We know exactly where our story is going today in Exodus when the introduction says, “Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.” This introduction is ominous because to not know Joseph is to not know how Joseph saved Egypt from famine, making Egypt a world leader in a time of crisis. But on a more personal note, to not know Joseph means that the warm welcome the Israelites once received in gratitude for Joseph’s service has also been forgotten. This is how Pharaoh’s reign of terror begins. Not knowing the formerly friendly arrangement between these two very distinct groups, Pharaoh chooses prejudice and fear. Afraid that this foreign group will pose a threat, Pharaoh strikes preemptively. First, he enslaves the Israelites, forcing them into labor for Egypt. But that kind of subjugation is not enough to assuage Pharaoh’s paranoia. So Pharaoh starts another campaign – he enlists midwives to kill any male newborns, in the hopes of reducing the number of men who can revolt against his new stratified system. And when that campaign does not work, Pharaoh extends his reach and calls upon all the Egyptians, instructing them to kill all Hebrew newborn boys that they encounter.
This story is scary because the story is a bit too familiar. Just in the past several months we have witnessed similar violence and oppression of “the other.” The advance of ISIS in Iraq is so extreme that their violence is being labeled as genocide. Whole communities of faith, both Christian and other faiths, are either being displaced, murdered, or sold into slavery. And though the players and terrain may be foreign to us, genocide is not. Whether through Pharaoh thousands of years ago, in the Holocaust seventy years ago, or in Rwanda twenty years ago, we know the devastation, trauma, and scars that genocide leaves. Each time we pray, “Never again,” and yet, here we find ourselves again in Iraq.
A more complicated version of oppression can be found much closer to home – in Ferguson, Missouri, in Staten Island, and yes, even in Plainview. Though the recent cases are about the racial tensions between police officers and African-Americans, the truth is that racism is a reality throughout our country and involves a system of oppression that benefits some over others. I remember when I first met my husband, Scott, we had a conversation about racism. As young seventeen-year olds, we came from very different backgrounds. He was a conservative Republican (though I think he was a Republican mostly in defiance of the long history of liberal democrats in his family – but that is another story). He grew up in San Diego: a military town across the border from Mexico. His peers were people of every race, nationality, and geography, and what he saw was a mixture of people who seemed to function without much prejudice. I, on the other hand, was an idealistic Democrat, who saw a very different world in rural Georgia and North Carolina. I was a part of an organization as a young woman who did not welcome people of color – a fact I did not realize until I wanted to invite my African-American girlfriend to join. At my high school, there were threats of the KKK coming by to intimidate the few African-Americans at our school. So when Scott and I first began to talk about racism, you can imagine that we had very different opinions about the role that race places in our country.
The scary part for me in our news lately is that genocide and racism are two different expressions of the same problem. Both stem from the recognition of difference – of there being one group of privilege and one group of disenfranchisement – or “the other.” Once an “other” has been established, judgments of value are next. Through those judgments of values emerges prejudice – and in the instance of race, racism. When taken to the extreme, that prejudice can lead to genocide – a complete annihilation of “the other.” So genocide and racism are just markers on a spectrum of reactions to difference.
Now many of you may be thinking, “Okay, so we cannot help but notice differences among us. And if we notice differences, and the next natural step is a judgment of value, then what are we supposed to do? How are we supposed to change our natural judgments? Obviously most of us are opposed to the extreme of genocide, but can we really do anything about racism?” As a person who has attended many anti-racism trainings and programs, this is where many of us are caught up short. When we enter into discussion about this issue, we feel guilt, frustration, helplessness, defensiveness, confusion, anger, and shame. Though most of us can agree that we do not want a society where prejudice exists, truthfully, we just do not even know where to start or what to do.
That is why I love this story from Exodus today. Though Pharaoh brings the ugliness of our current events into light, the women in this story show the way toward salvation. My favorite women are the midwives, Shiphrah and Puah. Pharaoh tells the midwives that as the Hebrew women are delivering their children, if they deliver any male children, the midwives are to kill the boys immediately. Shiphrah and Puah have several options here. They can run away – out of fear of Pharaoh, they can disregard their charge from Pharaoh and run for safety. They can stand up to Pharaoh, refusing to kill others, but face the consequences of Pharaoh’s anger. But what they do instead is genius. Instead, they disobey, but they disobey with cunning. The midwives play into the prejudice of Pharaoh – that the Hebrews are somehow different. So they come back to Pharaoh with farcical story about why they did not kill the babies, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” You can almost hear the feigned innocence and incompetence in their response. Though we all know that the midwives basically lie to pharaoh, Amy Merrill Willis calls this act by the midwives a “gracious defiance,” because of the way “it embraces life and blurs Pharaoh’s attempts to draw lines of distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ between Egyptian and Hebrew, between dominating and dominated.”[i] Shiphrah and Puah show the world another way to respond to prejudice. And their small act – their act of gracious defiance – changes the course of history.
What I love about Shiphrah and Puah’s story is that they basically teach us that we can all make a difference – in fact, we can all change the world. Now I know that sounds idealistic or pie-in-the-sky, but think about this. Shiphrah and Puah were of little consequence in their time. They have very little power. They work under Pharaoh and they are women in a time when women had even less power than they do today. All they did in a little slice of history was disobey an order and tell a tiny little, but incredibly awesome, lie. And from that small, tiny action, they save an entire people.
Andy Andrews wrote a book called The Butterfly Effect, in which he argues that each of us makes decisions every day that have a ripple effect on others, and that simple, courageous efforts can have an extraordinary impact.[ii] The possibilities are endless: the teacher who encourages a student who later befriends another student who is going through a rough patch; the grandfather who volunteers to read at the local elementary school who instills a love of reading in a child who later becomes a prolific writer; the parishioner who makes a sandwich for a client of the INN, who is no longer so hungry and disheartened that he cannot care for his struggling family; the young woman who helps a mom load groceries into her trunk who is then encouraged to be much more kind and patient with her rowdy, sometimes frustrating children.
The point is that when we talk about the world’s ills – racism, prejudice, or genocide – we often feel overwhelmed and incapable of affecting change. But the truth is, we can be a part of changing the world every day. The choices we make impact others and ripple out in much larger ways that we can imagine. Sometimes our choices are bold and courageous, but sometimes they are small, often unnoticed choices. But our choices have the potential to impact greater change than we know. Thousands of years ago, Shiphrah and Puah were the gracious defiers who quietly and cunningly stood up to a bully and tyrant. This week, you can be the gracious defier who chips away the world’s injustice. The choice is yours – and the potential for goodness is great. Amen.
[i] Amy Merrill Willis, “Commentary on Exodus 1:8-2:10,” as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching. aspx? commentary_ id=972 on August 19, 2014.
[ii] David Lose, “The Butterfly Effect,” as found at https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1599 on August 19, 2014.