A peculiar artifact lies on display in the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC, known as The Slave Bible, a version of the sacred text specifically created for slaves, intended to convert them to the Christian faith. Conspicuously, entire books and sections are missing from the testament: Most notably the whole story of the Exodus out of Egyptian slavery is absent. To be more precise, these passages were intentionally removed. In fact, any scriptural themes that might have inspired African slaves with thoughts of freedom were taken out of The Slave Bible.
While that abbreviated Bible effectively converted many slaves to Christianity, it seems a hollow gesture to have shown concern for the souls of slaves while at the same time perpetuating the bondage of their bodies. Sadly, many slave-owners believed that Christian slaves made better workers, so they perverted the Christian faith to make slaves more docile and subservient. What slave-owners didn’t count on was that slaves would still discover the God of the Exodus. In the darkness of night with the risk of punishment and death, slaves prayed in secret and found Him in spite of their bondage.
He made all pharaoes understand.
Let my people go!
Yes the lord said: go down, Moses.
Way down in Egypt land.
Tell all pharaoes to let my people go!
–Go Down, Moses, Old Negro spiritual
The story of the Exodus ended 400 years of slavery for the descendants of Israel. That same length of time has now elapsed in America from a moment worth remembering in 1619. The world was changing dramatically, and transatlantic expansion was taking place as European powers were exerting their full force in new parts of the world—that included the subjugation of Africans in particular. The original Jamestown settlement was one of those projects.
In late August 1619, a Dutch ship named the White Lion arrived at Jamestown carrying 20 Africans, whom they bartered for supplies from the settlers. To consider that consequential moment in time, eclipsed by the vast European slave trade already taking shape, helps us think about America and how we got to where we are today. Those 20 Africans were the first slaves to be sold in the land that would eventually become the United States of America.
The year 2019 marks a sober milestone, and we would be wise to reflect on this injustice in our history, grieve and mourn over the tragedies that resulted from it, and honor the heroes who risked their lives to turn the nation toward freedom for all. As we look at this painful past, we need more than a telescope with a lens that only peers into our history. We must also look at where we are today as a nation and admit that there are still persistent and lingering injustices connected to 1619.
A parallel dilemma can be seen during a previous moment of national reflection. Robert Russa Moton, who gave the dedication speech of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, brought the lens into focus for his generation. On a farm in Virginia, after slavery had ended, young Robert learned to read and eventually went on to succeed Booker T. Washington as Principal of Tuskegee Institute in 1915. He was an outspoken pioneer for equal justice and equal opportunity for African Americans decades before the Civil Rights movement. On May 30, 1922, it was Moton who was chosen to give the keynote address for the grand opening of the Lincoln Memorial. In his remarks, Moton highlighted a critical flaw at the founding of the new world:
While the Mayflower was riding at anchor preparing for her epoch-making voyage, another ship had already arrived at Jamestown, Virginia. The first was to bear the pioneers of freedom, freedom of thought and freedom of conscience; the latter had already borne the pioneers of bondage, a bondage degrading alike to body, mind and spirit. Here then, upon American soil, within a year, met the two great forces that were to shape the destiny of the nation. They developed side by side. Freedom was the great compelling force that dominated all…but slavery like a brittle thread in a beautiful garment was woven year by year into the fabric of the nation’s life.
–Robert Russa Moton, Lincoln Memorial Dedication Speech, 1922
Although the institution of slavery had ended, that brittle thread, observed by Moton, was too intricately woven into society to merely disappear. Five decades after the assassination of Lincoln the Emancipator, spectators applauded Moton’s words, while at the same time ignoring the roped off “colored section” at the rear of the crowd. Perhaps the irony of that scene was lost on them, but brave leaders would refuse to let go of that brittle thread in the generations that followed. Now, five decades after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., are we still a nation of spectators applauding ourselves while turning a blind eye to recurring injustice in our land?
America is at a pivotal moment in time when the stubborn vestiges of the bygone era of slavery have persisted, both in mindsets and systems. The uniqueness of this moment lies in the fact that inequality and systemic injustice have fewer and fewer places to hide as the public eye is continually seeing devastating examples of anger, tragedy, and violence resulting from long-held positions. Granted, the specter of racism remains well-hidden in the recesses of the American subconscious, but the collective conscience is changing. We want to suggest that it’s not just a coincidence; it’s God. The cries of the oppressed still have God’s ear. He sees what many don’t want to see, and He has a divine remedy.
If it’s time for another exodus—and it is—then we need the God of the Exodus to see it accomplished. We must strive to break free of the emptiness of feigned concern. Buzzwords and hashtags won’t get the job done. We need a heart transformation on a national scale, which is nothing short of a miracle beyond our comprehension. Fortunately for us, the God of the Exodus is all about miracles. He was able to get Israel out of Egypt miraculously and, subsequently, to get Egypt out of Israel.
Can we pray and find the God of the Exodus ourselves? We need each other more than we realize. It’s time to pick up the unfinished business that God began with our forefathers, both slave and free.
Let this serve as a prophetic wake-up call to those who can hear it. We declare that, once again, 400 years are up, and it’s time for another exodus out of bondage. It’s time for America to retire racism to the dusty books of history and begin a new chapter of healing in our land. As we go forward, let’s be ever-mindful, intentional, and diligent to ensure that every life is valued and every person receives the opportunity they deserve to live out their God dreams. Not only that, but let’s do it together and fight for each other’s dreams.