In honor of Martin Luther King Day on Monday, we have America’s Bible story.
Scott M. Langston, who teaches history and religion at Texas Christian University, says the story in the Book of Exodus in which Moses leads the Children of Israel from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land has been powerful in America from the beginning.
Early on, Langston points out, colonists who came to our eastern shores seeking religious freedom often characterized their journey as leaving the Egypt of Europe for the Promised Land of America. After the Declaration of Independence was signed, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams created a national seal that portrayed the Egyptian pharaoh leading his troops through a divided Red Sea in pursuit of the fleeing Israelites. Surrounding this scene were the words, “Rebellion against Tyrants is Obedience to God.” The Continental Congress did not embrace the seal, Langston tells us, but it shows this Bible story to be a force for rallying the colonies to take up arms against mighty Britain.
Langston also tells us that before, during and after the Revolution, African slaves, who learned Bible stories from their masters, interpreted the Exodus from Egypt the same way as white Americans who fought against the British. In 1775, a slave named David preached a sermon that proclaimed God would deliver the slaves to freedom in America just as God had delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. And slaves sang the story in spirituals like “Go down, Moses,/Way down in Egypt land,/Tell ole Pharaoh,/Let my people go.” To them, slavery was Egypt and freedom was the Promised Land.
In the decades following the Revolution, slavery continued to be the issue stirring up the country. It exploded into the Civil War, and while African Americans and white northerners invoked the Exodus story in the cause of freedom, white southerners cited the story to support seceding from the United States. They sang songs like “The Happy Land of Canaan” expressing confidence that God would raise up a Moses to deliver them from northern tyranny. A Southern Presbyterian minister even called President Lincoln America’s Pharaoh.
Martin Luther King, in his soaring voice, often alluded to the Exodus story. In 1954, for instance, he said Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court decision to desegregate public schools, was for black children like the Red Sea parting for Moses.
I got into the story in 1963, the day after four little girls were killed by a bomb in their Sunday School in Birmingham, Alabama.
“We can’t let them get away with bombing children in Sundae School,” I said to myself, and I joined a protest march down Topeka’s main street. This led me to many meetings and rallies and eventually to the march from Selma to Montgomery.
Rev. Don Schilling, late of Sebastopol, was in Mississippi at this time helping to register people to vote. After a long day, Don and another minister walked to homes in a black neighborhood where they were guests. Don made it home safely, but, after they went their separate ways, the other minster was bludgeoned to death. Yes, dangers lurk in America’s Bible story.
Still, I felt I had to stand with people whose forebearers were slaves and who were still violently oppressed in America. I felt Martin Luther King was an American Moses leading us all to freedom.
“Unless all of us are free, none of us is free,” he often said.
It’s still true.
The Exodus story ends with the Children of Israel at the gates of the Promised Land, but, the Bible tells us, that didn’t mean their troubles were over. And so it is with America today. We need to live out the old Civil Rights song “Black and white together,/We shall overcome someday.” This is our way to the Promised Land.
Bob Jones is the former minister of the Guerneville and Monte Rio Community Church.