racism

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).
1-H9vgzWMCxFYQsufI_jVrAA.jpeg

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.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.

1*tdJy5CZozfZHuAsvLGm4ow.jpeg

 

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.

1*xiGpwgQo1MQP2MMuFMdaLg.jpeg

 

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.

1*PvV22g604XJ5w_A3jt0lWA.jpeg

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.