Exodus (pt. 3): Terrified Terrorists

Need to Catch Up? Read Part 1. Part 2.

“[The king of Egypt] said to his people, ‘The Israelite people are now larger in number and stronger than we are. Come on, let’s be smart and deal with them. Otherwise, they will only grow in number. And if war breaks out, they will join our enemies, fight against us, and then escape from the land’”(Exodus 1:9–10).
 White nationalists surround a Charlottesville church near University of Virginia

White nationalists surround a Charlottesville church near University of Virginia

In the late summer of 2017, hundreds of tiki torch-wielding white nationalists marched the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia to resist the removal of a Confederate monument. In direct imitation of the famous Civil Rights era Siege of First Baptist Church in Birmingham, these men surrounded a Charlottesville church forcing those gathered there to fear for their safety and escape through the rear entrance. “Jews will not replace us!” they chanted, along with other rallying cries.

It was a scene pulled directly from a long tradition of American racial intimidation. It was also a violent show of fear: an irrational anxiety about white dispossession and white genocide.

There seems to be a pervasive idea that non-white people are interested in a race war. Where this idea came from? I’m not sure. (I never heard anything about it at any of the Universal Negro Council meetings we hold in Aspen every month.*) But it isn’t just the Jared Taylors and Matthew Heimbachs that believe such a war is coming.

I was once accused of trying to start a race war (or at least wanting to) by a southern Assemblies of God pastor, for saying that people riot when they feel like their laments are being ignored. Another former colleague wrote to me on Facebook that Black Lives Matter was pushing for the U.S. government to pass legislation that would forcibly seize land from white citizens and give it to black people (I’ve still yet to see a bill, draft of a bill, or law to that affect).

What reason do these white people have to think that black people have some hidden desire to massacre them after literal centuries of not doing so? The same reason the Egyptians in this story had cause to fear the Hebrews with no history of conflict: None.

The fear that some group of “others” — be they the “savages”, Jews, “blacks”, “the gays”, the whatevers — are a threat to “us” is powerful. That fear can galvanize a people to do evil things en masse, or at least to accept the destruction of their neighbors as necessary. That type of fear wins elections. That is the fear the king of Egypt accessed to win the people’s loyalty and leveraged against the children of the ghetto: the fear of being dispossessed by "the other."

"You are in danger," the king said to the people, essentially "but I can save you." There was no problem in this story before the king framed Hebrew presence in Egypt as a threat. But that is pattern behavior for the powerful and corrupt: create a crisis, then swoop in and play the hero.

We've seen this scenario in our own lifetime. The research shows that white anxiety about being dispossessed motivated much of white America to give Donald Trump the presidency. And he's been singing Pharaoh's song: that our country is threatened by "bad hombres" and "animals" from "shithole countries," and "I'm the only one who can fix our problems." Oppression is the logical end of such terrifying language.

*to my knowledge, there is no monthly Universal Negro Council in Aspen. That was a joke.

The next entry in this series will go live on Friday, June 22, 2018


Further Exploring:

  1. On Why White People Voted for Donald Trump: Trump Voters Feared Losing Status (NY Times)
  2. On the fear of White Dispossession: Dinner with a White Nationalist
  3. On the fear of White Genocide: Tim Wise Debates with Matthew Heimbach and Jared Taylor

Exodus (pt.2): The N*gger Prince of Egypt.

(Warning: I use the N-word in this article — for good reason, I think.)

Need to Catch Up? Read Part 1.

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Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph
— Exodus 1:8
What white people have to do is try to find out in their hearts why it was necessary for them to have a nigger in the first place. Because I am not a nigger. I’m a man. If I’m not the nigger here, and if you invented him, you the white people invented him, then you have to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that. Whether or not it is able to ask that question.
— James Baldwin

Joseph’s Little Secret

A Pharaoh that didn’t know Joseph would have been like a president that had never heard of John F. Kennedy. Joseph was a former governor that saved Egypt from economic collapse and bridged social divides. His legacy would not have been easily forgotten.

Some Bible scholars suggest that this passage conveys outright contempt rather than benign ignorance. That explains why some translations render the phrase “did not know Joseph” as “to whom Joseph meant nothing” (CEB). It’s more likely that Joseph’s legacy was intentionally erased from Egypt’s political memory once enough powerful people found out about his secret: that Joseph was not a true Egyptian, but a Hebrew.

Some scholars suggest that “Hebrew” was not originally an ethnic marker. “Hebrew” was a catch-all term for the margin-dwellers of the ancient Near East. It was something like a class distinction that pointed to the junk drawer of that ancient society. The nomads, vagrants, farmers, migrants, shepherds, crooks, refugees, rebels, mercenaries — they were “Hebrew.”

Egypt on the other hand was the epitome of high society. The name alone was synonymous with prosperity, influence, might, and learning. Egypt was the place that other nations sent their young elite to be groomed for promising careers in international diplomacy.

The Egyptians were anything but Hebrew, and they wanted to keep it that way. To even associate with Hebrews was taboo (Genesis 46:33). Hebrews were the ‘niggers’ of Egyptian society.

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A Hebrew’s Hebrew

Joseph was the youngest son of nomadic Canaanite shepherds, brought to Egypt as a slave (sold by his own family), then falsely imprisoned on rape charges. He was a Hebrew’s hebrew. Yet, by the favor of God, he miraculously rose to the top of Egyptian society, becoming second-in-command to Pharaoh.

Years later, a famine hit the land of Canaan that brought Joseph’s family down to Egypt for relief. He spoke with the ruling Pharaoh, who allowed his family to move to a little slice of Egypt called Goshen. He predicted his family would be sent there. Hebrews were apparently sent there often.

Goshen was like a refugee camp, where Hebrews could escape the hardships of their homeland, but also remain in their place: that is, the margins of society. It was the Bible’s first ghetto.

Up to that time, Joseph had been putting on a convincing performance as an Egyptian (even fooling his family when they eventually saw him again). Now that his family was in town, people in the capital were finding out about his Hebrew roots.

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An Unprecedented Time

Learning that Joseph was a Hebrew seems to have challenged the prejudices that existed among the Egyptian elite during his time. Pharaoh offered government jobs to any of Joseph’s brothers that were capable. Pharaoh bowed before Joseph’s father Jacob to receive a Hebrew blessing. When Jacob died, the Egyptians mourned for him and embalmed him. Egyptian officials accompanied Joseph back to Canaan to bury his father in the land that was home to his great-grandfather Abraham.

It was a beautiful, unprecedented period of Egyptian-Hebrew relations, all because of Joseph; but it was not enough to turn that ancient kingdom into a post-caste-society. Joseph may have been an exceptional Hebrew, but that was not enough to keep his family out of the ghetto. 

His legacy couldn’t have easily been forgotten, but with the passage of time, his ties to the Hebrews became more important than his contributions to Egyptian society.

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Just Another N*gger

There arose a king in Egypt that longed for the glory days when Hebrews knew their place, and he had a plan to remind them of it, but that plan could never be successful so long as people knew the story of the Hebrew prince of Egypt.

To keep a people oppressed, it is helpful to convince the wider population that such people don’t contribute much to society. One way to accomplish that is to erase the history of the oppressed: their great leaders, their contributions to society, and especially any history where they lived in harmony with those who are now more privileged. The people must believe (must be trained to believe) that the margin dwellers are worthless, beneath ‘us’ (whoever ‘we’ are), and that things have always been this way.

It is more likely that the history of shepherds blessing Pharaohs, and Hebrews being embalmed like Egyptian kings, and a Hebrew that saved Egypt from poverty was suppressed. There was a new king on the throne, and to him, Joseph was just another ‘nigger’ from a ‘nigger’ family.

This part of the Exodus story is a reminder of the importance of memory, not the royal memory of the state, but people's history. The royal memory will always or downplay the atrocities of the state and the glory of the oppressed. Americans are provoked to fear migrants trying to cross their southern border, but do they remember how what used to be Mexico became Texas? Many Americans chastise black Americans for 'living in the past' when we talk about the legacy of slavery, but do they remember the systems of racial oppression that have evolved from 1865 to date? No. They feel no obligation to remember that which we can never forget.

***

 

The next entry in this series will go live Wednesday, June 22, 2018


Further Reading:

  1. On the etymology of the word “Hebrew”: See, Miller, J. Maxwell, and John H. Hayes. “Epigraphy and Archaeology.” A History of Ancient Israel and Judah, Westminster John Knox Press, 2008, pp. 37, 113–17.
  2. On the organized suppression/distortion of American history: How Dixie’s History Got White Washed
  3. On the history of the Black American Ghetto: Historian Says ‘Don’t Sanitize’ How Our Government Created Ghettos

 

 

Exodus (pt. 1): Introducing the God of the Ghetto

Note: A version of this 16-part series first appeared on Medium in 2017. I'm returning to this series in honor of Juneteenth and releasing three previously unreleased released entries, culminating on Independence Day 2018.

 Photographer Devin Allen’s photo from the Freddie Gray protests in Baltimore on April 25, 2015

Photographer Devin Allen’s photo from the Freddie Gray protests in Baltimore on April 25, 2015

For the past few years, white Christians — many of them evangelical pastors — have been trying to explain to me that Jesus does not care about me.

Actually, it isn’t personal. It isn’t just me that Jesus doesn’t care about, these Christians say, it’s all black people.

You might be tempted to think I’ve spent the past year cold calling the Richard Spencers and David Dukes of the evangelical world. That must be why these white pastors were saying something so clearly insensitive (to put it sensitively). But these were well-meaning, good natured, Jesus-loving ministers that have “plenty of black friends” and can’t recall ever doing, saying, or thinking anything overtly racist.

They were just concerned that I was taking the following idea a little too far: Jesus saves.

I thought that idea also applied to being saved from threats like police brutality, mass incarceration, and other forms of social pain that disproportionately affect black people.

I was right about the Jesus saves part, say my white evangelical brothers and sisters, but not about the immediate threats to my body and human rights part. According to them, Jesus is more concerned about saving my soul for eternal happiness with God in heaven. So I’d better not get my hopes up about God intervening in the event that I’m in any type of corporeal danger.

I’ll never forget: a pastor in Minnesota wrote to me on Facebook saying that the gospel (good news) is that one day we will be with Jesus forever, not that Jesus will end all forms of social suffering. Another explained to me that salvation must be about saving the soul for an afterlife of heavenly bliss with God forever, not saving the weak from being dominated by the powerful. And another, the most infuriating of all, being on a video call with a colleague from Bible college, now a pastor in small-town Florida, who told me that “Racism is not a priority to God.” 

But if any of that is true--if God is indifferent to the pain that black people go through--then how can we say that God loves black people?

 

Bad Good News

I’ve tried to explain to these good people that such a gospel is pretty bad “good news”, because that means that God’s only solution for pain, suffering, and injustice is dying and going to heaven. Death is not good news. In fact, death is the very thing that the earliest Jesus-followers thought to have been vanquished when their Rabbi was nailed to a cross.

The fact that so many pastors subscribe to a Christianity that divides the body from the soul, making them compete for God’s attention is a problem. It desensitizes people to the constant cracking bones and bleeding bodies of the vulnerable that fill our Facebook feeds: their bodies didn’t matter to begin with, and now God has their souls.

The gospel of death is also a problem. It excuses us from being — like God — zealous patrons and guardians of life. In a faith that undervalues the body, regards the world as doomed, and looks forward to death, how can any lives truly matter?

 

The God of the Ghetto

The story of the Exodus subverts the gospel of death. It shows us a picture of the God of the ghetto, who cares about the bodies of those who live in the margins of Egyptian society— is livid that the bodies of Hebrew babies are being thrown into the Nile, that elderly Hebrew bodies are forced to work as slaves for Pharaoh.

The God we see in the Exodus story defines salvation as moving bodies from one geographic place to another, and in doing so also moves them from one social status to another. In this story, God saves Hebrew bodies from the brickyards of Egypt, from the violently oppressive politics of Pharaoh, and from the physical injustice of slavery.

I’m concerned that these pastors, and others like them, have not met the God of the ghetto that appears in the Exodus story; and because they have failed to see God’s commitment to the ghetto, their imaginations have been truncated.

I’m concerned that these ministers have not taken this story seriously enough. I fear they have not fully appreciated the vast implications of a God that takes on the ancient institution of slavery.

“God had to free them so that Jesus could be born in Bethlehem,” one pastor explained to me. That is a typical conclusion of those committed to the gospel of death.

The gospel of death needs for the consequence of the Exodus — that is, free Hebrew bodies on the other side of the Red Sea — to be nothing more than a byproduct of some “larger plan.” They can’t imagine that God may have freed the Hebrews because God hears the cries of the children of the ghetto — and responds. That God loves them. That God sees their suffering. That God is willing to wage war on their behalf for their freedom. But that is exactly what this story is trying to tell us.

It may have been a part of some larger plan, but God could have chosen any children: so, why choose the children in Egypt’s Hebrew ghetto? Because God always chooses the last, the least, and the lowly (1 Corinthians 1:26–27).

If what I’m saying is a bit unclear right now, don’t worry. I will explain to you what I mean by saying there was a ghetto in the Egypt of the Exodus story. I will explain to you how the Hebrews that eventually became Israelites were first ghetto children.

God’s love for the ghetto does not necessarily preclude divine love to the suburbs or even the palace, but what you need to know first is that the Exodus tells us — because otherwise, many of us wouldn’t believe it — that Jesus loves His ghetto children, all the ghetto children of the world. Red or yellow, black or white, they’re all precious in His sight. Yes. Jesus loves the ghetto children of the world.

The story of the Exodus is the story of how God broke the children of Israel out of the ghetto and adopted them.

I intend to introduce this God to those who are willing, by walking through the Exodus story. Come with me.

Click to continue onto Part 2.

Why the Resistance Needs People Who Know How to Pray

What if when we offered our "thoughts and prayers" we actually did some serious critical thinking and praying?

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When a tragic news story goes viral, it's customary to decorate the Internet with thoughts and prayers. They come in many forms: memes, profile filters, status updates. Sometimes that is the best we can do. Many times we can do more.

The challenge we face is that we're not always sure of what more can be done. So, in the face of incessant bad news, we often feel helpless. So we offer people comforting but empty sentiments: thoughts and prayers.

But the fact that we have so little show for all of thoughts and prayers makes me suspect that not much serious thought or prayer happens once the memes are posted.

For all of those quickly offered, heartfelt “thoughts,”it’s rare to hear the product of those thoughts—balm for the wounds or preventative medicines against future injury. Where are the thoughts that conjure up change?

And for all of those awkwardly offered “prayers,” where are the answers that people are receiving from a God who cares? Where are the helpful insights that only the Holy Spirit could reveal? Where are the creative solutions? 

How is it that we have so little to show for all of this thinking and praying we've done over the years?

outsourcing angels

Reasons vary, I'm sure. But I think that one explanation is that people pray as though they are giving problems we see entirely to God. The problems we're facing--violence, poverty, racism, war, climate change, and so on--are all so overwhelming. It's easier to think we'll outsource the work to heaven.

Also, many of those problems don't feel as immediate to us as the challenges of our personal, daily lives. Sure, it's terrible that immigrant children are being separated from their parents at our southern border, but I'm having tooth pain and my check engine light is on again. 

The dirty truth--and most of us won't admit it--is that at the end of the day, we only care so much about that which doesn't seem to directly affect us. And "I'll pray for you," can be a brilliant way of saying "This overwhelms me and I don't want to be burdened with other people's problems," while also appearing to be compassionate.

But prayer is not a way to pass the buck on to God for all the shit that goes on in the world. Prayer is also not how we keep the pain of our neighbors at arm's length. Prayer is a way that humans participate in what God wants to do in the world.

Can I Hide This From Abraham?

There is a tiny little passage in Genesis that arrests my attention when I think about this idea. 

In the story, God has decided to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, because these cities were famously opulent, unjust, and arrogant (Ezekiel 16:49). But before raining down judgment, God has a conversation with Godself: "Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?" (Genesis 18:17).

God asks this question for two reasons. First, Abraham is God's friend (Isaiah 41:8; James 2:23). Second, Abraham's nephew is living in Sodom at the time, and that would be super awkward for God to do his friend's nephew like that. So God tells Abraham about God's intentions.

Abraham is understandably taken aback: "Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike," he says to God, "Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?" Together, Abraham and God decide that if ten righteous people can be found, the cities will be spared.

Early the next morning, Abraham springs out of bed and hurries to the hillside where he'd argued with God the day before, checking the horizon to see what had happened to the cities. There's smoke rising coming from Sodom, but his nephew is safe.

When I consider this story, I think about how God invited Abraham into that space to discuss what was going on in those cities and what should be done about it. And I can't help but notice Abraham's commitment to the outcome: he's so entangled in the trouble approaching his nephew that it's the first thing he checks on the next morning.

That's what prayer does: invites us to participate, to some degree, in what God is doing in the world and involves us, entangles us, in the troubles our neighbors are facing. The church veterans call that kind of prayer "intercession."

A Handful of Razors

I’m no exemplar of intercession, but I do have one personal experience that stands out to me. When I was highschool, I started a gospel ensemble with a few friends. Eventually, our group was invited to perform at an event where we sang a couple of my original songs.

Shortly after the concert, I got a letter from a girl we’ll call Nekeisha. She was a younger sibling of one of the choir members and had come out to hear her sister sing a solo. She’d been impressed with the music and was hoping to connect. When you’re a young and zealous Christian (and we both were), there is something inspiring about meeting other young and zealous Christians. She included her email in her letter, and we became electronic pen pals. We would write each other often, always talking about God, faith, the Bible...Christian stuff. NeKeisha became like my own little sister. I eventually left town for an out-of-state college, but we kept in touch.

One day, NeKeisha confided in me that she'd been cutting. I was deeply concerned for her, but I had no idea how to be there for her. But I knew that I could pray. And I did: every afternoon. Sometimes I'd even skip lunch so that I could talk with God about NeKeisha. I'd told her she could call me when she felt compelled to cut, maybe talking could get her mind off of it for a while. She did sometimes.

Eventually, I returned to my hometown to preach and invited NeKeisha to come out. I was thrilled to see her in the audience. Afterward, she and I met up outside the church. We talked for a bit, caught up on life. Then she handed me a small bag full of razors. I got rid of them for her.

If you’re asking if NeKeisha ever cut herself again after that moment, you may be missing the point. This experience didn’t teach me that prayer “works,” or that intercession gets results.  I learned that I had no business praying anything that I wasn't at least willing to be part of the answer to. I learned through that experience that prayer pulls us deeper into relationship with one others, and into each other’s struggles. I learned that choosing to intercede for someone is disruptive, because we become invested in their story of their healing and liberation. We find ourselves springing out of bed to check for smoke on the horizon. We find ourselves with a handful of their razors.

If the resistance will include thoughts and prayers, and I think it must, then those thoughts and prayers must be meaningful. They must call us into deeper relationship of human trafficking victims, domestic violence survivors, persecuted migrants, abused people of color and LGBTQ people, and all those who experience oppression. Our thoughts and prayers cannot simply be a way of shoving their pain into the heavens. 

Are we willing to wrestle with God to see that "what is right" is done for our neighbors? Are we willing to be present to our neighbors' stories? Are we willing to be a part of the answer to that prayers we pray? Because that is the kind of prayer the resistance can use.

Why We Absolutely Must Keep Talking About Racism

Some people are worried about the health of our democracy. They have good reason. 

When the president has made himself an enemy of the free press, uses his influence to meddle with the policies of sports leagues, boasts that he's willing to use executive power to pardon himself for his crimes, and praises authoritarian strongmen around the world, we should be concerned. Those actions are anti-democratic.

And in this historic moment, it's easy to think of racism as some tangental to all of that--important, but we have bigger problems to discuss than race. Right?

Wrong.

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A friend of the president recently summarized the operating principle of the Trump administration saying "There’s the Obama Doctrine, and the ‘F*ck Obama’ Doctrine. We’re the ‘F*ck Obama’ Doctrine.”

The fact that this regime and its allies can summarize itself by an epithet and a black man's name tells you that our historic moment is decidedly racial.

One could argue that this administration's obsession with undoing the legacy of America's first black president has nothing to do with race--maybe Obama was just a bad president. Maybe. But that wouldn't explain why after Trump equivocated on the Charlottesville riots, called historically black nations "shit holes," consistently denigrates migrants as "bad hombres" and "animals," virulently opposes black protests, and built his platform on a slogan used by the Ku Klux Klan ("America First!"), his approval rating is going up.

America's history often shows the type of pattern we're seeing now, racist progress following racial progress: slavery followed by reconstruction followed by Jim Crow, followed by Civil Rights reform followed by a reversal of those reforms under Nixon. Obama's election was hailed as the advent of a post-racial society, only to be followed by a man who excites the likes of David Duke and emboldens the rank and file of America's overt racists.

So this moment of racist progress is not unique. After a season where is seems like ground is gained toward racial justice, there is so groundswell of racial resentment, seeking to undo those gains. This cycle shows that events like Emancipation, Reconstruction, and the Civil Rights Movement constitute unwelcome disruptions to the status quo. America always clamors for "order" after such events--and American order is racial hierarchy. 

A profound understanding of our context must concede that racism made Donald Trump president. Social research has  confirmed that Trump voters were motivated by racial resentment and anxiety about losing social status more than anything else.

All arguments about this moment in history must begin on that foundation of truth: that America has gambled with its standing in the global community, risked the threat of nuclear war, and put herself at the whim of an unqualified, despotic narcissist all for the chance to be white again.

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Those who say they're concerned that our democracy is sick, should be interested in a clear diagnosis of the problem. Well, the problem goes all the way to the inception of this country: it's racism. Racism has been this nation's sickness, undermining our great democratic creeds with anti-democratic practices, for centuries. 

The most consistent threat to democracy in this country is not coming from outside of our borders, but from within. America has been making land grabs for centuries, breaking of up families since the slave trade, calling non-white people "animals" and "criminals" since before the inception of this country, brutalizing black people since before the Civil War. Racism has long been at the root of America's deep tradition of anti-democratic practices, and has always seemed to be the grounds to justify America's capricious relationship to her own values.

That is why we must keep talking about racism: because racism is essential to understanding this historic moment. And if what we're seeing doesn't make clear how serious our condition is, I don't know what will.

The question is, do we even want to be made well?

***

Further Reading:

NBC News: 'Research proves that when intolerant white people fear democracy may benefit marginalized people, they abandon their commitment to democracy.'

The Atlantic: Research proves whites supported Trump because of racial anxiety

Terms, pt. 6: They'd Better Get It Together

I want to speak to these terms and conditions from an angle that I don't think we hear enough: the fact that even if it were true that "black-on-black" crime were special, it still wouldn't automatically mean that black people have to fix it before we can resist all of the other ways that we experience racial injustice in America.

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