How To Be a Midwife In Egypt: A Sermon on Ferguson and Our Choices

How To Be a Midwife In Egypt: A Sermon on Ferguson and Our Choices August 25, 2014

headshot-2_optEditor’s Note: I share this sermon preached yesterday at the church I attend, First Plymouth Congregational Church, by the Rev. Dr. Eric Smith. In the aftermath of the Ferguson, MO, tragedy and the ensuing protests, I can’t imagine a much better sermon being given in many other churches around the country than this. — Deborah Arca

How To Be a Midwife in Egypt

Exodus 1:8-2:10

Shiphrah and Puah had a decision to make. Their orders were clear. Their orders were that all the baby boys from among the Hebrews had to die. Their orders were murder. The Pharaoh had said so. The Pharaoh had said that any boy born to any Hebrew mother was to be put to death right there on the birthing stool. The girls could live; maybe they weren’t so scary. But the boys had to go. Why? It seems there were a lot of reasons. Because Hebrews weren’t real Egyptians. Because their values were not Egyptian values. Because Hebrew boys would grow up to be too strong. Because they were already too numerous. You can take your pick. There were a lot of reasons.

Shiphrah and Puah were ordinary people. They were midwives. It was their job to deliver babies. But because it was their job to deliver babies, it was also their job to kill the baby boys. So they had a decision to make. To do what they were told, or not. To respect authority, or not. To go along with Pharaoh’s plan, or not.

Let me back up and talk about Egypt. Because Egypt is a character in this story. Egypt is the key character in this story, actually, Egypt is the key to understanding the whole thing. Because to understand why the infant Moses’ life was in danger, why the lives of all the baby Hebrew boys were in danger, you have to understand Egypt. You have to understand the history of Egypt, and you have to understand the soul of Egypt.

The soul of Egypt was a slaveholding soul. And a slaveholding soul is never at ease. To hold slaves is to convince yourself that another person is property, and more to the point, to hold slaves is to hope you can convince the other person that they are property. But the trouble with people is that they are smarter than that. The trouble with people is that they know they are people. And they will rebel against you. So you have to do everything you can to make sure that you stay more powerful than the slaves, so that when they begin to insist that they are people too, you can try to convince them that they’re not, by force if necessary. That was the trouble in Egypt’s slaveholding soul. That’s what kept the Pharaoh up at night. And that’s what led him to issue a horrible order, the kind of order that a human being should never give against other human beings, the kind of thing that proceeds from the slaveholding soul. Kill all the boys, he said. Kill them all, right when they’re born, lest they grow strong and overpower us. That’s what his slaveholding soul made him say.

James Madison wrote in 1820 of the “dreadful fruitfulness” of the “original sin of the African trade.” That is, he wrote that the flaw in the soul of America, right from the beginning, was that it was a slaveholding soul. From the beginning our society was founded and predicated on the servitude of some people for the benefit of other people, it was founded and predicated on the ownership of people. Our own tradition, our own proud Congregational tradition, is not immune to this. In the records of the Plymouth colony, the colony from which our church derives its name, in the records of the Plymouth colony we find listed among the livestock and the furniture numbers of slaves and their values. In 1674 Captain Thomas Willet listed, and I quote, “8 negroes” valued at 200 pounds. Others listed fewer slaves, and some listed none for as a group the Plymouth colony was not full of well-to-do people, but it seems that in the Plymouth colony the price of a human life was about 25 British pounds.

James Madison called slavery the original sin of our nation, and he lamented its terrible fruitfulness. And he should know. He was the fourth president of this nation, and he owned over a hundred slaves. James Madison’s soul was a slaveholding soul, and he knew firsthand the way slavery eats away not at the humanity of the slave, but at the humanity of the slaveholder. Just like Egypt, that’s what this nation held in the beginnings of its soul—the imprisonment and labor of some people for the benefit of others. And just like in Egypt, our slaveholding soul has caused our nation to do some pretty horrible things.

When the story begins, the Hebrews are slaves in Egypt. They are an underclass, a permanent underclass of people, marked by their ethnicity as different, as not really Egyptian, and set into slavery as a means of control. The anxieties of the Egyptians are laid out right there in the text of Exodus. “Look,” it says. “The Israelite people are more numerous than we.” “Look, they are more strong than we are.” “They will increase, and in the event of war they will join our enemies and fight against us.” “And so the Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites.”

This was a system of domination. This was a society with an original sin inherent in its very being, a society with a tear in the very fabric it was made of. This was a society that couldn’t help but order the murder of baby boys because it had already backed itself into that corner because of the nature of its soul. Its slaveholding soul. Because the parents were in chains, pharaoh feared the children.

A friend of mine posted something on Facebook the other day that was very insightful. Noting the national conversation about the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson Missouri, and the protests and police response to those protests, my friend wrote that there seem to be two deep divisions among Americans. One deep division has to do with whether people feel that “the criminal justice system is truly, consistently just.” Is everyone equal under the law, or not? And the other deep division, “perhaps even a deeper divide,” he said, is whether we “understand racism as either a systemic evil or a personal character flaw.” This, I think, is very insightful. Does Ferguson, Missouri expose a few bad apples, officials and politicians and citizens and even police within the system who harbor racist feelings and who work to subvert an otherwise-fair system? Or, does Ferguson, Missouri, expose something deeply broken and twisted about our soul, about our national soul, about our character as a nation and as a people?

About five years ago I took a group of youth to the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. We were there to help repair and rebuild in the wake of hurricane Katrina. But while we were there, a lot of questions started to bubble up to the top for those middle-class and upper-middle-class, mostly white kids from Colorado. “Why,” they asked, “why are there so many African-American people in the neighborhoods that got flooded in the hurricane? Why did the levies break in these neighborhoods and not those? Why do the white people and the black people in this town live in different neighborhoods, and why do the white neighborhoods sit at higher elevations than the black neighborhoods, and why did only the black neighborhoods get flooded?” Many of these youth had never thought about racism this way. What does it look like when racism isn’t a person saying racist things, when racism isn’t someone’s character flaw, but when racism is part of city planning? What does it look like when racism is woven into the fabric of a society, when racism is part of the system? It’s easy to point to a person saying and doing racist things and it’s easy to call that racist. It’s harder to see that the structure of society favors one kind of person over another kind of person. It’s easy to point to ourselves and say, “I’ve never said or done racist things, I’m not a racist.” It’s harder to see that by virtue of the color of your skin, society sorts you into one group or another, a group with opportunities and privileges, or a group without opportunity or privilege. That’s a lot harder. That’s what your kids noticed in the ninth ward of New Orleans. That’s the kind of terrible fruitfulness that James Madison warned us about, a fruitfulness that keeps producing long after we stopped actively cultivating the tree.

But we’re not having a national conversation about New Orleans, at least not anymore. We’re having a national conversation about Ferguson, Missouri. And even there, we can see racism as systemic and not just personal. In 1916 St. Louis, where Ferguson is a suburb, in 1916 St. Louis established, and I quote, “negro blocks” where people with black skin would be forced to live apart from white people. When this was declared illegal, in 1923 the local real estate agents banded together to create “zones” for the buying and selling of homes, meaning that anyone helping a black family buy a home outside their “zone” would be in danger of losing their real estate license. And in 1941—in living memory for a lot of you—racial clauses in residential covenants in St. Louis meant that selling your home to a family of a different race was a violation of your HOA or your covenant, and so the old segregated neighborhoods stayed intact. And this went on and on, and I encourage you to read the many articles that have been published these past few weeks, especially the work of Jamelle Bouie at, for lots more examples. Schools in St. Louis were deeply segregated, and housing discrimination ensured that they have remained so to this very day. Every news story you’ve heard or read about Michael Brown’s death has pointed out that for a community that’s 67% black, the police force is over 90% white. Unemployment in Ferguson is starkly different for people of different races. Opportunity is just not the same there for all people. And the list goes on and on.

None of this is exactly why Michael Brown died. None of this is part of any direct cause-and-effect relationship having to do with what transpired between a police officer and a young man in Ferguson, Missouri. And that’s what’s so hard about this. We wish we could point a finger at people and blame them. Maybe, some people say, maybe it’s a young black man’s fault for provoking police, maybe he was assaulting the police officer. Maybe, others say, maybe it’s a white police officer’s fault for using excessive force, maybe the police officer was just a bad person. We would all feel better if we could chalk this all up to a character flaw on the part of some person or another, because that would absolve us of the responsibility to confront ourselves, and it would absolve us of the responsibility to examine our nation.

But here’s what it comes down to. It has never once occurred to me to tell any of my three children to avoid the police. That’s not what people that look like me tell their children. We tell our children, if they are lost and can’t find their parent, they can find a police officer, and they will help them. If they don’t feel safe, they can call the police. And I have read again and again these past few weeks people who are not white saying that they would never tell their children that. They would never tell their children to call the police. Not because of a character flaw in this or that police officer, most of whom might very well be excellent human beings, but because of the system, because, as one writer put it, “calling the police is like introducing a predator into the food chain.” It would never occur to me to think like that, to teach that to my children. Because my skin is white.

Shiphrah and Puah had an order. They were supposed to kill all the baby Hebrew boys. Right there on the birthing stool. As soon as they were born. This was an order from the highest levels, this was an order from the pharaoh, it was the policy, it was the system. And so they had a choice to make. They could do their job, they could play their role, or not. They could participate in the system, or not. They could become tools of oppression, or they could oppose oppression.

But the midwives feared God. The midwives feared God more than Pharaoh. So Shiphrah and Puah took to the streets in protest. Or, in a manner of speaking, they did, anyway. Shiphrah and Puah walked out of their homes and into the streets and they said, “this is not just. This system is not fair. We who fear God will not be a part of something that systematically subverts some people to other people. We who fear God will not kill these children.” This made the pharaoh angry. This offended the sensibilities of many Egyptians. This probably made the news where blowhard pundits blew harder and harder about lawlessness and the costs of civil disobedience. But they did what they had to do to stand up for themselves, because they feared God, to stand up for the boys being killed every day, because they feared God, and they did what they had to do, because they feared God, they did what they had to do for the salvation, for the salvation even of the slaveholding soul of Egypt.

Midwives in Egypt had a choice between two alternatives. Smother the future on the birthing stool, or take to the streets in protest. Shiphrah and Puah did the latter. They took to the streets. Because they feared God more than Pharaoh, they took to the streets in protest. But that was thousands of years ago. We are alive today, in a very different world. But we have some similar problems. And our choices are a lot like Shiphrah and Puah’s choices. Will we be tools of oppression? Or will we be midwives to what’s being born next? Will we be obedient to the system? Will we play our role? Or will we be disobedient and work for a more just society, for a better system that does not sort us into different kinds of people with different kinds of opportunities and privileges? Will we be beholden to that old slaveholding soul? Or will we allow our national soul to be redeemed?

I am speaking as a citizen of this nation, a white-skinned citizen, descended, I assume, from slaveholders and overt racists and all manner of pharaohs. But more than that I am thinking and speaking as a Christian, as one who does my best to fear God, and that is how I ask you to think and that is how I ask you to speak. Ask how you are being told to midwife. Think of what you are being asked to accept, what you are being asked to do. And ask yourself, as one who loves God more than Pharaoh, ask yourself what kind of midwife you will be. Ask whether you will do a pharaoh’s bidding. Or whether you might instead find your place in the streets, subverting pharaoh, crying out for justice, crying out for equality, and crying out on behalf of something just being born. Amen.

The Reverend Doctor Eric C. Smith is Visiting Assistant Professor of the History of Christianity and New Testament Studies at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, CO, and Teaching Minister at First Plymouth Congregational Church (United Church of Christ) in suburban Denver. He is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).


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