Exodus (pt. 16): Wherever There's a Ghetto

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During my first visit to New York City I happened upon a street preacher.He was a middle-aged black man with a full salt and pepper beard, dressed in a tunic that was too short to hide his baggy jeans and Timberland boots. He looked like some ancient prophet had time-traveled to that moment, and then someone took him to H&M.

Intrigued, I squeezed myself the crowd of bodies that had encircled him to hear his message. Once I was in the front row I saw that he was surrounded by other men in biblical dress — all men of color, all tall and muscle-bound, some of them armed.

The street preacher read from prophets, Ecclesiastes, and other passages to support a controversial thesis: that the descendants of Africa are the true Jews of scripture. He told the crowd that white people, all of the them, were evil. He predicted a coming revolution, where white people would be violently dispossessed.

I disagreed with the street preacher, vocally, publicly. He told me that I was the anti-Christ. That even though I was black, and he’d just said all children of Africa were Jews, I had no place among God’s chosen people. Then he prophesied over me: that one day I would be falsely arrested, convicted and imprisoned, where men would rape me. I dismissed his attack with laughter and went on about my business.

Reflecting on it years later, it isn’t as humorous. I still disagree with him, but I understand him better. That man was hurting. I don’t just mean that he was angry. I mean that he was bleeding on the inside from the kind of trauma that distorts one’s imagination.

Our imaginations are largely based on our memories. To put it another way: it’s easiest for us to imagine that which we’ve already experienced. Our past experiences tell us what futures are possible. And so, that preacher’s prophecy over me was telling of the things he’s seen in his own life. He’d obviously seen people arrested, convicted, and imprisoned unjustly — perhaps he even experienced those things firsthand.

At the time that he spoke to me, I didn’t know how often that kind of thing happened. I hadn’t heard of stories like Walter McMillan’s or Kalief Browder’s — both black men wrongly convicted and imprisoned. But the street preacher had and that’s why he could imagine it. I didn’t see this in the moment, but when he prophesied over me, he was telling me about how he and so many he knew — or at least know of — were hurt.

His gospel of violence was rooted in that hurt. He was obviously a man well acquainted with the injustices of society (so well acquainted that he could imagine those injustices happening to me — easily! — in detail). He announced to the audience gathered on that sidewalk that black people would no longer suffer those injustices. But the way he imagined that happening was by black people becoming agents of racial violence, just was our oppressors have been.

The true measure of oppression is its toll on the imagination. Oftentimes, the best that oppressed people can do is imagine becoming the oppressor, rather than imagining a society where those injustices are no longer essential.

 

New Pharaoh, Same Chair

The command in the passage above is God’s instruction that the Israelites are not to become like their former oppressors. God wants to save them from a distorted imagination that assumes that society can only rearrange itself in the same patterns: oppressor vs. oppressed.

The Israelites were instructed to use their imaginations to access an alternative to society’s normal patterns of injustice. They are to use their imaginations to empathize with sojourners and foreigners, knowing from experience what oppression feels like, and refusing to subject their neighbors to the same.

If they can remember what God did in Egypt — the divine demand for emancipation and the divine plagues that followed — they can imagine what judgment will come upon them if they adopt the ways of their former oppressors.

And yet, it must be observed, that the remaining chapters of the book of Exodus — after the Hebrews are freed — conveys that the Israelites did not succeed in imagining a society where slavery was obsolete. For while slavery is never presented as a divine idea in the Torah, it is, later on, taken as a given for the world of its time (Exodus 21:1–11). And eventually, forced labor would become a formal part of Israelite society (1 Kings 9:15).

This failure of the imagination for their society is not unique unto them: its common among many human societies. It also illustrates an important lesson for those who are interested in pursuing a just society in the present: that there is a certain allure to oppression and injustice — namely, that we’ve seen it work.

On the contrary, we haven’t seen justice work as much as oppression. Therefore, it’s much easier for us to imagine a society where injustice is an essential feature.

If we don’t guard our memories of our own experiences of injustice and cultivate our imaginations to empathize with others and to envision living outside of society’s normal injustices, then we will continue living in the same cycles of injustice. Without an adjustment to our imaginations, the best we will be able to do is picture someone else in Pharaoh’s chair, when we need to envision an entirely different way to live altogether.

 

Wherever There’s a Ghetto

This is the last entry in this series.

I began writing it because Christians, especially white pastors, have been telling me and others that the racial violence that is normal in American society is of no concern to God. I’ve been told that it is a political issue and that God doesn’t get involved in politics or social issues. I’ve been told that all we need to do is wait to die and go to heaven, where we won’t have to worry about any type of social suffering anymore. But that is not what I see when I search the scriptures.

When I look at the Exodus story, I see an example of systemic oppression. God sees that systemic oppression and is grieved by it. God sees that the social predicament of the Israelites is, not only an affront on their human dignity, but an obstacle to their ability to fully worship God. God takes the side of the vulnerable and marginalized in this story, and takes the attack on them as an act of war.

I see that God holds the entire nation of Egypt in that story responsible for the slave system there — and not just the generation living at the time of the exodus, but for centuries of social, political, physical, psychological and spiritual violence against the Hebrews. The exodus event tells us that sometimes God takes a radical position against oppression: deciding that the institutions, leaders, and systems of that society cannot be reformed, and that a new society must be imagined entirely.

This command above is a reminder to these former slaves and to us that wherever there is a ghetto God will be there, championing the freedom and dignity of those that society relegates to its margins. That is the God that I see in the Exodus story, and the God that I worship today.

I don’t know the god of the white evangelical pastors who told me that Jesus does not save from social injustice. I don’t know the god who is not concerned about the cries of the poor or the tears of the oppressed or the blood of the innocent in society. It is not good news to me that one day we will all die. My God once said, “I have come that they may have life, and life more abundantly.” That is the only God I know. The only God I am interested in knowing. The God of the Ghetto.

Exodus (pt. 15): Escaping the "Egypt" Within

 Jef Aerosol (photo © Jaime Rojo)

Jef Aerosol (photo © Jaime Rojo)

On that day no one in your household may do any work…For in six days the Lord made the heavens, the earth, the sea, and everything in them; but on the seventh day he rested. That is why the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and set it apart as holy.
— Exodus 20:10-11

Black and Beautiful

In one of his lesser known and important speeches Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. says:

Somebody told a lie one day They couched it in language. They made everything Black ugly and evil. Look in your dictionaries and see the synonyms of the word Black. It’s always something degrading and low and sinister. Look at the word White, it’s always something pure, high and clean. Well, I want to get the language right tonight.

I want to get the language so right that everyone here will cry out: ‘Yes, I’m Black, I’m proud of it. I’m Black and I’m beautiful!

King knew that the fight against racism must be fought on many fronts. Obviously, there were racist laws that needed to be abolished. Also obviously, there were violent racists that needed to be held accountable for hate crimes. There were economic practices that needed to change.

But King also knew that racial violence could do internal damage: that is, that even black people could internalize the wicked ideology of white supremacy. He knew that we could come to feel ashamed of ourselves for the stigma blackness was intended to be. And so he, along with activists of his time, asserted that we did not have to accept the racist’s definition of blackness.

To be black, in the racist imagination, was to be criminal, barbarian, dumb, inferior, ugly, and all manner of other negative stigmas. But we began to define blackness for ourselves. In a society determined to use blackness to humiliate us, black pride is an existential necessity. It is a means to mitigate the risk of internalizing the racial contempt and violence that has been directed at us for generations.

Black pride turns what was supposed to be a cultural stigma into an affirmation.

Getting Egypt Out of the Hebrew

On the other side of the Red Sea, the Hebrews are given instructions, including a rhythm for work and rest.

“You have six days each week for your ordinary work,” God says, “but the seventh day is a Sabbath day of rest dedicated to the Lord your God. On that day no one in your household may

In the Exodus story, the Sabbath command directly addresses the generational trauma the Hebrews endured in Egypt.

First, and probably most obviously, it is a gift to a people who were once overworked as slaves. In that way, this divine gift of rest is reparative. The Hebrews are not slaves anymore, and they are to rehearse that truth every week. And each time they do, they will remember how they came to be free to rest: The God of the Ghetto rescued them from the dehumanizing institution that treated them as labor machines.

Second, the Sabbath deals with the tacit lie embedded in the experience of enslavement: that Hebrews were inferior to non-Hebrews. Messages like those are often internalized by oppressed people, often outlasting the physical experience of oppression. And the sabbath command subverts that psychological violence.

The reason God gives for this command to rest is profound. God says that they are to rest because God rests. In other words, they are to live — to some degree — as God does. That command recalls the subversive assumption that human beings are created in God’s image: all of them.

In the ancient world, royalty were usually the ones believed to bear the image of any god and to share in the benefits and prerogatives thereof. Rest was a prerogative of the gods and therefore the prerogative of kings. But God shared that prerogative with these former slaves, now homeless wanderers, hebrews.

The gift of sabbath was an affirmation of their humanity, the very thing that had been undermined by generations of oppression.

All of that hints at the next way the sabbath command spoke directly to the trauma the hebrews underwent, is that it turned the stigma of being Hebrew on its head.

God did not require that they become something other than hebrews to deserve the affirmation of their dignity as image bearers. They didn’t need to become kings, build their own empire, or conquer any neighboring peoples. They were still margin-dwellers, still abominable in the imperial imagination, and just as imbued with dignity and worth in God’s eyes as any ruler of the ancient world.

They need not be ashamed of being ‘hebrew’, just because society considered it a stigma. Perhaps they could even be proud that, just as they are, they are God’s people.

In some ways, the practice of sabbath seems to encapsulate that mysterious, contradictory intersection where stigmatization and affirmation meet in the same social indicator — the way that stigmas are often absorbed by the stigmatized and robbed of their power as they’re integrated into a new identity.

The sabbath was a countercultural practice in the ancient world, and a unique marker of the people of Israel. It was criticized by ancient non-Jewish people, as a mark of laziness. But within the community, the sabbath was an essential marker of faithfulness to God, and subsequently the mark of a true hebrew — a good hebrew. The audacity! They were expected by others to be ashamed of that word and of themselves, but there they were, suggesting that they had been invited to enjoy — to some degree — the type of life that God does.

But, even though sabbath invites humans to partake of God’s life, it also puts a check on human pride and ambition.

Sabbath is a boundary. If the hebrews had thought for one second, “We built so much when we worked non-stop for the Egyptians, imagine what we could do if we worked like that for ourselves,” the command to sabbath curbs that inclination. They are not to become like the place that they left, adopting the practices of the empire. They are welcomed to partake of God’s life by following God’s instructions, not by following worldly wisdom.

Sabbath is a reminder that they are only imitating God and not actually gods themselves. They are guests to the divine life, not indigenous to it. So their subversive theology — that they bear God’s image — should not become an oppressive ideology.

It may sound a bit cliche, but it’s nonetheless true: leaving Egypt was just phase one of the Exodus. The next phase would include dealing with the ways that Egypt was still with the Israelites on the other side of the Red Sea.

This kind of identity work, to address the ways that generations of oppression may have shaped their identities, was vital. It still is.

Escaping the ‘Egypt’ Within

People are often indignant to hear black people say, like Dr. King, “I’m black and beautiful!” or “I’m black and I’m proud!” or “Black Lives Matter!”

But critics of affirmations of blackness would do well to consider the context in which these statements are made. As long as we live in a society that is generally hostile to black people — where black is synonymous with danger, stupidity, immorality, uselessness, and crime — black pride will continue to be an existential necessity.

We must continue to aggressively affirm that we are created in the image of God, against a society that has historically insisted that we are not, lest we come to believe that society.

We live in a society where racial categories are an essential feature and where people assign meaning to those categories. We may not be able to make racial terms obsolete anytime soon, but we can reframe them. We can, have been, and will continue to audaciously make the stigma that blackness was supposed to be a badge of honor.

This is not about black superiority, but about undermining generations of continuing racial misrepresentation and humiliation. We are not the savages the colonists said, nor the animals the slavers said, nor the aberrations the segregationist said, nor the super predators and criminals the politicians said. We are human.

Please feel free to share this article. Want to make sure you don’t miss an entry in this series? Get the latest delivered directly to your inbox by clicking here.

 

For Further Exploration:

  1. On Generational Trauma: Trauma From Slavery Can Actually Be Passed Down Through Your Genes
  2. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on Black Pride: “I’m Black and I’m Proud”

Exodus (pt. 14): Should We All Be Radicals?

But the Israelites had walked through the sea on dry ground, with the waters like a wall to them on their right and their left. That day the Lord saved Israel from the power of the Egyptians…
— (Exodus 14:29–30).
  Sanitation workers strike in Memphis in 1968 just before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr

Sanitation workers strike in Memphis in 1968 just before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr

Freedom can be fragile.

Sometime after Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation, former slave Henry Adams had asked his boss for permission to take a trip to Shreveport, Louisiana. “You’d better take a pass,” Henry’s boss told him.

In years past, slaves had been legally forbidden to go roaming about the country with a permission slip from their masters. But Henry wasn’t a slave. It was his right, as an American to travel where he pleased, when he pleased. “I will see whether I am free by going without a pass,” Henry said to his boss and was on his way.

Along the way, Henry was stopped by four of white men that asked who he belonged to. When Henry replied he had no master, two of the men attacked him with sticks and threatened to kill him (they said they’d been killing every ‘Negro’ they came across that claimed to be free).

But one of the men recognized Henry and interceded for him. So they let him go. Henry said that he’d seen about a dozen black people lynched on his journey to Shreveport and back.

When he arrived back home, his boss was nowhere to be found. He asked the boss’ wife for his whereabouts. She was indignant. She huffed:

The boss! You should say ‘master’ and ‘mistress’ — and shall or leave! We will not have no nigger here on our place who cannot say ‘mistress’ and ‘master.’ You all are not free yet and will not be until Congress sits, and you shall call every white lady ‘missus’ and every white man ‘master.’

Henry’s testimony would go on to describe how little had changed for black Americans in the days that followed slavery. He recounted how employers would continue to behave like ‘masters’: beating their workers nearly to death at times. He recalled white men trying to kill black people that tried to move away from the oppressive conditions of the south.

His testimony also points to the resilience of evil.

  Freed black Americans were relegated to doing the very same type of work they had done while enslaved: working the land for white plantation owners

Freed black Americans were relegated to doing the very same type of work they had done while enslaved: working the land for white plantation owners

Go, But…

Up to this point, Pharaoh had tried to negotiate with God.

“Your people can worship God,” he told Moses, “but stay in Goshen.”

“Go, but only take the men.”

“Go, but leave your livestock.”

He proposed a little reform here and there: to appease the Hebrews with a little freedom, while keeping them as Egypt’s free labor force.

After all, setting the Israelites free would have disrupted the economy. It also would have upset those who benefitted from the slave system, and affected his approval rating.

He had hoped that God and he could agree on some sort of arrangement that would satisfy both parties.

That is important to note: even the freedom the king offered to give was not driven by a true interest in freedom. Pharaoh was just desperate for the plagues to stop, and was using liberty as a bargaining chip.

God knew that the system the kings built in this story could never yield justice for the Hebrews. The system the Pharoahs built was created to oppress one group and privilege another. Therefore, the system did not need tweaking but needed to be done away with.

Every time Pharaoh said “Go, but…” he demonstrated his attachment to that system, showing that he could not be trusted to free the Hebrews.

So it’s no surprise that on the morning the Hebrews went walking out of Egypt Pharaoh and the officials grip their faces saying, “What have we done?” The king readied his chariot and led his army out in hot pursuit of the Hebrews (Exodus 14:1–9).

That is typical of oppression: it doesn’t ever end overnight.

U.S. History tells the same story.

After slavery, unemployment was made illegal in many states, which served as a pretense for imprisoning many black people and subjecting them to forced labor.

“Go, But…” in America

The thirteenth amendment of the U.S. Constitution has been said to abolish the practice of slavery in this country, but it actually just changes the provisions. There’s a loophole in it that allows slavery as a punishment for crime. Just enough reform to appease the oppressed, while keeping the option for slavery on the table.

Just two years after American slaves were freed, southern legislatures had established “black codes” that prohibited blacks from starting businesses or owning land, but also made unemployment illegal.

So, black people found “jobs” that were pretty much the same thing they were doing as slaves: picking cotton on someone else’s land. And if they failed to find a “job” picking cotton they’d be imprisoned, then leased to a plantation owner to — you guessed it — pick cotton. They had been given a semblance of freedom, but remained America’s cheap (and, in many cases, free) labor force.

As Henry Adams’ testimony shows, slavery hadn’t really ended, but had evolved to black into codes, which evolved into Jim Crow, which evolved into the War on Drugs and mass incarceration today (which disproportionately affects black people). Because oppression doesn’t end with one royal decree, one executive decision, or one more amendment to the Constitution.

How is it that Pharaoh and his forces keep on coming back to re-enslave so easily?

As you can see above, it was once literally illegal for black people to prosper in this country. And that is only one example of how the blueprint for this society was designed to privilege some and disadvantage others.

Minor reforms and tweaks have been made for racial justice, many times as part of some effort tangental to black freedom: ending a war, stopping riots, calming protests, gaining political advantage. But sweeping and thorough measures to correct racial injustice, for the sake of justice, have yet to be sustained.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. echoes that much, as he reflects on the victories of the Civil Rights Movement in 1967 interview:

For years I labored with the idea of reforming the existing institutions of the South, a little change here, a little change there. Now I feel quite differently. I think you’ve got to have a reconstruction of the entire society…

That was apparently God’s feeling about Egypt in the Exodus story.

No More “Go, But…”

The Exodus event itself is a radical political statement.

It says that God decided that the Hebrew’s suffering could not be solved by anything that the Egyptian government could offer. The system did not need to be tweaked or reformed. It needed to be done away with altogether.

Because those that governed in Egypt in this story were not ultimately interested in justice, any reforms to the system would stop short of eradicating injustice. Injustice would simply continue to evolve. That is why God sent the ghetto children walking through the waters of the Red Sea.

God knew that empires will more often say “Go, but…” to the oppressed — trying to negotiate some perfect balance of symbolic freedom and sustained inequality. God knew that many people, whether the powerful or the disinherited, have difficulty imagining any social arrangement without inequality. God knew that the resilience of evil demanded a radical solution.

So God opted out of the oppression cycle altogether.

But this is not a story about the end of all systems of government. On the other side of the Red Sea, God would give the ghetto children legislation and social policy (Exodus 20:1–21). God would give them economic principles (Leviticus 25) and cultural practices (Leviticus 23). God would give them instructions for worship (Leviticus 1).

The Exodus event is often spoken of as a sort of baptism. That’s a good analogy, but not just in some metaphysical sense. It is symbolic of a kind of social death and re-creation as much as anything else. The old way of empire is drowned in the waters of the Red Sea, and God’s people emerge to become a new society that practices YHWH’s politics of freedom, hospitality, and justice.

The Exodus event presents one of God’s most radical responses to injustice. God would not be satisfied with reforming the institutions of Egypt in this story — a little change here, a little change there. God decided something entirely different needed to be built. The Exodus was the inaugural event of the new thing God decided to do.

  Coretta Scott King and other activists occupying Washington D.C. as they demand economic justice during the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign

Coretta Scott King and other activists occupying Washington D.C. as they demand economic justice during the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign

Should We Be Radicals Too?

The simple narrative of racial progress that many Americans believe in is wrong. Racial oppression never simply ended: not with the Emancipation Proclamation, not with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It doesn’t work that way. We must reckon with the fact that evil is simply more resilient than that. Until we do, our responses will continue to be inadequate.

In the Exodus story, God's response to an unjust system is abolition, not reformation. It’s a radical response. And if we are to be God’s people, that means that at times we must be radicals too.

In order to make meaningful progress in pursuing racial justice, we must be willing to reimagine everything about our society.

In a society where racism is a part of the blueprint, we must be willing to consider solutions that may call for a different type of social structure altogether.

We must be willing to re-imagine everything: a world where we can imagine community safety without state violence, and methods for justice that preserve human rights, and economic systems that are not designed with oppression and exploitation as essential features.

We’ve tried reforming the existing institutions of our society — a little change here, a little change there — and we are lamenting many of the same injustices that of our ancestors. We need to at least consider that the whole thing may need a radical transformation.

Please feel free to share this article. Want to make sure you don’t miss an entry in this series? Get the latest delivered directly to your inbox by clicking here.

Works Cited

  1. Adams, Henry. “Henry Adams’ Testimony Before Congress.” CommonLit, Public Domain, www.commonlit.org/texts/henry-adams-testimony-before-congress

For Further Exploration:

Thank you to Paul T. Corrigan for sending these follow-up links

  1. On Black Codes in Washington
  2. On How Little Changed for Black People Post-Slavery
  3. On How the Political and Economic Gains of Black People After Slavery Was Short-Lived
  4. On White Supremacist Violence to Suppress Black Voting
  5. On Land Disputes After Free People’s Land Was Returned to Plantation Owners

Exodus (pt. 13): Leaving the Ghetto with Gold

juneteenth_1900_1050x700.jpg
The Israelites acted on Moses’ word and asked the Egyptians for silver and gold jewelry and for clothing. And the Lord gave the people such favor in the Egyptians’ sight that they gave them what they requested. In this way they plundered the Egyptians.
— (Exodus 12:35–36).

YHWH’s war on the gods of Egypt was economically, ecologically, and socially disruptive. It brought the gears that kept the everyday processes of that society to a halt. God’s famous ten plagues destroyed their crops, blasphemed their gods, humiliated their leaders, and took lives.

Because of the devastation, the Egyptians expelled the Hebrews as quickly as possible — afraid that YHWH would keep on ravaging the land until there was nothing left to destroy (Exodus 12:33).

The Hebrew’s exit from Egypt is written in military terms: “…they plundered the Egyptians,” the text reads. They marched out of the ghetto with gold and silver under their arms: the spoils of YHWH’s war.

It would have been a sin, after all, to send the Hebrews out of Egypt with nothing. On that morning, God required that their masters abide by a biblical standard of justice, as recorded in the Torah:

When you let [a slave]go free from you, you shall not let him go empty-handed.You shall furnish him liberally out of your flock, out of your threshing floor, and out of your winepress. As the Lord your God has blessed you, you shall give to him (Deuteronomy15:13–14, emphasis added).

The Exodus passage goes on to point out how long the Hebrews had toiled in Egypt: 430 years. Twice, almost back-to-back, the reader is reminded of those centuries of oppression, because all of that time mattered. It had not, all of a sudden, become water under the bridge because an emancipation proclamation had been issued. All of the wealth acquired by Egyptians, and losses endured by Hebrews, during those centuries were still salient at that moment the Hebrews were cast out of Egypt.

The Egyptians could not legitimately say, “It is enough that we let you ghetto children go! Leave our gold out of this!” In the Exodus story, the Hebrews contributed to the generational wealth of their masters. It was only right that they partake of some of the riches of the society they were forced to build. It was only right that the Egyptians in this story, that had taken so much from the Hebrews, also make provisions for the future the Israelites were walking into.

The Israelites we’re going out into the desert to worship, and those riches of Egypt would be used to build the sanctuary for them to do so.

Moreover, what good would it have done to leave slavery in Egypt only to walk into abject poverty in the desert?

This text shows some important lessons about justice: First, that consequences for wrongdoing — like the plagues — are only a part of the equation; (2) so is ending offending behaviors; (3) ultimately, justice is about making things right, to whatever degree possible.

Please feel free to share this article. Want to make sure you don’t miss an entry in this series? Get the latest delivered directly to your inbox by clicking here.

Further Exploration:

  1. On What Was Life Like After Slavery?
  2. On the relationship between slavery and generational poverty: Where Thrived, Inequality Rules Today
  3. What America Could Have Done Differently: Bryan Stevenson Talks About Reparations
  4. The Case for Reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Exodus (pt. 12): #NotAllEgyptians

Need to Catch Up? Read Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4. Part 5. Part 6. Part 7. Part 8. Part 9. Part 10. Part 11. Part 12Part 13Part 14Part 15. Part 16.

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand toward heaven, and there will be darkness over the land of Egypt, a darkness that can be felt.” So Moses stretched out his hand toward heaven, and there was thick darkness throughout the land of Egypt for three days. One person could not see another, and for three days they did not move from where they were. Yet all the Israelites had light where they lived (Exodus 10:21–23).

 

 Ordinary Germans heil Hitler

Ordinary Germans heil Hitler

Another Day in Dachau

As I’ve thought about the passage above, I’ve often wondered about the German town of Dachau. This town is home to the first of Hitler’s infamous concentration camps of World War II.

I’ve wondered what life was like in Dachau when hundreds of thousands of people — Jews and Gypsies, the sick, the weak, the elderly, prisoners of war and more — were trafficked into those camps, tortured, and burned alive. Did the average citizen know about the gas chambers? Did they believe the same things as the Nazi party? Did they even feel strongly about Jews one way or the other?

Historians suggest that Germans living through the Third Reich had a spectrum of experiences.

What was done in the death camps, they report, was widely publicized by the government. So, many citizens would have at least been able to know about the Holocaust happening in their midst. And some did seem to know that something was up but did not necessarily know the details about the death camps.

Some Germans, radicalized by the Nazi propaganda machine, volunteered for the Gestapo. They snitched to the authorities: Hitler reportedly received as many as 1,000 letters a day from everyday citizens denouncing their Jewish neighbors.

Holocaust historian Daniel Goldhagian concludes, ‘’It took nearly the entire German population to carry out the Holocaust [3].’’

Yet we know that there were others — those who resisted the Third Reich, harboring and hiding Jews at great risk to themselves.

Some busied themselves enjoying the privileges of not being targeted by the secret police: dancing to American swing music, cracking jokes about Hitler, and listening to BBC broadcasts, all of which were forbidden.

Indeed, Eric Johnson, another Holocaust historian, writes:

“most Germans may not even have realized until very late in the war, if ever, that they were living in a vile dictatorship. This is not to say that they were unaware of the Holocaust...[however] a tacit bargain was struck between the regime and the citizenry. The government looked the other way when petty crimes were being committed. Ordinary Germans looked the other way when Jews were being rounded up and murdered; they abetted one of the greatest crimes of the 20th century not through active collaboration but through passivity, denial and indifference [4].”

Thinking on these things, I wonder, could the average German living through the Third Reich have protested “not all Germans!” simply because they had not pushed a Jew into an oven with their own two hands? Could they be “innocent” of the Holocaust happening among them? Can any people who refuse to resist such a society be?

 White civilians pose for the camera after lynching a black person.

White civilians pose for the camera after lynching a black person.

#NotAllEgyptians

There are only two Egyptians in the entire Exodus story who overtly think the Hebrews should be oppressed: the pharaohs. They are the ones who create negative stereotypes about the Hebrews. They devise oppressive schemes and systems to subjugate the ghetto children. They defy the Hebrews’ God by refusing to let those Israelites go.

The social ladder in ancient Egypt had many different spaces to occupy: royals, scribes, artisans and craftsmen, peasants and workers, and, of course, slaves. It would be a mistake to think every ancient Egyptian, no matter where they stood in that social hierarchy, was actively involved in oppressing the Hebrews. As did the Germans of the Third Reich, Egyptians in this story had a spectrum of experiences.

Some became taskmasters and overseers because they believed that the Hebrews were a barbarous threat to Egyptian society, as the pharaohs had said. Others, who may have had no strong feelings about Hebrews either way, likely became overseers because the positions were available and they needed the work. After all, new systems of oppression can create job opportunities for folks in the privileged group.

But there were also Egyptians who certainly didn’t participate in the most overt forms of Hebrew oppression. Most were not overseers or taskmasters. It’s unlikely that every artisan, craftsman, and scribe could afford to have slaves. Egyptian peasants obviously didn’t enslave anyone either. The vast majority of Egyptians played no part in the decrees and laws hurting the Hebrews.

None of those distinctions matter, however, when God judges Egypt in this story. All of the Egyptians sit in corporeal darkness for three days, because one king built a program to oppress the Hebrews, because that king’s subjects — the ancestors of the Egyptians in this Exodus chapter — bought into the rhetoric of fear and politics of oppression, and because each generation up to that time continued to support that oppressive system into the present moment.

Even the Egyptians who harbored no strong, overt hatred toward Hebrews also sat in that darkness. Even Egyptian peasants sat in that darkness. None of them could insist “Not all Egyptians!” and be excused.

 Baltimore riots after the police involved death of Freddie Gray. Photo by Devin Allen

Baltimore riots after the police involved death of Freddie Gray. Photo by Devin Allen

We Too Were There

Many white Americans desperately want to differentiate themselves from the racists of the past and present. It’s unfair, many argue, that black Americans seem to be holding white Americans accountable for sins that they were not alive to commit.

“I’ve never said or done anything racist in my life!” they say

“I’ve never owned any slaves!”

“I’ve never lynched anybody!”

“You know, Andre, not all white people are afraid to talk about racism!”they insist

“Not all cops are bad!”

“Not all white people are racist!”

History shows — as does the scripture above — that one does not have to be pharaoh, or Hitler, or Donald Trump, in order to be a part of the oppression machine. There are many ways to participate. One of them is to do nothing in the face of evil. The “innocent” Egyptians in this story, who did nothing to resist the royal plan to dominate the Hebrews, had to sit in darkness with the same Egyptians who cracked the whip.

As James Baldwin wrote in The Fire Next Time:

“This is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it . . . it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime [2].”

White Americans — especially Christians — can learn from this story to stop saying “Not all white people!” (#NotAllWhitePeople) in conversations about racial injustice. Instead, they should learn the phrase that many Jewish people say together when they recall the Exodus story at Passover.

During the Passover Seder, the story is told as though the people currently reading it had personally experienced the events. Together, they say “we too were there” as they recount the story.

“We were there in Egypt enslaved, we witnessed and were spared from the ten plagues, we sacrificed the Passover lamb, marked its blood on our doorposts, and we crossed the Red Sea on dry land [1].”

By observing Passover in that way, the Jewish tradition shows that the story of their ancestors is also their story.

The same stands true for the Egyptians in the Exodus story. Each person sat in darkness because of sins committed not just within their generation but also because by their ancestors; because the story of their ancestors was also their story.

Germany’s Holocaust museums, memorials, and social reforms echo the same spirit as that Passover chorus. They are making efforts to own that the story of their ancestors is also their story. They say “never again” to the evils of the previous generation.

Many black people carry the spirit of that Passover chorus in the way that we relate to that history. We too were there when the first Africans were herded onto slave ships. We too were there when our names were changed, our families split, our religions were shunned, and our history was erased. We too were there when we were forced to work those southern cotton plantations, under the constant threat of violence.

We were there during the church bombings and lynchings of the Jim Crow era. We too were there when the government criminalized our communities for its “War on Drugs.”

And we are still here, to witness the Sandra Blands, and Tamir Rices, and Terrence Crutchers of this nation continue to die at the hands of racially charged systems of social control. We carry this history in a deep and personal way. The story of our ancestors is our story.

White Americans would do well to learn to say “we too were there” when thinking of America’s history — and not just the parts that are easy to be proud of. Someone was steered the slaveships. Someone beat enslaved people. Someone raped enslaved women. Someone burned crosses, and bombed churches, and hung black people. The list goes on.

That history belongs to a people. It is not the entirety of their history, but it cannot be ignored. Their story does not have to continue in the direction in which their ancestors pointed. It can only be redirected, however, toward a beautiful end when those to whom it belongs take responsibility for it.

**edits have been made to this post: originally I had written about Auschwitz. Thank you, Gretchen for helping me choose a more appropriate city.

Please feel free to share this article. Want to make sure you don’t miss an entry in this series? Get the latest delivered directly to your inbox by clicking here.

Works Cited:

  1. Anonymous. “We Were There.” First Fruits of Zion, First Fruits of Zion, 16 Apr. 2016, ffoz.org/discover/passover/we-were-there.html.
  2. Baldwin, James. The Fire Next Time. Vintage Books, 1962.
  3. Ezard, John. “Germans Knew of Holocaust Horror about Death Camps.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 16 Feb. 2001, www.theguardian.com/uk/2001/feb/17/johnezard.
  4. Gewen, Barry. “Hitler’s Silent Partners.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 20 Feb. 2000, www.nytimes.com/books/00/02/20/reviews/000220.20gewent.html.

For Further Exploration:

  1. On What the Average German Knew/Thought about the Holocaust.
  2. On the participation of the German citizenry in the Holocaust.
  3. On German Reparations to Jews for the Holocaust.

Exodus (pt. 11): Somebody Has to Play “Egypt”

Need to Catch Up? Read Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4. Part 5. Part 6. Part 7. Part 8. Part 9. Part 10. Part 11. Part 12Part 13Part 14Part 15. Part 16.

Aaron threw down his shepherd’s rod in front of Pharaoh and his officials, and it turned into a cobra. Then Pharaoh called together his wise men and wizards, and Egypt’s religious experts did the same thing by using their secret knowledge. Each one threw down his rod, and they turned into cobras. But then Aaron’s rod swallowed up each of their rods (Exodus 7:10–12).

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Playing Israel

Just about everyone who reads the Exodus story wants to play the part of “Israel”. The pilgrims who fled England in search of religious freedom in the “New World” framed their story using the Exodus. King James was their Pharaoh. The Atlantic Ocean was their Red Sea. What would become “America” was their Promised Land. Their Thanksgiving feast was their Passover.

In the popular narrative of the U.S. as told by the U.S., America is a holy nation. For some, that makes Americans God’s chosen people. That makes its patriots into saints. That makes its wars holy. The only official story of America is the story of its greatness.

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It hasn’t even occurred to many that the very same people who claimed to flee from the “Pharaoh” of their time would build a new “Egypt” in the so-called New World, but that is exactly what happened.

Each year, on our Thanksgiving Day, indigenous people gather at Plymouth Rock for a solemn assembly. They remember that around that time — May 26, 1637 to be exact — that up to 700 Pequot men, women, and children were massacred by the freshly emancipated European pilgrims whom we honor with turkey. Our day of feasting is their day of mourning. Such stories, however, are forbidden.

Many Americans love to tell the stories where Americans used whatever means necessary to throw off the chains that once bound them: the stories of riots, revolutions, and wars against “tyrannical” regimes. Many of those same Americans are offended by the idea that America has been a tyrannical regime to some people groups. They do not want those stories to be told.

Because America insists on telling a single story — the story where it always gets to play holy “Israel” — any notion that there are oppressed people here is a heresy. Any lack of patriotism is condemned as apostasy. Any criticism is suppressed as blasphemy.

We see this when athletes receive death threats for not standing for the national anthem. We see this when the FBI labels and targets black activists as terrorists. We see this when journalists lose their jobs for naming racial injustice when she sees it.

If America insists on playing “Israel” then it must also continue to make traitors, threats, and heretics of those who talk about it as “Egypt.”

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This Means War

The snake fight in this passage from Exodus foreshadows the war that is about to unfold between the God of the Ghetto and the gods of Egypt. Snakes themselves were symbols of divinity in ancient Egypt. That symbolic fight between those reptile surrogates of the divine, however, was just the beginning.

In the chapters that follow this passage, YHWH would go on to make two things clear: that He considered what was happening to the Hebrews an act of war (Exodus 4:22–23), and that He was greater than the gods of Egypt. In fact, He would show that those who were worshipped in Egypt were not gods at all.

The Egyptians worshipped the Nile. YHWH turned the Nile to blood. The Egyptian goddess Heqet had the appearance of a frog-headed humanoid. YHWH sent swarms of frogs all over the entire kingdom — so on, so forth. Each plague showing that YHWH was supreme over what the Egyptians called “gods.”

In the book of Exodus, the only official story in Egypt, as far as Pharaoh was concerned, was the story of Egypt’s greatness. Any alternative stories were forbidden — no stories of social evil or of Hebrew empowerment (Exodus 5:5–17).

God, however, saw the whole story in Egypt. The famous ten plagues were God’s judgement on Egypt for 400 years of orchestrated injustice (Genesis 15:13–14). What looked like — and indeed was — glorious liberation to the Hebrews looked like an attack on everything held sacred to the Egyptians.

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We Are ‘Egypt’

There is no comfortable way to play the Egyptians in this story. To play “Egypt” means that God comes in announcing our nation’s sins. That means that God disrupts our sense of order. That means God exposes our gods as idols. No one wants to be on that side of the conflict.

Nevertheless, everyone that reads this story can’t actually be in the position of the Israelites. Somebody is at least occasionally playing “Egypt.”

America can insist that the only story to tell is the one of its own greatness. It can keep suppressing the voices that nuance that story from the margins: keep firing newscasters who name its sins, keep shunning athletes who don’t stand for the national anthem, keep hunting down activists who push for change. God will still know the whole story.

This place is “Egypt” — many Americans may refuse to know it, but those in the margins can see. We see the ways that we are policed more violently. We see the ways our neighborhoods are more heavily surveilled. We see the ways that we are sentenced more harshly for the same crimes that our neighbors commit. We see the ways that we are misrepresented in the media. We see the ways that we are discriminated against when it comes to housing, employment and healthcare.

We see this place. It is no “holy” land to us. Things do not have to be this way, but as long as things remain the way they are, this can never be our “promise land.

Please feel free to share this article. Want to make sure you don’t miss an entry in this series? Get the latest delivered directly to your inbox by clicking here.

Further Exploration:

  1. On the other-side of the ‘Thanksgiving’ story
  2. On “The Danger of a Single Story” by Chimimanda Ngozi Adiche

Exodus (pt. 10): Free to Worship

Need to Catch Up? Read Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4. Part 5. Part 6. Part 7. Part 8. Part 9. Part 10. Part 11. Part 12Part 13Part 14Part 15. Part 16.

‘The LORD, the God of the Hebrews, has sent me to say to you: Let my people go, so that they may worship me…’ (Exodus 7:16).
 Residents of Tulsa Oklahoma’s Greenwood suburb, stuntin’ for the camera.

Residents of Tulsa Oklahoma’s Greenwood suburb, stuntin’ for the camera.

Separate and Unequal

In the early 1900s the black residents of Tulsa Oklahoma were legally confined to the neighborhood of Greenwood. It was the only place they could do business, and they made it work.

The black businesses of Greenwood were booming, but the community wasn’t flourishing just economically. Greenwood was also bustling with the sounds of jazz, black people were excelling in the practice of medicine and law, and the community had garnered a reputation for being deeply religious. Greenwood’s prosperity was so renowned that it came to be known as “The Negro Wall Street.” All of that was — apparently — unacceptable to their white neighbors. The black people of Greenwood were supposed to live in the margins, not thrive.

Over the course of 48 hours, angry white Tulsa residents descended on Greenwood, slaughtering their black neighbors and razing their businesses to the ground. The Red Cross reported three hundred Greenwood residents dead, nine thousand left homeless.

The last survivor of the disaster, Dr. Olivia J. Hooker, recalls how angry white men invaded her family’s home that day. How those men snatched the freshly made biscuits from her family’s oven and stamped them into the mud. How they hacked her family’s piano to bits. How they left nothing standing in her family’s house but “an old rugged cross.”

“They were sending us a message about what we were supposed to have,” Dr. Hooker, now 102-years-old, explains.

The story of Black Wall Street shows that a dominant group is not always satisfied with keeping an oppressed group confined to separate spaces. Signs of thriving in the margins are likely to be perceived as a threat to those at the center. The slogan of American apartheid was “separate but equal,” but even in separation, something approaching actual equality between whites and blacks proved unacceptable to some.

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What Worship Looks Like

In the Exodus passage above, God demanded that Pharaoh release the Hebrews so that they could worship. The message seems to imply that freedom is somehow essential to worship. To fully appreciate that message, however, one must consider what God had in mind by “worship.”

It is true that the Hebrews could worship God while stuck in the ghetto (and, in fact, had already done so upon first hearing the good news of God’s concern) but what God was ultimately looking for was more robust than whatever worship looked like in Goshen. When the Israelites would finally be freed from Egypt, “worship” would turn out to be a holistic, embodied experience including constructing a sanctuary complex with ornate sacred furniture, dietary instructions, religious holidays, modes of dress, etc. Worship would be a culture, a social practice, a way of organizing society itself.

The Egyptians initially enslaved the Hebrews because those ghetto children were doing something totally uncontroversial (as far as human activities go): procreating. If the Hebrews had even tried to worship God in Goshen the way they would later be instructed to in the desert, their Egyptian neighbors would’ve likely descended on them like the white residents of Tulsa descended on Black Wall Street.

Their captors would have likely burned down their sanctuary, stamped their sacred food into the mud, and hacked their instruments of worship to bits. They might very well have brought Goshen down to ruins, leaving behind only a statue of Pharaoh or some other Egyptian god. They’d send those ghetto children a message about “what they were supposed to have.”

In a previous post, I mentioned the gospel that Moses brought back to Goshen — a message that was beautiful, holistic, socially relevant, and deeply relational. It was a subversive message that countered the official story of the palace: that the gods were on the side of the elite. When Pharaoh heard that an alternative story had been spreading through the ghetto about a God from the margins — a story stirring hope in the hearts of the Hebrews there — he made his best effort to squash it:

…Pharaoh commanded the overseers … “Don’t continue to supply the people with straw for making bricks, as before…But require the same quota of bricks from them as they were making before; do not reduce it. Impose heavier work on the men. Then they will be occupied with it and not pay attention to deceptive words (Exodus 5:9).

The “deceptive words” Pharaoh was talking about above was the news that God planned to rescue to the Hebrews. Pharaoh was convinced that more oppression could distract the Hebrews from the message and gut their hope. He was right. The message that initially moved the ghetto children to worship God rung hollow after they were commanded to make bricks without straw:

Moses told this to the Israelites [again, that God intended to rescue them], but they did not listen to him because of their broken spirit and hard labor (Exodus 6:9, emphasis added).

Again, this story shows how political violence is hard, not just on the body but also on the spirit. God knew that, which seems to be — in part — why God decided it would be best that the Hebrews be free to worship.

 Black people taken prisoner during the raid on Greenwood.

Black people taken prisoner during the raid on Greenwood.

For We Are One Body

Moses’ message to Pharaoh implies that freedom is essential to worship. The Exodus event to come later in the book will show that the Israelites needed to be saved from the system of oppression they endured in Egypt so that they might have the liberty to give God the worship God desires.

Some Christians get nervous when I make this point. “You’re making it sound as if coming to Jesus will make all of your problems go away,” some say. “People can still worship God while they’re being oppressed,” others insist.

So allow me to be clear. I’m not saying that God never allows God’s people to suffer. I’m saying that free people worship God under ideal conditions. I’m saying that God loves worship from the oppressed, and would rather them not be oppressed. I’m saying that one can worship God in a prison camp, but probably not in the same way that they could in a Sunday morning service at Hillsong.

Some are tempted to say that, because oppressed people can (and do) worship God, that oppression has no relevance to one’s worship. One is in the political category and the other is spiritual.

I disagree. God’s message to Pharaoh in the Exodus passage considered here speaks to the fact that political suffering, social pain, physical oppression, can all have spiritual effects on their victims.

People are not divided into rigid compartments that never touch. The apostle Paul says the following idea as a metaphor for the different members of the church “body” but his words apply equally to the different facets of the “body” and spirit and soul of people: that the eye is connected to the hand, and the hand is connected to the head, etc (1 Corinthians 12). He is trying to illustrate how people are connected to one another; but his argument is based on the fact that each individual person is made up of a complex system of many interconnected parts. If we believe that we also have spirits and souls, then we would do well to appreciate that those parts of us are also deeply interconnected with the rest of our body.

Therefore, what happens to our bodies because of social and political realities can affect us in our intangible parts — our thought patterns, our feelings, our imaginations, our expectations of life, our faith.

It is true that there is a part of us that can remain out of reach of any affliction in life. We’ve read and heard such heroic stories: women and men passing through the flames of history’s worst atrocities with their hope intact.

It is also true that some people have had their faith lynched by calamity. God knows that suffering can put a person’s worship at risk. That is why — this text in Exodus seems to affirm — that God commands Pharaoh to “let my people go” so that the people then would be free to worship.

 Smoke rising from the burning of Black Wall Street

Smoke rising from the burning of Black Wall Street

Please feel free to share this article. Want to make sure you don’t miss an entry in this series? Get the latest delivered directly to your inbox by clicking here.

For Further Exploration:

  1. On the Destruction of Black Wall Street: Survivors Still Hope for Justice
  2. More on the Destruction of Black Wall Street: An Interview with Dr. Olivia J. Hooker

Exodus (pt.9) Who is the Lord?

Who is this Lord whom I’m supposed to obey by letting Israel go? I don’t know this Lord, and I certainly won’t let Israel go
— (Exodus 5:2).

The White Man’s Religion

On Friday September 30, 2016, my neighbor Reginald “J.R.” Thomas was killed in a police encounter. He was a young black man who struggled with mental illness. Those that were close to the incident say that J.R. called 911 afraid that he might hurt himself. The news reported that a family member called 911 for help because J.R. was having a mental break.

Eight police officers were dispatched in response to the 911 call. When they arrived, J.R. is reported to have had a knife in one hand and a fire extinguisher in the other. The officers tasered him, bound him, and beat him to death.

I spent the following Sunday morning on my living room couch arguing with myself. I was scheduled to lead the music at a predominantly white church in a politically conservative town just a few miles east of my place. “I can’t do this today,” I kept repeating to myself looked up at the ceiling.

I knew that my neighbor’s death was unlikely to be mentioned in any way. Even if it were I would probably not be satisfied with it because, when I had been at that very same church on the Sunday after Dylan Roof walked into Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC and massacred those gathered for worship there,the pastor at my church tried to talk about how the “deeper” issue — the real issue — was that “this kid gave himself over the evil.”

I was tired of hearing white Christians balk at the chance to name racism, terror, and injustice when they had clearly seen it. It had become clear to me, as I lay on my couch, reviewing the many conversations I’d had that year, that much of the white evangelical church in America is generally not eager to be an ally for racial justice.

At that moment, I began to seriously consider what had been said to me by white evangelical ministers and congregants: that the gospel does not include relief from social pain or political violence, that racism is not a priority to God, that God’s primary concern is the soul and so God is not likely to save people from “earthly” trouble. I began to consider that maybe these white Christians were right.

Perhaps God would not get involved. If that were true, I thought, then it could only be because there is no God. It would be too convenient for God to be both real and to only care about the things that white people are care about. If the Christian “God” only shared the concerns of white people, then white people must have invented Him.

My heart sank as I continued to add it all up: that those who shipped my ancestors to the Caribbean as cargo claimed to do so — in part — in the service of God. That one of the first slave ships was named “Jesus.” That those who lynched their black neighbors cited religious reasons for for doing so. That my neighbors today are telling me that their religion excuses them from seeking justice for their black neighbors. The most obvious sum of these reflections was that Christianity is for white people.

The clock was still ticking. I knew that if I were to make it to church on time that I had better get off the couch. But I was paralyzed at the thought that the faith I had loved for so long could possibly be for whites only.

Who is this LORD?

 Pharaoh sandwiched between the goddess Hathor and patron god of Thebes

Pharaoh sandwiched between the goddess Hathor and patron god of Thebes

The Pharaoh that Moses confronts was not the same king from the beginning of Exodus who initially enslaved the Hebrews. This Pharaoh was heir to that king who built the slave system. He was part of a new generation of leadership, conserving the oppressive social arrangement they inherited from the previous regime.

The word translated into English as “LORD” is a personal name: YHWH. (It’s ok. You’re not supposed to pronounce it. But you can replace it with “One-Who-Is” if you like) Before Moses returned to Egypt, not even the Hebrewswould have recognized this name.

…God spoke to Moses, telling him, “I am YHWH. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as God Almighty [El-Shaddai], but I did not reveal My name YHWH to them” (Exodus 6:3).

This name was so revered that it was taboo for ancient Hebrews to pronounce. Only ancient priests are said to have been allowed to pronounce it and — even then — they only did so when a certain prayer was recited in the TempleOne ancient rabbi even wrote that a person who utters God’s name “has no share in The World to Come [1].”

YHWH speaks of this name as a secret — not a nickname, but a designation that only those in a certain kind of relationship with God are privy to. God gives that special name to the ghetto children. So it’s not surprising that the king of Egypt would have to ask, “Who is this YHWH [that you speak of]?”

I’ve mentioned before that in ancient Egyptian culture pharaohs were often closely associated with the gods. They sometimes would receive a new name at their coronation by incorporating the name of a patron Egyptian deity into their own. Ancient Egyptian art often portrays the royals among the gods, and sometimes they are depicted in divine attire [2]. Basically, many ancient Egyptians imagined that “God” was a member of the Egyptian elite.

As members of the elite, the Egyptian gods were thought to have shared elite interests and to have sponsored a social order that conveniently and disproportionately benefited the powerful. As far as Pharaoh was concerned,there was no divine representative for the Hebrews their pantheon. Later in this storyYHWH will eventually show that all of those so-called gods — who were so conveniently invested in the empire — must have been invented by the empire.

They Know His Special Name

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In hindsight, I can see clearly the wall that I had run up against that Sunday when I almost lost my faith. It is as journalist Megan Kelly once stated on live television: “Jesus is a white man.” Many white evangelicals imagine Jesus in that way. That is not a new habit of imagination. The men that ferried my ancestors to the Caribbean imagined that Jesus looked like one of them, that God was basically a bigger version of one of them — a divine sponsor of human trafficking, torture, and genocide.

If you don’t think imagining God as one of the privileged is a problem, seriously consider: Do you think that those men would have named their slave ship “Jesus” if they had imagined that Jesus was African?

The color of Jesus’ skin is not the point. The point is that imagining God as one of the privileged — whatever the marks of privilege may be — often leads to the suffering of the unprivileged. Perhaps that is why God does not identify with the privileged throughout scripture.

When God appears in this story, it is not among the elite and powerful. God is not even found within the borders of Egypt’s great society in this story. Instead, God is living out in the desert — the margins of the margins — with the hebrews of Hebrews. God boasts about friendships with nomads and vagrants like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God shares God’s secrets with the children of the ghetto. They know God’s special name, while the powerful have never even heard of Him.

Like the Israelites must have related to the Egyptian gods, it seems that many white American Christians worship a different “God” than I do. It is less obvious for some to see the distinction since we use the same names and titles: God, Jesus, Lord, Father, etc. Our prayers, expectations, and conversations — however — suggest that we are not imagining the same Person when we address “God.

I do not believe in the God who is “not concerned” with politics when those politics hurt God’s children — when those politics include racial profiling, police brutality, mass incarceration, and more. I have no interest in knowing the God that would have appreciated seeing “Jesus” on the side of a slave ship. I have no desire to know the God that slave owners offered their captives: the God who demanded the imprisoned submit to abuse but never called their abusers to repent.

If America’s “God” is too American to critique the nation’s leaders and condemn national injustices, then there’s a good chance that we have an idol on our hands. Any “God” who always shares our interests, values, and priorities should be suspect. That could not possibly be the same God that revealed Godself to the Hebrews in Goshen’s ghetto.

I was able to reconcile myself to the faith that morning on my couch by recognizing that the God described in this story — the God that calls kings to repent and advocates for the margin-dwellers — is the only God that I know. But when Black Americans talk about this God, too many white evangelicals echo Pharaoh’s question: “Who is this Lord?”

Please feel free to share this article. Want to make sure you don’t miss an entry in this series? Get the latest delivered directly to your inbox by clicking here.

Works Cited:

  1. On God’s Name: Jacobs, Louis. The Jewish Religion: A Companion. Oxford University Press, 1995.
  2. On the role of Egyptian kings in ancient Egyptian civic life: Mieroop, Marc Van de. “Chapter 2: Ideological Foundations of the New State.” A History of Ancient Egypt, Wiley-Blackwell, 2011, p. 36.

For Further Exploration:

  1. On Jesus the Slave Ark: “Jesus of Lubeck” the First Slave Ship Sent to South America
  2. On White Jesus: Christianity Today Explores the Consequences of How We Picture Jesus

Exodus (pt. 8): A Gospel for the Ghetto

Need to Catch Up? Read Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4. Part 5. Part 6. Part 7. Part 8. Part 9. Part 10. Part 11. Part 12Part 13Part 14Part 15. Part 16.

Therefore, say to the Israelites, ‘I am the Lord. I’ll bring you out from Egyptian forced labor. I’ll rescue you from your slavery to them. I’ll set you free with great power and with momentous events of justice. I’ll take you as my people, and I’ll be your God… (Exodus 6:6–7).
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If This Gospel Ain’t Good Enough

These are the words an evangelical pastor wrote to me, to explain from the scriptures that “The Gospel” does not include salvation from political violence or social oppression:

While Jesus was on earth he let John the Baptist be beheaded. No delivery for him. Just his decapitated head on a platter to satisfy a woman’s whim. Jesus said when a Roman soldier forces you to carry his gear one mile you go two. Wants your shirt? Give him your coat. Hits you in the face. Give them the other side. He didn’t say rebel against your enemies, he said pray for them.
Jesus’s disciples didn’t lead rebellions against Rome, they preached repent for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand. And were oppressed all the way, until they were murdered. That’s the good news…I just don’t see where the Bible promises liberty on this side of eternity.

That statement is not entirely false. Yes, there are indeed times where God does not burst in and miraculously save people from their troubles. Yes, there is a time to consider that nuance. But that time is not at the moment when hurting people are praying for God’s help.

The pastor’s words above are what I’ve referred to elsewhere as the gospel of death: Lie down and take it from the empire. Don’t set your hope on God to intervene, because there is no salvation — not here anyway. So, don’t be obsessed with what happens to you in this life. When you’re dead, no one can stop-and-frisk you or shoot you because of racial bias. You’ll be safe in heaven with Jesus, where none of this stuff exists. Death will solve this. That’s the good news.

Something akin to atheism seems to haunt many of my evangelical brothers and sisters. They say they believe in God, yet they also tell me that prayers against racial injustice are futile. They have chosen to fixate on what God has not done, rather than on God’s saving deeds, and have stopped believing that God intervenes. They instinctively respond with an insensitive word of caution to those who wait expectantly for God. Their basic assumption is that God is not likely to save.

I tried to convey to this pastor, my friend, that such morbid pessimism — even when dressed in religious language — made for a pretty bad gospel. His response:

If heaven is not good news enough, then I don’t know what is.

That cold response — very “take-it-or-leave-it” — suggests heaven is the only thing to look forward to. So if you’re looking for something else then — well — tough cookies! The actual needs of the recipients of this version of the good doesn’t appear to be a priority. Whether the recipients of such news would call it “good” is neither here nor there.

The Gospel In Goshen

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When Moses and his family made it back to Goshen, they called together the ghetto elders and told them about Moses’ meeting with God.

…When they heard that the Lord had paid attention to the Israelites and had seen their oppressionthey bowed down and worshipped (Exodus 4:31, emphasis added).

The good news of God’s concern was the gospel the ghetto children needed to hear. The simple message that they were seen by God was enough cause for worship.

The good news God sent to the ghetto was not, “Don’t be so concerned about your lot in this life.” It was not a message of spiritual revival. It was not a promise of immortality and relief when they die. It was a promise of holistic rescue.

At the same time, the good news to Goshen was overtly relational. When God later announces “I’ll take you as my people, and I’ll be your God…” (Exodus 6:7) that is covenant language. In fact, the promises God makes in the passage explored here would become the basis of traditional Jewish wedding vows. Under the chuppah (a sort of wedding canopy), the groom would recite those very same promises to the bride: “I will bring you out…I will rescue you…I will redeem you…I will take you…” (Exodus 6:6–7).

This point is especially important because it shows salvation to be both deeply relational and politically relevant.

Salvation is an expression of God’s concern. That is the gospel in Goshen: God sees you, God is in this with you, God plans to do something about this.

The Gospel Everyone Needs to Hear

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Those who insist that the gospel is only about having a personal, spiritual relationship with Jesus that eventually leads to heaven are missing the obvious: that one would expect God to get intervene when we’re in danger because we are in relationship. We expect our friends, family, and loved ones to show up for us when we we’re in dire need.

If we understand that love naturally expresses itself in practical common-sense acts of kindness and compassion between humans, how much more should we expect that kind of practical love from God? We call on God to intervene because we understand that God loves us. Salvation — from hunger, poverty, domestic violence, racial violence, etc. — is an expression of that love.

When hurting people come to God, their most pressing need is often just to know that God is concerned about them. They usually aren’t looking for deeply nuanced philosophical discussions on why there is so much evil in the world, why God doesn’t always intervene, and what theologians think God’s priorities are. Usually the questions are much more immediate and personal: Will God save me from this situation? They need to know that God sees them, that God is with them, and God wants better for them.

God is near the brokenhearted, whether they’re wounded by a failed relationship or by today’s headlines. It may be true that sometimes God doesn’t show up in the way we had hoped. But sometimes He doesThat’s the gospel.


Want to make sure you don’t miss an entry in this series? Get the latest delivered directly to your inbox by clicking here.

For Further Exploration:

  1. How “The Gospel” Has Not Been Good to Everyone (But Can Be): Lisa Sharon Harper Shares “The Very Good Gospel.”
  2. How “Turning the Other Cheek” Is An Act of Resistance: Theologian Walter Wink Explains the Sermon on The Mount as Non-Violent Resistance.
  3. “The Gospel” Is About The Whole World: Theologian N.T. Wright Speaks About the Good News That God Plans to Save the World.
  4. On Re-Thinking How We Understand “The Gospel”: Theologian N.T. Wright Answers “What Is The Gospel?”

Exodus (pt.7): I Heard Them Cry “Injustice!”

 Demonstrations in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray. Photo by Shawn Hubbard.

Demonstrations in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray. Photo by Shawn Hubbard.

Then the Lord said, “I’ve clearly seen my people oppressed in Egypt. I’ve heard their cry of injustice because of their slave masters. I know about their pain. I’ve come down to rescue them from the Egyptians in order to take them out of that land and bring them to a good and broad land, a land that’s full of milk and honey… (Exodus 3:7–8).

The Perfect Protest

In 2009, the U.S. military began paying the National Football League (NFL)to incorporate a spectacle of national pride at the start of their televised events that included playing the national anthem. Players were expected to be present for these sponsored patriotic rituals, standing in reverent observance. The military had hoped that these televised displays of allegiance would inspire more civilians to enlist into America’s armed forces.

Years later, 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick decided not to stand for the playing of the anthem in protest of racism in the U.S.

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color…There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder,” he said in a post-game interview.

Many were offended by Kaepernick’s protest, saying that it was disrespectful to the many soldiers who died to protect the liberties the U.S. offers its citizens. He heard that criticism. After a conversation with a veteran and former NFL player Nate Boyer, Kaepernick agreed to kneel during the anthem instead of remaining seated — a compromise to both commemorate fallen soldiers abroad and to protest domestic injustice.

Even after making that concession, however, Kaepernick remains target of vicious criticism to this day. His actions have been described as shameful, unpatriotic, divisive, contradictory, misguided, and unnecessary. This is not surprising. I am not aware of any form of black protest in U.S. history that has garnered the support of an overwhelming majority of white Americans.

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Polls during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s convey that most white Americans felt that black demonstrators were “hurting their cause” for racial equality and that they should stop.What is remarkable about the generally negative view of Civil Rights activism is that so much of that social movement were was decidedly non-violent. Sitting down at restaurant counters, trying to register for school, sitting in the front of a city bus, trying to register to vote — those were the egregious, disruptive actions for which Civil Rights activists were labeled criminals, trouble-makers, and traitors.

Malcolm X defiantly announced that black people shouldn’t subject themselves to the violence of their white neighbors and was condemned as a zealot. Dr. King preached that we should love our enemies and they called him a liar, an agitator that was leading the nation astray.

Black Lives Matter activists have blocked traffic demanding “Show me what democracy looks like!” and have been branded as terrorists and thugs because of it. Kaepernick quietly takes a knee and is shamed as a “son of a bitch.”

In short, history shows that it doesn’t matter if it is packaged in the eloquent prose of DuBois or the livid melodies of Nina Simone. It does not matter if it presents itself as a broken storefront window or in a gracious TedTalk by Michelle Alexander. It doesn’t make a difference if it looks like little nine-year-old Zianna Oliphant tearfully testifying before city council or a scathing sermon from Dr. Jeremiah Wright. No matter the method or tone, much of America is simply not interested in hearing black Americans cry “injustice!”

Let’s be honest. The problem, for many Americans, is that they don’t think that black Americans should be protesting at all. Again, let’s be honest: the opposed don’t want for us to find a “more effective” way to cry “injustice!” they want for us to shut-up.

I Heard Them Cry “Injustice!”

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Moses had settled into his new life in the desert. Out there, in the margin of margins, God’s presence was so obvious and visible that the desert Hebrews were convinced that it was God’s home (Exodus 3:1).

We don’t know how long he’d been there, but it was long enough for him to get married and have kids. Long enough for the Pharaoh that banished him to pass away. Long enough for him to become the very thing a prince of Egypt would have loathed: a shepherd, an abomination, a Hebrew. God seems to have intentionally waited for that time when Moses would fully become a Hebrew before making an introduction.

One would expect a ruler to lead with the most impressive parts of their resume (e.g. Creator of Heaven and Earth, the Uncreated Creator of All, King of the Universe, etc.). Instead, God mentions three nomads who built no cities, ruled no countries, and died in obscurity: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Exodus 3:6). God identified Himself* by His friendship with the powerless margin-dwellers of that society, rather than by His divinity. The most important thing for Moses to know, apparently, was that this God is the Champion of Hebrews.

God said that He’d been paying attention to the situation back in Egypt, in Goshen. That He’d heard the ghetto children cry “injustice!”

No one in Egypt was interested in hearing that cry. That is not surprising since the cry of Hebrews implicated the Egyptians. To take the cry of the Hebrews seriously, the Egyptians would have had to accept that they were committing a great sin together — possibly even entertain the thought of radically rearranging their society.

It would be more expedient for them to shut the Hebrews up. They tried to: Pharaoh replied, “You are lazy bums, nothing but lazy bums. That’s why you say, ‘Let us go…’” (Exodus 5:17). Right. The Hebrews — according to Pharaoh — must have been protesting their conditions because of their own laziness, not because the Egyptians had actually wronged them.

God heard the very thing that the Egyptians refused to hear. God heard the downtrodden cry “injustice!”

Too big a deal cannot be made on this point. This is not some special case — as some like to argue — where God took a cry of injustice seriously because it just so happened to have come from “God’s chosen people.” God will eventually tell these very Hebrews — once they’re safely out of Egypt — that they’d better not abuse their freedom by building a new oppressive society:

Don’t mistreat or oppress an immigrant, because you were once immigrants in the land of Egypt. Don’t treat any widow or orphan badly. If you do treat them badly and they cry out to me, you can be sure that I’ll hear their cryI’ll be furious, and I’ll kill you with the sword. Then your wives will be widows, and your children will be orphans (Exodus 22:21–24, emphasis added).

The text is revealing something that is essential to God’s character, that God pays attention to the margin-dwellers and takes their laments, their cries of protest, very seriously.

The Real Issue Here

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I mentioned in an earlier post that many white evangelical pastors have tried to skirt this point. They want to say that the real reason God intervened in this story was because God promised Abraham that his descendants would setup a kingdom in Canaan. They want to suggest that the ultimate goal of the Exodus was to get all the historical dominoes in line for Jesus to be born a Jew in Bethlehem centuries later. They want to gloss over what God says about God’s own motivations in this text and rule out the idea that God does what many in the U.S. refuse to do: listen to those who cry “injustice!”

That is not surprising, since the cries of oppressed will implicate their oppressors. No one wants to be implicated, and so we will always try to deflect, deny, and drown out cries of injustice.

Let no one, however, be deceived. This society can tell the oppressed that they’re making it all up, that their conditions are the consequences of their own choices, that they don’t have it so bad, that they’re being divisive, that they should just shut up — and it may work. But God will always be hovering in the margins, listening.

God does not shut down those who cry out in protest. God doesn’t tell them to be patient because change takes a while. Doesn’t tell them that they’ll attract more flies with honey than with vinegar — that they should be careful to not offend their oppressors as they express their pain, lest they “hurt their own cause.” God doesn’t tell them that all Egyptians aren’t bad (#NotAllEgyptians).

God doesn’t accuse them of making excuses or blaming others for their problems. Doesn’t remind them of how generous Egypt was to grant their ancestors asylum in the first place. Doesn’t tell them how much worse they could have it someplace else. The text says that when God hears the margin-dwellers lament their social pain, that God hears and acts.

Whatever we say the real issue is in this story, it must take into account that the scriptures consistently convey that God is livid when the powerful dominate the powerless. God will always take up their cause. God will always advocate for them. God will alwaysbe found among them.

For Further Exploration:

  1. On the criticism Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. received during his Civil Rights work”
  2. On white discomfort with Civil Rights protests
  3. On how Colin Kaepernick’s faith inspired his activism.
  • I try to avoid using gender pronouns for God in general, but sometimes the flow of my writing gets clunky trying to use “God” or “Godself.”

Exodus (pt. 6): An Egyptian Saved Us Today

Need to Catch Up? Read Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4. Part 5. Part 6. Part 7. Part 8. Part 9. Part 10. Part 11. Part 12Part 13Part 14Part 15. Part 16.

Now the priest of Midian had seven daughters, and they came and drew water and filled the troughs to water their father’s flock. The shepherds came and drove them away, but Moses stood up and saved them…When they came home to their father Reuel, he said, ‘How is it that you have come home so soon today?’They said, ‘An Egyptian delivered us out of the hand of the shepherds…’ (Exodus 2:16–19, emphasis added).
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Messiahs Need Not Apply

Freedom Summer was a campaign that took place from June to August of 1964 that aimed to register as many black voters as possible in Mississippi. The project brought hundreds of white liberal college students to live in black Mississippi neighborhoods to work with the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) against voter suppression.

Sociologist Doug McAdam argues that nearly all 1960s activism in America — from the anti-war movement to the movement for women’s rights — can be traced back to Freedom Summer. Living among black people and witnessing the unfettered violence of southern racism radicalized those young white liberals to invest the rest of their lives in the active pursuit of a just society.

McAdam also suggests that Freedom Summer marked the great schism between black and white activists. By the end of Freedom Summer, SNCC’s leaders were questioning whether collaborating with white people toward racial justice was realistic or helpful. A major obstacle to integrated activism — participants convey — was that many of the white Freedom Summer volunteers arrived in Mississippi with a messiah complex.

One black SNCC worker wrote in his journal about some of the white volunteers:

“…generally a good bunch, but there were…a few who just came in and wanted to take over. Their attitude was ‘okay, we are here, your troubles are over. We are going to put your house in order [1].”

Black and white alums of the project convey that paternalistic behavior and racial insensitivity from the white volunteers stirred up racial tensions within the organization. The white SNCC volunteers had come to Mississippi to resist an obviously racist society. Few had realized that the very ideology they were fighting against was also the framework they were using to define their activism.

Although many of them were victims of abject poverty, constant harassment, and racial terror, the black Mississippians these college students had come to help were not the only ones in need of salvation. The white SNCC volunteers needed to be saved from the ways that growing up in a racist society had trained them to think and behave. Freedom Summer is one of the many testaments to the fact that racism is everyone’s problem.

Their story conveys that, in the pursuit of justice, false messiahs often create more problems than they fix. Sometimes they exacerbate the very conflicts that they are trying to address. They often swoop in, presenting solutions without acquiring a deep understanding of the people and their context. They often mistake presumption for initiative. They assume a posture of leadership instead of listening. They treat the oppressed as projects instead of equals. They play the hero not realizing that they need to be saved.

The Vigilante Prince

Moses is a fugitive in exile in the passage above, but he was once a prince of Egypt.

After the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, refused to obey the king’s command to kill newborn male Hebrews, Pharaoh put out a general decree that all Hebrews were to throw their newborn sons into the Nile River. Moses should have been one of those drowned babies, but his mother Jochobed made a little basket to carry him down the river. Pharaoh’s daughter Bithia found him and he lived with her in the palace from that day on. He didn’t know about his Hebrew origins until he was an adult.

Curiosity about his roots led him from the palace to Goshen, where he witnessed his people’s suffering and despair first-hand. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew and was compelled to intervene. He killed the Egyptian and buried his body.

When Moses went out the next day, he saw two Hebrew men fighting with each other. Moses said to the one who had started the fight, “Why are you abusing your fellow Hebrew?” He replied, “Who made you a boss or judge over us? Are you planning to kill me like you killed the Egyptian?” Then Moses was afraid when he realized: They obviously know what I did. When Pharaoh heard about it, he tried to kill Moses. But Moses ran away from Pharaoh and settled down in the land of Midian… (Exodus 2:13–15).

The text seems to show that Moses had expected a different response to his messianic activities. The man he saved by killing the Egyptian had obviously spread the word about the incident; but the news wasn’t that a savior had appeared in Goshen, but that a killer was on the loose!

Moses obviously wanted to identify with his people and play some part in their liberation. He was just going about it all wrong: swooping into the ghetto and picking off Egyptian overseers like an ancient Near Eastern edition Batman, and assuming a leadership role in solving issues within the Hebrew community. Moses just burst into Goshen with an attitude like “okay, I’m here, your troubles are over. I’m going to put your house in order.”

What made him think that he was the solution for his people after spending just five minutes in Goshen? Did the single fact that he had Hebrew parents entitle him to be their advocate? Did he even know any Hebrews? His ideals about how society should function, and how social change works, where were they shaped — in Pharaoh’s court?

Goshen’s residents did not see a kinsman when they looked at Moses, but an oppressor— yet another Egyptian fond of the wanton exercise of power. Killing whom he wants and presuming to tell Hebrews what to do. His “help” was familiar, frightening, and offensive. We know that Goshen’s residents saw him as an Egyptian because after he flees Egypt, Jethro’s daughters call him an Egyptian when he swoops in to save them from the mean shepherds*.

Before Moses could become the freedom fighter he would eventually be, heneeded to be freed from the ways that Egypt had shaped him to think and act. Before he could lead the people across the desert, Moses had to lose the option to go back to the palace. He had to become fully immersed in the Hebrews’ predicament before he could do anything about it.

Smog Poisoning

In his book Building a Movement to End The New Jim Crow: An Organizing Guide, activist Daniel Hunter calls attention to the need for self-reflection in justice work:

“Some have likened oppression to smog. Without a choice, we all inhale smog. It is in our body. The toxicity of oppression is in each and every one of us. We must detoxify ourselves from the smog and create a culture that stands on higher principles.
For example, following the high-profile killing of Trayvon Martin and the subsequent protests, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights published an article challenging those of us calling for his killer’s prosecution: ‘Justice for Trayvon Martin: Why Punishing His Killer Isn’t Enough.’ In it they pointed out that the state enacting violence against Trayvon’s killer would not create justice and certainly would not address the underlying racism that allows black people’s lives to be treated so cavalierly. Responding individually to a social problem will not fix it [2].”

To keep with Hunter’s analogy, those who wish to clean the air of injustice would do well to remember that they have also inhaled that air. We need to understand how we have been shaped by the very society that we are trying to change. Understanding that much can keep us humble, can help us to continue growing in freedom and healing, and enable us to help others on their journeys. As Aborignal activist Lilla Watson has said:

“If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

Moses’ origin story is a reminder to all who would be allies to the oppressed: that the way you ally (yes, ally is an action verb) matters! Tone policing marginalized people is not helpful. Playing devil’s advocate is not helpful. Being overly sensitive about being called out is not helpful. Requesting constant validation for helping is not helpful. Assuming leadership roles that could be filled by those directly impacted by the problem is not helpful. Speaking on issues you have not adequately researched is not helpful. “Helping” in ways that curb the agency of those directly affected is not helpful. Messiah complexes are not helpful.

Would be allies should approach justice work with a posture of listening: getting a deep understanding of the issues and needs of the people. Let them be immersed in the suffering of the people they intend to work with. Let them be identified — to whatever degree possible — with those they feel drawn to aid.

Would be allies should approach justice work with an attitude of humility: being willing to admit that they have been complicit in a system that oppresses others, and pursuing a desire to work for justice for sake of their own salvation.


Works Cited:

  1. Hunter, Daniel, and Michelle Alexander. “Building Strong Groups.” Building a Movement to End the New Jim Crow: an Organizing Guide, Veterans of Hope Project, 2015, pp. 36–38.
  2. MacAdam, Doug. “Taking Stock: The Immediate Impact of Freedom Summer.”Freedom Summer, Oxford Univ. Pr., 1988, pp. 122–123.

Further Exploration:

  1. On Being a Good Ally: A Short Video on Being a Good Ally Franchesca Ramsey

*saving the women from the shepherds seems to be a less problematic intervention since Moses doesn’t kill the mean shepherds. See. He’s already learning.

Exodus (pt. 5): Midwife Thuglife

Need to Catch Up? Read Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4. Part 5. Part 6. Part 7. Part 8. Part 9. Part 10. Part 11. Part 12Part 13Part 14Part 15. Part 16.

“But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live” (Exodus 1:17).
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The Hand of God

The painting above is John McNaughton’s “One Nation Under God.” Yes. That is the U.S. Constitution that Jesus is holding and pointing to — a document that McNaughton says is “inspired by God.”

Many Christians smack their foreheads at this type of image, but it is not so unique. The idea that the laws descended from the heavens is an ancient one. People have been envisioning it for a long time.

 Hammurabi’s Stele, depicting Shamash (the Babylonian god of justice) giving Hammurabi the prerogative to make laws.

Hammurabi’s Stele, depicting Shamash (the Babylonian god of justice) giving Hammurabi the prerogative to make laws.

Hammurabi’s Stele, depicting Shamash (the Babylonian god of justice) giving Hammurabi the prerogative to make laws.

The Code of Hammurabi — containing the famous “eye for an eye” formula — was carved into stone at a time when most people couldn’t read. At the top of the stele that holds that famous law code, however, is an image: it’s Shamash, the Babylonian god of justice, handing Hammurabi the authority to make laws. Images like this ancient one (and the contemporary one above) carry the same subtext: whatever the government says, does or commands, God wills. Therefore, we don’t question the government.

The political conclusions in ancient Egypt were the similar. “[an Egyptian king] was the center of all aspects of life, both religious and secular (2).” Pharaohs were thought to be more than human: an incarnation of the gods keeping the universe balanced. Opposing him (or her) was no small matter. To paraphrase a famous pastor — those who resisted the king also resisted the hand of God. Someone should have sent a memo those Hebrew midwives.

God-Fearing Women

 Rosa Parks Mugshot After Being Arrested for Refusing to Take a Seat in the Back of a City Bus.

Rosa Parks Mugshot After Being Arrested for Refusing to Take a Seat in the Back of a City Bus.

Someone should have explained to Shiphrah and Puah that God had already told their ancestor Abraham that they would be slaves in Egypt generations beforehand(Genesis 15:13–14). That Egypt would be judged for enslaving them and they’d be brought back to Canaan eventually. That they just needed to be patient because their moment for salvation was in the future. In the present, they should “submit to the authorities that God had placed over them.”

Maybe then, they wouldn’t have acted like a couple of “criminals” and broken the law.

They did more than break the law. They lied about it:

So the king of Egypt called the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and let the male children live?” The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them (Exodus 1:18–19).

Yet, God honored them for this act of resistance. They knew that the law was evil, and they feared God too much to obey it. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” God seems to agree with Dr. King. God rewarded those insubordinate, rebellious, deceitful, God-fearing women for their civil disobedience (Exodus 1:21–22).

God Blesses the Disobedient

 Photo by Jonathan Bachman of Iesha L. Evans holding the line in protest against the police-involved death of Alton Sterling.

Photo by Jonathan Bachman of Iesha L. Evans holding the line in protest against the police-involved death of Alton Sterling.

It may be a biblical idea that God may allow leaders to come to power, but it is not a biblical idea that leaders are always right. The scriptures are consistent that God opposes kings that do evil, even the ones that God likes (2 Samuel 12:1–13). Therefore, no one can justify themselves before God for participating in any kind of social evil on the basis that it was the law or that the king commanded it.

It is precisely because God is on the throne that we must resist evil kings.This story tells us that when the powerful demand we participate in crushing the oppressed, God blesses the disobedient.

In order to do what these women did, they couldn’t subscribe to the notion that to oppose the king is to automatically oppose God. They were willing to question whether or not the law was ethical, and whether or not the king deserved to be obeyed, depending on the answer to that question — because what is legal is not necessarily always ethical, and what is illegal is not necessarily always immoral.

They could not be committed to naivete about the structure of Egyptian society: They could not assume that an officer only stops a civilian for good reason, or that the prisons are only filled with people who deserve to be there, or that if someone died in a police encounter that they probably deserved it. They were committed enough to thinking critically about their society that they could determine that what Pharaoh was asking for unconscionable.

 Fannie Lou Hamer: activist, Civil Rights Leader, and one of the key organizers during the Mississippi Freedom Summer project for voting rights.

Fannie Lou Hamer: activist, Civil Rights Leader, and one of the key organizers during the Mississippi Freedom Summer project for voting rights.

Shiprah and Puah remind us that we cannot outsource our responsibility to discern between right and wrong to the government: such definitions are not the sole property (or prerogative!) of the state. Those that are invested in the status quo have proven that they can’t be trusted to name its challengers.

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The champions of an oppressive system will always label dissenters as criminals and critics as traitors. We must never forget that a great cloud of witnesses before now were labeled in such terms: Harriet Tubman was a “criminal”, as was Rosa Parks, as was Fannie Lou Hamer, and so many other bold women and men that feared God too much to obey the laws when the laws were clearly unjust.

This text is telling us that sometimes the most righteous thing one can do is to protest, to refuse to comply, to disobey, to resist, and to protect the vulnerable by any means necessary.

Click to continue onto Part 6.


For Further Exploration:

  1. On the function of Hammurabi’s code in ancient Babylon: Mieroop, Marc Van de. “The Growth of Territorial States: 6.2 Hammurabi’s Babylon.” A History of the Ancient Near East: Ca. 3000–323 BC, 2016, pp. 111–114.
  2. On the role of Egyptian kings in ancient Egyptian civic life: Mieroop, Marc Van de. “Chapter 2: Ideological Foundations of the New State.” A History of Ancient Egypt, Wiley-Blackwell, 2011, p. 36.

Exodus (pt. 4): This is How We’ll Do It

Need to Catch Up? Read Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4. Part 5. Part 6. Part 7. Part 8. Part 9. Part 10. Part 11. Part 12Part 13Part 14Part 15. Part 16.

So the Egyptians enslaved the Israelites. They made their lives miserable with hard labor, making mortar and bricks, doing field work, and by forcing them to do all kinds of other cruel work. The king of Egypt spoke to two Hebrew midwives named Shiphrah and Puah: “When you are helping the Hebrew women give birth and you see the baby being born, if it’s a boy, kill him…” (Exodus 1:13–16).
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Keeping the Main Thing the Main Thing

For some reason, someone thought it would be a good idea to ask a certain, famous megachurch pastor and seminary president what he thought about racism and the Black Lives Matter movement. His response:

“The object of life is no longer to fix past injustices, the object of life now is to proclaim Christ…once [people] come to Christ, all other issues fall away…and when the gospel changes your life, you go from social issues to spiritual issues.”

In those words, Mr. Famous-White-Megachurch-Pastor-and-Seminary-President expresses an idea that permeates so much of evangelical Christianity: that the gospel and Christ are somehow separate from issues of social injustice.

That idea made it difficult for me to find a church job after graduating from seminary, especially at one very large and influential megachurch. Interviews with their folks from their staff always got awkward when the someone would inevitably ask, “So what have you been up to lately?” At the time, I had been lugging a stone around Los Angeles to demonstrate how racial trauma weighs on the black psyche. My passion for racial justice made some nervous.

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“We just want to keep the main thing the main thing,” I was told.

The main thing, in that worldview, is personal spiritual salvation through faith in Jesus Christ — a gift people receive in full post mortem by going to heaven. On that basis, black Christians are discouraged from speaking up about or fighting against (also pronounced “obsessing about” in evangelical terms) racial injustice — that’s a social issue, not a spiritual one.

In the Exodus story, however, God saves the Israelites from the land of Egypt — meaning God saves them from the entirety of their predicament there.

We won’t able to appreciate what this story is telling us about what it means “to be saved” until we fully consider that whatever spiritual aspects of oppression the Hebrews may have experienced, those factors were so bound to the social, political, psychological, and physical aspects of their predicament, that to deal with just the physical problem — that is, their location in Goshen’s ghetto — would address all of the others.

We need a broader understanding of salvation that begins with personal transformation but necessarily expands into relief from political suffering and an end to all forms of social evil. The Exodus story shows us that God has that kind of holistic understanding of salvation. We can gain such an understanding by paying very close attention to the entirety of the predicament from which the Hebrews were saved (which we are about to do).


Pharaoh was not joking when he said the plan to curb the Hebrew population would be “shrewd”. It would be calculated, methodical, and multi-faceted. Let’s review.

Phase 1: Attack the Nation’s Memory (Exodus 1:1–8)

 The too often forgotten soldiers of 369th Infantry Regiment of the U.S. Army during World War I and World War II, known as the “Harlem Hellfighters.”

The too often forgotten soldiers of 369th Infantry Regiment of the U.S. Army during World War I and World War II, known as the “Harlem Hellfighters.”

Altering the history books so that the record of peaceful relations between Goshen’s ghetto and the rest of Egypt were forgotten — including the story of the Hebrews who saved and blessed the nation — made the people’s imagination a blank canvass for the government to decorate.

 

Phase 2: Misrepresent the Hebrews to Exploit Existing Social Divisions (Exodus 1:9–10)

 A poster in protest of the Freedmen’s Bureau (1866) that had been established to help black and poor white people after the end of the Civil War.

A poster in protest of the Freedmen’s Bureau (1866) that had been established to help black and poor white people after the end of the Civil War.

Since the average Egyptian had few interactions with actual Hebrews because of a long-standing prejudice against the Hebrews as being inferior (Genesis 46:33), Pharaoh could upgrade that prejudice to outright contempt.

Pharaoh could now say that the Hebrews were more than low-class. He could say they were useless — that he’d pay the person who could name even onemajor contribution a Hebrew ever made to Egyptian society, knowing that he’d made it impossible to do so.

He could tell a revised version of history: where Egypt’s brilliant leaders defied the most devastating famine of all time, keeping enough grain in Egypt to feed the rest of the world. He could say that Egypt temporarily (and graciously) opened its borders to refugees in need, and that they have been feeding those lazy mooching Hebrews ever since!

If they didn’t act fast, the king could say, those lecherous Hebrews would rob the entire country of house and home. “Next thing you know,” he could say, “one of those derelicts may even rule Egypt!” (as though that hadn’t already happened.)

 

Phase 3: Enforce Social Divisions as a Social Etiquette (Exodus 1:11-12)

 The Ku Klux Klan saw themselves as the overseers and enforcers of the racial etiquette of the south. “The Klan is watching!” They would post on signs to remind black Americans of the consequences for offending the racial caste system.

The Ku Klux Klan saw themselves as the overseers and enforcers of the racial etiquette of the south. “The Klan is watching!” They would post on signs to remind black Americans of the consequences for offending the racial caste system.

Formal oppression for the Hebrews seems to have happened in stages. First — the CEB (Common English Bible) translation reads — the Egyptians “harassed” the Hebrews with hard work. It reads as though the Egyptians just started telling Hebrews what to do. A few verses later, the text will read that the Egyptians “enslaved” the Hebrews with harsher work, so it seems like this initial stage of oppression had some differences from the latter.

Perhaps it looked something like the Jim Crow Era (appx. 1877–1965) in the southern U.S. I don’t mean the laws that required legal separation of black and white people. I mean the culture of white supremacy that forced black Americans to learn a type of racial etiquette, showing deference to white people and respect for America’s racial caste in everyday interactions.

In the Jim Crow South, Black people were expected to use formal titles when addressing white people, to make way for white people on sidewalks, and to always give white motorists the right of way, among other forms of deference. Many white Americans expected black Americans to abide by that racial etiquette, chiding or beating black Americans who failed to meet their standards of respect — or worse, killing those who defied the etiquette altogether. There were no laws that demanded that black people honor those cultural expectations, but the threat of being lynched for transgressing the etiquette was social pressure enough to make many black Americans comply.

In essence, black people were expected to do whatever white people commanded. The same seems to have become the case in Egypt. The Hebrews were put to work, not because such work was legally obligated or could be morally defended. They were expected to obey these Egyptians that suddenly appointed themselves as their masters, as a way of honoring the caste system.

Driven by ignorance, fear, and contempt, many Egyptians seem to have begun taking the caste system very personally, and committed themselves to defending it.

 
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Phase 4: Institutionalize the Caste System (1:13–14)

Beating the Hebrews down was supposed to make them too exhausted to thrive, but harassment wasn’t working. As the Hebrew population continued to grow, so did the disgust and dread of the Egyptians. Slavery became a vehicle for the Egyptians to express that disgust and dread and to keep the Hebrews in their place — a government-sponsored program to oppress the Israelites in an orderly and effective manner — an institution.

We don’t know exactly what slavery looked like for the Israelites. The writer describes it in terms we would do well to take seriously, as people have the dangerous tendency to minimize or deny past atrocities in order to cool passion about present injustices. Let no one tell you that this predicament was probably not as bad as you might imagine (as some pastors like to do, because oppressed people must always be exaggerating about their suffering. Even the writer of this text. #sarcasm).

Give the writer’s words the weight they deserve: It was an “affliction”, “cruel” and “rigorous.”

The revised history, a general prejudice, a fear of “the other” and of being dispossessed, all worked together to justify a social hierarchy with Hebrews at the bottom. But historical ignorance, prejudice, and social hierarchies are pretty abstract: they need vehicle(s) to communicate with the material world. General harrassment and the system of forced labor were alchemy that made the Hebrews experience the the king’s revised history, cultural prejudices, and an oppressive social hierarchy, in their bodies.

 

Phase 5: Directly Disrupt Their Community (1:15–16)

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Genocide. Pharaoh would not send Egyptian soldiers marching into Goshen to snatch infants from their mothers’ arms. A smart politician, he wanted to be tactical, insidious, and covert.

He would make Hebrew women kill Hebrew babies. If the midwives were willing to do it, it would cause rifts in the community that may never heal. It may even discourage Hebrew couples from wanting to procreate at all, knowing that their child would either live their entire lives as a slave or not live at all. Perhaps Hebrews will start killing themselves from despair. If they don’t, they’ll still be providing free labor. It seemed that any outcome one could think of would spell a win for Pharaoh.

 

Put It All Together And Whadda’ You Got?

The Christian who says that “the gospel” or “salvation” does not apply to “social issues” has not fully considered that the Exodus is a divine response to the social pain of the children of the ghetto. The state had declared war on the Hebrews: using cultural prejudice, institutions, miseducation, political propaganda, and covert and overt forms of organized violence as its weapons.

Their predicament in Egypt is a biblical example of a system of oppression. If we don’t appreciate that God was responding to the details of their entire social predicament, then our answers to “what does it mean to be saved?” will always be too narrow.

**This article has been edited to include more sassy parenthetical statements about the suspicion with which oppressed people are greeted when they testify about their suffering.

Click to continue onto Part 5.


For Further Exploration:

Hat tip to John Robert Tomkinson for helping me put this list together.

  1. The Video Interview with John MacArthur“A Biblical Response to Racism and Black Lives Matter”
  2. On the History and System of Racial Injustice in the United StatesLegal Expert Bryan Stevenson Traces the Evolution of Slavery to Mass Incarceration [VIDEO]
  3. On Terror Lynchings and the Racial Etiquette of the southern United States: Legal Expert Shares Stories of Racial Terror Lynchings [VIDEO]
  4. An In-Depth Analysis of Systemic Racial Injustice in the U.S.: Ava Duvernay’s Documentary 13th.
  5. On Racial Etiquette During Jim Crow: Jim Crow Etiquette.
  6. A Case Study on Racial Etiquette: The Murder of Emmett Till
  7. On the Government Disruption: Aid to President Nixon Admits How Racism Energized the War on Drugs.
  8. On the War on Drugs as a Government Tool for Social Control: How Racist Myths Fueled the War on Drugs
  9. On Racism and Mass Incarceration: A Statistical Analysis Showing How Race Determines Outcomes in the U.S. Criminal Justice System.

Exodus (pt. 3): Terrified Terrorists

Need to Catch Up? Read Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4. Part 5. Part 6. Part 7. Part 8. Part 9. Part 10. Part 11. Part 12Part 13Part 14Part 15. Part 16.

“[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.


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

CLICK HERE FOR THE NEXT ARTICLE IN THIS SERIES

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

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

Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4. Part 5. Part 6. Part 7. Part 8. Part 9. Part 10. Part 11. Part 12Part 13Part 14Part 15. Part 16.

exodus-2.jpg
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.

Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4. Part 5. Part 6. Part 7. Part 8. Part 9. Part 10. Part 11. Part 12Part 13Part 14Part 15. Part 16.

 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.