God of the Brickyard

16 Jul

Bloggers Note:
I am working on my writing skills and also my thoughts on how God views the oppression in this world. I am going to try weekly to come up with a 3,000-5,000 word article that expresses this. Any input of yours would be welcome. It could come in the form of grammar, ideas, agreement or disagreement (just remember that the internet is a terrible place to start an argument).

FREEDOM IN THE BRICKYARD

When I think of religion I think of a building. I think of a creed. I think of a certain style of dress. I think of taboos, both social and personal. I think of final destinations. I think of people who are spiritual and those who are nonspiritual. I think of love and I think of hate. I think of statues, paintings, halo’s and things that don’t change.

However, religion or spirituality, whatever you may call it is inaugurated with a cry. Religion has to do with the powerful and the weak. It has to do with the current times and wherever you may find yourself. Religion has less to do with structure and is defined in the wilderness, a property of no one. Religion has to do with freedom.

A people, led by Jacob who’s son was Joseph, who were the descendants of Abraham, a Hebrew, left the land of Canaan and went to Egypt to find refuge during a time of famine. They entered as a large family and although they would be outsiders, they had a connection to the Pharaoh and had safety and provision under his reign. Then over a period of 400 years they went from being outsiders to slaves. The new Pharaoh knew nothing of Joseph. The people were put to work. Chapter one and verse 8 of Exodus gives the context to what happened.

8 Then a new king, who did not know about Joseph, came to power in Egypt. 9 “Look,” he said to his people, “the Israelites have become much too numerous for us. 10 Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country.”

11 So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor, and they built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh. 12 But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread; so the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites 13 and worked them ruthlessly. 14 They made their lives bitter with hard labor in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields; in all their hard labor the Egyptians used them ruthlessly.

So a brief observation of the Israelites 400 year stay in Egypt reveals some of these words:

deal shrewdly…oppress them with forced labor…slave masters over…store cities for Pharaoh…ruthlessly…bitter with hard labor in brick and mortar…used them ruthlessly.

Not exactly the ideal vacation package you are looking for on expedia.com right?

Redemption begins in a dark hazy fog of injustice in a place where people are not viewed as equals. Redemption begins when a people are identified by the bricks they create. They are valued for every cent that can be squeezed out of them.

The Movie Amazing Grace came out a few months ago. It is the story of William Wilberforce and his fight against slavery. One critic said of the movie, “The political maneuverings are of some historical interest, but modern relevancy is hard to find.” Slavery and oppression were done with way back then weren’t they. That great battle was fought and won when the North battled against the South in the civil war and when Martin Luther King Jr. went marching during the civil rights movement. Actually, it is alive and active and more practiced than ever. Um, maybe our film critic isn’t aware of these facts:

• According to the United Nations Working Group on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, an estimated 27 million people were held in bonded slavery as of 1999.
• In 2004 there are more slaves than were seized from Africa during four centuries of trans-Atlantic slave trade. (Kevin Bales, Disposable People)
• In 1850 a slave in the Southern United States cost the equivalent of $40,000 today. According to Free the Slaves, a slave today costs an average of $90.
• Approximately two-thirds of today’s slaves are in South Asia. Human Rights Watch estimates that in India alone there are as many as 15 million children in bonded slavery.
-The slave trade generates $32 billion annually. It’s on a path to overtake drugs and arms trafficking as the biggest criminal enterprise on the globe.
-Each year 800,000-900,000 human being are bought or sold.
-Nearly 200,000 people live in slavery at this moment in the United States, and an additional 17,500 new victims are trafficked through our borders each year.
-80% of trafficked persons are female and 50% are children.
-One million children are forced to sell their bodies every day in the global sex industry.

So apparently William Wilberforce’s story is a story we might wish to learn from. As a 21st century American I admit that I am unfamiliar with this world. More than unfamiliar, it was unknown to me like that critic. Sure the signs were there. I saw the feed the children commercials and an occasional expose, but it never took root. In the words of one abolitionist it was “true but it wasn’t real.” My homework, family, friendships, work and sports all were things that faced me during the day. Those things were real.

Moses was a figure raised in Egypt. Moses was a survivor of genocide. In a time which the King of Egypt was destroying all of the Israelite boys he was placed among the reeds in a basket. Moses as a son of Pharaoh’s daughter would be a somebody and be privileged as a son of Pharaoh’s daughter while his fellow people in which he shared the same blood and heritage slaved away. We don’t know what Moses was like his first 40 years in Egypt. You could watch the Ten Commandments and the Prince of Egypt but they are only guessing.

Was the suffering of his fellow Jews hidden from him? Did he know where he came from? Or like me was the suffering of this people “true but not real” to him? Did he spend the first 40 years of his life planning for a day that he would set his people free? Maybe the scriptures are silent in this area so we can use our imagination. Any of our stories could have fit within Moses’ story.

At a point in time Moses snapped and as an Egyptians was beating a fellow Hebrew and Moses jumps in a kills the Egyptian with his bare hands. He snaps and kills a man? His anger boils over and a man lies dead at his feet and his people are still slaves. In his own strength, he fails. He is chased off into the desert. Like many of us he gives up long before the battle is over.

When God acts it is most often through the hands and feet of people. God is rarely a solo act. He calls someone who is hopeful. Hope is born out of discontent with the current reality and willing to do something about it. And while Moses may have failed in his first attempt to oppose the powers of Egypt, he is certainly aware of the shortcomings of this empire.

And while wasting away in the desert, specifically an area named as Horeb, another name for Mount Sinai, something grabs the attention of Moses.

“Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro hes father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the desert and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight–why the bush does not burn up.”-Exodus 3:1-3

As a shepherd he encounters a paradox. He stands before a bush that is on fire but isn’t consumed. This in fact is an event that God uses to capture Moses’ attention. I wonder if the Moses of Egypt would have noticed? Because it would take a person without much to do to stick around long enough to realize that a bush isn’t burning up. Moses’ stay in the desert where life moves a little slower seems to be the key to waking up to hear the voice of God.

7 The LORD said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering…9 And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. 10 So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.”

God’s beef with the Egyptians is that they have turned the Israelites into bricks. It would be equal to someone who has graduated instead of receiving a diploma full of hope and a future instead receiving a brick. They are no longer a people with dreams, hopes or a creative spark. They simply serve the purpose of serving those in authority. And those in authority need bricks.

Our culture turns people into bricks. Of course there are the obvious cases of slavery where one person literally owns another person. Often times the bricks we turn people into are less than obvious. Have you ever watched a commercial for alcohol? Surrounding the flashing lights, and smoke machine fog are very beautiful women wearing revealing clothing. The message is that if you buy this alcohol you can have sex with pretty women.

What about chocolate? What about diamonds? What about the shoes on your feet? When you begin to look behind the scenes you find that there are working conditions that those companies would never want advertised for all to see. There are a lot of factors that go into making someone a brick. But I think the answer comes from when we force someone into a mold. If we were to be honest and took some time to search deeply into how we view and treat others we could find that we are partially employed in the brickmaking business.

So the people cry out.

“In the verb “cry out” (za’ak) there is a bit of ambiguity because on the one hand it is a cry of misery and wretchedness with some self-pity, while it also functions for the official filing of a legal complaint. The mournful one is the plaintiff.p11

As the Israelites cry out it is not the normal pain that comes along with life and tragedy. Their suffering is a result of injustice. Their crying out is specifically directed towards the powers that be. Gary Haugen of International Justice Mission describes injustice as the incorrect use of power, while justice is the correct use of power. I’ve also heard that justice is to treat someone as your equal and injustice occurs when we treat someone as our inferior.

We talked about slavery earlier. There is no debate about slavery among the nations. It is illegal everywhere yet widely practiced. The only way it can be practiced is if those in power ignore the laws. As we will see later, injustice exist only because power is corrupted. And it is this power that God is going to confront. So Moses with staff in hand, stuttering lips and mud on his sandals will confront Pharaoh and demand that his people be set free.

What’s interesting is that Moses does not picket against Egypt. For good reason you might suppose because they would have no problem locking him up as the right to free speech wasn’t happening in Egypt at this time. Even if they were to wait it out for this Pharaoh to die things would not change. It was bigger than Pharaoh being a bad guy. It was systemic. Whoever would be the next Pharaoh would simply wet his finger and put it in the air to know which way the wind is blowing. Moses wasn’t so much concerned about changing the finger as he was in changing the wind.

I vote. Every four years for a president and then whenever there is a local election. I didn’t need Puff Daddy’s “Vote or Die” campaign to make voting cool. The truth is I have seen what countries look like where people cannot vote so I vote. I know in reality that my vote means next to nothing compared to how I live out how I vote. If I care about the poor, more important than voting for bills to help them would be to move among them or to offer my life to them. If I care about small businesses to produce jobs, I should know quite well that tax dollars or breaks are nothing compared to the human touch. When my vote feels powerless I know I can still direct the wind.

Someone who is exceptional at creating a wind is Bono. He has used his full sway as a rock star of world class caliber to focus a spotlight on the oppressed. It may sound lame but he adds coolness to the plight of the oppressed. And while there may be a superficial pull to it at first, you are still left face to face with an issue that might not have ever been on your radar. At the 2007 NAACP Image Awards he delivered these lines:

“To those in the church who still sit in judgment on the AIDS emergency, let me climb into the pulpit for just one moment. Whatever thoughts we have about God, who He is or even if God exists, most will agree that God has a special place for the poor. The poor are where God lives. God is in the slums, in the cardboard boxes where the poor play house. God is where the opportunity is lost and lives are shattered. God is with the mother who has infected her child with a virus that will take both their lives. God is under the rubble in the cries we hear during wartime. God, my friends, is with the poor and God is with us if we are with them.”

What if the people of God were those who focused on changing the wind. Not by boycotting and letter writing alone, although those are not illegitimate tools. We know that any movement inspired solely by what it is against will not last, or at least will not bear life. Robert F. Kennedy while in South Africa said, “It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man…strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

Parker Palmer tells a story of a letter he wrote to his granddaughter on the day of her birth that helps me understand the value of God telling our story:

“Here is a sketch of who you were from your earliest days in this world. It is not a definitive picture-only you can draw that. But it was sketched by a person who loves you very much. Perhaps these notes will help you do sooner something your grandfather did only later: remember who you were when you first arrived and reclaim the gift of true self”

Essentially he says that when she reaches her teens or twenties and is being squeezed into the mold of the girl on the magazine cover or whatever she is told is valuable he will hand her this letter to remind her of who she really was as she entered this world. I think it is our job to remind others of the freedom of God. The image that they were created in and the value they have inherited because of this. It is our job to stare these people in the eye and tell them and those they serve under that we indeed see the image of God staring back at us.

It is going to be Moses’ job to retell the story of humanity. He will call his people to an awareness to their identity and the freedom they deserve and to whom they truly belong. He will also confront Pharaoh and possibly be the only one brave enough to tell Pharaoh that the world does not surround him. At this point we may make Moses a hero. While there is nothing wrong with recognizing him for what he did and his faithfulness, there is a certain danger.

Sometimes we canonize someone as a saint because we don’t want to follow them. We want a label applied to that person that lets us opt out and simply acknowledge with our words that what they did was good. When I claim that someone is special in a way I can excuse myself because I am not made of the same material. Putting people on a pedastal can be a sign of respect and honor but it can also be a sign of cowardace. We acknowledge things in others that we have no intentions of attempting ourselves.

As I go through this topic and tell the stories of those who have gone before us in this plight for those in bondage please hear this warning. Please don’t venerate these people. Imitate them. For all eternity we will be able to share stories. I don’t want to simply repeat what I heard others do. I want to tell stories that emerged from myself and those close to me who have heard the cry of those in Egypt.

I close with these words of Walter Brueggeman:
“If a God is disclosed who is free to come and go, free from and even against the regime, free to hear and even answer slave cries, free from all proper godness as defined by the empire, then it will bear decisively upon sociology because the freedom of God will surface in the brickyards and manifest itself as justice and compassion.”p9

So to the brickyards we must go next week: Who built the brickyards? How did the people end up in the brickyards? Why doesn’t anyone outside of the brickyard speak up for those who are in the brickyard?

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2 Responses to “God of the Brickyard”

  1. Jamie Petersen July 18, 2007 at 11:52 am #

    Great writing, Rob. Moreso, you approach this difficult topic with Spirit and truth. Awesome.

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  1. Thoughts on home… « Rob’s Blog - April 4, 2008

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