The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” (Exodus 16.2-3)
The rabble among them had a strong craving; and the Israelites also wept again, and said, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.” (Numbers 11.4-6)
One of the cries we are prone to in these days is “I wish we could just go back to the way it was!” I just did it myself in a sermon a few weeks ago, when I talked about how at the beginning of the pandemic, we were all chipping in and helping each other, but then slowly our demons had taken back over and we are becoming fractured and partisan again. But we do it all the time. The most famous may be our President’s campaign slogan, “Make American Great Again.” I have heard the cry from former Senators and Congressmembers who have talked about the time when people worked “across the aisle” with compromise and collaboration. As we have mourned social distancing and stay-at-home orders, this has especially become the cry of many of us in the Church. And as violence rocks our country, many are asking protestors to quieten down and find other ways to make changes.
Of course, we are not alone in our lament and longing. Our ancestors, the Israelites, were famous complainers in the wilderness, longing to go back to Egypt – the very place of their enslavement – because “at least they had food,” or they remember with longing the savory foods. The hardness of the wilderness made them romanticize a life marked by brutality, oppression, and death. Keeping an eye on the Promised Land was not so easy after years in the wilderness.
We are not unlike of ancestors. In hoping to make America great again, we forget that any era of our history has been marked by darkness – whether the subjugation of the Indigenous peoples of this land, the enslavement, segregation, or oppression of African-Americans, the disenfranchisement and sexual subjugation of women, and on and on go the examples. When we look at our current inability to work across party lines, we forget the ways in which women and people of color were wildly underrepresented in leadership – if represented at all! Our current mourning of how Church used to be forgets the incredible ways technology has connected us to our neighbors, our extended community, and even strangers. And both this pandemic and the protests about the treatment of persons of color are pulling back the curtains on disparities around wealth and opportunity for African-Americans.
What we learn from our biblical ancestors is that the wilderness is hard: hunger, thirst, discomfort, and disagreements over power are real. And yet, only in the wilderness did the faithful learn to trust God, to restructure leadership in shared ways, and find ways to govern themselves marked by justice and mercy. As a person of privilege, I certainly have the option to turn off news coverage, wait this pandemic and the protests out, and stay ensconced in my place of power. Or I can use this wilderness to learn, to be vulnerable, to use my power for goodness (or even better, cede some of my power), and to pray for God’s help on the journey. It may be quite some time before we arrive at the Promised Land. But we do not have to flee back to Egypt.