CMC Worship in Place | September 20 | Exodus Series

Getting Egypt out of the people | 20 September 2020

Exodus 16:2-15

Joel Miller

Anytime we’re part of a wider movement I think it’s good to pause a bit and recognize that.  So I’m grateful that the Ohio Council of Churches has declared today, September 20, Antiracism Sunday.  We are one of many congregations across our state worshiping today in the spirit of repentance and resurrection hope.  To borrow some language from Rev Jack Sullivan of the Council, our Christian calling, is to detect, disrupt, and dismantle racism. And as church folks ought to know, anytime you can boil it down to an alliteration, you’re on your way. And of course that work of detecting, disrupting, and dismantling racism starts with ourselves.

I’m a subscriber to The Atlantic magazine and a few years back, 1897, there was an essay in The Atlantic by WEB Dubois.  It was titled “Strivings of the Negro People.”  In that essay, Dubois talked about double-consciousness.  This was an idea he kept developing in later writings.  Double-consciousness for the African-American, as Dubois describes it, has to do with seeing the world through one’s own perspective and experience as a self-conscious human being, AND, coming to see oneself through the eyes of a society that views you as a problem. 

Dubois starts the essay like this, and I’ll quote the whole first paragraph:

Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town; or I fought at Mechanicsville; or, Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil? At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.

Waking up at some point in one’s childhood to the reality that you and your people are viewed as a problem, and thus needing to be aware of this and see yourself this way – sometimes for the sake of one’s very survival – is the beginning of double consciousness. 

If you are a person of color you likely need no further commentary to recognize all this as true. 

As a white person I have wondered whether there is a version of double consciousness that would help white folks detect, disrupt, and dismantle racism.  And I know I need to be careful here about co-opting this aspect of the black experience, so if I screw this up you definitely need to stay around for the sermon discussion Sunday school class and make your voice heard, and if I only screw it up 25% or 10% then stick around anyway. 

This version of double consciousness I have in mind is particularly for white Christians, and it’s not an especially original idea. 

And here it is, more or less.  When we read our Bibles, when we hear these stories, and for right now when we hear this Exodus story, our tendency and our conditioning is to identify with the Hebrew people, the Israelites – The people who are enslaved in Egypt, who are delivered out of Egypt, into the wilderness, sustained by manna and quail, and eventually make it into the promised land.  This is a story we adopt as our own story, as we should.  There are ways in which we are all captive, ways in which we all need deliverance, liberated, ways in which we must undergo the trials of the wilderness, and ways in which the milk and honey of the promised land are given to us through the graces that come our way.  It’s a universal human story, given to the world by the Jewish tradition.

But one can also approach this story with a double consciousness.  It’s not the same double consciousness that Dubois describes for black folks, but it’s a double consciousness nonetheless.  For those who hold power, and for Christians in the US who have benefited from the power of whiteness, to fully understand how this story works, we can’t only identify with the Israelites.  We must also identify with powerful within the story – the Egyptians.  We are  Israel, and we are Egypt.   And there’s the double consciousness. 

Now the difficulty of identifying with Egypt, if you pay attention to this story at all, is that Yahweh –  the God revealed to Moses at the burning bush – is trying to destroy Egypt.  Even though our liberal 21st century minds aren’t real keen on the idea, this is a story in which the god takes sides.  The god hears the cries of the Hebrew slaves and delivers them out of bondage.  God gives Pharaoh the opportunity to release them himself, and when Pharaoh hardens his heart, Yahweh unleashes a series of ten plagues that decimates the entirety of Egypt, eventually drowning Pharaoh’s military in the Red Sea. 

Egypt loses.  Yahweh wins.  The Israelites are liberated.  They sing and dance on the other side of the Red Sea.  “I will sing unto the Lord for he has triumphed gloriously the horse and rider thrown into sea.” Exodus 15:1.  That’s how the story goes.

Later parts of the tradition grappled with the problem of God destroying all of Egypt, including the innocent firstborn children.  An often cited passage in the Talmud has God talking back to those rejoicing by the sea, “How can you sing as the works of my hand are drowning in the sea?”  (Megillah 10b). 

Since we believe that we are all the works of God’s hand, including ourselves, thank God, we share in the horror of the thought of God actually destroying an entire people.  We’ve already talked about how Egypt, Mitzrayim, represents something more than just the country or the people.  It is the narrow place.    So what might it be that God is actually trying to destroy – in Egypt, in us, for those of us who are white Christians? 

My proposal is that God is trying to destroy whiteness itself.  And when it drowns in the sea, God and the angels will rejoice.       

There’s been so much written in last few years about racism and how this invented category of whiteness works.  We know it was created by wealthy landowners for the purpose of holding power over everyone else.  That word “white” first showed up in the lawcodes of Virginia in 1682, dividing poor Europeans and poor Africans in the colonies against each other so they wouldn’t unite against the wealthy like they did at Bacon’s Rebellion.  Over the decades and centuries whiteness and the privileges it afforded was expanded to include groups previously not considered white – Irish, Italians, European Jews,  Swiss and German Mennonites. 

Like Egypt in the story, Whiteness as a human creation sets itself up against God’s creation.  Whiteness collapses all the nuances of God’s creation into simple categories, it destroys the bond of community, it sets one group of people over another, granting grace and mercy to those deemed worthy; suspicion, guilt, and violence to those not. 

Whiteness creates a game in which everyone loses, including those who qualify as white because we are made to believe – by the logic of whiteness – that we deserve or earned these privileges, and therefore must defend them when they are threatened.  Whiteness is a lie of devilish proportions.  And so we lose touch with who we actually are, which is the work of God’s hands, beloved children of no less worth, but no more than others.  

In 1963, in his essay “The Fire Next Time,” James Baldwin wrote this: “White people in this country will have quite enough to do when learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this, which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never, the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.”

When the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose writings show up in The Atlantic, discovered this line from Baldwin he said it hit him like a truck because it was the first time he considered that there wasn’t a Negro problem, but a white problem.

And so, my fellow works of God who fall under the invented category known as white: What does it feel like to be a problem?  

This double consciousness has an echo of the one named for black folks by WEB Dubois.  If we are willing to look at this situation through the eyes the other, and dare I say through the eyes of God, that we are bearers of a problem.  It is a legacy now long embedded in how we experience life, and how people of color experience life. 

This is the Egypt part of us, collectively, that God is set on destroying, in order that we might become something that much more closely resembles the life that Jesus modeled and the new community he called into being.  In other words, the detection, disruption, and dismantling of racism – internal and structural – is how, in the words of the Apostle Paul, we work out our salvation with reverence and trembling. 

It’s pretty rare that I would consider the message that God is coming after you to destroy part of you to be good news, but in this case, those waters of the Red Sea are a necessary baptism.  How long until we emerge collectively from those waters in resurrection power, cleansed from the problem of whiteness?  James Baldwin said it will not be tomorrow and he wasn’t particularly hopeful about it ever happening.  There is a lot of dismantling yet to come.

Usually a sermon gets to the main scripture before the end, but I want to close with that image of the Israelites starting their journey through the wilderness.  A period that will last 40 years.  It’s just beginning, and they’re already looking back longingly for the good order that Egypt had, including those fleshpots that fed them, predictably each day.  They are out of Egypt, but they long for its familiarity.  

Here is where we can again identify with these liberated but not yet liberated persons. 

It’s been said many times that it took one day to get the people out of Egypt, but it took  40 years to get the Egypt out of the people.  As if Egypt is this power greater than the place itself.  A power, a mentality, a way of seeing the world that possesses people.  As if those 40 years are a decades long exorcism, ridding the people of the spirit of Egypt.  Destroying Egypt in the people, so a new community could come into being.  The people learn to live off manna and quail, daily bread.  Water from rocks, and other impossible gifts that sustain them.

How long until Egypt is cast out of the people?  How long until whiteness is destroyed, and we are all liberated from the narrow place into a more spacious land?

Until it is, may we live with a double consciousness – seeing the world through our own wonderful God-given eyes.  And seeing the world and ourselves through the eyes of those who graciously remind us that we are bearers of a problem.