24 August 2014
Carolyn L Roberts
Early last week, I ran into a friend leaving Starbucks just as I was going in. I asked how it was going, and he said I was about 20 minutes too late. He’d just finished a conversation with three white men with decidedly different perspectives on the situation in Ferguson. “But if you’d been there,” he said, “we could have prevailed.” I protested to the effect that I wasn’t certain I could have been that decisive a player, but my friend would have none of it. “We would have prevailed,” he said again as we parted. In that singular conversation with his opponents, I don’t know, but I would like to think that he is correct.
That judgment aside, two observations were immediately, glaringly obvious. The first is that it is impossible for Black men in America simply to go for a walk or stop for a cup of coffee, without the possibility of some level of confrontation. The Trayvon Martins and the Michael Browns are the tragic outcomes of all too many of these dynamics. The second is that in any confrontation, partners and allies can be welcome for the in-kind support we may be able to offer. But just as importantly, we can validate our friend’s basic humanity, or as Aretha Franklin popularized it in 1967, R-E-S-P-E-C-T, we can extend our respect. Because it is that lack of fundamental respect which is the insidious part of the racism that still scars American history, American life, American culture.
Not that racism, and its cultural partner, ethnic discrimination, is anything new. It’s alive and well and built into the political landscape as far back as the time of Pharaoh. Just look at today’s story, one of the major story lines of the Bible; it’s impossible to tell the story of Moses without that ethnic component, without the political landscape of empire. A new Pharaoh, a new king, is on the throne in Egypt, a king who doesn’t know anything about Abraham’s great-grandson Joseph. A king who doesn’t know of Joseph’s clever scheme to store grain during the good years so that Egypt would have enough in reserve to feed its people during seven years of drought. A king who hasn’t read the inscription calling upon the nation to “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free...”. And when the Hebrews not only breathe free, but multiply according to God’s promise, the king becomes afraid, and the politics of fear shape his policies.
Pharaoh’s fear becomes Egypt’s fear. Hebrews bear the burden of forced labor in the building of Pithom and Rameses, yet they still multiply, and Egypt is ruthless in its demands. Pharaoh doesn’t go for the niceties of documentation and deportation; he establishes the foundation for ethnic cleansing, instructing all midwives to kill the Hebrew boys at birth.The midwives Shiphrah and Puah are women of faith. Pharaoh does not rely on faith; Pharaoh relies on fear. And when Pharaoh summons the midwives a second time, demanding to know why the boys still live, the midwives dissemble, insisting that the Hebrew women are simply too vigorous in childbirth–the babies arrive before the midwives can get there. The commandment to tell the truth clearly doesn’t apply in the face of tyranny.
So when Pharaoh’s instructions to the Hebrews to commit infanticide of their own children doesn’t work, Pharaoh broadcasts a decree to all Egyptians that “All Hebrew baby boys are to be thrown into the Nile.” The Minister for General Destruction confirms, “It sounds a bit harsh, but it is important that we take action. We cannot have these people breeding indefinitely.”1,35
But look what happens in the story. Just as Pharaoh’s most radical decree is issued, yet another baby Hebrew boy is born. The issue at hand: will the Egyptians throw this baby into the Nile? The answer is no; his mother Jochebed protects and nurtures him till at three months, he is too big to remain hidden. This part of the story is a favorite of all church school children. In one of the many ironies, Jochebed creates a small ark2 out of a pitch-lined basket and lays him in the Nile. She sets the infant adrift in the bulrushes near the place where Pharaoh’s daughter bathes. Pharaoh’s daughter hears the baby’s cries and has him retrieved from the water. That’s when the baby’s sister Miriam offers to find a Hebrew nurse for the infant, an offer Pharaoh’s daughter accepts.
So what does this tell us? We can be forgiven for assuming that Pharaoh’s daughter would be inclined to support Pharaoh’s dictates. Instead, the first thing Pharaoh’s daughter does when she faces–literally faces–the intended object of that decree, is to respond like the people of Denmark millennia later. The Danes, from their king to the most common citizen, immediately and without pre-planning began wearing yellow stars the moment Nazi invaders demanded such stars for the Jews. The Danes honored the humanity of their Jewish citizens, and shared their common lot. Pharaoh’s daughter honors the humanity of the Hebrew boy child. And secondly, Pharaoh’s daughters partners with a Hebrew girl and a Hebrew woman to ensure the Hebrew boy child’s survival. Ironically, it is not just survival, but survival in the very household of the Pharaoh, the one who seeks to do the child harm. The additional double twist is that Pharaoh’s household pays the Hebrew nurse, the baby’s own mother.
This partnership between Pharaoh’s daughter and the baby’s mother, this alliance is crucial. It reminds us that the work of birth does not fall just to the midwife and the woman in labor. Not to discount the work of the midwife! The Shiphrahs and Puahs still respond, still bring their considerable skills to midwife the dangerous passage of birth, so that both mother and child make that passage safely. But more broadly, our text reminds us that we each have a role to play in midwifing a better world into being, in whatever setting we find ourselves. This isn’t just for the sake of a healthy baby and healthy mother; it’s essential for the sake of a healthy community as well. At the same time, we cannot be under any romantic illusions. Freedom rides and linked elbows in the face of attack dogs and fire hoses are risks an earlier generation took on to birth a greater degree of freedom, a better world for people of every color in this country. The risks they took, and the birth they midwifed are legendary.
But tyranny is the prototypical shape-shifter; for each generation it poses new challenges. We are therefore called to midwife new births. We are called to risk challenging unjust policies and tyrannical decrees, yes. We are called to speak up and speak out whether it is in seemingly casual conversation at the coffee shop, countering the inherent racism of a local football team’s name, or protesting in the streets of Ferguson. We also are called to tutor children and adults in literacy in Germantown and the District. This doesn’t mean every basket case will disappear. But it does mean that, like Shiphrah and Puah, we will use our gifts in our context, and take one step closer to bringing a better world into being.
1Page, Nick, The Tabloid Bible, Westminster John Knox Press, © 1998.
2Aside from Noah’s ark, this is the only other instance of the use of the word ark in the Hebrew scriptures.