What can an obscure verse in the exodus story tell white Christians about how to respond to recent events in Ferguson, MO? Why has it functioned as a metaphor to inspire hope to countless generations of oppressed people, Jew and non-Jew alike? What hope does it offer white Christians at this important moment in history?
The story of Israel’s exodus stands as the defining narrative for generations of Israelites. Passover, their most sacred festival, serves as an annual dramatic retelling of God’s liberation of an oppressed people, His people, from cruel enslavement. When, centuries later, the Israelites were exiled under Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian captivity, they retold the exodus narrative with a sense of fervent longing and anticipation that the God who’d once delivered them would be faithful and deliver them again.
Under Greek and Roman rule, the people of Israel again turned to their prophetic tradition for signs that the promised deliverer, one called the “messiah,” was coming to liberate them from foreign dominance. They imagined a bold leader would emerge to overthrow imperial rule, much like Moses had confronted Pharaoh. When the messiah did show up in the person of Jesus, he failed to meet the expectations of the masses. They did not have “eyes to see” or “ears to hear.”
From the earliest days of Christianity, followers of Jesus saw in him a continuance of the work of deliverance God began in the exodus. The exodus story earned a special place among African slaves and their descendants in America. The cry of the Hebrews became their cry. The hope of the Hebrews became their hope.
During the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, the story of the exodus again emerged as a guiding metaphor for black people seeking liberation from an overt system of oppression in the form of segregation laws. Again, the cry of the Hebrews became their cry and the hope of the Hebrews became their hope.
Now, in 2014, America stands at another crossroads of race. The equalities granted under the various acts and laws that emerged from the civil rights movement have proven incomplete. People of color in America in general, and black people specifically, face ongoing oppression from a network of political, legal, social, and cultural systems created long ago by white people to protect the power and privilege of white people. By inheriting this power and privilege, white people today are just as complicit in oppressing people of color as their more overtly racist ancestors were in creating those systems. Racism has become institutionalized, moving beyond the individual’s personal sentiments or religious piety. Continue Reading…