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.