Pharaoh's privilege

June 28th, 2016

[Pharaoh] said, “You are lazy, lazy; that is why you say, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to the Lord.’ Go now, and work; for no straw shall be given you, but you shall still deliver the same number of bricks.” (Exodus 5:17-18)

If I were a movie screenwriter, I know how I’d set this scene: Pharaoh lounges on his throne while servants fan him. Servants tie his sandals for him. They feed him from a platter. They shave his head and face for him. He barely turns his face to the Hebrew leaders while he calls them lazy.

The Hebrew writer, of course, relishes the irony while indicating all of this with two words: “lazy, lazy.” Pharaoh is blind to the fact that as a man born into the wealthiest, most powerful position in the ancient world, he gets to be the laziest person on the planet. The people he accuses of being lazy have to work themselves to the bone just to stay alive. He is the lazy one.

He’s also dishonest. He fears the Hebrew people. He’s afraid of reprisals for historic wrongs. He complains that they breed like rabbits, and he dreads the day the Egyptians become the minority. It’s not their laziness that worries him — it’s their activity (Exodus 1:8-10).

The logic of privilege and the rhetoric of Empire persist to this day: If you are poor, if you are in bondage, if you are a slave, if you are oppressed, if you are sick or infirm, it’s because you deserve it. If you are rich and powerful, if you live with privilege, it’s because you are hard-working, smart and blessed by the gods. Underneath this class privilege is a deep anxiety about social unrest.

This 3,000-year-old insight into Pharaoh’s character is still relevant. It drives our religious and our political life. From preachers who claim that God will return financial blessings ten-fold to those who give to their ministry, to politicians who claim that the secret to economic growth is simply for the poor to work more hours, those with power and influence tell those who are already working hard, “you are lazy; work harder.” It builds character. You’ll be rewarded. Your labor defines your worth as a human being.

It’s no surprise, then, that one of the first commandments God gives to the newly-freed Israelites — after leaving behind the gods who oppressed them — is to take a day off (Exodus 20:8). Rabbis have often pointed out that in Genesis, the first full day of existence for the newly created humanity was the Sabbath (Genesis 1:27-2:3). Work does not define our worth as human beings, regardless of what Pharaoh says. We are made in the image of God, and like God, we take time to enjoy creation.

Of course, biblical authors do affirm the importance of hard work. Proverbs 6:10-11 says, “A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the arms to lie down — and poverty will come on you like a prowler, destitution like a warrior.” The author praises those who get up early and hustle. But in Proverbs 13:23, the author points out that even hard work cannot overcome injustice: “A poor person’s land might produce much food, but it is unjustly swept away.” The dominant narrative of Empire is that everyone gets what they deserve, but the narrative of the Bible says that God sees injustice. Hard work is necessary but not sufficient to thrive.

Ezekiel takes aim at those who think their good character, work ethic and strength have brought them prosperity in chapter 34. He first takes aim at the shepherds of Israel, their rulers:

You drink the milk, you wear the wool, and you slaughter the fat animals, but you don’t tend the flock. You don’t strengthen the weak, heal the sick, bind up the injured, bring back the strays, or seek out the lost; but instead you use force to rule them with injustice. (Ezekiel 34:3-4)

Their rulers had enriched themselves at the expense of the people. They failed to do justice. After hammering the government, he turns to the rich (the “fat sheep”) who benefited under their rule:

Is feeding in good pasture or drinking clear water such a trivial thing that you should trample and muddy what is left with your feet? But now my flock must feed on what your feet have trampled and drink water that your feet have muddied. So the Lord God proclaims to them: I will judge between the fat and the lean sheep. You shove with shoulder and flank, and with your horns you ram all the weak sheep until you’ve scattered them outside. But I will rescue my flock so that they will never again be prey. I will even judge between the sheep! (Ezekiel 34:18-22)

It is not only the rulers, but the wealthy class of Israelites God faults for the condition of the poor. While oppressing the poor, they fouled the environment.

When I hear these words of Ezekiel’s, I think of neighborhoods dealing with the effects of industrial waste, of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, of air pollution in Birmingham. “Must my flock drink what you have fouled with your feet?”

I often hear contemporary American Christians argue that private charity, not government programs, is God’s method for addressing poverty and inequality. I do not find such support in the Bible. Many of its authors recognize that poverty is a function of injustice. Ezekiel’s God holds accountable both the shepherds (who ignore inequality in the flock) and the fat sheep (who take more than their share while despoiling the land). Both have power to address the condition of the poor, yet do not.

Forty years of wilderness wandering and manna from heaven was supposed to teach the Hebrews to take only what they needed for the day (Exodus 16:35). Levitical laws were meant to teach them to leave resources behind rather than squeezing out every available drop of profit (Leviticus 23:22). Sabbath laws were intended to remind them that their relationship to God, not their work or labor, defined their lives because everyone — from pack animals to servants to kings — took a day off. Such biblical lessons are considered naive or even scandalous in our culture, which works very hard to remain blind to privilege and oppression.

Jesus himself expounds upon the Ezekiel passage: the Son of Man is not only the Good Shepherd who returns in judgment, but he’s also actually present among the sick, the hungry, the imprisoned and oppressed (Matthew 25:31-46). What the shepherds and the rich animals of the flock have done to the poor and oppressed, they’ve actually done to the Son of Man himself. An assault on the poor is an assault on God.

In my own state of Alabama, our elected leaders have indicated they would gladly borrow $800 million to pay their friends to build new prisons, but they resent spending much less than that to expand health care to the poorest and sickest among us. They have quashed local efforts to raise the minimum wage. They have failed to reform payday lending. When they respond to the concerns of the poor, their rhetoric sounds remarkably like Pharaoh: “You are lazy, lazy.” They blame sick people for their illness and poor people for their poverty. They remain stubbornly blind to their own privilege and the way they enrich each other at the expense of the poor.

Alabama, which has some of the highest poverty in our nation, is a case study of the shepherds giving preferential treatment to the fat sheep and serving up the weak sheep as mutton. Our state government consistently expresses contempt and resentment toward the poor, whose numbers keep swelling in spite of our insistence that they work harder with less. Their logic, Pharaoh’s logic, is that if we make the poor miserable enough, they will work harder and forget community organizing.

As I see this narrative of Empire extend its reach in our world, I come again and again to the story of Exodus, the formative experience of Israel. There is a consistent message from the Bible for leaders who have such contempt for the poor: God sees you.

Dave Barnhart is the pastor of Saint Junia UMC in Birmingham, Ala. 

comments powered by Disqus