WHEN YESTERDAY LOOKS TOO MUCH LIKE TODAY
September 14, 2014
I read lots of pastoral blogs and commentaries on today’s text from the Book of Exodus. Nothing I read touched the deep churnings of my heart until I found Barry J. Robinson’s blog, Keeping the Faith in Babylon. Everything else felt trite in the face of both present day circumstances and the underbelly of violence and suffering inherent in the Exodus story itself.
Like Robinson, I cannot look at the world we live in now and the world the Egyptians and Israelites lived in then and ignore a host of parallels. We see the ageless themes of the oppressed chafing against their oppressors and the oppressors clinging to their power at all costs. It is Pharaoh vs. Moses; the Egyptians vs. the Israelites. The oppressed become a band of refugees, searching for a new and better home.
In the biblical narrator’s understanding, the penchant for indiscriminate violence is not just reserved for Pharaoh in his cruelty toward the Israelites. The storyteller attributes violence to God as well, setting in motion the death of the firstborn sons in Egypt while Pharaoh continues his oppression and resolve (Exodus 4:4-5). Later in the text, the Red Sea parts to let the fleeing Israelites pass through unharmed. Then the waters return to their place, drowning the pursuing army. The result is powerful and joyous for the Israelites. Not so for the Egyptians and their families back home. After so many centuries and such long and brutal oppression, the Israelites have escaped. The tables are turned, even if just for a season.
Moses breaks into song, exulting in the one he describes as a ‘warrior God’ (Exodus 15:3) Yet haven’t we seen people praise the ‘warrior God’ way too much throughout human history? Hasn’t that view of God resulted in devastating consequences for the history of this planet across religions? We are reading Karen Armstrong’s book, “12 Steps to a Compassionate Life,” in study group. She makes the assertion that we need to reject any interpretation of scripture that leads us to violence.
Looking back, the Exodus story seems clear-cut. There are 400 years of suffering and waiting. Finally, in one great tug-of-war and a final blast of victory launched by God through his servant Moses, the liberation begins! Yet too soon the story becomes murky again with 40 years of desert wandering.
I so often read the Exodus narrative from the perspective of the Israelite slaves released from bondage. This is the dominant story line, and a critical one that has inspired successive generations of the oppressed in their impulse for liberation.
Last week for the first time, I found my attention riveted on the Egyptian soldiers who drowned in the Red Sea. Maybe that is because so many soldiers on all sides of so many battles are dying today. Some are escaping disenfranchisement, unemployment, and poverty. Some are fighting for a cause they believe in; others are mere children, drugged and forced into military service. Some approach their enemies with hatred; others sooner or later are wracked with guilt and anguish over the violence they have participated in and witnessed. Countless soldiers will prematurely go to the grave, as they have for millennia. Countless families will mourn both their deaths and their living deaths.
Is the story of the Exodus really so clear?
We see this ancient tug-of-war playing itself out in devastating violence in revolution after revolution in our own time. In the Middle East, in Africa, in Latin America…in our own nation’s drone warfare, boots on the ground, and proxy revolutions.
I am reminded of a verse in I John that I don’t think about very often, but I have been referencing a lot lately in my head. “Children, it is the last hour; and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come” (I John 2:18). So often we hear the word “antichrist” in reference to some person or nation. It is associated with the many ‘end-times scenarios’ popularized by books, films, and conservative Christian radio.
But what does “anti-christ” really mean? I understand it is an ideology or theology diametrically opposed to all Jesus lived and taught. “Anti-christ” is about mercilessness instead of mercy; violence instead of peacemaking; bitterness instead of forgiveness; cruelty instead of gentleness; hatred instead of love. It is about building Empire rather than beloved community, whether Empire is constructed through extremist ideology or dazzling Corporatocracy.
When God provided Israel land on which to settle after the Exodus, was that land meant to be shared or meant to be taken away from its previous owners? What if this story continued with a theology of reciprocity and communal sharing rather than one of conquest and extermination? I want to re-write this story from way back. Honestly, I do.
I have seen in my own lifetime how the Exodus story has inspired generations of oppressed people the world over to trust in a God that Sees their need, Hears their cry, and Comes to their aid. I saw that so intensely in the Nicaraguan people in the 1980’s, when local community leaders, with the help of a supportive government, increased literacy among the poor. They developed neighborhood health clinics. Base communities sprouted up, even as radical Catholic priests were reproved by the Vatican or defrocked. The Reagan administration clamped down and crushed that movement, calling it a Communist plot. Soon Nicaragua was back under our thumb.
There are huge forces at play in this world. Pharaohs continue to proliferate and refuse to let the people go. Faces change, names change, locations change. Moses rises again and again in the form of one ordinary human being after another, leading nation after nation toward liberation. Prophets gaze at their burning bushes, struggle with God, and finally confess, “Lord, send me.”
Sometimes people are liberated, and sometimes they must wait for another day, year, decade, or multiple generations. How shall we interpret and imagine God in the midst of such Meta-History? What can we hold onto, as we look back at the march of generations and the multiple Exoduses of time, past and present?
First of all, there is Hope. Without hope, we are lost. No matter what our story, or our neighbor’s story, there must be hope. The South Africans taught us that with apartheid, as have so many other oppressed groups. “If liberation does not come in my lifetime, maybe it will come in that of my children or my children’s children.” This was their mantra. That visceral hope did not die, nor did it ultimately disappoint.
Secondly, there is Love. Without love, how do we stand against Empire here in the United States? How do we counter our own violence as a nation? How do we walk with the hopeless, the war-torn, the displaced, the sorrowing? Mother Teresa, in the slums of Calcutta, taught us about love. Bob Thomas, the Moderator of the church when we moved here in 1979, taught us about love. We teach each other about love. Without love, we are lost. Love is expressed in many forms–doing justice, promoting the common good, practicing hospitality, providing comfort, and offering forgiveness, to name a few.
And finally, there is Faith–Faith in the One whose hand is unseen behind the grand machinations of Empire, anti-christ, and all the rest of the horrors of Time. Faith that this One still Sees, Hears, and Responds to humanity and indeed, to all of Creation. This Holy One of both Mystery and Promise responds through me, through you, through Doctors without Borders, through Christian Peacemaker Teams and Muslim Peacemaker Teams, through Interfaith PeaceBuilders in the Middle East. This One is seen, heard, and experienced every time the Way of Life reclaims even an inch of ground from the Way of Death.
So, today, I give you the ancient story of the Exodus, of the children of Israel under the leadership of Moses fleeing the brutal hand of the Egyptians. We weep with them over their centuries of enslavement. We rejoice with them in their promised liberation. We remember both the slaves who perished and the soldiers who perished. We mourn with the Israelite families that lost their children in the slaughter of their babies and the Egyptian parents who lost theirs as well.
We stand with the landless, refugee Israelites of ancient times in their search for a new home, and all the other refugees through the generations searching for hospitality and safety. Today, in 2014, we long for this home in the Middle East to be shared, where there is no conquest and dominance, no lust for power and resources. We long for it to be a home where there are no “winners” and “losers.” We long for it to be a home where there is Light and Life for all. And here in the United States, we long for the same.
As we join in offering God our tithes and gifts, we offer as well our dreams and visions of a world renewed. This is what we must pray for, work for, strive for, and seek to live into, right where we are. Amen.