Who’s the Slave?

Pyramids
Photo Credit: Daniel Dillman

Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. 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 escape from the land.” Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.
– Exodus 1:8-14

Here is a perfect example of an all-too-often repeated dynamic. The minority tyrannizes the majority, why? Because the minority is afraid that the majority, of whom they are afraid, will escape, will run away and leave the terrified minority alone? That it would be easier just to let them go and be done with it, they’re gone now, nobody to be afraid of, never occurs to them. So, again, whose life is more circumscribed: the slave’s or the slave master’s?

Another paradox: the more the oppression, the more the problem grows. The more the problem grows, the more fear, the more the oppressive response. And on it goes.

Seth Godin recently remarked about the problems with basing a society’s (or any system’s) response on fear. It turns out that fighting terror with terror isn’t really a viable strategy in the long term. And Seth’s stories of his adventures at the airport are only the tip of the iceberg.

Fear and slavery are the way empires from Egypt to the USA have always worked. (They are also the reason no empire to date has lasted more than a few hundred years.) Therefore, the Exodus story is just as relevant today as it was the day it was first written down.

In response to this ancient dynamic, we would do well to ask ourselves why so much of our public discourse revolves around fear? Could it be that we’re simply as blind as the Egyptians to our version of the folly? Must we be the world’s police force? Really? Do we really think we’re that much in control of the world when we can’t even control our own credit rating. For a nation as fixated on a God of retributive justice as we are, we sure seem to be intent on relieving God of employment.

What would happen if we really took the advice of the Exodus story and simply let it go? What if we really acted as if FDR’s was right when he said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Who’s the slave? Who’s life is more circumscribed?

Is it:

  • the oppressed or the oppressor
  • the Hebrew or the Egyptian
  • the passenger or the TSA agent
  • the employee or the boss
  • the child or the parent
  • the Guantanamo detainee or the American soldier
  • the sweatshop laborer or the corporate executive?

How do you loose the bonds of slavery? How do you break out of the destructive, unsustainable patterns? The answer, hidden behind the fear of the moment, but obvious with a few thousand years’ hindsight: “Let my people go.”

What do you think? Is it possible, in the grip of an imperial fear-based system, for the oppressor to let go?

The Care and Feeding of Multitudes

Feeding the multitudes
Giovanni Lanfranco, Miracle of the Bread and Fish, 1620-23

Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
– Matthew 14:13-21

This scene depicts the beginning of a people’s revolution. If, among those crowds that day, there had been anyone from the press, they would have reported it as such.

First off, notice the connection to John the Baptist. Herod did. In Luke’s version (Luke 9:7ff), the lead-up to the story shows Herod wondering how the guy he executed for gathering crowds in the wilderness could still be out there. Matthew says Jesus goes to the wilderness (“a deserted place”) after being told the John the Baptist was dead. In the wilderness following the first meeting with John, Jesus had been tempted to turn rocks into bread for his own benefit. This time, following John’s scene, Jesus is back in the wilderness and he does make bread – for the benefit of the people.

So the first question about this scene has got to be (thanks to Simon Harak): Where did all the people come from? Think about it. How can there be 5000 men, plus women and children with the kind of leisure time to take a couple days off for a wilderness trek? And the answer is that they are unemployed. They are imperial flotsam. Then and now imperial economic systems need to maintain a certain rate of unemployment. Modern economists call it the NAIRU: the Non-Accelerating Inflation Rate of Unemployment. And they say that ideally, depending on other economic factors, this ideal unemployment figure should usually be over four percent, and as high as ten or more percent. In parts of the world under occupation, the rate is much higher: it’s easier to control people if they haven’t got an excuse to go anywhere or the means to do anything meaningful. Currently, for example, in Palestine unemployment in the West Bank is 16.5% and 40% in Gaza. In Iraq, the unemployment rate in 2009 according to the CIA’s World Fact Book  was 15.3%. In Afghanistan, it’s 35%. But unemployment isn’t just an ideal fact in an imperial war economy. Currently the US employment rate as it tries to maintain two major wars and maintain footholds throughout the known world is (as of the end of June) 9.2%. These 5000 are the ones who have been intentionally left destitute.

Second, it stands to reason that in any crowd of unemployed people, there are bound to be a lot of them sick. They can’t afford adequate nutrition. They can’t afford going to the doctor. They can’t afford medicine. And, think about it, if you’re sick or if you have a sick kid, you’re main worry is going to be about getting better. So occupations go better when there are lots of sick people. People don’t have the time or energy to resist. So the crowds gather and the first thing Jesus does is “he cured their sick.” Remember what they were saying about Obama when he was talking about the possibility of free universal health care? What do you think the establishment was saying about Jesus?

Third, notice that the disciples want Jesus to “send the crowds away.” It’s not hard to see the disciples as a representation of the church. And, even in the first generation of Matthew’s community, there is a tension between Jesus and the church. Then and now, the first response of the church in dealing with marginalized, unemployed, sick, hungry people is to send them away, Jesus’ constant response is let them come, and you take care of them.

So Jesus instructs the disciples to have the people sit down on the grass – wait, what grass? This was supposed to be the desert. So now, the scene is not just a people’s revolution: it has now become a living instance of Psalm 23 – “He leadeth me in green pastures, and feedeth me beside the still waters” (how else is there grass-in desert, the wilderness, the valley of the shadow of death?).

All ate and were filled – not just ate, were filled. So, says Harak, “He’s healed all the people the empire wants sick, and he’s fed all the people the empire wants hungry. How long do you think they’re going to let him live?” In fact, where there were once a crowd of sick hungry no-accounts, there are now 5000 healthy, well-fed men here. It’s a number big enough to be of imperial significance, since a Roman legion was a group of between 5000 and 6000 healthy well-fed Roman citizens. Jesus is leading five thousand healthy, well-fed men who he’s symbolically named citizens of God’s kingdom: he has legion now. How long do you think they’re going to let him live?

Finally, about the twelve baskets left over. Twelve tribes of Israel: the leftovers, the broken pieces. Jesus collects the broken pieces to be the new Israel. Think about it. The care and feeding of multitudes is just that revolutionary.