Freedom Seders Old and New: The Crises of 1968 and 2018

By Rabbi Arthur Waskow 3-07-2018
The Lorraine Motel, in Memphis, Tenn., where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Pierre Jean Durieu /

The deepest roots of The Shalom Center’s work to revitalize the deep connection between the Spirit and social justice were my weaving in 1968 and ’69 a new kind of Passover Seder — the Freedom Seder. My sense of the need to create the Freedom Seder grew from the deep crisis of American democracy in those years.

For me, one crucial aspect of that crisis was the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King on April 4, 1968. It was an act of violence ending the life and disrupting the work of our foremost teacher of nonviolence.

And the whole year followed in that bloody vein.

Today we are facing an even deeper crisis — a threat from our own government to the flesh and bones of American democracy. It is time for a new Freedom Seder — one that looks forward, not backward, by drawing on the most prophetic teachings of the Prophet Martin.

The Shalom Center has worked to sow the seeds of such Seders that speak not only to the past but to the future. Those seeds are sprouting once again. In Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C., new Freedom Seders or Freedom-Seder related events are already scheduled, with more under discussion. We welcome everyone to make their own new Seders happen — in their own homes, in congregations, or sponsored by interfaith councils.

Why have we — and these others — taken up the Seder in a new way, drawing from the ancient story and going beyond it to reshape the future?

Fifty years ago, American democracy was in crisis — caused by its inability to go beyond “civil rights” to cure ourselves from the “original sin” of racism, and its inability to end the Vietnam War that was convulsing the country.

Part of that crisis was the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King a week before Passover, and its aftermath in many black rebellions and their repression by the U.S. Army in Washington, D.C., and by police and the National Guard in other cities. Within me, that week in 1968 brought forth echoes of the ancient and the urgent — a passionate conviction that resistance to Pharaoh echoed with resistance to war and racism and poverty in America.

Out of that experience came the original Freedom Seder, in which I wove together those two stories, the ancient and the urgent. For many Jews and Christians, black and white, that Freedom Seder helped clarify the spiritual roots of the struggle for justice, peace, and freedom, and transformed what the Seder itself could mean.

Today, the crisis of American democracy is even deeper than it was in 1968 — perhaps the deepest since the Civil War. We are living through an anti-democratic power grab by the hyper-wealthy and modern corporate pharaohs. This power grab is being made politically possible by the use of rank racism, by mobilizing hatred toward foreigners and “strange” religions, hostility toward women, and contempt toward the Earth.

This power grab by the modern pharaohs is much like the power grab by the ancient Pharaoh – who incited fear and hatred toward foreigners and a “strange” religion, and through his egomania and cruelty brought plagues upon the Earth and famine and death on his own people.

And we are also living through the sprouting of an amazingly broad and deep grassroots resistance movement.

We face new pharaohs. When the Jews living under Roman tyranny saw that they were facing new pharaohs, some of them in several different generations chose Passover-time to lift up their resistance.

Rabbi Jesus chose the days before Passover for a demonstration against the Imperial regime and its local puppet government. His supporters marched from the Mount of Olives into Jerusalem, waving palms and chanting psalms of transformation. A few days later, the inner leadership celebrated the Passover Seder in what Christians have named the Last Supper.

Several generations later, Rabbi Akiba led a Seder that according to oral tradition may have been a conversation about the rebellion against Rome led by Bar Kochba — a Seder that lasted until morning and according to some, ended with a warning that Roman troops were scouting out the neighborhood.

These Seders were themselves moments of freedom, where old and young could learn from and with each other, where they could talk freely about how to win and shape their freedom. They were moments of living in what Dr. King called the "Beloved Community" — a "Promised Land" beyond all boundaries. And along with many other forms of struggle in concert with the Spirit, they helped give birth to new spiritual communities — embodied in Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity.

So now is again the time to celebrate anew the archetypal moment of resistance to Pharaoh: Passover — and the Christian Holy Week that began as intimately intertwined with Passover. When tyranny threatens, the Passovers of the past remind us to draw on their wisdom and their passion. It is time for a new Freedom Seder. So The Shalom Center has woven the new “MLK+50 Interfaith Freedom Seder.”

On April 4 we will live through the 50th anniversary of the murder of Dr. King. The new Seder draws on Dr. King’s wisdom as it connects with the struggles and wisdoms of today.

This kind of Seder is an important way to create communities of resistance and to raise our knowledge and our consciousness. But resistance cannot end there. Like Jesus on the first “Palm Sunday” and Dr. King in Birmingham, we must take prayer into the streets. Like the dogged millennia of rabbis, we must keep creating alternative communities even, or especially, when the pharaohs and Caesars oppress us. Like Moses facing Pharaoh and Elijah facing King Ahab, we must name the ways in which the powers and the princes bring ecological disasters — plagues — upon our peoples, and we must create islands of alternative sources of renewable energy, both chemical and political.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Ph.D., founded (1983) and directs The Shalom Center.

Don't Miss a Story!

Get Sojourners delivered straight to your inbox.

Have Something to Say?

Add or Read Comments on
"Freedom Seders Old and New: The Crises of 1968 and 2018"
Launch Comments
By commenting here, I agree to abide by the Sojourners Comment Community Covenant guidelines and acknowledge that my comment may be published in the Letters to the Editor section of Sojourners magazine.

Must Reads