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Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Exodus

01/17/2013 01:40:58 PM


Rabbi George Gittleman

Thanks to the coincidence of the calendar, Martin Luther King, Jr.  Day always coincides with our reading of the book of Exodus.  No doubt, Dr. King preached the Exodus story many times in his ministry and in his fight for equality, and dignity for all people.  As Michael Waltzer points out in his exceptional book, Exodus And Revolution, the Exodus story is the archetype of revolution in the west, quoted by Martin Luther as he pushed for what became the Reformation in Christianity and by Benjamin Franklin as a justification for the American Revolution. In more recent times, Catholic activists in Latin America have used the Exodus as the basis for their liberation theology as well.

What makes the Exodus narrative so compelling? For me it is the idea that no one is caught up in the straightjacket of history; even a slave nation can become a free people. The other essential element of the narrative is the idea that God “hears” the plight of the oppressed. What takes Her so long, I don’t know, but the delay in “hearing” and “acting” does not diminish for me the idea that the God of Israel deeply cares about justice, identifying the most vulnerable – no one is more vulnerable than a slave – as the most worthy of attention. These big ideas embedded in the Exodus narrative come alive in the sermons and other writings of Dr. King.

If a slave nation can become a free people, then even the poorest of the poor in Mississippi, Alabama or Georgia could live a life free from discrimination and full of dignity:

“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day, even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.  I have a dream today!”

Those are famous words from King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.  Here is an excerpt from a less-known speech, “Our God Is Marching On”, delivered March 25th, 1965 in Montgomery, Alabama after the bloody march from Edmund Pettus Bridge to the state capital.  One can feel Dr. King’s confidence that he and his movement are on the right side of history, or, in religious terms, that God was on his side…

“I know you are asking today, “How long will it take?…

How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever.

How long? Not long, because you still reap what you sow.

How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.

How long? Not long, ‘cause mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord…He has sounded forth the trumpets that shall never call retreat, lifting up the hearts of man before his judgment seat. Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him. Be jubilant, my feet. Our God is marching on

I love the line “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice”; so did Dr. King because you find it often in his sermons and other writings. Its ethos is right out of the Exodus narrative; injustice cannot endure forever in God’s universe. Eventually God will “hear” the cry of the oppressed and “act”.

Ex. 6:2   God spoke to Moses and said to him, “I am the LORD…. 5 I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant.  6 Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am the LORD. I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements.  7 And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God. …

“The arm of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” I used that line at a rally the day after Proposition 8 passed; there were about 400 people there. Emotions were running high. Some folks were angry, many were sad, I was both, and when it was my turn to speak, I looked out at the crowd and said “the arm of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice! We may have lost this battle but we will win the war!” The crowd roared. Dr. King knew how to reach a crowd. I had borrowed from his “playbook” and it had worked! More importantly, it was reassuring to be reminded of the truth that Dr. King often taught which is that eventual justice will prevail.

Justice will prevail, but, just like in the Exodus, action is required to move it along: Pharaohs do not just let their slaves go free! In one of my favorite King sermons, “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” Dr King speaks to the need for action:

“Somewhere we most come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God. And without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation. So we must help time and realize that the time is always ripe to do right.”

“The time is always ripe to do right.” Perhaps that is the essential message of Dr. King’s legacy and its relationship to the Exodus narrative. There is no rest for the weary, no space for complacency.  For centuries people have drawn strength and inspiration from the Exodus story, “girding their loins”, challenging the pharaohs of their own time, understanding what they were doing by reading Exodus. Why should we be any different?

Having once been slaves we must be sensitive to the plight of the oppressed, having tasted freedom we must never settle for bondage of any kind.

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