As privileged people, we can’t simply claim the story of the Exodus without reflection, repentance, and concrete response. But if we are willing to hear God’s grief and anger at the suffering of the poor; if we are willing to acknowledge the horrors of our past; if we are willing to engage with the violence of our present, then we can move towards a different future.
Over the last few weeks, we have heard much about the suffering of the Israelites. Slaves in Egypt, they were given backbreaking work with impossible quotas; their children were being killed: and God heard their cries. One man, Moses, escaped the genocide and was raised in Pharaoh’s household. As an adult, God sent him back to Pharaoh over and over again to ask him to let God’s people go. Each refusal was followed by a plague; and the Passover, which sees the death of all the firstborn children and animals in Egypt, is the tenth plague. It is only after this that Pharaoh finally let God’s people go.
Now, if we read this story individually and spiritually, what we usually hear is that God cares about our suffering, and will free us from the ravages of addiction, or trauma, or social marginalisation, or other things. And this is not a bad way to read while praying alone at home; it’s what modern Western individuals do. But it is not how it has been read over the centuries, because God’s people usually read in groups.
And when we read as a group, we discover that the Exodus is not really a story about personal liberation, although this may result from reading the story with others. Instead, the Exodus invites us into a shared identity as the people of God. And as a newly emerging congregation, living in a society which has elevated the rights of the individual above the common good, this is a sound reading. It challenges the cult of individualism and grants us a powerful identity which, in the long run, can liberate us from so much.
But we need to be careful. We can’t adopt this identity blindly and triumphantly. Claiming to be the people of God means rejecting other identities, other gods. It means reading the Bible as it was intended to be read: as a story about God’s continuing interest in human history, politics, and economics—and it means recognising our own social location. Only then will we have a hope of understanding what it means to be God’s people in this particular time and place. So the million-dollar question is, Which part of the story is most about us? Who do we most resemble? As a group, are we more like the oppressed Hebrew slaves, or are we more like privileged Egyptians?
Well, we live in a land which was taken by force from the original occupants, who were then violently used. White Australians spread disease, accidentally and deliberately, which killed many indigenous people. We pushed others off cliffs, or fed them strychnine; and, here in Warrnambool, we sat on the hill behind what is now the high school, and took pot shots at the First Peoples for Sunday sport. We removed their children and placed them into white institutions, which were culturally inappropriate and frequently abusive. We forced them into indentured service, and restricted their freedom of movement. Even now, far too many Indigenous Australians live in poverty or in jail; and as a whole, Indigenous Australians have a life expectancy many years less than white Australians. None of us here directly participated in this violence, but all of us reap the economic benefits as we farm, mine, and live on stolen land.
We are complicit in violence against and oppression of the First Peoples of Australia; we are also complicit in violence overseas. Our economic system keeps us many steps removed from the people who produce our consumer goods. But start digging, and you quickly realise that many of our goods are produced by low paid workers living in appalling conditions; and many are produced by indentured labourers. There is no meaningful difference between the Hebrews forced to make bricks in Egypt, and the average factory worker in a Special Economic Zone, locked in a firetrap for 18 hours a day making t-shirts, sneakers, or electronic equipment. Our cheap consumer goods are produced in a violent economic system which preferences the health and wellbeing of one group of people over another.
White middle-class Australians are enmeshed in a history and an ongoing web of violence that is almost impossible to escape. Our big houses, cheap food, fast fashion, forced obsolescence, all wrapped in an extra layer of plastic—our way of life—is founded on genocide and relies on the ongoing enslavement and suffering of others. Who, then, do we most resemble? Which part of the story is most about us? If we only gaze up the social scale, we might miss it; but if we compare our lives with the lives of the poor, it is clear: We are the Egyptians in this story.
This means that we cannot identify as the people of God unless we are willing to address the ways our wealth and our consumption are bound up in other people’s suffering. For as we heard last week, God knows their pain, and listens to their cries; and, as we heard this week, when the oppressors harden their hearts, God’s righteous anger is aroused. In other words, if we continue to participate in the ways of empire, complacently benefitting from other people’s suffering, and mindlessly consuming, then God’s anger will be aroused—at our nation, our institutions, our laws, our culture, and at us.
By now you’re probably wondering: Is there any hope for us at all? Is our Egyptian identity a death knell? To answer this, we need to go back to the stories. We have already met Pharaoh’s daughter, a powerful Egyptian who drew Moses out of the river and raised him in her own household. Moses himself was raised as an Egyptian. In the coming weeks, we will hear that, when Israel is preparing to leave Egypt, Egyptian neighbours give them silver and gold because they look on the Israelites with favour. And when Israel leaves at last, they take a vast multitude of non-Israelites, who could only have been Egyptians. So the good news is that this story of liberation has room for Egyptians; it has room for us.
As privileged people, we can’t simply claim the story of the Exodus without reflection, repentance, and concrete response. But if we are willing to hear God’s grief and anger at the suffering of the poor; if we are willing to acknowledge the horrors of our past; if we are willing to engage with the violence of our present, then we can move towards a different future: a future where “justice rolls down like a river” (Amos 5:24). This is a future which seeks reconciliation with Australia’s First Peoples; a future which rejects the lies of the consumer gods; a future which seeks justice for all workers everywhere; a future which might mean less wealth and less privilege for people like us; but a future in which we identify ever more closely with the people of God.
In other words, if we are willing to align ourselves with those on history’s underside, with the poor and the vulnerable—then we can be part of the story. For in the end, all of us—Israelite and Egyptian, Indigenous and colonial and migrant, oppressed and powerful—are asked to step away from all forms of violence and exploitation.
And all of us are invited to leave behind the ways we have known, the ways of other gods, and to walk as God’s people into new territories, together. Amen. Ω
To ponder: What are some concrete steps we could take together towards reconciliation with Indigenous Australians? Towards justice for workers, both here in Australia and overseas? What are some steps we are already taking? How can we as a congregation support and further this work?
A reflection on the plagues of Egypt (Exodus 7-12) by Alison Sampson, Sanctuary, 10 September 2017 (AP18). Image shows Lamentations over the Death of the First-born of Egypt by Charles Sprague Pearce – Self-photographed, Caroline Léna Becker, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20392746.