While Standing (Six Feet Apart) on One Foot
June 4, 2020
When the President walked to the Episcopal Church through a phalanx of armed guards to hold up a Bible for what was a photo op immediately after his announcement to send in the troops, I fully understood in my own frame of reference what the conflict gripping this nation is about. It is not about policy and politics. It is a theological argument. Maybe I’m just projecting my own sensibilities since, as a rabbi, I am looking for a Jewish angle to everything. But bear me out. We have seen this before.
When the Jewish people was in its infancy, the Bible tells us a man, Abram, had migrated in a most disruptive manner from Ur of the Chaldees and began a journey that, several generations later, found the nascent Jewish people as slaves in Egypt. This event, more that the stories of the ancestors or even Abram’s exodus from Ur is the pivotal moment of the Jewish people. And it is in Egypt that the image of the God of the Torah is born.
It is not difficult to see the story of the Exodus as a theological struggle. God verses god (yes, I did spell ‘verses’ as in a ‘bible verse.’) One god’s utterance against another’s.
Pharaoh saw himself, as his people did, as a living god. He was a descendant of Re, the Sun God. And through his word, the Sun God, the god of gods, ruled Egypt. It was, by every measure, a law-and-order kind of job. And it worked. A society can’t build itself and change the world without long periods of relative stability. The problem was, though, that most of the peaceful society-building was actually done by slaves. No matter what civilization you learn about, every one built on the labor of slaves is doomed.
The God of the Bible is not a law-and-order kind of God. In fact, the God of the Torah and the Jewish bible is a disruptive God. The mitzvot, the commandments, seek to put order and holiness into the lives of the Jewish people and yet, despite a few incidents in the Torah of the Shabbat desecrator (like Numbers 15:32), the society never acted like a theocracy. Even the story of Pinchas and his kebabing (yes, really!) Is understood by the rabbis to have been a sin (but that is for another time).
The God the Bible is, in fact, not simply the law giver. If that was the essence of the Torah, it would have been a book of 613 commandments – a huge portion of which would be irrelevant today since there is no sacrificial system! Not such a great accomplishment for a law-and-order kind of God to allow the destruction of the site of most of the divine commandments. No, the real disruption comes in the form of the prophets.
These were the speakers of truth to the kings and their courts. These were the voices that placed themselves deliberately in the line of the kings’ wrath and found themselves persecuted and imprisoned, exiled and humiliated. Yet, despite all that, no matter how much they were repressed, their voices still rang out. We have their words today preserved in the Jewish bible, not the word of their oppressors. The prophets were the perfect Jew: holy, humble, angry, impatient, and willing to speak truth to power.
The theological conflict we have today is a replay of what happens when gods collide.
It has been said that we create God in our own image. Somehow, the standard model of the American Christian conception of God is a of white, pale, gentle Jesus and a Fatherhead full of wrath. So it shouldn’t surprise us that the law-and-order, ‘God filled with wrath and sendin’ you to hell cuz you got him angry’ is the image of the white and powerful whose last straw to clutch is a God who is receding from view for so many people.
Those who study these kinds of things – especially in the Christian evangelical world – have spotted a disturbing trend in their fundamentalist communities. People are leaving their churches. Especially young people. Remember, this is a trend and is not universal. But you will have a pretty hard time find a young person who espouses the idea that being white and in charge is a ‘God-given’ right. They are seeing that the God-given rights taught by their churches – rights like the God-given Second Amendment right to own a gun – really have nothing to do with God. They have friends who are LGBTQ+ and have a different color skin, come from different cultures with oftentimes more depth than they would ever have known had they not met them. The churches that preach American exceptionalism are finding out that God blesses America only when we seek to bless each other ‘in the image and likeness of God.’
The Christian world is coming to terms with the truth that the God of the 1950’s is dying quickly. The Jewish world has known it for 2700 years.
What is going on today is a modern-day slave revolt. The image of a black man being literally strangled to death on live TV has enraged black and white and Latino and Asian communities throughout this country. The protests that this event created are our manifestation of the 1960’s social justice movements or the Exodus from Egyptian slavery. The riots and destruction of property is imbecilic as much as it pointless. And regardless of who is actually doing the destruction, the threat of the use of the military, the gassing of Americans by Americans, juxtaposed with a President standing in front of a church holding up a bible is a theological statement that the God of law-and-order in the face of sorrow and anger is in charge.
Pharaoh thought so, too. His response to the plagues were to ‘harden his heart.’ What the text never says in relation to Moses and the plagues is ‘Pharaoh listened.’ Fun fact: the only time the expression ‘Pharoah listened’ was when Moses intervened between a slave and an Egyptian taskmaster which infuriated Pharaoh and then sought to kill Moses (Exodus 2:11-15)
The prophets of the Bible present to us a disruptive God who demands real justice. One of my favorite prophetic rants is the third chapter of Michah. Look it up. When the prophet Isaiah says, ‘Come, let us reason together,’ it is a call by God to pay attention to consequences of our actions, our prejudices, and our biases. God is inviting us to listen to Him but really it is call to start listening to one another. Frankly, we ignore this God at our own risk and, I believe, we are seeing that played out this very day.
Pharaoh was so self-consumed as a god that his heart was hardened. This is just another way of saying he was unreachable. He shut himself up. He ghosted everyone but his own self-assured biases. The prophet God of the Jewish bible knows that Pharoah’s is a default position, especially if you think of yourself as a god. It also knows that if we don’t start listening to pain and cry and suffering of others we will hear it in many other ways, with some of those ways being destructive and painful.
We simply cannot continue as a nation without listening. The rioting and looting is serving as a catalyst for the invocation of the law-and-order God. The time for that God is rapidly coming to an end although those who espouse it will go down kicking and screaming. It is hard to sit down with people you deem beneath you as that is an admission of loss. Pharaoh could never do that. Ever. Still, the God of fire and brimstone, threats and justifications of violence has met His time. That God is history even though some embers remain. And He is history because a new generation knows that God to be narrow and childish. Conversely, the God of the prophets demanding mutual respect, integrity and simple act of sitting down and listening to the pain and tzoris of another is the voice that is emerging. I like to think so, anyway.
Like the prophets, I am trying to be positive and cities burn and people march and a pandemic continues to sweep across the nation. Underneath it all is a cry for mutual respect and understanding, for human dignity on all sides and for the end to blatant abuses of power. Pharaoh knew better. Or so he thought. And Pharaoh was drowned in the sea at the end of it all. History covered him up forever and a new vision of God began to emerge.
That is the vision each of us needs to embrace. To embrace the vision of Pharaoh will get us absolutely nowhere.