When you hear the story of the Israelite’s exodus from bondage in Egypt to freedom, who do you identify with? Who do you actually come closer to? Those are different questions. Those are questions I struggle with. We want to identify with Israel because it is clear that Egypt are the bad guys in the story. But am I actually closer to the Egyptians?
“Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh: Indeed, by a mighty hand he will let them go; by a mighty hand he will drive them out of his land.’
“God also spoke to Moses and said to him: ‘I am the Lord. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as God Almighty, but by my name “The Lord”I did not make myself known to them. I also established my covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land in which they resided as aliens. I have also heard the groaning of the Israelites, whom the Egyptians are holding as slaves, and I have remembered my covenant. Say therefore to the Israelites, “I am the Lord, and I will free you from the burdens of the Egyptians and deliver you from slavery to them. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgement. I will take you as my people, and I will be your God. You shall know that I am the Lord your God, who has freed you from the burdens of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; I will give it to you for a possession. I am the Lord.” ’ Moses told this to the Israelites; but they would not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and their cruel slavery.”
(Exodus 6: 1-9, NRSV)
The Egyptians are an empire. And empires all act the same. They oppress, they exploit, they kill and destroy. They have privileges that others do not have. They have security that others do not have. They have free movement that others do not have. No one wants to identify with an empire. Yet so many want an empire because of the supposed power that an empire has – the ability to kill enemies to the point that people fear opposing an empire. All the wealth and power that empires accumulate. People who have to obey. In this version of empire, it is easy to turn a blind eye to the abusive and evil systems that empires employ to maintain their grip on power.
What is fascinating to me about the exodus story is when God hardens Pharaoh’s heart.
“…I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and I will multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt. When Pharaoh does not listen to you, I will lay my hand upon Egypt and bring my people the Israelites, company by company, out of the land of Egypt by great acts of judgement. The Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring the Israelites out from among them.’”
(Exodus 7:3-5, NRSV)
Why did God harden Pharaoh’s heart? Why not soften Pharaoh’s heart so that the people could go and worship in the wilderness?
I think God hardened Pharaoh’s heart in order to bring Egypt to its knees. Empires believe they are divine – all powerful, all knowing, all everything. Empires are idols. Letting the Israelites go wasn’t just about freeing them from slavery. It was about crushing an empire, quite literally. A devastating destruction of empire brought on itself. A crushing of an idol. Idols don’t go away quietly. They hold on to whatever power they have.
Who are we in this story? Are we the Israelites? The Egyptians? Or maybe we aren’t anybody in this story. Maybe it’s a warning for us.
American Christianity will continue to struggle as long as we continue to fool ourselves into believing we identify with the Israelites – those trapped in slavery, the outsider, the unwanted, those who were exiled from their homes and land, or those persecuted by an empire.
There are plenty of people in this land who can identify with these things – blacks sold into slavery in America, Indigenous tribes whose land was taken from them and they were forced to leave, and Christians who spoke prophetic words warning against these actions – costing them their freedom and sometimes their lives.
But for many Christians, I wonder – are we closer to the empires we read about rather than the Israelites? Are these passages of judgement from God warnings for us – warnings that should bring us to our knees – to crush our own personal empires, the idols we worship in our own lives. That force us to look in the mirror and acknowledge our sin, so that we can repent and be transformed.
If Christianity is just about personal belief and action and it has no public impact, then how is that related to anything that Christ taught? How does that compartmentalization match up with God so loving the world? How does that division of faith and secular lead us to the Kingdom of God? How does that minimization of faith call us to the prophetic task of exposing the empires of our world and our lives for their emptiness, cruelty, and injustice? How does that move us towards divine imagination and the hope of a new restored creation where all people are welcome?
I can’t help but wonder when I see, hear, and read about Christians who claim one thing and then live out something completely at odds with what they claim to believe. Christians who claim a dark skinned Savior who was lynched by an empire and those who abused their authority, yet will refuse to see or even acknowledge that racism exists and is unjust and systemic because it doesn’t impact them directly. Christians who claim to love peace, yet clamor for war and brandish weapons publicly in order to intimidate. Christians who claim to love their neighbor and their enemy, yet label and scapegoat whole groups of people. Christians who claim forgiveness, yet are unforgiving. Christians who claim grace and mercy, yet are merciless when it comes to dealing with others. Christians who are told to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and care for the sick, yet refuse to do so and come up with all sorts of excuses for why anyone shouldn’t. Christians who claim to welcome the stranger, yet will defend policies designed to push the stranger away. Christians who claim good news for the poor, yet ridicule and blame the poor for their situation. Christians who are told that they can’t serve two masters, yet will compartmentalize their life to allow multiple masters over them. Christians who are told throughout Scripture that God frees people from bondage, yet will do all in their power to stubbornly and willfully resist a change in an unjust status quo for those in bondage. Christians who hear over and over again a message that says “Do not be afraid,” yet are fully embraced in fear and anger and hatred.
Are we Israel? Egypt? Or maybe we’re just us. And it’s complicated. And messy. And there isn’t a nice uniform way of saying who we all are as a whole. Maybe that’s because there is no whole.
Our job, my job, isn’t to judge. It is to notice though. It is to call the thing what it is – not to sugar coat it or excuse it away. And it is to mourn.
I weep for all who are caught in bondage – whether that bondage is imposed by an empire, or a person. I weep for those who are caught in the bondage of justifying their beliefs that are in conflict with their claimed faith. I weep for those caught in the bondage of willful stubbornness – resistance to God’s grace and mercy.
Forgive me Lord when I refuse to see the bondage I am entangled in. Forgive me Lord when I am the cause of bondage to someone else. Forgive me Lord when I stubbornly resist your ways and your grace and mercy. Crush the idols in my life. Please do not harden my heart – guide me to my knees instead so that I be transformed. Open my eyes to see those who are oppressed and to act on their behalf and to stand with them. Open my heart to see when I am the oppressor who is blind to the image of God in others. Amen.