Dear Disciples of Jesus,
If you were at worship February 14 or 21, you might have wondered during the sermon, ‘Does Pastor Paul believe the Passover happened?’ Yes, I believe the Passover happened. But how we interpret God’s role in it is the crucial matter that I have questions about. Did the God we meet in Jesus truly send an angel of death to kill all the firstborn of Egypt? God didn’t kill hard-hearted Pharaoh, mind you, but killed the children.
I believe that something terrible happened in Egypt, a series of events that we would today call “natural disasters” — including a disease that killed many people. The details of these “plagues” may have been ‘enhanced’ in their biblical account after centuries of re-telling. But I believe that something catastrophic happened to the Egyptians that caused them to expel their Hebrew slaves.
But did God cause such plagues to happen in order to force the action? Think of how we view this today. How do we view conservative evangelists who say that AIDS is a plague God has sent to punish Gay people. Or Pat Robertson was in the news recently, saying that God visited the earthquake upon Haiti as punishment for their ancestors ‘selling their souls to the devil’ 150 years ago. How do we view such interpretations of God’s actions? Don’t we view them with considerable skepticism, if not revulsion?
Now, here’s the difficult question: don’t these evangelists get such notions about God from stories in the Bible like the Passover? If God punished Pharaoh and the Egyptians with such terrible plagues, then what prevents God from acting similarly today? Is it that God has changed over the millennia? God used to do such things but doesn’t anymore? Or is it that our human interpretation of God’s role in such events has been wrong all these millennia?
I prefer the latter option: if we say today that Pat Robertson’s interpretation of Haiti is wrong, then perhaps Moses’ interpretation of the Passover was wrong three thousand years ago. We might respond, “Well, the Haitians didn’t really sell their souls to the devil, and the Egyptians truly did turn the Hebrews into slaves.” But then what about all the other cultures which have held slaves? What is our American punishment for brutally treating African slaves until 1865? The Civil War? Or some massive earthquake yet to devastate us?
Or do we finally wake up to what is truly wrong with this equation? It’s not a matter of who gets just punishment for what, but, rather, the fact that the God of Jesus Christ is not about punishment in the first place. Punishment is our gig. Human beings base keeping order in their communities on punishment of wrong-doing, and so we like our gods to back us. But this is not the God we meet in Jesus Christ who is about forgiveness of wrong-doing.
So what was God’s role in such a pivotal event as the Passover? I think we can better glean God’s role from the story that comes right before it. Joseph’s brothers do a terrible thing and sell their brother into slavery. Yet through a fortunate series of events, Joseph ends up as the Secretary of Agriculture to the Pharaoh in Egypt, saving the Egyptians from a deadly drought. The last scene in Genesis is of Joseph’s brothers traveling to Egypt in order that they, too, might be saved from the drought — only to find their long, lost brother in charge. They rightly fear Joseph’s revenge. Instead, however, here’s what we read:
But Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them. (Gen. 50:19-21)
This is the God Jesus came to reveal to us. So, looking at centuries of Christian violence, we might ask ourselves: when will it finally get through to us? Our First Lesson on February 7 can help answer this question. Isaiah 6 relates a very puzzling ending to the call of the prophet Isaiah. After Isaiah proclaims “Here am I, send me!”, God answers:
“Go and say to this people: ‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.’ Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed..” Then I said, “How long, O Lord?” And he said: “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is utterly desolate….” (Isaiah 6:9-11)
Jesus quotes this passage in a prominent way in the Gospels (e.g., Mark 4:10ff.). He needs to get through to us something that’s very hard for us to see and hear. I fervently believe that it’s precisely what we’ve been talking about here. We human beings keep order in our communities by punishing wrong-doing. We can’t conceive of any other way of maintaining order, and so we’ve always needed our gods to back us up. If the true God actually has a holy way of communion for human communities based on something else, it would be terribly hard for us to hear or see that way. And such a loving God couldn’t use force to make us see it since force is precisely our way, not God’s. The only way left for such a God might exactly be to suffer our way of punishing wrong-doing — and then show it to be impotent by the divine power of love, which is the power of life itself.
Or will it take yet another round of having our cities laid waste? How long, O Lord? I’m convinced that a crucial part of our crazy time of change is that the Holocaust and the aftermath of WWII has gradually opened our ears and eyes anew to what we need to understand: the God of Jesus Christ has another way of peace for us to try, based on forgiveness and love, and based on nonviolent resistance (suffering) to evil. May this month’s Lenten journey to the cross and empty tomb continue the healing of our eyes and ears and hearts.
Peace in Christ,