"Jesus is not for all, but the oppressed, the poor and unwanted of society, and against oppressors . . . . In Christ, God enters human affairs and takes sides with the oppressed."
-James Cone, 1965
'In the future, your children will ask you, “What is the meaning of the laws, the regulations, and the case laws that the Lord our God commanded you?” tell them: We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt. But the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. Before our own eyes, the Lord performed great and awesome deeds of power against Egypt, Pharaoh, and his entire dynasty. But the Lord brought us out from there so that he could bring us in, giving us the land that he swore to our ancestors. Then the Lord commanded us to perform all these regulations, revering the Lord our God, so that things go well for us always and so we continue to live, as we’re doing right now. What’s more, we will be considered righteous if we are careful to do all this commandment before the Lord our God, just as he commanded us.-
- Deuteronomy 6:20-25
James Cone once argued that we should see Jesus as black because that would "make him more relevant to the modern situation." This professor of theology at the august Union Theological Seminary in New York was not suggesting that the historic Jesus was actually black, but more suggesting that if we saw Christ today in America, he would likely be a black man. If we conditioned ourselves to think of how Jesus would look like today, accepting he came for the poor and the oppressed, could we argue any differently?
Most of us may well accept this with a shrug of the shoulders. It's no real big deal, we think. We're not racist. And secretly, we all know Jesus was a Middle Eastern Jewish guy so . . . white(ish). To think this is to miss the point, not just of Jesus, but of God and the entirety of the Old Testament (not to mention, perhaps, the Holocaust). Jesus was ethnically part of a set of people who were economically enslaved to the oppressive Roman Empire. Sure, they arguably had 'freedom of choice,' but economically they were constrained by lack of opportunity and stuck in survival mode while providing for the welfare of the Roman Empire. Jesus appears as one of them, an ethically oppressed person in an economically depressed part of the region. Who is that today?
The Jesus story is a reminder of a theme that is woven throughout the Old Testament, one of God's constant work for justice for an oppressed people. No matter how strong the power, no matter how bleak it all got (read Job or Psalm 88), God worked through the people to achieve liberation. Nowhere is that story made clearer than in the book of Exodus. No figure exemplifies that story better than Moses.
This Sunday, we're beginning a journey of Exodus. The themes of this book have resonated with oppressed people for millennia. It's a history that we are called not to forget, not to pretend that we can just laugh through, but to challenge ourselves and trust God enough to wrest ourselves of the pretensions of privilege to be "co-creators with Christ of the kingdom of heaven," as the liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez once put it, echoing St. Paul. Moses was God's agent in a corrupt kingdom that grew rich off of slave labor. It was a kingdom that was afraid of the immigrants in their land. Pharaoh stirred his people up, using phrases such as, "they [the Hebrews] will become too many and too mighty for us" if we leave them alone - what the Jewish theologian Moshe Greenberg called "hyberbole on hostile lips." Pharaoh's was a kingdom that tolerated the deaths of the strangers in that land, and actively fanned hostility toward them.
The challenge for each of us is to hear the story from Exodus, compare it to our present situation, and figure out our role in our story. With that, we then are called to figure out what we are called to do in it. If we hear it right, it probably will not be easy - it surely was not an easy journey for the escaping slaves of Israel, who, as the story goes, wandered for 40 years in the wilderness. Yet it was an important, cathartic story: one we are called to travel on together, and one that will be important and cathartic for us, too, for it leads, as all God's pathways do, to joy. There is joy during the journey, and there is joy at the end. But if we try to capture the joy for ourselves now by maintaining the present situation as "perfectly" as possible, it becomes, as with the manna story of Exodus 16, stale and corrupted.
See you Sunday, and bring a friend!
PS: I found this a really important though challenging read: "We Need to Talk About the Left's Antisemitism," by Laurel Dickman, Aug. 22, 2017.