“[T]he Israelites have become far too numerous for us. Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country. So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor…” – Exodus 1:9-11
I used to think history was based in facts, but now I’m not so sure.
I attended a workshop last weekend called Undoing Racism put on by the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond. The goal of the workshop is to challenge participants to analyze power structures – and our role in them – that prevent equity and justice. I’m still processing the workshop’s content, but one of my main takeaways is how important it is to learn and understand history – the history of our country and its institutions – through the eyes and stories of the oppressed.
Our pastors at Rayne are currently in the middle of a sermon series on Exodus. Exodus is the second book in the Hebrew Bible, also known as the Torah. The story details the oppression of the Hebrews and their long struggle for freedom. The Egyptians feared that the Hebrew people were becoming too powerful, so they enslaved them, worked them ruthlessly, and even massacred their male children, ordering them to be thrown into the Nile at birth. When God sends Moses to Pharaoh to demand the Israelites’ freedom, Pharaoh does not want to let God’s people go despite plagues and even the death of Pharaoh’s own son. As I think about this familiar story in light of the workshop I attended on racism in America, I can’t help but wonder: how would the Exodus story have been different if it had been written by the Egyptians – the oppressors – instead of the oppressed?
Maybe the Egyptians would’ve patronizingly painted themselves as generous and kind land owners who allowed the lazy, dangerous Hebrews to work for food and shelter. Maybe the Egyptians would’ve taken an imperialist tack, depicting themselves as the rightful rulers and the Hebrews as foreign usurpers. Or Maybe the Egyptians would’ve been racist, claiming that they were smarter, more able, and biologically superior to the Hebrews who were not even fully human.
As it turns out, the Egyptians didn’t even bother to record the story of the Exodus. According to my study Bible, though it’s very unlikely that the Hebrews would invent a story in which they were enslaved, it can be hard to corroborate the Exodus story with other historical records. The commentary in my Bible states, “[O]ne should not expect to find extrabiblical texts regarding Israel’s stay and departure from Egypt because the story is negative about Egypt. Egyptian texts are quite propagandistic and would not mention such a defeat.” In other words, the Egyptians re-wrote history in their favor by omission, by silencing the voices of the people they oppressed. Sound familiar?
Perhaps because I like stories, history was always one of my favorite subjects in school. However, as an adult and former educator, I’ve come to question whether the history I learned in school wasn’t all a big lie. For example, I learned about the first Thanksgiving every year in elementary school, but I was only assigned one book about the systematic massacre and displacement of Native Americans – and that wasn’t until 11th grade. I learned about segregation, but I didn’t learn about the violence and intimidation required to maintain a system of segregation until a college English professor assigned written accounts of lynching written in white journals of the day, in which victims of unspeakable horror were described in subhuman terms. I knew about crime in poor, mostly minority neighborhoods from watching the news, but I didn’t know about the brutal and criminal police practices that prey on black and brown people until my high school students told me of their experience with law enforcement.
As I look back on my miseducation, what I see now is that the U.S. history I was taught is mostly a self-congratulating narrative written by a dominant culture that ignores the experiences of non-white people.
The Exodus story is a powerful reminder that who tells a story matters. Exodus is a story told from the point of view of the Israelites and written in the Hebrew language, and, as such, has been a galvanizing pillar of Jewish identity for thousands of years.
Unfortunately, the systematic racism and oppression against people of color in our country means that there is much, much more to the story than what mainstream history would suggest. If we want to bring about healing and justice in our country, it's crucial to educate ourselves by reading stories - history - from those who are or have been oppressed - including oppression against women, Muslims, gay people, people with disabilities, and those who are gender non-conforming. Not having the full story can lead to dangerous consequences, such as when a group of white supremacists recently descended on Charlottesville, killing an innocent counter-protester. As Brené Brown shared in a Facebook video following incident, one step we can all take toward a more inclusive history is to listen to voices that have been silenced. Brené says: "You believe people's stories and you believe people's experiences as they tell them to you...You understand that the world as they see it through their lens is as real and honest and truthful as the world that we see through our lens." One book that was recommended to me at the Undoing Racism workshop, and which I plan to read soon, is A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn.
With a president who has his own special brand of “truth” and “history,” it’s more important than ever that Christians who want to bring about God's kingdom for all God's children listen to the stories of our brothers and sisters, especially when they are different from ours.