Exodus -- a political parable for all time?

Exodus and Revolution, by Michael Walzer. New York: Basic Books Inc. 177 pp. $15.95. The Bible subversive?

Read Michael Walzer's ``Exodus and Revolution'' before you dismiss the suggestion.

Or at least read this review.

``Liberation theology'' is a new name for it. According to Mr. Walzer, ``Wherever people know the Bible, and experience oppression, the Exodus has sustained their spirits and (sometimes) inspired their resistance.'' Puritans in 17th-century England, black Baptists in the United States in the 1960s, Roman Catholic revolutionaries in Latin America, have all used -- and are using -- the Exodus story to gain and keep political power.

Like the revolutionaries, Walzer does not care what really happened to Moses and the people 3,000 years ago. He believes the story was ``designed for public reading and rereading and for analogical application.''

``Analogical application'' points to the belief in ``parallels'' and is a feature of humanist interpretation of classic texts. Ben Jonson drew a parallel between the fall of the Roman Republic and his own time in his play ``Cataline.'' Michael Walzer believes Exodus supplies many parallels for ``wars of national liberation'' yesterday and today.

The parallels are based on a political interpretation of the main episodes of the Exodus story. A downtrodden people will have to leave Egypt and face the unknown; for some, the security of slavery is to be preferred to freedom. Once they make their escape, the people must endure the wilderness, and the constant temptation to return to Egypt, or the old ways. The wilderness period will exhaust the original generation -- and perhaps there will be the further danger of forgetting Egypt (and hence the Jehovah that got them out). Finally, the unity and purity of the remnant will be symbolized by the Covenant. Bloodshed may be visited upon deserters and turncoats, as in the golden calf episode. And then the people must learn to live with the promise in Canaan: They must share the milk and honey of the promised land, or else it may be time for another Exodus.

Walzer's version of Exodus isolates the secular features; God has very little to do with it. In his central chapters he shows how Savanarola, Calvin, John Knox, Benjamin Franklin, Lincoln Steffens, Severino Croatto, and Zionists right and left, among others, have used Exodus for revolutionary ends.

That Exodus has played such a large role in revolutionary politics in the West is one of the burdens of this book. That the story should help us distinguish between good and bad revolution is the book's genius. As Walzer points out, Moses was a revolutionary leader, not a messiah; reaching the promised land did not signal the end of history. But the end of history is what some revolutionaries are after. These Walzer terms ``messianic.'' He finds messianic strains in right-wing Zionism and in some Latin American liberation theology.

But the good liberation theologians, like the good Zionists, warn against making the revolution an end in itself. Gustavo Guti'errez, the best liberation theologian in Walzer's view, is a gradualist. He feels the end is not to be forced with violence, and defines the wilderness period in terms of a gradual pedagogy of success and failures. For him, acts of terror are classed as ``unavoidably ambiguous human achievements'' and are to be avoided.

So the liberation theologian is a reasonable man? One can hope.

Indeed, Michael Walzer's book is above all a sign of hope. Yet he has a habit of making it seem as if the bad strain, the messianic, in revolution is Christian, even though his hero Cromwell was a Puritan. In any event Walzer's hope is a chastened one. Indeed to many it may not look like hope at all. Walzer himself belongs to a tradition of prophecy, and the great theme of this stunning little book is that Egypt is everywhere, and that Exodus and the wilderness lie ahead for all of us. This is the end of the book:

The ``door of hope'' is still open; things are not what they might be -- even when what they might be isn't totally different from what they are. This is a central theme in Western thought, always present though elaborated in many different ways. We still believe, or many of us do, what the Exodus first taught, or what it has commonly been taken to teach, about the meaning and possibility of politics and about its proper form:

-- first, that wherever you live, it is probably Egypt;

-- second, that there is a better place, a world more attractive, a promised land;

-- and third, that ``the way to the land is through the wilderness.'' There is no way to get from here to there except by joining together and marching.

Read this book; then reread it. It is a cry in the wilderness, but an articulate one. Let's not ignore it.

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

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