Reflection:Discipleship, Week Four: Justice and Liberation
Exodus 14:19-31 September 30, 2014
Remember the Road Runner cartoons? Old Wile E. Coyote would lie in wait for the Road Runner, ready with an anvil to drop on its head, a hole dug in the ground for it to fall in, or a bomb ready to go off as soon as the Road Runner came across the trip line. We’d hear the familiar “Beep beep” and here would come the Road Runner at top speed, heading toward the trap. But somehow or other the Road Runner would manage to spring the trap so that old Wile E. got caught in it, and he would be flattened, blown up or splatted instead – and that was the happy ending. As children, that satisfied our rudimentary sense of justice. There were good guys, and bad guys, and the good guys outwitted the bad guys, and the bad guys went splat.
As adults, our concept of justice becomes a little more nuanced – or at least I hope it does. When children approach the story of the children of Israel and the Exodus, it is a clear-cut story of good guys and bad guys – and the bad guys drown while the good guys are saved. But even children have trouble with the plagues visited on Egypt, and especially the death of the children. Even a very basic sense of justice is troubled by the realization that innocent people suffer on both sides of this story. As adults we can appreciate the drama of the story; but the darker aspects tend tonake us uncomfortable, as we ask questions about whether God would really behave this way. Was this really necessary to free the children of Israel? Did so many have to suffer? What is the price on liberation after generations of enslavement? As the two quotations at the beginning of the bulletin suggest, these questions remain with us, even today.
So it’s hard for us to read stories like the Hebrew people crossing the Red Sea, without feeling sympathy and compassion for the Egyptian soldiers who died. I’ve told you before that there is an old rabbinical story in which the angels are celebrating in heaven when the Hebrews make it across the sea safely. God turns to them and says, ‘Why are you celebrating? Do you not know that the Egyptians are my children too?” The Exodus is a story of liberation from slavery, of justice long denied, of a people long held captive who made their way to freedom, inspired and called forth by the God of their ancestors – a God that Moses reintroduced them to. But there is an underside to that story: justice long denied often comes with a price – and it’s rarely the leaders at the top who pay that price. That’s actually one of the more equitable aspects of this story, as difficult as it is. The Pharaoh himself experiences loss and grief at the death of his son, right alongside the mourning of the common people and the soldiers’ families.
One of the things common in Biblical thought that is really foreign to us is the idea of corporate sin and corporate judgement – or corporate consequences, if you prefer that term. In the ancient world, and very clearly in the worldview of these early Biblical texts, the actions of a few, especially if they were considered leaders of a family, tribe or nation, could have terrible consequences for the rest. If a leader did evil, the whole family, tribe or nation would pay the penalty. That’s what we see here in this story, and we’ll see it over and over again throughout the Bible. In this case, the leader of Egypt has committed evil, and every Egyptian family and every soldier in that army paid the price for his injustice. We like to believe we don’t think that way – that we hold individuals accountable for their individual actions. But it’s not really true, is it?
First of all, in the struggle for justice, there will be many people who, while not participating actively in the oppression of others, benefit from that oppression. White people in Canada benefit from the poor treatment of First Nations people as money and land that should belong to them is used for our own purposes. Both here and in the States, we can see the same kinds of tensions between African Americans, indigenous peoples, Latino peoples, Caucasians, Asians and others; while some benefit from the political and economic system, that same system oppresses others. So we are, in a sense, guilty as charged, even if we may not have built the systems that oppress others – even if we don’t want those systems to continue! There is a strong sense of corporate sin and corporate accountability in Scripture.
Another reality is that we do tend to hold whole groups of people accountable for the actions of a few. Witness the growing anti-Muslim sentiment in Canada, or the anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe, or the negative judgements among educated liberals against blue collar and rural folk in the States who tend toward being more conservative. We group people in our minds – knowing that it’s wrong, but we still do it. Either passively or actively, we punish them, for something they have not done.
The other reality is the one explored in that dialogue we just heard. Even today, leaders make choices and whole nations suffer. Think of Communist China, or the USSR in recent history; think of how the reputation of once-admired nations and their influence in the world has fallen as their politics have become more divisive; think of the choices leaders have made in regard to climate change and the consequences being felt by those starving in famines and droughts and those buried in mudslides or drowned in floods. Leaders make decisions, and we bear the consequences – the soldiers and the children and the everyday people who are just trying to get by in life, get along with their neighbours, and raise their families. They suffer, as did the Egyptians in this story today. Actions have consequences. In Scripture, evil actions produce evil results, often for the innocent as well as the guilty.
The story of the Exodus from Egypt is a pivotal story for Jews and Christians alike. It has inspired many a struggle for justice, most famously here in North America in the abolition of slavery and the Civil Rights movement. As Christian people, we want to stand with God on the side of liberation and justice-making. As the United Church of Canada, we have a very long history in this regard. One of the things we need to careful about, though, is not demonising the other. We don’t want to start viewing the other side in any struggle for justice as expendable, as reasonable collateral damage, as guilty by association if not by actual deed. There are winners and losers in many a struggle for freedom, but I believe the only way for justice to last is if we reduce the losses and try for a circumstance where the freedom of one group enhances the freedom of all. Sadly, it isn’t always possible, as the oppressors struggle so hard to maintain power and control that the struggle becomes violent, or even deadly. When this happens, we can pretty much guarantee that the violence will repeat itself, generation after generation. We see it in Israel-Palestine; we see it in South Africa; we saw it in the break-down of nation-states in Europe; we see it in ethnic and religious conflicts all over the world.
One of the interesting little tidbits of information in this story is that the group that left Egypt was not the same as the group that arrived generations before. Hundreds of years have passed, the people had intermarried, and the Bible says there were slaves and workers of other backgrounds, including some Egyptians, among the people who escaped across the Sea. The story tells us that God did not choose one ethnic group exclusively over another; God chose those who would risk the journey.
Our Biblical tradition claims that the Hebrew people and their allies, and later the Christian church – who have been grafted onto the tree of Judaism – are the chosen people. But what they’re chosen for is not so much special privileges. They – and we – are chosen to be a light to the nations. So as I reflected on this over the week, I came to a realisation: that being a light to the nations means we CANNOT make an exclusive claim to God or to the divine will. Our task, given us by God, is to SHARE GOD, not to lay claim to God. We cannot claim that God is on our side, anymore than any other group can make that claim. If anything, we are on GOD”S side – we are on God’s team, sharing God’s love with the world – equally, inclusively, not exclusively. That means we need to be open to others, not build up walls against them. That means we forgive others, rather than adding up reasons to hate them. That means we “keep no record of wrongs” but instead work together for good. The only way we can do this in a multicultural and multifaith world is with a combination of integrity – sharing what we truly believe AND witnessing by how we live – and with humility – recognizing that God is the God of this whole world, not just us, and that others have been touched and called by God as well. Our vision is of a world where we lift each other up, to preserve and enhance all of life.
God has claimed us – our whole lives – in service to the world. The Hebrew people were freed from slavery to be God’s people. We are freed from what binds us to be God’s people too. We are Jesus’ brothers and sisters, disciples of the One who came as the prophet Isaiah said before him, “to preach good news to the poor; to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty the oppressed, and to proclaim that now is the time for God’s will to be done. (Luke 4:16ff) To be a disciple is to stand with Christ, to proclaim and teach and heal and save, for the sake of the world. Amen.