. He’s learned from the Bible that dividing the world into good and bad people is the work of the self-righteous.

He graciously puts his dad’s sins in the context of him growing up in a family afflicted with addiction. Personal tragedy transformed his paternal grandfather, Bud, from a respected deacon to an alcoholic and womanizer. But as a wise theologian, McCaulley knows life circumstances never excuse sin: “Evil cannot be wholly explained by the brokenness of the world. Sometimes we participate in the breaking” (89).

I’m drawn to the Pharisee’s prayer thanking God I’m not like my father, because I’d never abandon my wife and children. My own father left me and my mom before I was old enough to remember him, but not before he tried to kidnap me. Only an alert and savvy preschool teacher kept him from punishing my mom by separating the two of us. It’s easy for me to reduce my father to his sins, but this book encourages me to consider that his story might be more complicated than I know.

‘They’ Cause Pain

In a chapter called “Running from the South,” McCaulley finally answers the question posed by his host at UNC. He details six examples of his experience with racism.

The stories won’t surprise those who’ve been listening to our black brothers and sisters: “The Talk,” being followed in stores, overly aggressive and suspicious policing, driving through the night to avoid stopping in an unfriendly town. But ironically, the most traumatic experience of racism appears in a later chapter.

While attending the University of the South, Esau met his future wife at the Baptist Student Union. A product of a Christian home and a military family that had moved across the world, Mandy was committed to serving as a pediatrician in sub-Saharan Africa. When the time came for them to meet each other’s families, the McCaulleys quickly accepted her.

But Mandy’s family didn’t have the same response to McCaulley. Unlike some of the other examples of racism, this time no interpretation was necessary, for her father left no doubt about his motivation: “You seem like a nice young man, but I don’t believe you are right for our daughter. We don’t think society is ready for interracial relationships. We want to spare you all pain” (162).

Unfortunately, instead of sparing pain, they compounded it. The couple continued to date but without her parents’ blessing. Eventually, they married without their presence.

Bitterness and retaliation are natural responses to the wounds caused by racism. McCaulley offers a better option under the influence of the narrative of Scripture.

Jesus Loves ‘Them’

McCaulley embodies a grace that refuses to place others—even our those who have deeply hurt him—outside of God’s love. If grace is for me, then it must also be for thee. Anything less isn’t grace.

When James and John were eager to call down fire on the Samaritans, they expressed a base human emotion to exact vengeance on our enemies (Luke 9:54). While it seems weird to ask the Prince of Peace for permission to napalm an entire village, it made sense to them. Believing Jesus was going to Rome to defeat the Romans, they reasoned that they might as well start destroying their enemies on the way.

It’s easy to call for God’s judgment against people you don’t know. How many Samaritans did James and John know? It’s safe to say not many. Maybe none. Jews didn’t mix with Samaritans, who were half-Jew and half-Gentile. The Samaritans lived in their own villages and worshiped in their own temple. The brothers had heard about the Samaritans, but they didn’t know them.

It’s easy for me to reduce my father to his sins, but this book encourages me to consider that his story might be more complicated than I know.

For Jews, Samaritans were the worst kind of “them” because, unlike the pagan Gentiles who were ignorant of Jewish laws, Samaritans should have known better. Jews believed that Samaritans had corrupted what was true and good about Judaism.

That explains why the disciples were appalled when they found Jesus talking to a Samaritan woman at a well (John 4:27). What was he doing? Doesn’t he know that “Jews have no dealings with Samaritans” (John 4:9)? It also explains why the Jewish people were so offended by Jesus’s parable of the good Samaritan—an oxymoron if there ever was one.

After Jesus’s death and resurrection, Samaritans came to faith in him and found their way into churches alongside Jewish believers. This required both groups to practice grace, to forgive, and to understand the context of each other’s lives.

James and John were wrong about Jesus’s goal. He wasn’t going to Jerusalem to defeat his enemies but to die for them. They were also wrong about what it means to be his disciple. We don’t call down judgment on “them” but extend grace to “them.”

How Far to the Promised Land snuck up on me, graciously rebuked me, and nudged me off my judgment seat. Sinners in need of mercy are in no position to demand justice against others. If I want my children to see me as more than my sins, to put my life in context, to recognize I’m more complicated than a caricature, then I must offer the same grace to my father.

Esau McCaulley has given us a powerful personal story that demonstrates how God’s grace triumphs over tragedy.

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