Getting rid of the culture of the Pharaoh (on MLK and moderation)

Some thoughts that I offered this morning at the SCLC-SC annual Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Interfaith Breakfast. 

One of the two central prayers in the Jewish liturgy, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year, is the declaration from Deuteronomy 6: Hear O Israel, God is our God, God is one. In its Biblical context, this is part of Moses’ long parting speech to the Israelites. After recounting the moment at Sinai, the moment of God’s revelation, Moses reminds the Israelites of their loyalty to God.IMG_1735

The Rabbis embraced this statement as a theological pledge of allegiance. I believe in the one God. However, they also told a story about how this statement, Hear O Israel, originated in a more intimate moment. At the end of Genesis, when Jacob who is also called Israel, is dying, he summons all his children to his bedside. According to the Rabbis, he is worried that they will be swayed by the blandishments of Egypt, that they will be tempted by the power and riches of the Pharaoh, that they will be seduced into the culture of oppression and idolatry. Jacobs children turn to him as one and say: “Hear O Israel, God is our God, God is one.” We will not be seduced into the culture of oppression and idolatry, despite our access to power and riches.

Well, we know that the experiment in Egypt didn’t turn out so well. We know that a new Pharaoh arose who was driven by his own paranoia and hatred to enslave the Israelites, to kill every male newborn. And we know that God took Israel out of Egypt. And we know that the Israelites had kept the promise of their ancestors. As they crossed the Red Sea they were able to point and say: “This is my God and I will praise him.”

Why then, if the Children of Israel were at such a lofty spiritual place that they were able to literally point at God and say “this is my God!”—why did it take another two months of wandering in the desert before they were able to hear the revelation at Sinai? Exodus 19, the chapter that introduces the revelation, begins: “On the third new moon after the Israelites had gone forth from the land of Egypt, on that very day, they entered the wilderness of Sinai.” Why did they have to wait so long? The answer is that though they had left Egypt, they still had to get the culture of the Pharaoh out of them. They had to rid themselves of the culture of oppression, of hierarchy, of the concentration of wealth in the hands of one person, of the ideology that a person could be like a god. It was only when they had gotten Egypt out of them that they were able to hear, to really hear the word of God: “I am God, your God, who has taken you out of land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.”

This is God’s calling card. “I am God who does not tolerate oppression.” This is what God is. Immediately followed by the prohibition against idolatry, false gods—do not mistake that which is not a god for God. All oppression—racism, sexism, Islamophobia, antisemitism, homophobia—is based on the notion that there is a hierarchy of beings in the world and that WE are on the top, that WE are in the position of God. This is exactly what the revelation at Sinai came to undermine, to oppose, to destroy—but in order to hear that vision of what God is, and what God is in the world, and how to create a world in the image of God—first we need to rid ourselves of the culture of Pharaoh.

This is not easy. Removing the culture of hierarchy, of thinking ourselves better than others, more deserving than others, and therefore that others are less than full human beings created in the image of God, is hard work.

So when I stand here in front of you, I am haunted by the following paragraph from the Rev. Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham jail. Responding to a call from clergy to be more moderate in his demands he wrote:

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

This is the hard work of getting rid of the culture of Pharaoh. Recognizing that justice is more important than “order.” That the inconvenience of the struggle for freedom and justice is more important than the “convenience” of oppression.

And so we get back to the daily affirmation of God’s oneness. Hear O Israel, God is God, God is one. If there is only one God, and there is, then God is God of everyone, no matter what name we know God by.

And so this is our charge and our prayer. In the fierce urgency of now we are commanded to reach out to each other, to stand strongly together, and to say: “We do not build the world in the image of God by denigrating other peoples, other religions. The beautiful mosaic of God’s people cannot be contained within the parameters of one liturgical tradition, of one set of religious symbols. God who is beyond all cannot be grasped by one Scripture, one dogma, one law. God is refracted in all the facets of belief which are expressed by all the religious traditions.”

Hear O Israel, God is our God, God is One.

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