Class Suicide and Radical Empathy


Last Friday, on the first night of Passover, I was asked to share a teaching on Moses, who led our people out of slavery in Egypt. A friend suggested I share it with you:
The idea that always arises for me when I think of Moses and many other leaders of spiritual or political revolutions is Amilcar Cabral’s concept of “class suicide.”
Cabral was the revolutionary socialist leader of the national liberation movement that freed the Portuguese colony of Guinea-Bissau. “Class suicide” describes the act of dying to the privileged class of one’s birth – for instance, by taking a step with no return – and thus sacrificing one’s own privileged position and power in favor of full identification with the oppressed.
In either political or spiritual history, a large proportion of such trailblazers were born into privilege. Siddhartha was the son of chieftain; Mao Zedong was the son of a wealthy farmer; Ho Chi Minh was the son of a Confucian scholar and magistrate; Gandhi’s father was the chief minister of a princely state and Gandhi himself received law training in London. And Moses was raised as a prince of Egypt in Pharaoh’s house.
Clicking my way through a Google search for Cabral’s term, I happened on the work of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, a freeborn African-American abolitionist and author born in 1825. Her life story is pretty remarkable. One of her books was Moses: A Story of the Nile.

Here’s a quotation from the second edition, published in 1869, four years after the end of the Civil War. It starts with a dialogue between Moses and the princess of Egypt who has acted as a mother to him. He tells her he is leaving to lead his people out of slavery. She protests, asking this:
Thou hast bright dreams and glowing hopes; couldst not thou live them
Out as well beneath the radiance of
Our throne as in the shadow of those
Bondage-darkened huts?
Moses replies:
Within those darkened huts my mother plies her tasks,
My father bends to unrequited toil;
And bitter tears moisten the bread my brethren eat.
And when I gaze upon their cruel wrongs
The very purple on my limbs seems drenched
With blood, the warm blood of my own kindred race;
And then thy richest viands pall upon my taste,
And discord jars in every tone of song.
I cannot live in pleasure while they faint
In pain.
This struck me as deeply true.In so many of the stories describing decisive moments in the lives of leaders such as those I’ve mentioned, the turning point is just as Harper described it, a moment of radical empathy. Siddhartha had been shielded from human suffering till leaving the palace at 29 and for the first time encountering aging, illness, and death – an encounter that set him on a quest toward enlightenment. Gandhi’s turning point was witnessing the oppression of Indians by South African whites. Moses ended his princely life by killing an Egyptian overseer who was beating a slave.
Moses’ story resonated so strongly with Harper and other abolitionists because it so closely reflected their own experience of slavery.Today, with a powerful resurgence of overt racism in this country, it calls me to ask how we can remove the scales from the eyes of so many of the privileged in this country, those have not yet experienced the radical empathy that inspires class suicide. For me, that is the theme of every seder.
Courtney Pine and David McAlmont, “Bless the Weather.”
Bless the weather that brought you to me
Curse the storm that took you away
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