In the wake of this week's tragic violence, I returned to a moment in Exodus we passed over Sunday. I had not thought through it carefully before. In one of the countless ironies of the Bible, God’s deliverance of Israel from Pharaoh's cruelty begins with the heroic efforts of women. The Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah let the children live. The Hebrew mother of Moses and Pharaoh’s daughter behold a child and do what is right. Each do what is right, in their moment, unaware of the far reaching impact of their actions. Small acts of goodness decisively bend the arc of human history toward justice. In that there is much hope. That is a good reading of the text; however, it is Pharaoh’s daughter that gives me pause.
I typically note these details and move on, leaving Pharaoh’s daughter behind; but her presence has always felt to me as a piece that didn’t quite fit. Egypt is the enemy; Israel becomes our focus now. We will cheer God’s victory as the Egyptian army falls, horse and rider, into the sea. I didn’t look into a deeper meaning until this week; a Jewish commentator I read, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, opened my eyes to the subtly of the text. If you insert the real names of hated powers into this story, she is Hitler’s daughter, Stalin’s child, bin Laden’s beloved. We are then confronted with the truth that any despised people we name is capable of goodness too. Certainly the Egyptians are not all evil, even the court of Pharaoh. It is a difficult revelation; now we will need to morn Pharaoh’s army when they are drowned. The scripture in this detail: a heroine in the wrong place, calls us to confront our binary, all or nothing thinking.
Binary thinking begins innocently, it is common to us all; it is deeply rooted in our mammalian ancestors’ instinct for stranger danger in the wilderness. Yet, in our humanity, no people, or family, no single person in their beginning is all good or all evil. This binary thinking or dualism is one of the false patterns which undergirds human prejudice; dehumanizing the other, it ends in violence. Dismantling the scourge of racism requires thinking more carefully about the way we think. This is a challenging task, indeed.
In her book, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, Robin J. D’Angelo helps identify, brings to light, social structures and patterns that undergird systemic racism. She devotes Chapter Five to the good/bad binary. Our tendency is to not accept that good people participate in a racist structure. At least our culture has bent enough toward justice that most of us agree that to be racist is bad. A good person could not be racist. Therefore if we perceive ourselves as good, confronting the systemic racism that we participate in is a deep disruption of identity. In self defense we become reactive, sometimes aggressively, and refuse to see. This is a helpful observation, particularly when D’Angelo asserts that we must look to identify the “underlying systems of meaning” that support our self-justifications. The chapter, however, leaves the matter there. I would suggest this kind of thinking is not simply about racism, it is everywhere among us. This is only one of a number of patterns that must be disrupted. To dismantle racism we must dismantle the false, binary pattern which so easily dehumanizes the other.
To dismantle racism requires looking very deeply at a pattern that we replicate innocently everyday. We ask ourselves why has so little changed in our work toward racism and social justice? Why does prejudice, systemic or personal, persist? My theory is that we don’t dig deeply enough, or personally enough. The behavior can be as present in a church meeting as is it is in our reaction to the news. We underestimate, as Wesley would say, our capacity for self deception. For example, how often have you discounted the totality of a speaker or author or preacher, because of an offensive personality trait or a fact misplaced, a style of writing that we think not to our taste? Perhaps you haven’t, but I certainly have. It takes a great deal of discipline to halt in that moment of flat binary rejection and say: I may not agree with that, but I may yet learn from her. The person before us is a child of God who has a claim on my actions. I really do believe it involves a change that profound. Can we behold the other and see the good in one different from ourselves without flatly dismissing them? What good can come from Nazareth? ... quite a lot as it turns out.
In the aftermath of September 11th 2001, it became common to speak of that era in binary language, it was Muslim extremism versus the free democratic west. In her study of Hindu and Muslim tensions in India — The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India’s Future, Martha Nausbam, brings the matter closer to home.“The real clash of civilizations” is not “out there,” between admirable Western and Muslim zealots. It is here within each person, as we oscillate between self-protective aggression and the ability to live in the world with others.” “Our task is to see in difference, a nation’s richness rather than its purity.”
We have come a long way now from Pharaoh’s daughter, but my suggestion is that before we dismiss anyone, any person or opinion different from our selves, we pause and recognize the clash within ourselves. Let us pause and remember her. Pause, behold the child before us. Pause, in the moment of binary thinking and recognize that person cannot be all bad. Given our capacity for self deception it is quite unlikely that I am entirely in the right. That doesn’t make me or you any less worthy of the love already given by the source of all. That pause does in fact have the power to change the world. Let us observe it and teach it to our children. Now, on with the story. This week Exodus 3:1-15.
-- Pastor Mark Sturgess
Nausbaum as cited in Walter Brueggemann, Tenacious Solidarity: Biblical Provocations on Race, Reliiogn, Climate and the Economy, p 172. Nausbaum's book is a fascinating study on its own as well. Recommended reading.