Posted by: Dan | September 5, 2007

Remember the Exodus

Several OT scholars have highlighted the observation that the vision of neighborliness that is found in the tradition of Deuteronomy is premised upon the experience of the exodus of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt. Hence we see several passages where concern for the vulnerable, the oppressed, and the poor is premised upon this memory (these examples gain added emphasis when read in context):

You shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
~Deut 10.19

Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land… Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God redeemed you; for this reason I lay this command upon you today.
~Deut 15.11, 15

You shall not deprive a a resident alien or an orphan of justice; you shall not take a widow's garment in pledge. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this… When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I am commanding you to do this.
~Deut 24.17-18, 21-22

Walter Brueggemann, in commenting on these things, concludes by arguing that:

The memory of the exodus that leads to neighborly generosity is the primary mark of the covenantal society. That memory in practice issues in a subordination of the economy to the social fabric with focal attention to the marginated who are without social access, social power, or social advocacy. The covenant is an assertion of interdependence that flies in the face of acquisitiveness that regards everyone else as a competitor for the same commodity or as threat to my self-securing.
~ cf. “A Welcome for Others” in Mandate to Difference.

This observation has a great deal of potential explanatory power within our contemporary situation.

By and large, I believe that the Church in the West has failed to live up to the sort of neighborliness that is commanded in Deuteronomy. By and large, we like to engage in token acts of charity (which are also signs of good citizenship), but which mostly leave our lives untouched, and free us to live like those around us, pursue that which they are pursuing, and enjoy that which they are enjoying. Indeed, when one suggests that our churches should, perhaps, engage in a form of neighborliness that is closer to the model set by Deuteronomy (and further established by the likes of Isaiah and Jesus), one can expect to encounter a great deal of resistance from those same churches.

How can this be?

I believe that one of the central reasons why this is the case is because we have lost our ability to meaningfully remember the Exodus. Sure, we know the story but it does not register with us an any meaningful sort of way because, by and large, we have never experienced anything comparable to that event.

What Brueggemann calls the “counterintuitive economic practice” of the community of faith in Deuteronomy is premised upon a recent encounter with YHWH who has been revealed as the “counterintuitive economist.” This encounter is still fresh in the mind of the Hebrews and this is why (when the Law is given) they embrace the form of neighborliness that it requires. The commands of Deut 23.15-16, commands that essentially make slavery an untenable institution, make a good deal of sense to a community of recently liberated slaves. Unfortunately, they make less and less sense to, and hold less and less persuasive power over, those who have never experienced slavery, and those who have no memory of being slaves in Egypt. Thus, the Israelites become more and more like the nations around them and forget the form of neighborliness that the God of Deuteronomy (the Father of Jesus) requires.

And what of us? We have not experienced slavery in Egypt. What sort of experiences have we had that parallel the Exodus? Few, if any. After all, are we not a people who now live with the memory of the failure of all recent attempts at liberation? Around the world we have seen movements of liberation that have self-destructed (like Marxism in Eastern Europe), and movements of liberation that have been crushed by other forces (like Socialism in Latin America). Even, or perhaps especially, in our own nations we have seen the near total failure of all the major movements of liberation and resistance that arose in the '60s and '70s (and which were briefly resurrected in the late '90s).

What is the lesson that we have learned? That those who cannot be co-opted or bought are tortured and destroyed, and probably aren't even trustworthy anyway. Therefore, we arrive, in the words of Deleuze and Guattari (who made this point before Fukuyama) at “the end of history.”

So what, then, does our memory tell us? That any form of “Exodus” today is impossible. Consequently, we must resign ourselves to making our homes here, and doing the best with what we've been given.

And what of liberation? Liberation is simply the offer of the forgiveness of sins that frees us from the guilt that we feel for living in such a compromised state. “I have invested in oil.” Lord, have mercy. “My clothes were made by children.” Christ, have mercy. “I hoard.” Lord, have mercy. “I consume.” Christ, have mercy. “I am wealthy, and healthy, and satisfied.” Mea Culpa; Lord, have mercy. “I participate in structures of oppression and crucifixion.” Mea Maxima Culpa; Christ, have mercy. Our consciences having been (somewhat uneasily) appeased, we find freedom in our slavery, and in our enslavement of others.

Thus, we are held in bondage by a fatal, and fatalistic, memory. What hope do what have, us cynics and realists of the twenty-first century, of recovering our memory of the Exodus? How can we begin to remember the Exodus in such a way that we are able to begin to recover the neighborliness that is required of us?

I know of one way, and in order to explore that way it is worth looking at the example of Moses. In particular, I am struck by what we find in Ex 2.11:

Now it came about in those days, when Moses had grown up, that he went out to his brethren and looked on their hard labors; and he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his brethren.

Here, we have Moses, raised and educated as a child of one of Pharaoh's daughters, engaging in a marvelous activity. First, note the double emphasis within the passage on the Hebrew slaves as Moses' “brethren.” Moses, although close to the royal family and Egyptian power, chooses to identify with the slaves as his own brothers and sisters. But he also does more than this. He goes out to them, and he looks upon their hardship. Leaving the comforts of his upbringing, he goes to where the slaves are, and he sees, and hears, and smells, what they are experiencing. The result? Moses is converted. He will never again be situated in places of Egyptian power, nor will he embrace the “gifts” that he has been given in order to institute whatever sort of reform he can hope for realistically. Instead, Moses will go on to be used by God to bring about the Exodus, and to offer the Hebrews the tradition of neighborliness that one finds in Deuteronomy.

So how does remembering Moses before the Exodus help us to remember the Exodus itself? Because the first step to remembering the Exodus is to remember slavery. Moses remembers slavery, not in some sort of hypothetical manner, but by going to the places where slavery is the worst. Furthermore, he remembers slavery by identifying himself in and with those slaves; he sees their torn skin and wasted bodies, he hears the noise of their cries, and the silence of their hopelessness, and he smells the odour of death rising from their sweat and their sores — and in this seeing, hearing, and smelling, he discovers the same thing in himself. He comes to know himself as a slave among slaves (is this not the same trajectory that was followed by Archbishop Romero? A conservative, comfortably situated in a place of power, it was not until Romero experienced slavery through the assassination of his friend Rutilio Grande that he became capable of remembering the Exodus and pursuing Deuteronomic neighborliness).

So we too, if we are to remember the Exodus, must begin by remembering slavery by going to the places where bondage is the worst. We must “go out,” we must “look upon,” and we must identify as our “brothers and sisters,” those who suffer the most today if we are to become capable of remembering the Exodus and engaging in the form of neighborliness established by Deuteronomy.

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