A recent New Yorker cartoon depicts a rough looking shepherd, staff in hand, speaking to what appears to be a burning bush: “Yeah, I could walk all the way to Egypt. Or you could just free them yourself using magic.” Funny take on the call of Moses to free the Israelites. You remember: slavery in Egypt; escape into the desert; safe crossing of the Red Sea that subsequently engulfs Pharaoh’s minions in hot pursuit.
The cartoon plays at the intersection of magical thinking, spiritual devotion, and human endeavor with one of the seminal stories in the western canon. Why not indeed “make things right, O Lord of Hosts,” we’re inclined to cry every now and again. Or perhaps with the nonchalance of the cartoon shepherd suggest we’re otherwise engaged and would rather not be bothered despite the clear call to arms to correct a grave injustice.
Despite the sometimes strange and miraculous goings-on in our scriptures, an inescapable truth emerges: human agency lies at the heart of God’s purposes. The Israelites were slaves. Justice required their freedom. Interestingly, embracing a purer form of the religion of their oppressors, American slaves discovered the deep truth that escaped the attention of their owners despite their supposed devotion to the ancient tradition. I’m not alone in stating that in this sense African American Christians ultimately saved American Christianity from a perverse misread of its scriptures, revealing their towering transcending vitality. We’re still not over the repercussions, of course.
I mention this because Monday brings a reminder in the form of a national holiday celebrating a “justice reformation,” unique among our official commemorations. It should not be lost to us that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was also Reverend. His commitment arose from deep faith rooted in human experience. Magical thinking was the antithesis of what was required to advance God’s good purposes. And it should not be lost to any of us that the vast majority of his opposition came from people supposedly devoted to the tradition of Exodus, Moses, freedom and justice. Not to mention the man from Nazareth.
Considering our cultural moment, I’m thinking that’s a very useful reminder indeed…
The Reverend Dr. Stephen Bauman