I am a member of a church here in Los Angeles that is in the midst of a 21-day challenge to explore issues surrounding the evident racial divisions in our nation. Our congregation is a majority white one, with only a few persons of color—black, brown, and Asian—on the rolls. I am a 74-year-old, cis-gendered white male, and as such am the epitome of power and privilege in a world established and controlled primarily by persons just like me. In the face of the explosions in the country over the murders and brutalization of Black people by police and other authority figures, people like me have been confronted, again, with our cluelessness over what it actually means in America to be Black. Because of skin color alone, citizens of the USA are simply and inexorably treated differently socially, politically, and economically, and those differences are baked deeply into our systems. And because that is so, we white people are essentially unaware of how those systems have been created, privileging us, and making life more difficult for our Black and Brown sisters and brothers. Our church is helping us to wake up to the realities of our privilege, and the realities of the marginalization of our fellow citizens of color. If you are white, and have a hard time agreeing with me about these painful realities, you need to look much harder and more closely at your own privileges, as unaware as you may have been up to now of their existence, and you and I need to learn how to listen without defensiveness to the voices of those we have not heard from enough in our comfort and ease.
With the call of “Black Lives Matter” resounding in the land, it is crucial that we white folks not respond with that bromide, “All Lives Matter,” claiming that all God’s people are equally part of the world that God has made. But, that is precisely the point of the cry that “Black Lives Matter.” The fact is that Black people in America are not and have not been treated equally in America since they first appeared as slaves in 1619 on the eastern seaboard. For more than 400 years, Black slavery defined much of our history, and its rippling effects, even after the emancipation of the slaves in 1863, even after their right to vote was granted in the Constitution at the end of the Civil War, rights very quickly denied under increasingly monstrous Jim Crow laws, even after the Voting Rights Act of 1964, and even after any number of grand success stories about Black doctors, lawyers, and a president of the USA, have continued to taint our culture in ways subtle and unsubtle. “Black Lives Matter” is a cry from those who have not mattered, despite singular successes and partial victories. Black success in sports, business, politics, and the professions does not cover over the inherent racism that pervades our systems. Singular Black success does not mean that our white racism has ended; Barak Obama’s 8 years as president does not mean that we now live in a post-racial society. The brutal acts against Black persons in the summer of 2020, and in previous years, prove that racism is alive and well in America, and we white folks must face that fact if we ever are to move toward a country that mirrors at last the great promises of freedom and equality of its founding documents.
With all that ringing in my mind and heart, my rereading of the story of the Exodus in the Bible takes on a different cast. Of course, the story is still about the freedom of Israel from the bondage of pharaoh, a story that has had special importance for Black church people in the nation for centuries. Yet, when I read the tale with “Black Live Matter” sounding in my ears, a few of the story’s small details take on larger significance. Let us return to the Nile River, as Moses floats toward the palace of pharaoh in a tiny ark, pointedly reminiscent of the ark of Noah, daubed as it is by Moses’s mother with “bitumen and pitch.” Still, the boy Moses has been placed in the ark out of sheer desperation, a vain attempt to avoid the terrible edict of pharaoh that all boys born shall be drowned in the Nile, the insane monarch’s murderous venture to slow the Israelite slave’s magic ability to multiply like rabbits. Surely, the quietly floating ark will serve as Moses’s grave all too soon.
Yet, in the face of her father’s harsh edict about the necessity of death for all boys in the river, pharaoh’s own daughter, bathing by the stream, sees the little ark, and instead of acting as her father has commanded, does something quite unexpected. Baked into the very laws of Egypt is the requirement to treat all Hebrew children as expendable; their lives must be sacrificed for the good of Egypt, for the ease of all Egyptians, for the comfort of pharaoh, his household, and all those who benefit from the ways Egypt has exploited their slaves in order to continue a flourishing and successful economy. For obscure reasons, the daughter of pharaoh “opened it (the ark), saw the boy; look! He was crying, and she spared him (with a hint of compassion in the word), saying, ‘This is a Hebrew boy’” (Ex.2:6). Her reaction to the revelation of the Hebrew Moses is filled with contradiction. She is surely aware that her proper response to the discovery is to drown the infant immediately; that is what her own father has commanded. But, “she spared him.” A word is used here that is also found in Gen.19:16, where the reluctant Lot is slow to leave Sodom, and YHWH, “being merciful to him,” has the two messengers drag him from the doomed city, just before YHWH destroys it. Lot is “spared” due to the compassion of YHWH, and perhaps in the same way, Moses is spared due to the surprising compassion of the Egyptian princess.
What are we to make of her actions toward the baby? Is it simply a woman’s compassion for a helpless child, pharaoh’s command be damned? Or could we say that the princess will not kill the child, seeing in his weeping a universal trait of all children, an action that cuts across all races and peoples? All children cry, no matter their color, no matter their class, no matter their privilege. In that moment of a woman’s observation of a crying baby, perhaps the sudden realization of full equality for all people dawns on her, and she spares the child, becomes his surrogate mother and protector, despite the child’s sister and mother serving as actual protectors and life-givers to Moses.
I suggest that when the princess spares Moses from death in the Nile, she serves us white people as a model for our awakening to the genuine equality of all God’s people, and announces to us that in the face of Hebrew slavery, all Hebrew lives matter after all. Similarly, in the reality of inequality in our nation, we must avow and affirm that “Black Lives Matter,” that our Black citizens have been abused and neglected too long, that we whites have aided the systems of the nation to keep us comfortable, while abetting those systems to deny full equality to our Black brothers and sisters. Black lives do indeed matter, and until all of us can say that, and affirm that, we cannot move toward a world of freedom and hope for all of God’s creatures, a world that surely all people so richly desire.
(Images from Wikimedia Commons)