MLK and the Passover Vision: Facing Pharaoh Today, Seeking the Promised Land

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, 4/7/2005

On April 4, 2005, at Riverside Church in New York City, a public service was held in remembrance and renewal of the teaching and action of Dr. Martin Luther King. The service was called "Beyond Iraq: Building the Beloved Comnmunity. "

Among the speakers were Dr. Susannah Heschel, Sister Joan Chittister, OSB, Rev. James Forbes, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, Rev. Dr. William Sinkford, Mayor Jane Campbell of Cleveland, Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Rev. Jesse Jackson, and two mothers of American soldiers killed in Iraq.

[The date and place of the service were chosen because on that day in 1967, at Riverside, Dr. King gave one of his most profound speeches, "Beyond Vietnam: The Need to Break the Silence." In it he not only called for opposition and resistance to the Vietnam War but spoke of racism, excessive materialism, and militarism as the "giant triplets" of great danger to America. If America did not face these dangers and create a revolution in values, he prophesied, one generation after he spoke we would be mired in other wars like Vietnam

The service of remembrance and renewal began with the reading of passages from the speech. On April 4, 1968, precisely one year after his Riverside speech, Dr. King was killed.]

Rabbi Waskow's address follows.

Precisely one year after Dr. King spoke words of prophecy, of warning and of vision, in this place — one year later, on April 4, 1968 — he was murdered. On April 5, the Black communities of many American cities exploded. Among them Washington, where I lived,

By nightfall, the President had ordered the United States Army to occupy our city - the capital city of our country — and had imposed a curfew. During the next ten days, thousands of Black Americans were arrested for simply being on the streets. But the police ignored whites who were on the streets; so civil-rights and antiwar activists who were white worked night and day to get food, medicine, doctors, lawyers from the suburbs into the Black community. I was able to work among them.

And then — ten nights after Dr. King was killed — came the first night of Passover. I walked home to prepare for the Passover Seder past detachments of the Army. Past a jeep with a machine gun pointed at the block I lived on.

And deep within me rose the words, "This is Pharaoh's Army. I am going home to celebrate our liberation from the ancient Pharaoh, and this is Pharaoh's Army."

Into my Seder that night I carried that message, and Dr. King's message as well. The text of the Seder itself teaches, "In every generation, a Pharaoh rises up to enslave or destroy us. In every generation, every human being must win our freedom again." And here the streets had come to teach us this lesson in fire, not ink.

Years later I learned that Dr. King had been intending to take part that night in his first Pesach Seder — at the home of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Sylvia Heschel, and Susannah Heschel. Instead he was present that Seder night in the thoughts of thousands of Jewish households across America. And beginning the next year, his teachings became part of a Freedom Seder that brought not only thoughts of his teachings but his words themselves into the Passovers of a generation of Jews.

Today, Dr. King's teachings are still alive. That is why we are gathered here tonight. But Pharaoh's army is also still alive.

Pharaoh's army is still on our streets.

On the streets of Iraq, Pharaoh has taken hundreds of thousands of our young men and women to break them and twist them and reshape them into his army, where many have lost their lives, their legs and arms and eyes and genitals; where the people of whole Iraqi cities have lost their homes and lives and limbs and futures.

Pharaoh's army is still on our streets — on the streets where the Pharaoh's NRA has prevented us from ending the rain of bullets in our cities, as our children kill and die.

Pharaoh's army is still on our streets. Pharaoh's army lords it over two million prisoners - the highest number in the world - four times the number that were in American prisons when Dr. King was killed — 70% of them people of color.

Pharaoh's army does not always carry guns. The ancient Pharaoh drowned children in the Nile. Today's Pharaoh drowns their brains and minds in toxic mercury, lest certain corporations have to reduce their profits, to cleanse the poison from our food and water.

The ancient Pharaoh through his oppressive policies brought on climatic disaster - hailstorms such as had never before afflicted his country. Today, Pharaoh brings on global scorching for the sake of Big Oil, the Drug Lords of our national oiloholic addiction.

The ancient Pharaoh defined a "foreign" people, different in language and religion and appearance from the majority, as a danger to his nation and his government. And today - shall we recount what has happened to Arab and Muslim immigrants and refugees?

The ancient Pharaoh drew all his country's wealth into his own hands and those of his cronies - especially the palace priesthood who told the people that Pharaoh had good relations with the gods.

The ancient Pharaoh was addicted to his own power — so deeply addicted that when his own advisers came to say, "You are destroying Egypt!" - he would not, could not stop. And just a few years back, when the Administration's own Environmental Protection Agency reported what global scorching would do to the climate and the seashores of the United States, its commander-in-chief dismissed the warnings of his own agency as bureaucrats' hot air. He would not, could not stop.

Today, Pharaoh is not a single person but an amalgam made up of three elements: a government that seeks to dominate the world, especially to control the sources of strategic oil; global corporations that turn workers into sweatshop slaves and pour poison into earth and air and ocean; religious currents that claim all truth for themselves, that make wealth and power into idols, that tyrannize over the moral and ethical choices of the people.

And today, that global institutional Pharaoh and its distorted mirror-image in global terrorist bands threaten to plunge the world into a disastrous war between the United States and all Islam. Today, that global institutional Pharaoh threatens to plunge the world into global scorching, a climate catastrophe that will endanger the human race and thousands of other species.

What shall we do? We, who are the heirs of the midwives who carried out against the murderous Pharaoh the first act of nonviolent civil disobedience in recorded history? We — who are the heirs of Moses, Aaron, Miriam; indeed the heirs of Pharaoh's daughter, who was too sickened by her father's bloody edict to drown the baby Moses - what shall we do? We, not only Jews and Christians and Muslims but we who are the members of many other religious and ethical communities for whom the story of the Exodus has been so crucial - what shall we do?

We must reawaken our covenant with the God Who spoke through the Burning Bush to say, "I am the God you have always known, the God of your forebears. But not ONLY that. For I am also that One Whose Name is this: I Will Be Who I Will Be; I am always Becoming."

We need to Become: To reawaken and renew our covenant. To honor that One Whom we and our forebears have always known and celebrated through the sacred practices and teachings that have grown out of our unique, diverse, and holy experiences of the Infinite Holy One. And THEREFORE, ALSO to reach out across the religious boundaries that have grown up between us. Precisely because our diversity has been manipulated to justify hatred, terror, violence, war - we need to create together a New Prophetic Agenda.

This fall, God gives us an extraordinary gift to help us do this work together: God's October surprise. For the first time in decades, the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the Jewish holy month of Tishrei - the month of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot - begin at the same time, October 3 and 4. October 4 is the saint's day of Francis of Assisi. October 2 is Gandhi's birthday. And October 2 is also the Worldwide Communion Sunday of the Protestant churches. Later in October, the Buddhist and Hindu communities also celebrate their sacred seasons.

God's October surprise. Today the National Council of Churches, the Islamic Society of North America, Pax Christi, and other religious groups and communities have joined with The Shalom Center and the Tent of Abraham, Hagar, & Sarah to call upon all Americans to observe a fast day of Reflection, Repentance, and Renewal. A fast day not for prayer alone, but to spur us to action. A fast day to remind us: End the war, feed the poor.

For as God through the prophet Isaiah taught us on a fast day long ago; What is the fast that I demand from you? Is it to hang down your head like a bulrush, taking pleasure from your temporary hunger? NO! - The fast day I require is that you feed the hungry, clothe the naked, house the homeless, break off the handcuffs of the prisoners you torture."

And when do we call for this fast day? On the day that for Muslims is one of the fast days of Ramadan, that for Jews is Yom Kippur. October 13.

{For more information on God's October Surprise, visit

Tonight, this April 4, we have come together across all our religious boundaries in remembrance and renewal of the vision of Dr King, the vision of the beloved community, Let us make God's October Surprise another step on this path: coming together out of and beyond our unique reflections of the One. To embody a new prophetic agenda and to bring it to our country and the world. To build and become the beloved community.

In Dr. King's last speech, the night before he was killed, he said that God had brought him to the mountain top, where he could glimpse the Promised Land. "I may not get there," he said. "But the people will."

Almost 40 years later, the people of America are still wandering in the wilderness. We have not yet come into the Promised Land. It is up to us, each one of us and all of us together, to walk that path across the river — to build and grow and enter and BECOME the Promised Land.


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