Respect Existence or Expect Resistance

27 - Exodus copy

[This Sunday’s sermon was probably as close to programmatic statement of my theology and how I hope it can inform the wider Mennonite church.]

I was hoping to do a little historical research this week to try and give some context for preaching on the Exodus event. Sifting through articles I found myself dismissing pieces quickly. Oh this one is published in an Evangelical journal it will likely try to overemphasize the historical reliability of scripture; hmmm this scholar is writing from a university in Israel it will probably be skewed towards an emphasis on Israelite claim to the land; sigh this one is written by an old school liberal scholar who seems tied into unhelpful methods of historical research. Evidently if these articles were not biased than I was.

This is a small, but I think significant, reminder of how we approach the Bible and how we engage our faith. Each one of us occupies a particular space from which we see and think and act out of our experience and commitments. I think the church is still wrestling with this reality. We don’t want to give up a notion of a larger truth but we can find it hard or even inappropriate to speak clearly or definitively in certain situations.

This plays out in different church denominations. Most church’s claim some notion of having the Bible as a source of authority or guidance. All hope they are being faithful in their expression. But some churches in upholding moral purity have little ability to wade into the messy and difficult situations in people’s lives to give support. Other churches proclaim God’s love for all people but they can have a hard naming the devastating realities of sin within or around them. Then there are the endless theological debates that simply reveal further bias whether prioritizing different parts of the Bible or how our experience shaped our understanding.

This reality of being biased is simply another way of saying that we can’t do it all. We can’t stand outside of life from some god-like perspective and have a total picture. So I think part of a church’s responsibility is being aware of its bias, that is, understanding that it cannot be complete or even neutral. It cannot be just biblical or faithful. A church is faithful in its particular way. This responsibility means accepting and owning our gifts and limitations or deciding what to maintain and it wants to work at changing.

So if we have to be biased in some way, that is, be particular we might do well in considering the Exodus story as a central image that can orient and energize us as a church. In some ways this is not much of a stretch considering how prominent the story is throughout the Bible. But even here the story is not self-evident and we must make decisions, we choose the manner in which the story can become meaningful and formative for us. Very early on in considering this story the reader, the one interested in learning and living out of this story, is faced with a least two paths of understanding.

Both interpretations read this story as one of deliverance, liberation, and the defeat of the enemy. However, one reading places the emphasis on the special nature of the people. This reading believes that the particular people and their descendants are privileged by God and that God will always be on their side conquering their enemies. This has been the understanding for many historical forms of Christianity.

In some ways it could be said that Christianity invented this reading when it believed that its form of faith was greater than Judaism and that God would eventually conquer the Jewish people themselves. This understanding surfaced in various forms of Christian supremacy whether in religious or political forms as Christian Europe moved across the globe with the confidence in a God who would either drown or baptize anyone they encountered. On a smaller scale we cannot discount the way this reading informs our own understanding of the superiority when we consciously or usually unconsciously consider our life and faith to have priority over others. While this reading is often justified with other scripture passages it is certainly not the only understanding of the Exodus.

So while the first reading leads to a supremacist or superior attitude by a particular group the second group shifts the focus. In this reading God is still in some ways biased, still shows preference, but it is not towards a particular religious or ethnic group. In this reading, the Exodus story points to the God of the oppressed. The God revealed to Moses is not a national or cultural deity who stands for one country over others but the one who hears the cries of those suffering under unjust abuse and slavery. While the biblical story does broadly trace the movements of a particular people, the writings of the prophets, the event of the Exile, and the message of the Gospels are clear that God is not interested in simply maintaining a people or tradition for their own sake. So what does it mean to allow this second reading of the Exodus shape our faith and life?

This reading affects how we give our attention. The first reading fixes our attention and privileges our faith setting for understanding how God is at work and calling us. The second reading, however, asks that our attention become more vigilant, always wondering how the powers and realities around us are shaping and affecting people’s lives.

James Cone, a prominent black theologian in the US, put this powerfully when he says that to follow Jesus who was Jewish means to be able to recognize the Christ who is Black. What he means is that Jesus was a Jew during a time when the Jewish people were occupied and controlled by a foreign power where there religion and life were often humiliated and abused by those in power. So it is important that we study who Jesus was but Cone goes further and says, “I contend that our interest in Jesus’ past cannot be separated from one’s encounter with his presence in our contemporary existence” (GO, 111).

Through this reading of the past Christ is best understood today as the one who is still incarnate, made flesh, the one who is present in the midst of those communities that suffer abuse and humiliation. Cone does not claim that Christ will always be black or is only black but in his context it remains an important and decisive statement of faith. The point is that our faithfulness remains vigilant, attentive to suffering, abuse, harassment, and humiliation because this is where Christ is found and known. Put differently Simone Weil has said that justice is fugitive, it moves where it is needed outside of any one group’s control.

Returning to the Exodus story we can see that it is also a test in attentiveness. After all what is most important in these chapters? Is it Moses and the Burning Bush, is it  the encounter with Pharaoh and the Ten Plagues, is the dramatic parting of the Red Sea (children’s time)? These are crucial elements but in some ways I was distracted by them and it wasn’t until I read an article by biblical scholar Phyllis Trible that I was reminded of the role of women.

The Exodus story begins and ends with women. The beginning recounts the birth of Moses. Pharaoh feels threatened by the increasing Hebrew slaves and commands that newborn males be killed. In an illegal action Hebrew women refuse Pharaoh’s command and keep these children alive. Then after Moses is born and set out into the river an Egyptian woman, the daughter of Pharaoh, finds him, knows that he is a Hebrew baby and still keeps him safe. She does this in cooperation with Hebrew women and so Moses lives. So before the great acts of Moses we find a group of mostly nameless women both Hebrew and Egyptian display a faith committed to the vulnerable and threatened among them.

Then at the end of the Exodus story is a song. The bulk of the song begins with a preface saying Moses and the Israelites sang praise to the LORD. Moses has of course been highlighted throughout the text. But after the song we find a curious addition which reads,

Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing.  And Miriam led them in worship saying:

‘Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.’

Scholars have speculated why this phrase was included, especially since it repeats the first line of the earlier song. One thing clear from the text is that Miriam is in the active, leadership role here. And she is not simply leading the women. When it refers to Miriam leading them the form is in masculine plural which can mean men or men and women. Moses sings but Miriam the prophet leads them in song.

Throughout the Exodus event it is stated that the people are freed so that they might worship God and here after the people have passed through the Red Sea there is a sort of vindication of the women who began this story; an acknowledgement of how God is revealed with the vulnerable and threatened along with those who stand with them.

This finally brings me to the image I chose for this morning. I love this image. It is attributed to a group called graffiti harimi, which means simply, graffiti women. This is a group of women who have chosen graffiti as a public statement against the ongoing sexual harassment and abuse many women experience in Egypt. I chose this particular image for two reasons. First, the image reminded me of the older works of art depicting the crossing of the Red Sea in which soldiers and horses were depicted as tossed about by waves.

That older image of the Red Sea can be unnerving an ominous according to the first reading of Exodus which tends to view God has fighting for national or racial interests. But this morning’s image demands a reading in which the power of liberation, the image of hope comes directly from those suffering abuse. The Arabic beside the image reads simply no harassment. The image is not an abuse of power but the overthrow of abusive power. Another image I considered using was a piece of graffiti in which the face of a famous female Egyptian singer was depicted with the lines of one of her songs underneath which read, Give me my freedom, set loose my chains. Or to rephrase biblically, Pharaoh, let my people go.

The second reason I chose this image is because it comes out of Egypt. In as much as we do not read the Bible as a history book we cannot forget that real lives and bodies were and are involved in these struggles. There are still women in Egypt struggling for freedom.

To circle back to where I began, we cannot be neutral in these things. We cannot claim some pure notion of being ‘biblical’ or ‘faithful’. We will have to choose which texts and which interpretations will shape and inform us. Does the Exodus privilege our people and tradition or does it point to the God who comes alongside those harassed and abused?

Reading Exodus as revealing the God of the Oppressed changes our life and faith. Last week in Adult Education we considered the relationship between Christianity and Indigenous spirituality. The first reading of Exodus privileges how God is with us and will secure our faith in relationship to other religious expressions. The important thing is to protect and preserve our faithfulness. The second reading calls our attention to the situation and experience of the indigenous community allowing us to wonder how we might learn of ways in which liberation is happening in that community and how we might also work and witness to these things.

There are many more examples how these two choices, these two readings, can play out. For those of us in relatively secure lifestyles we need to guard against a self-focused martyr complex. I still hear comments saying that in our society that white men face the most prejudice or that Christianity is under attack.  Most of the time these comments refer to the discomfort we feel in not getting our way all the time, not having the only or dominant voice. We need to get over that. That sort of thinking assumes the first reading in which we believe God’s most important agenda is to keep us in a superior position.

The second reading shifts attentiveness to those among us who struggle with the limitations of disabilities, who have lived with chronic illnesses, who have endured grinding poverty, who have had to deal with ongoing prejudice or exclusion. This reading is meant to offer hope and another vision of how to know and encounter Christ.

May we have eyes to see and ears to hear people like the Hebrew and Egyptian women then and now standing up as and alongside the vulnerable, believing there is a presence and power who will resist with them, that a way can be opened, that dry land can appear in the midst of the water’s chaos, even as abusive powers like a national army or exploitive culture close in. And may we as a church learn to be attentive to, even follow such groups for we may just find that we have been following Christ.

Amen.

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4 comments on “Respect Existence or Expect Resistance

  1. Gerald Ens says:

    This is a really good post, David. Thank you.

    Two comments:

    1. “A church is faithful in its particular way. This responsibility means accepting and owning our gifts and limitations or deciding what to maintain and it wants to work at changing.” If you were to write a book, this would make a pretty good opening I think. In any case, very well said.

    2. How would you respond to someone like Hauerwas, who, I imagine, would be in general agreement with your position, but would also add that a church that will “have eyes to see and ears to hear” must rigorously discipline itself to practices of opening up to God, guardedly excluding violent practices and beliefs? In other words, does not a jealous commitment (faithfulness) to Christ (or, in other contexts, to some other path or discipline that so orients our eyes and ears) *in some ways* come before an ability to listen and learn from the vulnerable?

  2. Thanks Gerald. I am not sure how to respond to #2. Not sure I can distinguish the movements that clearly, if you know what I mean. I have not read enough Hauerwas, but after reading the recent publication of Yoder’s ‘Mission’ book I became pretty convinced that in as much there is really good theology in response to certain colonial sins there remains a preservative posture that will always seem to determine certain fundamental issues ahead of time because of his christology. This is where I found James Cone extremely refreshing in his ability to give equal (and at times greater weight) to the experience of those outside the Christian story (and biblical text).
    This approach by definition means that I cannot at time give someone theological justification *ahead of time* in terms of my engagement. This all feels very loose according to certain theological methods but I would still maintain that it has a solid tradition especially as articulated by someone like Cone.
    Does that sort of get at what you are asking?

  3. Gerald Ens says:

    I agree entirely that the movements can be distinguished so clearly. And I also agree that if we need to justify all of our engagements ahead of time we’re in trouble – theologically and in other ways.

    To rephrase my question/worry in these terms, I am trying to push at whether you might be distinguishing movements too clearly, such that we only receive good formation from what is “outside” and that listening and learning (indiscriminately?) is alone enough to teach us to listen and learn. After all, Yoder’s concern with the otherness of the church is that the church is so often too receptive to the wrong practices in the world, which leads the church into complacency, deafness, and violence. (Or we can think on Menno’s emphasis on the normativity of Jesus in the face of those brutally violent Anabaptists who were very open to words of prophecy all around them.)

    …Having said that, your response suggests to me that we are on more or less the same page in looking for a not-clearly-distinguished back and forth movement for learning to see God in the world, even if we may not be quite on the same spot on the page in regards to what that movement might look like.

    I only learned of the new Yoder book a few weeks ago. I need to get my hands on it ASAP.

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