In one of the screen-saved memories cataloged from my childhood, I sit in the living room, cross-legged, chin supported by two fists, staring up at moving pictures flashing across a small screen. On network television — because we didn’t have cable back then — Moses (aka Charlton Heston) led thousands of his people out of captivity. They just walked out of Egypt — streams of them. And then they reached the Red Sea.
The Egyptian army was at their back, pressing in. In that moment, though they had left captivity, freedom was not a done deal. They still had to cross over. They were still at war. They still had to outrun an army trained to kill or enslave them again.
Heston — I mean Moses — stood straight-backed on the bank of the Red Sea. He lifted his staff and put it down at the edge of the water, and a miracle took place in living rooms across America. The sea parted. I’ll never forget that moment. This moment was crafted before the digital era — before Disney’s Prince of Egypt, even before Star Wars, and yet it was still awe-inspiring. My eyes focused like lasers watching whole families cross a sea on foot.
Moses led. He was not a king. He was a foster child. He was not from the dominant culture. He was from an enslaved people. He was not a great orator. He stuttered, but he led anyway. He said “Yes” to God’s call and leaned into it. And because he did, the people were set free.
Most people consider the story of Moses a fable, myth, or maybe even ancient history — but not the kind of history capable of repeating itself. Except that it has been repeated. History is rampant with faith-filled Moseses!
William Wilberforce, Fredrick Douglass, Charles Finney, Sojourner Truth, Phoebe Palmer, Harriet Beecher Stowe were all Moseses of their day. And there was a woman who personally led some 70 enslaved human-beings to freedom. Her unrelenting faith and courage earned Harriet Tubman the nickname Moses, bestowed by leading abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison.
In Tubman’s time, oppression took the shape of antebellum slavery. Flash forward a few years and Jim Crow segregation took its place. Free men and women were restricted from exercising their freedoms and barred from equal opportunity to pursue life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. As a result, at least 55 percent of all African Americans were barely surviving below the poverty line.
From that cesspool of indignity, Moseses stepped forward. There given names were A. Philip Randolph, James Lawson, Daisy Bates, Rosa Parks, Ella Baker, Bayard Rustin, Medgar and Myrlie Evers, John Lewis, James L. Farmer, Jr., Andrew Young, Fannie Lou Hamer, Diane Nash, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Dorothy Height, Rev. Ed King, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to name just a few.
And they crossed over their Red Sea with passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and President Lyndon Johnson’s declaration of War on Poverty the same year.
Now flash forward: There has been progress, but men and boys of color, particularly African Americans, are in dire straits again. Fifty years after crossing over Jim Crow, more black men are ensnared somewhere within America’s penal system than were enslaved when Harriet Tubman made her first foray south to free her family in 1850. Fifty years after crossing over entrenched poverty, the 2011 poverty rate among African Americans was 28 percent — nearly three times the rate among whites. And 50 years after crossing over the evil of segregation, America’s schools are suffering the blows of de facto segregation. Traditional and charter schools war with each other and America’s children of color, especially the poor, are casualties caught in the crossfire.
Fighting the undertows of oppression and poverty, President Barack Obama announced the My Brother’s Keeper initiative in February. It is a call for the Moseses among us to rise up and lead — to help the ones Jesus calls the “least of these” to break free again.
I find it interesting that President Obama named this call to leadership, “My Brother’s Keeper.” Anyone familiar with the story of Cain and Abel knows Cain killed his brother . When God asked him where Abel was, Cain answered: “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” The implied answer in the text is: “Yes.”
Right now the administration is nearing the close of its 90-day discernment period. Through a cross-sector review, it aims to clarify the initiative’s vision, set benchmarks for success, and articulate clear avenues for engagement for the thousands of leaders needed to cross our current “Red Sea.”
We are our brothers’ keepers. Over the millennia since Moses, Esther, David, and Isaiah, since Wilberforce, Sojourner, Tubman, and Finney, since Randolph, Nash, Lewis, and King, leaders of faith have understood that. President Obama’s initiative presents a unique opportunity for America and faith leaders across the country. It is an opportunity to finally face down the unfinished business of restoring dignity and opportunity to a segment of our society battered since the antebellum days of slavery and in so doing to make our entire nation stronger.
Now, only two questions remain: Will today’s Moseses heed this call? And will the church rise among them?
Lisa Sharon Harper is Senior Director of Mobilizing for Sojourners and co-author of Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith – forthcoming September 2014, Zondervan)
Image: Illustration of Moses parting the Red Sea, Ron and Joe / Shutterstock.com