090620 Pentecost 14 Exodus 12:1-14
A question plagues our country this week: are some people worth more than others? The campaign for president, and protests in Louisville and Portland, reveal different answers:
- Both candidates visited Kenosha, Wisconsin. One visited with local officials, police, and business- people and did not publicly mention Jacob Blake. The other met with Jacob Blake’s family, law enforcement, and community leaders.
- One spoke of the destruction wreaked by alleged protesters on businesses that hurt property owners. The other spoke with and about the person whose mistreatment led to the protests.
- One candidate forbade anti-racism training in government entities, while the other called for the eradication of systemic racism.
- One candidate made clear that he values soldiers who avoid military service or survive it over those who are wounded, captured, or killed. The other called that opinion “disgusting.”
It is tempting to view this as an us/them issue. But we’ve all been raised on stories that make the wellbeing of one group more important than that of another group. For most of our nation’s history, Americans have believed that they are worth more than people in other countries; when I was growing up, I was taught to believe that Americans were better than the Russians; white people have believed that they are worth more than people of color; men have believed that they are worth more than women (at least in running things); homeowners have believed that they are worth more than the unhoused; and on and on it goes. In today’s world, many believe that “law abiding citizens” are more legitimate than protesters; business owners deserve more compassion than looters; and mask wearers are better people than mask refusers. Those may simply be emotional reactions that people would never say out loud, but they are true at an emotional level for many.
When people look back at earlier periods of history, they often take the side of those they would have opposed if “then” were “now”. Many who might have been slave owners 200 years ago say that slaves had legitimate complaints against slaveowners; that suffragists were nobler than the men who kept them disenfranchised; that Martin Luther King’s message was closer to the truth than George Wallace’s; etc.
Today’s story from Exodus looks back at the
familiar story of poor Hebrew slaves being forced to make bricks without straw. After Pharaoh was threatened by Moses with a series of plagues, he refused to let the people go. The Passover story describes the final plague. God murdered the first born of every Egyptian family to motivate Pharaoh to emancipate the Hebrew slaves. They were finally allowed to go free – good news for them. But every family in Egypt suffered the death of their first-born children and animals.
It would be as if the first-born from the families of all police officers had to die to get the police to stop killing black people with impunity. That might feel good to some at an emotional level, but is that the kind of god we want to follow? Christians can never in good faith advocate that kind of eye-for-an-eye and tooth-for-a-tooth justice. Perhaps a Christian alternative would be to advocate reparations rather than revenge. Reparations for all the descendants of slaves would bear a heavy cost for wealthy whites. But it would be restorative rather than punitive justice.
For my entire adult life, I have believed that God takes the side of the poor, and I still do; not because they are worth more, but because they are treated as less than. The Exodus story has been the foundation of that belief. 45 years ago, I went to Colombia where I discovered that Exodus and Passover were the foundational stories of the Theology of Liberation sweeping Latin America. This story motivated and empowered the poor to have hope for liberation. So today, All Lives Matter is not a substitute for Black Lives Matter, even though both are true.
Along the way I discovered a God whose justice restores rather than punishes. The tradition that took its final form the in book of Exodus saw the hand of God – the angel of death – as the agent in murdering all those Egyptians. The descendants of Hebrew slaves apparently came to see themselves as more worthy of life than the Egyptians in God’s eyes. The problem with that is that it makes permanent a situation that was temporary. Hebrews aren’t worth more than Egyptians. A situation in which they were being treated as less needed rectifying. It didn’t mean that some of God’s creatures are more worth saving than others.
Martin Luther King spoke frequently of the need for transformation of both oppressor and oppressed. More recently, Pulitzer-Prize winning rapper Kendrick Lamar described the complexity that allows such transformation: “I got power, poison, pain, and joy inside my DNA.” We all have this complexity within us. Each of us is capable of being oppressor and oppressed, freedom fighter and fascist, regardless of our skin color or our station in life. Can we honor this complexity and still work to overcome systemic racism and illegitimate oppression?
As I think about the divide in our country, the only answer I can see is, we must. The Christian story is rooted in the Passover story, but goes beyond it. Christians believe that the crucifixion of Jesus reveals redemption more fully than the Passover. Jesus brings a better way by offering his own blood instead of requiring the blood of enemies. He didn’t sacrifice his body to appease an angry God. He put his body at risk to honor the vocation of giving life to which his soul called him. In so doing, Jesus expresses God’s solidarity and love by joining with sinners and sharing with them the burden of sin. That became God’s new way in the world (the new covenant). The Passover story itself clarifies that the struggle is not only with people and governments, but with gods. I will go through the land of Egypt and strike down all the first-born in the land of Egypt, and deal out punishment to all the gods of Egypt. This is liberation of the people from the power of that which pretends to stand in God’s place, from false worship and devotion, to true worship and clear thinking.
Somewhere deep within the human psyche there seems to reside a dark and primitive impulse toward hatred, exclusion, and deadly violence. Perhaps to justify ourselves, or to calm our deep insecurity, we insist that God not only sanctions our hatreds and our causes, whether personal or national, but that God hates our enemies and at some points in history even exterminates them. The writers of the Passover story use the symbol of bitter herbs to hint that this bitter story anticipates a better story. Like them, liberals and conservatives must both hold their view of God with suspicion. When our God hates the same people we do, we ought to worry that we’ve recreated God in our own image.
People of faith must distinguish between religious labels and religion of the heart. It does matter what we believe but at times that leads to unexpected religious bedfellows. I remember when Hassan Hathout, God rest his soul, founder of the Islamic Center, expressed my belief when he shared, “I used to say, ‘I am a Muslim, she is a Christian, he is Jew.’ Now my thinking has led me to classify humanity into two categories: those with a loving heart and those with a hating heart. This is now my Islamic calling – to transform hating hearts into loving hearts. I believe Jesus said something similar.” He did indeed.