This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations I serve.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Pharaoh or Jesus?


            It was not long after the children of Israel had been miraculously liberated from slavery in Egypt that many of them began to complain and express the desire to go back.  The challenges and liabilities of freedom seemed too difficult and threatening.  Slavery appeared in their memories as secure and preferable.  They forgot the horrors of a regime that demanded that they kill their children, and recalled only the reasonably regular meals.
            “Egypt” in the Bible almost always represents an anti-Israel, anti-God, anti-justice way of life.  It was a place of stark inequality, where a very few held all the wealth and power, and everyone else languished in relative poverty.  The most deprived and victimized people were the slaves at the very bottom who did most of the work.  “Egypt” represented the rank idolatry that the people would see in the worship of petty gods of economic growth sponsored by the tyrannical rulers of Canaanite city-states and neighboring nations. 
            This capitulation to greed, avarice, and selfishness, this bowing down to the wealthy and powerful as they increased their wealth and power at everyone else’s expense, this acceptance of violence and inequality as necessary and even beneficial aspects of society always stood as the polar opposite of the order given to the people by God in the Torah.  A nation that stands under God’s Word is one that rejects the values of “Egypt” and instead follows God’s law in the direction of equality, justice, peace, community, healing, and love.  No one under God’s law is allowed to get too rich or too powerful.  No one under God’s law is allowed to sink into crushing poverty or crippling servitude. 
            Whenever the people flirted with Egypt it was not good.  The great reforming king Josiah, one of the few kings who receives a positive review in the Bible, is killed in a war against… Egypt.  In fact his whole reign is a struggle against the idolatry and injustice implicit in the idea of Egypt in the Israelite mind.  When the Egyptians killed him it was a temporary triumph of the forces of injustice and inequality.  When many of the people were finally taken into exile in Babylon, the remaining puppet king Zedekiah tries to resist by making a deal with… Egypt.  As if negotiating with the forces of greed and avarice would somehow save them from God’s judgment on their greed and avarice.  Prophets like consistently Ezekiel and Jeremiah warn against any turning to Egypt.
            The temptation of “Egypt” has loomed like a shadow over the people of God.  Whenever we feel the tendency to put our faith in “Egyptian” values like economic growth, the beneficence of the wealthy, the rule of markets, the goodness of avarice and greed, and the following of human self-interest, we are veering off towards Egypt in the sense that we are promoting economic injustice and inviting ecological and economic disaster.  Whenever we therefore necessarily allow poverty to increase, reward speculation over work, and foster an increasing gap between the rich and everyone else, we have abandoned God.
            Jesus himself, the embodied Word of God, had no positive regard for markets and little good to say about the wealthy.  Whenever any of them had the temerity to ask him what they should do he was clear: “sell everything you have, give the proceeds to the poor, and come and follow me.”  The idea that everyone benefits when the rich get richer was the exact opposite of Jesus’ teachings.  He lived in a society that disproved such a lie everywhere one looked.
            Throughout history we have been faced with the same stark choice.  We may follow Pharaoh by practicing an economic inequality and injustice that favors and panders to the rich, thereby creating slavery for others.  Or we may follow the communitarian values of equality and redistribution we find in the Torah and which Jesus promotes as the Kingdom of God.  Basically, it is a choice between imperialism or community.  Every country and every generation makes this choice and suffers (or more rarely enjoys) the consequences.
            America is no different.  We are always choosing between two visions of America.  One is the nasty America characterized by greed, avarice, selfishness, inequality, corruption, exploitation, profit, racism, and environmental destruction, in which a few benefit and everyone else scrapes to get by.  The other is the gentle America of community, equality, justice, peace, and blessing for all.  We are always choosing to follow either a system that gives rights only to some, or the dream of rights for all.  
            Of course it is almost never this clear, but every election comes down to a choice to follow either Pharaoh or Jesus.  On the one hand is the ideology that what is good for some will eventually be good for all.  This is the “Egyptian” model that has not only never worked, but invariably attracts disaster.  On the other hand we find the simple faith that we are all children of the same God and should treat each other that way.
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