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Martin Luther King Jr and The Exodus

01/17/2011 11:35:33 AM

Jan17

Rabbi George Gittleman

Every year Martin Luther King Jr. Day coincides with our weekly readings in the book of Shemot/Exodus. This past week we read from Parashat B’shalakh, the portion that describes the Israelite’s exodus from Egypt and their miraculous delivery at the Sea of Reeds.

This story from degradation to freedom is as well-known as any in our tradition. Revolutionary movements from ancient times until today draw from the deep well of this Master Story of the Jewish people. Martin Luther preached the Exodus story as the theological basis for The Reformation, and Martin Luther King Jr., who we remember this week, often used the Exodus narrative in his struggle for civil rights.

I was a young college student when I really discovered Martin Luther King; when I was feeling down I would go down to the audio room in the library at the University of Vermont and listen to his sermons and other addresses that were on tape there. I will never forget the time I discovered his “I have a dream” speech….

One thing that often gets lost in his extensive biography is what a great preacher he was and how prescient and timeless his words were. One of the books that is regularly on my bed stand is a compilation of his writings – they are truly inspirational! I want to share some of his words in honor of his name and our Master Story – The Exodus.

We will start with a few words from a sermon he gave at the National Cathedral Episcopal Church in Washington, DC on March 31, 1968. It’s called “Remaining Awake through a Great Revolution”:

“I would like to deal with the challenges that we face today as a result of this triple revolution that is taking place in the world today. First, we are challenged to develop a world perspective. No individual can live alone, no nation can live alone, and anyone who feels that he can live alone is sleeping through a great Revolution. The world in which we live is geographically one.
The challenge that we face today is to make it one in terms of brotherhood…. through our scientific and technological genius, we have made of this world a neighborhood and yet… we have not had the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood…. We must all learn to live together as brothers, or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in a single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality… I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be… this is the way God’s universe is made, this is the way it is structured.”

When I first read those words I practically burst out with the Shemah – “Hear Oh Israel, Adonai Your God, Adonai is One.” As early as 1968, MLK understood how interconnected we all are predicting the kind of globalization and environmental degradation that we are really just recognizing today.

The words from this sermon were delivered on February 4th, 1969 at Martin Luther King Jr.’s home church, Ebenezer Baptist Church, in Atlanta, Georgia. It’s called “The Drum Major Instinct.” Reverend King explains earlier in the sermon that the drum major is the guy out in front who gets all the attention. This is my personal favorite and they mirror my own feeling about what makes for a meaningful life.

“If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don’t want any long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long… tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize, that is not important. Tell them not to mention that I have three or 400 other awards, that’s not important. Tell them not to mention where I went to school.

I’d like somebody to mention that day, that Martin Luther King Jr.., tried to love somebody. I want you to say that day, that I tried to be right on the war question. I want you to be able to say that day, that I did try to feed the hungry. And I want you to be able to say that day, that I did try in my life, to clothe those who were naked. I want you say, on that day, that I did try, in my life, to visit those who were in prison. I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.

Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice; say that I was a drum major for peace; I was a drum major for righteousness. And all the other shallow things will not matter. I won’t have any money to leave behind. I won’t have the fine luxuries and things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind.”

Martin Luther King Jr. spoke often against the Vietnam War. Just substitute Iraq and Afghanistan for Vietnam and much of what he said then rings true today. Here is one sample taken from a speech he delivered April 4th, 1967 At Manhattan’s Riverside Church:
“Somehow this madness must cease. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam and the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home and death and corruption in Vietnam. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as an American to the leaders of my own nation. The great initiative in this war is ours. The initiative to stop must be ours. This is the message of the great Buddhist leaders of Vietnam. Recently, one of them wrote these words: “Each day the war goes on the hatred increases in the hearts of the Vietnamese and in the hearts of those of humanitarian instinct. The Americans are forcing even their friends into becoming their enemies. It is curious that the Americans, who calculate so carefully on the possibilities of military victory do not realize that in the process they are incurring deep psychological and political defeat. The image of America will never again be the image of revolution, freedom and democracy, but the image of violence and militarism.”

I’ll conclude with a few words from one other sermon called “I See the Promised Land” which he delivered the eve of his assassination at Mason Temple Church in Memphis, Tennessee, April 3, 1968.

This is how he concludes:

“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We have some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And God’s allowed me to go up to the mountaintop. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the Promised Land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. My eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

We have made progress since his time but perhaps Dr. King was a little too optimistic. The Promised Land was farther off than he thought, true redemption, true tikun, seems always to be over the next hill.

Moses did not get to crossover, nor did Martin Luther King Jr.. The Israelites made it but for just a short while and then they were exiled.

The story of the Exodus lives on in every age and in all of us. It is both inspiration and charge – to fight against oppression of every kind and never give up on freedom for all people, everywhere.

Thu, April 2 2020 8 Nisan 5780