October 1, 2017 | Exodus 5 | Frances Kitson
I used to work in construction. I was a struggling actor in need of a day job, and I found myself doing first aid and then safety in the construction industry. Last year, when I started at VST, I had a part-time role as a site manager with a construction temp agency. We provided first aid and safety officers to fill in on construction sites, and my job was to visit the sites, check in with our employees and clients, and make sure everyone was happy.
This past summer, we had a new employee, whom I’ll call Jane. The moment I met Jane, I knew something was off. This woman was somewhere between 45 and 55, and bore all the hallmarks of having been kicked around by life: she vibrated with anxiety and defensiveness, there were lines etched prematurely on her face, and she didn’t want to make a lot of eye contact. She was only on her first site for a week and did just fine, but her next site, they weren’t happy with her. They needed someone to pitch in and help clean up the site, and she wasn’t keen.
The verdict from our dispatch person? “She’s lazy.”
I knew Jane wasn’t lazy – it was more complicated than that. Jane had entered the construction industry before it had been forced to smarten up and treat women like human beings. I didn’t know all of Jane’s history, but I was pretty sure it included insults, harassment, and degradation, and all the scars she carried from that history meant that when she was asked to help clean up around the site, all she could hear was that she was being disrespected. Her emotional baggage meant that she was difficult to work with, and pretty soon we had to let her go for unprofessional behaviour. Her history didn’t make her easy to work with. But laziness was not the problem.
Who tells us who we are? Who tells us what we are? What are the stories we believe about ourselves? What are the stories we believe about each other?
Pharaoh tells the Israelites that they are lazy. We know they aren’t – they want to be free; a reasonable request, but Pharaoh isn’t interested in a fair evaluation in the situation; Pharaoh is interested in keeping the status quo, because Pharaoh is scared. The Israelites outnumber Egyptians in the land, but the economy depends on their unpaid labour, so Pharaoh can’t let them go, but now they’re dangerous, because they’re starting to get uppity and ask for freedom.
Pharaoh therefore doubles down on the Israelites: “You want to leave Egypt? Nope. And because you asked, you can now do twice as much work in the same amount of time. And if you can’t keep up, you’re lazy.”
What happens when this increased oppression is laid upon the Israelites?
First, they go to Pharaoh: “Why do you deal thus with your servants? No straw is given to your servants, yet they say to us, ‘Make bricks!’ And behold, your servants are beaten; but the fault is in your own people.” (Ex 5:15b-16) They’re pointing out the reality of the situation. They’re saying to Pharaoh: “You’ve moved the goalposts. You’ve changed the rules, and they’re unrealistic and unfair.”
What does Pharaoh say? “You are lazy, you are lazy” (Ex 5:17) Pharaoh is telling his own version of reality, and he is refusing to let the facts get in the way of his belief.
Not surprisingly, the Israelites turn on Moses and Aaron: “The Lord look upon you and judge, because you have made us offensive in the sight of Pharaoh and his servants, and have put a sword in their hand to kill us.” (Ex 5:21) In other words, “Are you happy now? You’ve made it worse. You’ve signed our death warrant. Why couldn’t you just leave things as they were? Why did you have to stir up trouble?”
These people are afraid, when just half a chapter ago, they were told that the Lord had heard their cries and would deliver them. Exodus 4, verse 31: “And the people believed; and when they heard that the Lord had visited the people of Israel and that he had seen their affliction, they bowed their heads and worshipped.” These people were full of faith and hope, and Pharaoh has crushed it.
Then later, in chapter 6, when Moses tells the people of Israel that God will lead them out of Egypt into the land promised to their ancestors, they do not listen, “because of their broken spirit and their cruel bondage.” (verse 9)
Pharaoh oppresses the people through harsh physical labour and impossible demands, but also by usurping the right to tell them who they are. To quote the Nigerian writer Chimananda Ngozi Adichie, “Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.”
Who has told your story for you, and told it so often that you’ve absorbed it?
Do you remember the incident during the American election campaign when the video of Trump surfaced? The one in which he bragged about grabbing women by their genitals? I felt so disheartened when that video surfaced. I knew that for Trump, I do not exist as a person. The definitive story that Trump tells of women is that they are property, and they exist only in relation to his needs. Although it’s unlikely I will ever meet Trump, he makes it permissible for other men, men whom I do meet, to tell my story for me. Men who tell the story that I’m a bad driver, that I’m a nasty woman if I disagree, that I’m over sensitive if I don’t like their compliments. I feel helpless because I don’t believe that I can change the way they tell the story of who I am.
But here’s the good news: there is an alternative.
Pharaoh says the Israelites are lazy; God says “I will deliver you from their bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgement, and I will take you for my people, and I will be your God” (6:6b-7a). Pharaoh tells one story of Israelite identity; God tells another.
That’s God’s promise to the people of Israel, that God will stay in relationship no matter what: “I will take you for my people, and I will be your God”.
If we are going to be free from insidious oppression, folks, we need to decide to whom we’re going to listen. What are the stories that are being told about you? If you’re a woman, are you beautiful enough? If you’re a man, are you powerful enough? If you’re an elder, have you been told you don’t matter anymore? If you’re not white, have you been told that you don’t count? If you love someone of the same gender as you, have you been told that it’s not real? Who are we going to trust – Pharaoh, or God? With whom are we in relationship?
That’s where freedom lies: in our reclaiming of our stories. I cannot stop Trump and men of his ilk from telling a story about me. I can decide whether I believe it.
And as I gain that freedom, I am also entrusted with the responsibility of making space for others to tell the stories that define them. Because our scripture is not just about the freedom of individuals, but about the freedom of a people. That is what we witnessed last Sunday, in the walk for reconciliation: our Indigenous neighbours are raising their voices to tell their own stories. They refuse to be defined by stories of alcohol abuse and reserve corruption – not because they don’t exist, but because they are not the only story.
We need to hear their stories. We need to listen as they tell of the wisdom of their traditions, the strength of their children, the tenacity of their elders, because our ability as Christians to live into God’s vision of justice, mercy, and love is bound up in our ability to allow others to be free.
It isn’t always easy. I was 27 before I had any real contact with any Indigenous people: I was volunteering at the 2010 Olympics and was working with representatives of the four host First Nations. I was so anxious: the only story I knew of Indigenous people was the story of the residential schools. I couldn’t see them just as people; I saw them as victims. I wanted to profusely apologize for everything they had suffered, and beg them not to hate me. It took a few days before I could relax and realize that they were people just like me.
Can we see ourselves in each other? Can we build a world in which all God’s children are free to tell their own stories? Can we build a world in which our power and comfort do not depend on the exploitation of another people? Can we have the humility to realize when we have inadvertently aligned ourselves with Pharaoh, and the courage to align ourselves with God?
That’s where our freedom lies, my friends. That’s the freedom to which God is calling us. May we have the courage to follow into the wilderness.