Last night, our family and my friend Myeskia Coger went to the Shalom Center's 40th anniversary Freedom Seder, held at Shiloh Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. The original Freedom Seder was held in Washington, DC one year after the assassination of Martin Luther King. It brought together African-Americans, Jews and others in the community working for civil rights, making connections between the liberation of the Israelites from Pharaoh and modern day struggles for liberation. I was really excited to go to the fortieth anniversary of that historic night. Myeskia often talks about wanting to worship with a congregation that looks like heaven will look like. I love that image--and I was looking forward to a night when Christians, Jews and Muslims of all different races, ethnicities and heritages could celebrate God's liberating power together.
That's sort of what happened. There certainly was a good mix of people in the room and there were a number of speakers including a couple of young people involved with Operation Understanding DC. Our favorite speaker was Michael Twitty, a young black Jewish guy wearing a kippa with an Obama logo. He talked about learning moral lessons from the earth as he explored the foodways of American slaves and played the role of a slave in a historical re-enactment.
But most of the speakers were white, Jewish and over 50. At first this seemed fine since the night began with memories of the Freedom Seder 40 years prior. The older folks held those memories and I was glad to hear them. But if the purpose of the event was not just to commemorate the first Freedom Seder but also to renew it and to impact the world in 2009, it needed stronger and clearer connection to current leaders in the African-American and Jewish communities, their passions, concerns and stories.
The scarcity of younger leaders led, I think, the the other problem with the Seder. As the night wore on, something began to wear thin as speaker after speaker talked about oppression and environmental degradation and called these things "modern day Pharaohs". The speeches were passionate expressions of a position on an issue but they somehow failed to connect with me or connect me to the people around me at the Seder. I guess the idea was that we'd feel closer to each other having identified our common enemies, but to be honest, I've lost interest in community like that.
Both Dan and I grew up in very liberal, political families. I grew up in a church that took stands on social issues that were in line with my family's own--liberal politics and Christianity were, in my experience, indistinguishable. We felt it was important to take a stand, to hold your ground, to be visible and vocal about your views. But there was no attempt to understand the other side and no value place on finding common ground with the opposition. As a result, people who disagreed with the dominant political view of the church didn't stick around. The preaching, most Sundays, was "to the choir" of people who already agreed with the position that was being argued for.
At times, I worry if I've gone soft, lost my political edge. But in my heart, I feel like the time for that kind of politics has come and gone. I basically never preach on political issues--I try instead to look for the deeper spiritual and personal questions that lie behind the issues of our day. Why preach against the greed of AUG executives when we can examine our own greed? Why talk about Bush's Iraq policy when we can instead look at our own fear of those who are different and our own propensity towards violence? I know that we need to work for systemic change, but will we really get there if we always see the source of the problem as being "out there"?
When the time came in the evening for us to discuss at our tables (in five minutes or less) the Pharaoh who we were fighting against, an African-American man at our table said quietly, "I'm fighting the Pharaoh inside me--the one who says I have to do it all, that everything is up to me, that everything depends on me." He made his comment with such humility and honesty that I felt like everyone around the table kind of perked up. That felt like a comment that had traction--something that could have led to a more thoughtful, personal and life-changing discussion about the ways in which we are enslaved and what has the power to free us.