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Exodus and Emancipation

The liberating and transformative power of Holy Scripture emerges as we interpret life through the Bible’s sacred story. As we read of others who lived generations before us and draw parallels between their experience and ours we can discern the movement of God in our own lives. We receive hope and strength to overcome adversity.

Black American Christians have long found echoes of their own experience in the story of the Israelite’s exodus from slavery in the land of Egypt or the Israelites’’ crossing the River Jordon into the Promised Land. Early in life I came to appreciate the power and poignancy of hymns such as “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” or “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.” Both are songs of liberation and of endurance and the preservation of hope in the midst of unimaginable hardship and oppression. I would not understand the hymns’ lyrics until later in high school as we watched videos of the Civil Rights movement and learned of the realities of slavery on the plantations of the Old South.

Stony the road we trod, bitter the chast’ning rod,

felt in the days when hope unborn had died;

yet with a steady beat, have not our weary feet

come to the place for which our people sighed?

We have come over a way that with tears has been watered.

We have come, treading our path thro’ the blood of the slaughtered,

out from the gloomy past till we now stand at last where the bright gleam of our bright star is cast.

“Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” whose lyrics were written by James Weldon Johnson and set to music by his brother, John Rosamund Johnson, made its public debut at a celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. President Lincoln was the author of the Emancipation Proclamation which abolished slavery in the Confederate States of America. Enforcement of this executive order in the South took place as Union troops took over areas previously governed by the C.S.A. In Texas this took place in Galveston on June 19th, 1865, which is the origin of Emancipation Day or Juneteenth celebrations.

What affects one part of the body affects the whole. Liberation of American Blacks from slavery in the late 1860’s, the struggle for equal rights a century later in the 1960’s, and current efforts to overcome a bitter legacy of inequality are therefore as much a part of the faith-story of every American Christian as that of European Christians seeking a land where they could follow their conscience in serving Christ like William Penn did when he founded Pennsylvania. They are as much a part of us as the Old Testament story of the Exodus or crossing the Jordon into the promised land which informed the Black church’s understanding of their experience.

This June we would do well to rejoice with those who are rejoicing, to mourn with those who weep, and to pray in unity with Christians everywhere that (in Johnson’s words) God might continue to lead us into the light and keep us forever in the path, we pray.

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