This post is the last in a series of four written to serve as discussion starters for a group of university students doing an alternative spring break with the Farm Workers Support Committee here in South Jersey and in eastern Pennsylvania.
It is easy to find in the Bible exhortations to patience in times of suffering and to humility in the face of demands made by life and other people. Be long-suffering. Do not complain. Accept your limitations and the various affronts to your pride that come with living in this world as well as those which come from the world’s reactions to your conscious decisions to seek the will and way of God. Do not insist upon your own way, but do what is best for others. Be a servant.
It is one thing for me to give such advice, such encouragement to humble faith, to myself as needed. It is quite another matter for me to give it from a position of privilege and comfort to someone else being made to suffer. That’s the cheap and dirty trick we need to avoid.
God did not send Moses back down into Egypt to exhort his fellow Hebrews to be well-mannered, submissive, obedient slaves eager to please their masters as a way, supposedly, of pleasing God. Christian churches in the United States did, however, prior to our Civil War, write slave catechisms with just such messages.
The rulers of ancient Egypt did not respect Moses or his God because they regarded their social system as the will of the gods, a very convenient doctrine for those enjoying life at the top of that system. To their mind, slaves were created by the gods to be slaves and should be content with their lot, and it was a terrible sin to stir them up, as Moses did, and put notions of freedom into their heads. To the pharaoh, Moses and Aaron were just troublemakers, outside agitators. So, in a move typical of the tyrant, the pharaoh adds to the hardship of the slaves so they will blame Moses for their increased misery and reject his call to hope.
To this day, wives who have been beaten are told by some Christian ministers to endure their hardships patiently, pray more, and try to be better (more submissive) Christian women by understanding the troubles that make their husbands angry and offering them more love and support. The beatings, of course, continue, and the humiliation deepens as the women are led to think the fault is somehow theirs.
Jesus made a practice of violating the social norms of his time and place. He took upon himself the “curse” of teaching Torah to a woman. He reached out and touched a leper (the danger was seen as spiritual contagion, not just physical). He told a parable that gave a name (Lazarus) to a poor beggar but no name to a rich man (the church later righted that “indignity” by calling the rich man Dives, but Jesus leaves him nameless). He welcomed children, accepted the gratitude of women with bad reputations, taught day laborers and fishermen, and suggested that God delighted more in forgiving sinners than in listening to the self-congratulatory prayers of the pious.
Good is not achieved through evil means. We are not to take life into our own hands, doing violence in the service of some “greater good.” But neither are we to preach humility to the already shamed, submission to the beaten down, or the virtues of poverty to the poor, while we enjoy the privileges we urge them to be thankful they don’t have.
Biblically, salvation is a large concept with many varied and specific meanings within the contexts of suffering, deprivation, and shame. The word “salvation” means, of course, rescue and deliverance from trouble, and it is thought to include the idea of being led out of a tight place of confinement and restriction into a broader, more open space where body and mind can stretch and move about in freedom. The Bible does not restrict salvation to its ultimate sense of the eternal, and it certainly does not permit the promise of eternal salvation to be used as an excuse to tolerate injustice and oppression in the here and now.