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Sunday, August 24, 2014

Enslaved by Fear - A Sermon on Exodus 1: 8 - 2: 10

It is a truth, though not universally acknowledged (for to acknowledge it would be to allow a measure of doubt to creep into our practiced certainty that everything is just as it should be) that those in possession of power fear the powerless, just as the rich fear the poor and the master fears the slave.

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown. Always. (Shakespeare)

A new king came to power in Egypt land – one that could not (or would not) remember Joseph or all that son of Israel had done for Egypt.  He was a mighty king, a powerful king.  He led the navy to repulse attacks from sea-pirates, he maintained (and expanded) the borders of Egypt.  He built cities, and palaces, and monuments – Lord, how many monuments.  In every city, on every corner, there was a statue or an inscription to mark his presence and to memorialize his achievements.  In the 30th year of his rule, he was transformed into a living god in the Egyptian “Sed Festival” and thereafter, every third year, another Sed Festival was held in his honor.  He had 45 sons and 40 daughters with his many multiplied wives. (Wente, 618 - 620)  He ruled for 67 years, bringing peace, and power, and prosperity to the nation of Egypt. 

And the inscription beneath the colossal statue erected in his honor read:
My name is Ozymandias, king of kings,
Look on my works, ye mighty and despair.
 (Percy Bysshe Shelley)

Ozymandias, (in Greek) or Ramses II “the Great” was powerful beyond most human imagination. 

But those in power never rest easy.

This new king in Egypt – who could not (or would not) remember what the son of Israel had done for Egypt - looked upon the Israelites with fear.

“Look… the Israelites have become too many and too mighty for us.”

The mighty Pharaoh Ramses II, the great and powerful Ozymandias feared the Hebrew people who, though they had continued to multiply during the years between Joseph and Ramses II, were still a minority people in the land of Egypt.  They held no political power (not since the days of long forgotten Joseph) they held no numerical advantage.  They were a minority in Egypt.

But the minority is always feared by the powerful, just as the rich fear the poor, and the master fears the slave. The oppressor fears those that he/she oppresses.

This is not an ancient pattern, now eliminated in our modern society.  We have not yet outgrown these things.  In our own nation’s history we have seen this fear.

The Native American tribes were regarded by White leaders in the 1860s as savages. They were uncivilized. White leaders said that the Indians prized “theft, arson, rape and murder” and raised their children “to regard killing as the highest virtue.”  Indian men, according to these powerful American leaders, were indolent and lazy, leaving all the hard work for their women.   They were barbarous, and savage, and superstitious heathen.  (Nichols, 175 - 6)

In 1736, Colonel William Byrd – a wealthy Virginian slave owner (considered to be the founder of Richmond, Virginia) wrote, “We have already at least 10,000 men of these descendants of Ham fit to bear arms, and their numbers increase every day as well by birth as importation.  And in case there should arise a man of desperate courage among us, exasperated by a desperate fortune, he might with more advantage than Cataline kindle a servile war.  Such a man might be dreadfully mischievous before any opposition could be formed against him and tinge our rivers, as wide as they are, with blood.” (Zinn, 35) also here
The Africans being brought to this country as slaves were feared by their masters. If they could not be kept under control, they would, as Colonel Byrd feared, rise up in revolt, and kill their masters, rape the white women, burn the plantations, and bring economic ruin upon the white ruling class. 

Even after slavery was abolished on these shores, the “darkies” were feared by those in power.  Blacks were described alternately as "lazy, thriftless, intemperate, insolent, dishonest, and without the most rudimentary elements of morality" or as violent beasts, “a hyena in a cage,” “wild beast” ready to rape and murder.  (Zinn, 208)

They were feared and had to be kept in check.  The Indians were slaughtered, and those that survived were herded onto crowded reservations (and often moved again, further afield, when those lands were coveted by whites.)  Blacks were harassed and lynched. Segregated into separate and entirely unequal stations within society. 

Fear turns the “other” into something other than human.  They become sub-human animals, brutes.  Fear makes them seem inferior, greedy, conniving, ugly, lazy, diseased, filthy…

 Said the new king, “Look… the Israelites have become too many and to mighty for us.  Let us deal shrewdly with them or they will take our jobs and take our women.  They’ll flood our hospitals with their diseases and our schools with their dirty children.  They’re violent.  They’re drug users and they bring illegal drugs across our borders.  They don’t worship the way we do.  They don’t even speak our language properly. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and take over the land.”
Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.

Ramses II, the great and powerful Ozmandias with legions of armed men and servants at his command, with wealth and power incalculable was afraid of the Israelites. He perceived them to be a threat – for those in power always perceive the poor and the oppressed as a threat – and he began a systematic program to reduce the Hebrew danger. 

He put them to work, made their lives bitter with rigor and toil.  He oppressed them with forced labor; he compelled them to build store-cities for him – which further increased his wealth and power, while at the same time reducing the Hebrew strength and power.  The Egyptians used them ruthlessly.  They exploited their labor, and stole the sweat from their brows. But the Pharaoh’s plan was flawed.  The more he oppressed them, the more they multiplied and spread.  The more he tightened his grip, the more they slipped through his fingers. 
So the Egyptians came to fear the Israelites. The Egyptians came to dread the Israelites.

Next Pharaoh ordered that the midwives of Egypt murder the Hebrew boys at birth.  But the midwives feared God and refused to be a part of this vile plan. So Pharaoh expanded the scope of his plan; he ordered all of the people of Egypt to throw Israelite boy children into the Nile.  Not just the midwives. Not just the soldiers. Every good and law abiding citizen of Egypt was instructed to hurl Israelite baby boys into the waters of the Nile.

Because they were afraid. 

The great and the powerful are never so strong that they do not fear those whom they oppress.  The rich and wealthy are never able to purchase an escape from their fear of the poor.  The master can never sleep easily with slaves at hand. 

We tell the story of the Exodus as the escape of the Israelites from the slavery of Egypt.  But we must see that the Egyptians were enslaved too, held in chains of their own forging.  Chains of fear and dread and loathing. The powerful fear the powerless. The rich fear the poor. The oppressor fears the oppressed. The master fears the slave.  Pharaoh feared the Israelites. Herod feared the newborn Jesus.

The Israelites were enslaved to the people of Egypt – a physical slavery of rigorous labor and bitter tears. But the Egyptians were enslaved as well – enslaved to fear and loathing.  And every powerful and prosperous people since has faced the same slavery. 

While we view people as something other – something less than human.  When we see them as thugs and criminals, when we think of them as lazy and freeloaders we are binding our own chains even tighter.  We enact harsher punishments for criminal acts – but we fail to reform the legal system that incarcerates a disproportionate number of minorities.  We equip our police with more powerful weapons and armor – but that only serves to tighten the chains of fear.

Fear can only be undone by love.  Courageous, radical love.

A courageous radical love that says – if you are hungry I will feed you, if you are naked I will clothe you without regard for anything except the fact that you are a child of God, created in his image.  What we need is a courageous radical love that says – if you are low I will lift you up, if you are weak I will support you.

Love does not oppress.
Love does not crush.
Love does no harm
Love does not fear
because perfect love drives out all fear.

(A disclaimer:  there is no universal agreement about which of the Pharaohs was in power during the oppression and during the exodus – if it was an actual historical event…  Ramesses II is the favored choice of many, but not all, historians.)

Nichols, David A. Lincoln and the Indians: Civil War Policy and Politics, Minnesota Historical Society Press, St. Paul MN, 2012.
Shakespeare, William, Henry the IV Part II
Shelly, Percy Bysshe Ozymandias
Wente, Edward F. “Ramesses II” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary Vol. V, Doubleday, New York, NY, 1992.
Zinn, Howard, A People’s History of the United States: 1492 – Present, Haper Collins New York, NY, 2003.

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