If I asked you who was the most famous activist of any kind, I’d get a variety of responses. Susan B. Anthony or James Baldwin. Or perhaps Ruby Bridges or Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Maybe Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rev. Al Sharpton, or Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. These are all great people who have made risky and tremendous contributions to our society providing power to the powerless and a voice to the voiceless. These men and women took a stand that put their lives in danger. They fought tirelessly for the disenfranchised, the discriminated, and the marginalized. They saw a wrong and used their voice to make it right, at the expense of their life.
Although their contributions are still studied in classrooms around the world, there was one biblical figure that came before them who will forever be celebrated for his bold stance, Bro. Moses.
Moses is arguably the first activist in Christian scripture. Here are three things that made him a great activist that can translate to activism today.
1. He was one of them. Real leaders/advocates are elevated to leadership by the group they represent because they are one of them. Although Moses was raised in the King’s palace, he was a Hebrew by birth. Exodus opens by explaining how the children of Israel, while in slavery, grew exponentially. Their growth was of great value to Pharaoh, but their potential to overtake him scared him. So because of his own insecurities he decided kill all male children by drowning them in the river. But Moses was special. So special that his mother put him in a basket and sent him up the river. When Pharaoh’s daughter found that same basket floating down the river while bathing, she knew, just like Moses’ mother, that he was special. So special that she raised him as her own and even asked his mother to nurse him! So here we have a baby who was born into slavery now being raised by Pharaoh and given all of the same access as the royal family. But he was still one of them! He was still a Hebrew, born of the children of Israel. He now had access to the same people who oppressed his people. This will prove valuable later.
Sidebar: Moses is pretty awesome! However, we have to give credit to his birth mother, Jochebed. She saw something special in him and defied the edict of Pharaoh to save his life. His sister, Miriam, actually found him in the river and rescued him for Pharaoh’s daughter. Ironically, it was his own birth mother who actually nursed him until weaned. Without each of these women, the story of Moses would not have happened. So thanks to all of the women saw something in the lives of their children and decided to speak life!
Fast forward. Now Moses is an adult, but he knows he is a Hebrew. He was raised in Pharaoh’s palace, but he sees the injustice his people are experiencing. Long days, harsh treatment, and constant degradation. This disturbed Moses so much so, that he killed an Egyptian soldier and had to flee. Until one day he heard the voice of the Lord loud and clear. This voice of God told him to go right up to Pharaoh and tell him “Let my people go!” (Exodus 8:1, KJV).
2. Moses had a relationship of Pharaoh. Given Moses was raised by Pharaoh’s daughter, Moses had a different relationship with Pharaoh than any other Hebrew. Pharaoh watched Moses grow from a baby to a full-grown man, so Moses’ relationship gave him access to stand up and make a bold demand from his adopted grandfather that changed his life as he knew it. Had it not been for his relationship, Moses may have been killed for approaching Pharaoh with such strong and dangerous demands.
During the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was successful because he had developed a relationship with President John F. Kennedy. Relationships with leaders are not always important. There are some activists who didn’t have a good relationship with those in leadership, but had a great relationship with those they represented. When a good leader is effective at taking a stance for others and articulating the urgent need for change, they will get the attention of those who can change the rules, and when you get the attention of those who can change the rules, now have the opportunity to develop meaningful and impactful relationships. I’m sure Congress didn’t like Susan B. Anthony. However, when you see someone who was willing to risk their own life for a cause bigger than them, people listen! She fought hard for African Americans’ and women’s right to vote. So much so, that a Republican US Senator from California, Sen. Aaron A. Sargant, sponsored the Anthony Amendment, which became the 19th amendment, creating the right to vote for all U.S. citizens.
3. Moses calculated the cost of Activism. Leadership often comes at a cost. It’s not easy being chosen or ordained to lead God’s people. Whether secular or spiritual, leading people takes guts, determination, preparation, and a calling to service. Activism is a higher calling that all leaders cannot answer. It is one thing to lead people in good or bad times, but it is a greater calling to fight for someone with no familial ties, even with the risk of death. Activists have the burden of saying the difficult thing in the name of change.
Moses was raised in a level of privilege that might easily make someone forget where they’ve come from. He could have made a conscious decision to conform to the life of royalty and luxury, however, he knew what was right. He knew his people needed a leader to take a stance for them, and that leader was him. There was a voice from the Lord that spoke to him and confirmed what was already inside of him. He knew what was right, but the Lord had to validate it for him.
Today, we have leaders like NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick. He saw the injustice of police brutality and decided that a simple, silent act of taking a knee during one of the most unifying moments in any sporting event, the singing of the Star Spangle Banner, was an effective protest. Big change often requires bold measures.
It was very bold for Dr. Martin Luther King to lead thousands of nonviolent demonstrators from many different backgrounds from Selma 54-miles across the famous Edmund Pettus Bridge to Montgomery, AL. In early 1965, Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) decided that the right thing to do to further their fight for equality was to use Selma as a demonstration site and the center of their fight for voter’s rights in the south. They knew what was right, and just like Moses did for the children of Israel and Colin Kaepernick did for social justice, Dr. King and the SCLC took on the difficult task of continuing the fight for voter’s rights in the South for all.
Given the current climate of our culture, we need more leaders to step up and take their leadership a step further. We need bold leaders willing to look injustice in the face and call it what it is. We need leaders who have developed relationships with the oppressed and the rule makers. We need bold leaders who have the mental toughness and the relationships necessary to walk right up to the powers that be and demand change.