This week has got me thinking deeply again about the language of the other. The news headlines seem to have become incredibly convoluted with ‘he says, she says’ type arguments, and solid facts about the still spreading virus seem increasingly difficult to find. There’s also a lot of finger-pointing to ‘look over there’ rather than looking at our own doorsteps. Amidst all this, there is obvious social unrest in the impact of being forced into new ways of working for many, uncertain work situations for many others, and a lockdown that very few had seen coming, nor could have predicted (and no, adjusted blogs after the event don’t count!).
Yes, there are potential advantages in this season, in the fact that we have this opportunity to embrace some of the digital tools that have been developing, as discussed last week, but, there are also huge human impacts of the lockdown that are coming to the surface. Tensions that may have been difficult at the easiest of times are now becoming magnified by the fact that people are feeling helpless already, and need to feel like they can do something, somewhere.
In no place has this been more prominent than the #BlackLivesMatter protests this week. The awful death of George Floyd at the knee of a police officer is an inexcusable event and has led to a great deal of public outcry that ripples across the world. Protests have occurred in many countries both physically and digitally. But what does this all mean? What lessons can we learn from this? And how can we ensure that amidst all the protests and outcry that a better world is built, and that we don’t just see this as a headline for today, and move on when something becomes more pressing tomorrow?
How can we use this to work together to build a better future?
As I write, I’m in week 38 of pregnancy, and it’s making me seriously consider what type of world my baby’s going to be born into. Not only that, but what type of world do I want him to be part of?
This week, we’re going to go back in the timeline a little and explore a pre-lesson from the desert. We’re going to explore the time in Egypt, just before the Israelites left and look at what happens when people start seeing people as ‘other’, and not speak to them as ‘people like us’. They start seeing people as ‘other’. It was these tensions that led so significantly to the Israelite’s need to leave Egypt in the first place.
Please bear with me as I explain this next thought. Racism is not a new concept, as we will see from the events of Exodus 1. There are many races who have marginalised and attacked other races, and the impact of this can be seen throughout history. I personally believe that it’s imperative that in every generation we look to be peacemakers wherever there is injustice or prejudice.
Exodus 1 – The Israelites Oppressed
We meet the Israelites at the beginning of Exodus a few generations after the amazing deeds of Joseph. At the end of Genesis, Joseph had been brought into Egypt as a slave, and through his God-given skills, had worked his way to Pharaoh’s second in command, and saved the mighty Egyptian people from a great famine.
As part of Joseph’s legacy, Pharaoh allowed his family, the Israelites (at this time Jacob, his 12 sons and their families and flocks) to move to Egypt and settle in some prime farming land where they could last out the famine. At the beginning of Exodus, we’re told “in time, Joseph and all of his brothers died, ending that entire generation. But their descendants, the Israelites, had many children and grandchildren. In fact, they multiplied so greatly that they become extremely powerful and filled the land”. (Ex 1vs 6-7).
The Israelites – perceived as a nation of ‘others’
The result of this was that the Egyptians felt threatened by this growing people group and did what so many cultures have done to ‘others’ when they don’t understand nor appreciate them, they made them their slaves. We are told “So the Egyptians made the Israelites their slaves… the Egyptians worked the people of Israel without mercy. They made their lives bitter, forcing them to mix mortar and make brick and do all the work in the fields. They were ruthless in their demands” (Ex 1vs 12-14).
The bible names the Israelites as some of the slaves that built the great city of Rameses – “a supply centre for the king”. Our history books well document just how harsh the Egyptian empire were to their slaves, and the sheer grandeur of the Egyptian cities still left behind today are testimony to just how much slave power and struggle the cities would have built upon. Although these cities were indeed magnificent, it must have been horrific to be one of the slaves that built them.
In essence, the Egyptians saw their previous saviours as ‘other’. They wanted to control them, and they didn’t give them the same status as they themselves expected. It’s not surprising that the Israelites were keen to flee.
The midwives – being the change
The more the Egyptians choose to persecute the Israelites, and try to stamp them down, the more God blesses them! By the time we get to halfway through chapter 1, the Egyptians are working the Israelites on some of their toughest projects, but the Israelites keep increasing in number.
This concerns the Egyptians so much that Pharaoh issues a decree to the Hebrew midwives that ALL male Israelite boys are to be killed at birth, and only the girls can live. What an awful edict. For a midwife, trained in bringing new life into the world, to be told that the very thing they had trained to save, they had to destroy. It must have been an awful thing to hear.
In verse 17 we’re told “ The midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live” (Ex 1 v17) and when asked by Pharaoh how the children were living, the midwives answered, “Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women; they are vigorous and give birth before the midwives arrive.” (Ex 1v19)
Two people, doing what they could
In this part of the story, the midwives use the language of the other, and Pharaoh’s own prejudices of the other, to deflect the attention away from themselves, and ensure that many threatened children are able to live.
This shows just how powerful seeing people as ‘other’ can be in persuading to see people as different to ourselves. The midwives say – ‘they’re different to your culture, therefore they act differently’. In this case, the midwives used Pharaoh’s own prejudices of seeing the Israelites as ‘other’ to explain away why the babies kept multiplying, seemingly away from any control that they had.
As a result of the midwives standing up to the injustice they saw before them, they see God’s blessings in their own lives. Due to the dangerous position they put themselves in, protecting the precious young of the Israelites, we’re told God blesses them with families of their own.
We can learn a lot from the midwives. These two women went against Pharaoh’s request, to stop the genocide that had been decreed. They put themselves in an incredibly vulnerable position. The Egyptian Pharaoh was not only king of the empire, but he aligned himself with the gods of his culture – to the Egyptian people, Pharaoh was not human, but he was god. To go against one of his orders was going against the Egyptian gods themselves.
The danger of a single story
My husband has been fascinated by different representations of culture for years, and early on in our relationship he showed me the powerful TED talk, ‘The Danger of a Single Story’. The talk focuses on the dangers of putting a singular narrative on someone, and assuming it to be true, and also includes the stark reminder, that the easiest way to belittle someone is to introduce them as ‘secondary’. This can be so easy to do in language – we read so many headlines that see people as over there, as ‘other’ but it can be easy to do in the way that we speak about our peers too. By using the language of ‘secondary’ we can so quickly portray someone to be weak before we’ve gone any further. This language is as dangerous as it is divisive, and can immediately bring differences into a conversation, rather than seeking things that unite. Using language that belittles the other party, or describes them as ‘over there’ only serves to divide, and distance.
This seems a particularly pertinent element to speak about, as I’m writing this on the 76th anniversary of the D-day landings. The fact that those landings were even needed, remind us clearly of the horrific outcomes that came when one group of people saw another group of people as ‘other’ and ‘secondary’. The awful holocaust of the second world war just goes to show what happens when the language of the other is used to inspire people to hatred, but this was only allowed to happen, because a whole people group, the Jews, were referred to by Hitler as ‘secondary’.
Building back better
There is a popular hashtag on social media currently, #BuildBackBetter, and it’s a great concept to hold on to. The COVID-19 season has highlighted a lot of areas of injustice in the world. We have two choices – to try to move on and hope that everything goes back to the way it was, or to use these highlights to help inform us, and to move on to build a better world as we move through the pandemic.
We need to ensure that we don’t just view news stories as remote stories, that’s over there; that’s ‘other’. If we do, we immediately distance ourselves, and stop exploring what we can do to be part of positive change.
Like the midwives, we need to use the headlines to inspire us to seek for where reconciliation and understanding is needed in our own sphere of influence, otherwise injustices of the past are bound to continue.
In these incredibly uncertain times, the best chance that we have to build a better future is together to listen to each other, acknowledge where we may have seen our neighbours as ‘other’ and ‘secondary’, and work together to build back better.
The Jewish Rabbi Elie Weisel (a survivor of the Holocaust, and prisoner at Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps in the second world war) summed this up brilliantly when he said: “When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy…. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment- become the centre of the universe”.