Faith as Civil Disobedience

The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.” But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families.
– Exodus 1:15-21

One can imagine the midwives saying to Pharaoh, “There are thousands of Hebrew women giving birth, but only two of us.” But they didn’t. They simply disobeyed orders and then, when confronted, told the truth. And, of course, there weren’t just two midwives in all of Egypt; they are emblematic of what to do in the face of imperial authority that demands injustice of its subjects. Refuse.

Shiphrah derives from Hebrew meaning “beautiful,” “fair,” and perhaps “improved.” Puah, depending on who you ask, might be derived from the Hebrew meaning “cry out” or “groan.” These two did a beautiful thing amidst those who were crying out, groaning – both in the national sense of the people crying out under the yoke of slavery, and in the personal sense of those crying out, groaning in childbirth.

So this is, in effect, the Bible’s first story of faith (“But the midwives feared God.”) as civil disobedience. It might also be, by extension, a lesson about how every position, no matter how humble, can be a platform for doing justice. Every person, no matter how insignificant, has the capacity to confront the system, to refuse to go along to get along.

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?