American Moses

Remembering a liberator serves a moral purpose

May 9, 2016 by

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Harriet Tubman was an American Moses. Escaping slavery in Maryland in 1849, she risked her life dozens of times by returning to the South and leading countless slaves to freedom. She was a powerful voice for the abolition of slavery and women’s rights.

A few years from now, Tubman will be the new face of the $20 bill. By 2020, the U.S. Treasury Department will unveil the image of a black woman, born a slave, to be etched on U.S. currency — a symbol of freedom and equality far better than Andrew Jackson, a slave-owner who as president was responsible for the forced relocation of Native Americans on the Trail of Tears.

Tubman’s selection represents a different way of remembering America’s past and expressing hope for the future. Besides honoring a hero, the placement of Tubman’s image implicitly acknowledges the national shame of slavery. An everyday reminder of America’s “original sin” contributes to an honest view of the past and also symbolizes the goal of expanding freedom today. Concerns about police treatment of minorities and mass incarceration of black men have sparked movements for justice.

One such campaign is Mennonite Central Committee’s effort to raise awareness about racial disparities in the criminal justice system. As a story on page 1 points out, African-American men have a one-in-three chance of going to prison at some point in their lives. For Latino men, the chance is one in six; for white men, one in 17. Unequal enforcement of drug laws is part of the problem. “Though drug-use rates are comparable across racial lines, people of color are significantly more likely than whites to be arrested for and convicted of drug-related crimes,” the MCC story says, citing a report from the Center for American Progress. Mass incarceration based on racial disparity is a modern form of slavery.

In the struggle for racial justice today, lifting up a 19th-century hero infuses memory with moral purpose. Tubman’s identity as an American Moses takes on greater meaning. In the 1850s, Tubman liberated hundreds of her people from bondage in the South, just as Moses led his out of slavery in Egypt. Today we remember Tubman’s courageous acts, just as Moses told the Israelites they must not forget how God miraculously delivered them.

Remembering that they were once the victims of injustice would motivate them to act justly. In Deut. 15:12-15, Moses says slaves are to be set free in their seventh year and adds: “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you. That is why I give you this command today.”

The Israelites’ experience of slavery establishes the foundation for who they are called to be. Through Moses, God commands them to show mercy to slaves and strangers, because they remember what it was like to be enslaved. Through Harriet Tubman, an American Moses, we hear a call to work for racial justice, because we remember her struggle to liberate her people.

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