By Linda Rex
Last weekend I was in Grove City, Ohio for a Together in Christ Summit. During my time there we visited the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati where we looked at exhibits which talked about the history of slavery here in America, as well as the reality of slavery today in countries around the world. We took some tests on implicit bias, discovering our own hidden proclivities towards prejudice. And we had some excellent discussions on what we as followers of Jesus Christ can do to open up safe spaces in which both victim and perpetrator may find healing and wholeness.
The call we all felt, I believe, was to participate more fully in Christ’s ministry of reconciliation in the world with regards to these issues. We are called, as God’s redeemed children, to be reconciled to God as he has reconciled himself with us in his Son Jesus Christ in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension. We participate in Jesus’ work of reconciliation as we, as forgiven and redeemed children, through repentance and forgiveness are by faith in Christ reconciled with God and one another.
Parts of the exhibits were difficult to look at, due to the awfulness of the way people over the millennia have been treated by their fellow humans. The most painful for me to see were the exhibits on the third floor which were dedicated to modern slavery. One would think that by now human beings would have learned something from all we have experienced as time has passed. But greed is still greed, and economic success and lucrative production based on the suffering of certain people groups still has the power to hold people in its grasp. And whether I like it or not, there are ways in which I participate in this suffering without even realizing it.
As I stepped into the restored building which was once used as a slave pen, I felt the presence of those who had been held against their will, and grieved. It seems that throughout history, people have preyed on other people—the lost and the least victimized, used, and discarded by others who were in reality their brothers and sisters in Christ. What is Abba’s heart about all this?
We can learn something about this in the story of his chosen people, Israel, when God heard their cry in the land of Egypt where they were enslaved. The only reason this group of people was in Egypt was because their forefather Joseph had, by God’s intervention, saved Egypt from certain disaster during a famine (Gen. 41-46). At that point, they were important people in Egypt due to Joseph’s position as the ruler second only to Pharoah himself. But as time passed and circumstances changed, they became enslaved to the Egyptians.
There is a way in which humans begin to view one another which leads to such things happening. In Exodus 1, we read how the Egyptians began to fear the Israelites, so they set harsh taskmasters over them. Ironically, the more they were oppressed, the more the Israelites grew in numbers. In response, the king of Egypt demanded that their sons be killed as they were born, while their daughters could be saved (note the gender inequality). But the midwives and mothers managed to find a way to avoid doing this, because their fear of God was greater than their fear of the king.
But when one group of people subjugates another, the oppression merely grows worse, and this is what happened in the land of Egypt. The government began legislating oppression, moving the enslavement of this people group deeper into the nation’s consciousness. One of the tragedies of slavery in America is how we, a democratic people, voted into place such things as considering a slave to only be 3/5 of a person and fleeing slaves having to be returned to their owners, no matter the state of the circumstance involved. Written into the laws of various states in this nation were statements about the status of people based upon the color of their skin, whether they were born to a white man or a white woman, or if they marry someone who is a slave.
This mentality of over/under, of greater than/less than, isn’t unique to America, nor to the people of ancient Egypt. This is a way of thinking and believing which arises out of our broken humanity. We set ourselves against one another, being blinded by fear, greed, and simply the lies we believe about God and each other.
Going back to the story of the Israelites in slavery, we find that God had a purpose for this particular people. They had a unique relationship with God, not because of anything they had done, but because of what their forefather had done when he had trusted in the goodness and mercy of his God, believing the promises made to him that one day he would be the father of many nations (Gen. 17:4). God had made a covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and these enslaved people were the chosen ones, beloved of Abba, the ones through whom the Savior of the world would come.
What the Pharoah of Egypt and his people did not realize was that they were viewing the Israelites through a false lens. Their paradigm was inaccurate and needed to be changed. They worshipped a variety of gods, none of which had anything to do with the One who created and sustained all things. The ruler of this people, no doubt, was used to being treated as though he were divine, and expected that his word was law, with no other law being superior to his. I imagine that submission was a very foreign concept to this Pharoah and that he saw himself as being above any law or authority other than his own.
When Moses brought the word of God to Pharoah, telling him to let Abba’s people go free, this began a conflict between God and the king which affected the two nations profoundly. At first, Moses’ efforts only resulted in harder bondage and greater suffering. But God told him:
“‘I am the Lord. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty, but by My name Lord I was not known to them. I have also established My covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land of their pilgrimage, in which they were strangers. And I have also heard the groaning of the children of Israel whom the Egyptians keep in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant. Therefore say to the children of Israel: “I am the Lord; I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, I will rescue you from their bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. I will take you as My people, and I will be your God. Then you shall know that I am the Lord your God who brings you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. And I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; and I will give it to you as a heritage: I am the Lord.’” (Gen. 6:2-8 NASB)
God’s purpose from the beginning was to bring us all into relationship with himself, to truly know him as we are known by him. He also purposed to redeem all humanity, freeing us from our slavery to sin and to death. This meant his interaction with the nation of Egypt via the Pharoah would involve a revelation of his being as the One God, the Lord, who is the Redeemer of his people. Unfortunately, Pharoah’s resistance to this revelation would mean suffering and death for many of his people, including his very own firstborn son.
God’s judgments on Egypt were not meant to harm, but were meant to free his people and to reveal his power, glory, and goodness. They were based in his covenant love and his compassion for his people who were being oppressed. When God opposed and resisted the stubborn pride and arrogance of Pharoah, there were consequences and many suffered as a result. The plagues which affected the Egyptians were a direct attack upon the false gods they trusted in and were meant to teach them the difference between idols and the true God so they could come to know God for who he really was. The resistance of Pharoah against God provided a venue in which the Lord revealed his covenant love and grace toward the nation of Israel through whom one day the Deliverer would come who would deliver all nations from evil, sin, and death.
The cost of resistance to the purposes and ways of our loving God is often a price we don’t want to pay, but we do it all the time. Slavery in America was insidious and awful. The cost of eradicating it was tremendous and included suffering and death for many people. And the sad thing is, we are still fighting this battle even today. Suffering and death are the result of resisting the love and grace of our good God, and refusing to live in the truth of who we are as those made in his image. We are meant to live in oneness in which we, though unique in our persons and relations, are equals. This is our identity—and when we don’t live in the truth of this in our relationships with one another, there are painful, awful consequences which permeate all of life.
In Christ, God has reconciled each and every person with himself, and is calling each and every one into relationship with himself by the Spirit. He calls us by his precious Spirit to live together in the oneness we were created for and redeemed by Christ to share in. Christ revealed Abba’s heart as he ministered to and embraced the lost and the least of these when he came to share in our humanity. In the sending of his Spirit, he breathes out on each of us the new spirit of unity and oneness we were created for. May we open our hearts and minds and willingly embrace our new humanity, beginning to live and walk in this truth, no matter the cost.
Abba, thank you for offering us forgiveness in your Son Jesus. Grant us repentance of all the ways in which we enslave and subjugate one another, and treat each other as if we were less than or worthless. Grant us the grace to forgive one another and to be reconciled to one another and you even as you have reconciled yourself to us in Christ. In his name we pray. Amen.
“Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘See, I make you as God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron shall be your prophet. You shall speak all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall speak to Pharaoh that he let the sons of Israel go out of his land. But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart that I may multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt. When Pharaoh does not listen to you, then I will lay My hand on Egypt and bring out My hosts, My people the sons of Israel, from the land of Egypt by great judgments. The Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch out My hand on Egypt and bring out the sons of Israel from their midst.’ So Moses and Aaron did it; as the Lord commanded them, thus they did.” Exodus 7:1-6 NASB