Exodus and Liberation

Timothy Gombis
John Coffey, Exodus and Liberation: Deliverance Politics from John Calvin to Martin Luther King Jr. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. $34.99/£24.99

On Saturday March 10, 2015, President Barack Obama spoke on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Selma civil rights march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge. In his speech he quoted from Romans 12:12 and Isaiah 40:31-32. Referring to early civil rights leaders, he noted that "[T]hey did as Scripture instructed: 'Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.'" Later, in reference to the ongoing struggle to continue the work of early pioneers, the president cited Isaiah:
When it feels the road is too hard, when the torch we've been passed feels too heavy, we will remember these early travelers, and draw strength from their example, and hold firmly the words of the prophet Isaiah: "Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not be faint."
Eight years earlier he had spoken in the same city as a candidate for president to a gathering of African American leaders. He again drew upon Scripture and on this occasion filled his speech with a wide range of imagery drawn from the Exodus narrative. He commended earlier leaders who had been like Moses in challenging the various pharaohs and princes of their day. He referred to an elderly African American church leader who had encouraged Obama not to be fearful in the face of doubters, for he was part of the Joshua generation.

As John Coffey notes in his fascinating book, Exodus and Liberation: Deliverance Politics from John Calvin to Martin Luther King Jr., Obama would call upon the Exodus narrative to rhetorically frame and give meaning to his candidacy for president. The earlier Selma speech epitomizes several elements of Coffey's treatment of the use of the Exodus rhetoric of liberation. It demonstrates the power of this particular narrative to unite the energies and focus of an entire population - in this case, African American voters. Second, it illustrates the confusion of biblical rhetoric and political ambitions. Third, it demonstrates how the lines between political liberty and biblical notions of Christian freedom can easily - and intentionally? - be blurred.

In his thoroughly-researched and very well-written book, Coffey analyzes the use of Exodus rhetoric in English-speaking political culture in three historical periods: the religious and political revolutions in England and America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the campaigns to abolish the African slave trade and the institution of slavery in America, and the struggle for civil rights in the twentieth century up through the Obama presidency.

Coffey discerns a number of dynamics associated with the liberative rhetoric of the biblical Exodus. First, the narrative itself and rhetorical deployments of it were remarkably powerful. Drawing on philosopher George Santayana, he notes that the "Exodus provided believers with another world to live in, a grand narrative charged with momentum and significance" (p. 13). The narrative has the power to excite imaginations so that hearers intuitively conceive of options for political action. In the hands of a skillful rhetorician, the narrative easily identifies individuals and institutions with certain roles in the Exodus narrative. There is Pharaoh, the evil oppressor, and Moses the great leader. There are the oppressed people, the Israelites, dwelling in Egypt, the land of slavery. They are led out and cross through the Red Sea, the point of crisis and, eventually, miraculous triumph. There is the river Jordan, the point of preparation to enter the land of promise, Canaan. There are also, as Obama indicated, future leaders, those taking the place of Joshua. 

The various elements in the narrative do their work once the narrative is rhetorically accessed. Coffey demonstrates that as revolutionary figures grabbed hold of the Exodus rhetoric, a dialectical process was initiated between the narrative and the contemporary historical situation. The people shaped the use of the text, but the rhetoric also shaped the people and determined how they saw and understood events. Coffey's account, then, "is a story about texts and the power they have over readers. It is also a story about readers and how they manipulate texts" (p. 10).

Second, the Exodus rhetoric of liberation often proved uncontainable. The American revolutionaries saw themselves as slaves (pp. 66-67) and identified George Washington as their Moses and King George as Pharaoh (p. 69). The framers of the constitution consulted with the Mosaic Law in order to come up with an alternative to monarchy (p. 71). Coffey notes that the Revolution was understood as "the climax of the history of liberty" (p. 74). Yet, once their freedom from monarchical "tyranny" was achieved, those who had employed the rhetoric and imagery of Exodus to fire the imaginations of their fellow colonists sought to prevent this very same narrative from being used by abolitionists of slavery. "Defenders of slavery worked very hard to quarantine the infectious biblical language of freedom by insisting that 'the Liberty of Christianity is entirely spiritual'" (p. 80). The conflation of Christian and political freedom had already taken place among the American revolutionaries, but they sought to deny this same move to American slaves.

Something very similar had happened in the wake of the Reformation. "Liberty" was regarded as a purely spiritual notion, being separated from earthly political concerns (p. 27). The Radical Protestants in Germany were so influenced by Luther's rhetoric of liberation, however, that they employed it in support of the Peasant's War of 1524-25. While Luther said that his notion of Christian liberty did not entail such radical revolt, he could not contain it. Calvin also inveighed against "Libertines" who took Christian liberty to entail freedom from earthly political constraints (p. 28). Yet in articulating the experience of Reformers against contemporary tyrants, Calvin found the rhetoric of liberation irresistible. In his treatments of the Pentateuch, he found analogies between figures and events in the Exodus narrative with contemporary political scenarios.
Calvin's message then seems clear: Reformed Protestants are the new Hebrews, faced by their own Pharaohs, taskmasters, and Red Seas. Yahweh has seen their affliction and heard their cries, and he can raise up new avengers and deliverers (like Moses) to rescue them from the Egypt of persecution (p. 30). 
The Exodus narrative, then, and its rhetoric of liberation proved uncontainable and uncontrollable. Once employed in the service of earthly political concerns, it inspires hopes for liberation from those who formerly longed for liberation themselves. Coffey's masterful and extensive account of how the Exodus narrative fueled and shaped the abolitionist movement and African slave preaching easily demonstrates this point.

Coffey's work foregrounds a few serious problems with the use of biblical rhetoric in political discourse. First, throughout the book Coffey details the confusion of Christian freedom and political freedom. The proclamation of spiritual freedom and the employment of the Exodus narrative was so effective that it could not remain within neatly proscribed religious boundaries. Luther and Calvin faced this problem, as did the Puritan preaching that fueled the American Revolution. Even though America was intentionally founded as a secular nation, the Exodus narrative played a profound role in firing imaginations and giving shape to hopes for self-determination.

Second, and closely related to the foregoing point, the use of biblical rhetoric can easily be manipulated to presume divine endorsement for an earthly political agenda. One can easily point to the use of biblical rhetoric by both the North and South in the American Civil War. Coffey's work details this point time and again.

Coffey's wide-ranging and meticulously-researched book ought to be carefully considered by American Christian leaders, teachers, and preachers in an age when distinct Christian sub-groups presume that Christian identity demands loyalty to this or that political party, organization, or group, whether on the political left or right. It is all too easy for God's cause to be conflated with an earthly cause, or for a politician to hijack biblical language for political gain. Exodus and Liberation would help Christians develop a keen awareness of the power of biblical rhetoric and the dangers associated with its alliance to any earthly cause.

Timothy Gombis is Associate Professor of New Testament at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary. His most recent publications include The Drama of Ephesians: Participating in the Triumph of God (IVP, 2010)