“Tell old Pharaoh… to let my people go.”
I have led a privileged life; such that it would be an insult for me to presume to speak of what life was like for African-American slaves 200 years ago. Or what it’s like for anyone enslaved even today.
But when I sing this old spiritual to myself, I can’t help but wonder if that aching, sacred person bent over in the cotton field on those brutal, steaming days might have felt just the slightest bit of holy justice in this soulful song, whose words sprang from the very Bible that had been so grievously misused to justify the institution of slavery. “Tell old [plantation man]… to let my people go.”
Many of us have heard the story Desmond Tutu tells: “When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said "Let us pray." We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.”
Poignant, bittersweet humor. The kind of humor that makes us laugh so we won’t break out sobbing. But more astonishing is what he once said just after that: “It would appear… we struck a bad bargain… but we came out of that transaction … better off than when we started… We were given the most subversive, most revolutionary thing around.”
People have been struggling to escape Pharaohs of all kinds for millennia. And, despite religion’s grave failures, many have discovered both comfort and hope in a Bible that, at first look, might seem not to speak to their deepest yearnings. It’s the second – or the thousandth – look that opens our eyes.
Who is our Pharaoh today? Who – or what – is your Pharaoh? Whoever or whatever it is, God is singing to you; we are singing to each other: “Tell old Pharaoh… to let my people go.”
We’ll sing this beautiful, subversive song tomorrow in worship, and will meditate on it and pray about – for – it as well. We gather at 10 AM. Bring your voice, your heart… and, yes your Pharaoh-troubled soul if need be.