Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis
August 27, 2023
Scripture: Exodus 1:8–21
When Trayvon Martin was killed in Florida, and his killer was acquitted using Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, I prayed desperately, “God, where are you?” For a time, that became a familiar refrain for me in response to God’s seeming absence, impotence, or indifference to the cruelties of enslavement, oppression, domination, mass incarceration, poverty and inequality, and extrajudicial killings visited upon Black bodies. Since that time, during times of prayer in the aftermath of the killings of Michael Brown, Jamar Clark, Philando Castile, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor, when the Supreme Court struck a blow to women’s right to reproductive health care, when the first images of immigrant children separated from their families in detention camps appeared, in the aftermath of mass shootings in across the nation, including just yesterday in Jacksonville, that question echoed in my prayers, “God, where are you?”
I have recently begun to question whether that is a constructive way to engage God and deal with injustice because posing the question may have the unintended consequence of waiting for an answer. And while I’m waiting for God to answer that question, “God, where are you?” the injustice abounds, the status quo prevails, change is forestalled, and the casualties mount. So, now I’m coming to terms with the reality that we don’t have the luxury of waiting for an answer from God. Perhaps the question is not where God is but what we will do about injustice. Maybe we must come to terms with the idea that God is seeing all the injustice we are witnessing and is waiting for us to act.
This has become even clearer to me as we observe the 60th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. I have been invited to speak at the commemorative service for the anniversary at the University of Minnesota. As I revisited the history of the march, looked again at the experience of the leaders and participants in the march and the Civil Rights Movement, and sought to draw out some enduring wisdom from their work, witness, and sacrifice, I noticed that nobody appeared to spend much time wondering where God was. No, they accepted God as a God of love, life, and liberation.
Trusting in God’s character, they resisted the injustices of discrimination, segregation, and violence. Even though we have romanticized the March on Washington, I hope we remember that the marchers gathered during regular and ongoing discrimination, oppression, and violence against them. They carried the struggle of years of lynching, racial apartheid, and economic exploitation. That gathering on the National Mall demonstrated public resistance to discrimination and segregation. They resisted even when it was deadly. They resisted even though victory was neither seen nor guaranteed. They accepted the call to a ministry of resistance.
I keep returning to this call to a ministry of resistance when I read the story of Shiphrah and Puah, the midwives who challenged the murderous dictates of Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, when Pharaoh gave into his hate and fear and chose murder and genocide. The power of this opening narrative of the book of Exodus is in its familiarity: survey history, and we get a recurring story of cruel leaders who do not know or do not want to know the people they are leading. We see the story of the creation of caste systems whereby leaders of empires can identify a people, project onto them the identities as enemies and problems, make them out to be dangerous and a threat, and orchestrate a system whereby they are made to be inferior; and use all of this to justify oppressing, exploiting, and yes, killing them.
And it all begins with the intentional decision not to know. When the authors of Exodus say that a “new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph,” they were doing more than just recounting a particular detail to give narrative color or characterization. That framing sets up the possibility of making a choice. The king could have remedied his ignorance by finding out who Joseph was and, thus, who this people in his empire were. Pharaoh chooses ignorance and forgetfulness. He chooses not to know anything further about the people of Israel than what he knows now. Because he doesn’t know them and doesn’t want to know them, they have no name, history, or heritage he is bound to respect.
We see how quickly oppression, invective, and othering of vulnerable people can escalate to murder. Pharaoh degraded, discounted, and disregarded the humanity of those under his rule. A people for whom he should have been a just, gracious king became expendable to calm his fear of those he did not know. So, he tells Shiphrah and Puah to kill all the boys the Hebrew women birthed. What can Shiphrah and Puah do? Who are they against Pharaoh?
Shiphrah and Puah would have been forgiven if they had been immobilized by fear, and we may even wonder with them where God is in the face of this evil. And yet, these midwives do not appear to doubt their call to act for one moment. Without regard for their safety or preserving their own lives, they work to subvert the murderous intent of the king. One theologian describes Shiphrah and Puah as choosing “creative disobedience,” refusing to murder the Hebrew boys as the Pharaoh demands and lying to him when he questions why they are not successfully killing the babies. They don’t wait around wondering where God is or when God will intervene to stop the killing.
On the contrary, they refuse to participate. In the presence of forces that oppose life, humanity, and dignity for God’s beloved, somebody must be willing to embody and enact God’s generative, life-giving presence. When the powerful takes murderous action against God’s good creation, there is a need for somebody to rise up and affirm the worth and dignity of all humanity made in the image of God. Who will join Shiphrah and Puah in the resistance?
And if there is any doubt about the connections between acts of resistance and the realization of some measure of justice and liberation, we only need to read a little further to see the impact of Shiphrah and Puah’s courage and action. Because the midwives embraced a ministry of resistance, because they refused to participate in a project of violence, oppression, and death, one baby boy, in particular, would be saved . . . a boy, Moses, survives and becomes the very vessel through whom God would deliver an entire nation.
Given all that is arrayed against us, what does resisting mean? How can we creatively disobey the dictates of murderous systems and institutions? What are we willing to do in the face of mass shootings occurring every other month? How will we register our refusal to be complicit in the rejection and defamation of the immigrant? How will we respond to powerful people who ask us to deal shrewdly with LGBTQ people? How will we resist the status quo of violent and unaccountable police? People often ask what I can do about injustice and oppression. Resist. Resist. Refuse to be silent or complicit in any project of oppression, exploitation, or degradation of God’s creation.
That’s what Jesus did during his time. He refused to accept the way things were. In proclaiming the reign of God, he was resisting the claims, powers, and prerogatives of the reign of the empire. Every day, we are asked to accept and legitimize acts of violence through our silence, our consent, and our indifference. We are asked to accept and legitimize the oppression of those who are different with narratives of their ignorance, pathology, and criminality. We are told they are incapable of the benefits and responsibilities of citizenship or inclusion into communities. What would it look like for us to refuse to go along with business as usual?
For those confused by the civil disobedience of participants in the Civil Rights movement, by the March on Washington sixty years ago, about the Black Lives Matter marches and rallies, this is what the call to a ministry of resistance looks like. These are the actions of people who refuse to adjust to the ubiquity of oppression, domination, and exploitation. This is the witness of those who do not wonder where God is but embody and enact God’s generative, life-giving presence amid the shadow of death.
We do not need to wonder where God is in the face of injustice. Know that God is on the side of the love, life, and liberation for those suffering the cruelty and violence of power. We don’t need permission or power to resist. We can resist the injustice, cruelty, and violence we witness today. We can ally ourselves with the Shiphrahs and Puahs of the world right now, who use what little position and power they have to subvert death-dealing policy. We can do it because God does take sides. God stands with those who resist those people determined to deal shrewdly with vulnerable people who need life, liberty, and abundance. God moves within the resistance, blessing and liberating us to be God’s beloved community in which all God’s children are loved and beloved.
Terence Fretheim, Exodus, 23.