Exodus, Revolution and the Poor People's Campaign

In 1963, the teacher of my teachers, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, openend the conference on Religion and Race with these words:

At the first conference on religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses. Moses’ words were: “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, let My people go that they may celebrate a feast to Me.” While Pharaoh retorted: “Who is the Lord, that I should heed this voice and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and moreover I will not let Israel go.” The outcome of that summit meeting has not come to an end. Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate. The exodus began, but is far from having been completed. In fact, it was easier for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea than for a Negro to cross certain university campuses.

The power of the exodus story to inspire hope and efforts towards liberation continues unabated. The exodus did not end when the Israelites crossed the Sea, it did not end when slavery was eradicated in the United States, it did not end with election of Barak Obama and it is not over now. 

The exodus is not a theoretical text - it is a blueprint for a holy society, a society which takes seriously the mandate to care for the widow, the orphan and the stranger. 

Later this week, six different houses of worship will be teaming up to offer Exodus and Revolution, an exploration of how the Exodus has been read by political actors throughout history. The class will culminate with an opportunity to learn with Rev. Emily McNeill, the co-chair of the New York State Poor People's Campaign, as well the Executive Director of the Labor-Religion Coalition of New York State.

I want to encourage my activist friends to take part in this for two reasons:  

  1. The work of social change is hard, grinding work. The language and traditions of hope, embedded in these stories, has helped people work through generations of oppression and they can help us as well.
  2. Activist circles, which tend towards the secular, are often ignorant of and alienated from religious life. If we activists hope to work with (not for) oppressed communities, we must understand their religious texts and to enter into the communities which emerge from these texts. The discussions that will make up this class will be a chance to learn from the texts, but also - and more importantly - from people we might not otherwise regularly interact with. 

I also want to encourage my religious friends to take part in this for two reasons:

  1. Spiritual work is not only a private, personal affair. If we take seriously Micha's admonition that we "do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God," we have to work in partnership with the people who are doing justice and loving mercy in the world on a day-to-day basis. Exodus is not history; it is on the front page of the newspaper and it is in efforts like the Poor People's Campaign. 
  2. We would never dream of approaching a mourner with our concerns , ignorant or indifferent to the pain they were enduring. Yet we routinely approach the Holy One, the Father and Mother of us all, with our personal concerns, oblivious to the suffering that God's other creatures are enduring. We forfeit the right to pray God when we ignore the suffering God endures through the oppression of God's creatures, often at our hands.

The conversations will begin this Thursday evening - please click here to register for Exodus and Revolution, and even if you can't make it for the six-session class, please be sure to come to learn about the Poor People's Campaign