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).
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 .”
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.
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 .”
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.
- 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.
- MacAdam, Doug. “Taking Stock: The Immediate Impact of Freedom Summer.”Freedom Summer, Oxford Univ. Pr., 1988, pp. 122–123.
- 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.