god of the ghetto

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