by Bill Quigley – Human rights lawyer and law professor at Loyola University, New Orleans
In its 2007 Annual Homeless Report to Congress, HUD reported that nearly one in four people in homeless shelters are children 17 or younger. Bill Quigley’s “Social Justice Quiz 2008” challenges us to look through the eyes of those less fortunate and educate ourselves about how liberty, opportunity, income and wealth are distributed in the US and around the world. (Photo: Ryan Orr / Flickr)
We in the US who say we believe in social justice must challenge ourselves to look at the world through the eyes of those who have much less than us.
Why? Social justice, as defined by John Rawls, respects basic individual liberty and economic improvement. But social justice also insists that liberty, opportunity, income, wealth and the other social bases of self-respect are to be distributed equally unless an unequal distribution is to everyone’s advantage and any inequalities are arranged so they are open to all.
Therefore, we must educate ourselves and others about how liberty, opportunity, income and wealth are actually distributed in our country and in our world. Examining the following can help us realize how much we have to learn about social justice.
1. How many deaths are there worldwide each year due to acts of terrorism?
Answer: The US State Department reported there were more than 22,000 deaths from terrorism last year. Over half of those killed or injured were Muslims. Source: Voice of America, May 2, 2008. “Terrorism Deaths Rose in 2007.”
2. How many deaths are there worldwide each day due to poverty and malnutrition?
A: About 25,000 people die every day of hunger or hunger-related causes, according to the United Nations. Poverty.com – Hunger and World Poverty. Every day, almost 16,000 children die from hunger-related causes – one child every five seconds. Bread for the World. Hunger Facts: International.
3. 1n 1965, CEOs in major companies made 24 times more than the average worker. In 1980, CEOs made 40 times more than the average worker. In 2007, CEOs earned how many times more than the average worker?
A: Today’s average CEO from a Fortune 500 company makes 364 times an average worker’s pay and over 70 times the pay of a four-star Army general. Executive Excess 2007, page 7, jointly published by Institute for Policy Studies and United for Fair Economy, August 29, 2007. The 1965 numbers from State of Working America 2004-2005, Economic Policy Institute.
4. In how many of the more than 3,000 cities and counties in the US can a full-time worker who earns the minimum wage afford to pay rent and utilities on a one-bedroom apartment?
A: In no city or county in the entire USA can a full-time worker who earns minimum wage afford even a one-bedroom rental. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) urges renters not to pay more than 30 percent of their income in rent. HUD also reports the fair market rent for each of the counties and cities in the US. Nationally, in order to rent a two-bedroom apartment, one full-time worker in 2008 must earn $17.32 per hour. In fact, 81 percent of renters live in cities where the Fair Market Rent for a two-bedroom rental is not even affordable with two minimum-wage jobs. Source: Out of Reach 2007-2008, April 7, 2008, National Low-Income Housing Coalition.
5. In 1968, the minimum wage was $1.65 per hour. How much would the minimum wage be today if it had kept pace with inflation since 1968?
A: Calculated in real (inflation-adjusted) dollars, the 1968 minimum wage would have been $9.83 in 2007 dollars. Andrew Tobias, January 16, 2008. The federal minimum wage is $6.55 per hour effective July 24, 2008, and will be $7.25 per hour effective July 24, 2009.
6. True or false? People in the United States spend nearly twice as much on pet food as the US government spends on aid to help foreign countries.
A: True. The USA spends $43.4 billion on pet food annually. Source: American Pet Products Manufacturers Association Inc. The USA spent $23.5 billion in official foreign aid in 2006. The US government gave the most of any country in the world in actual dollars. As a percentage of gross national income, the US came in second to last among OECD donor countries and ranked number 20 at 0.18 percent behind Sweden at 1.02 percent and other countries such as Norway, Netherlands, Ireland, United Kingdom, Austria, France, Germany, Spain, Canada, New Zealand, Japan and others. This does not count private donations, which, if included, may move the US up as high as sixth. The Index of Global Philanthropy 2008, pages 15-19.
7. How many people in the world live on $2 a day or less?
A: The World Bank reported in August 2008 that 2.6 billion people consume less than $2 a day.
8. How many people in the world do not have electricity?
A: Worldwide, 1.6 billion people do not have electricity and 2.5 billion people use wood, charcoal or animal dung for cooking. United Nations Human Development Report 2007/2008, pages 44-45.
9. People in the US consume 42 kilograms of meat per person per year. How much meat and grain do people in India and China eat?
A: People in the US lead the world in meat consumption at 42 kg per person per year, compared to 1.6 kg in India and 5.9 kg in China. People in the US consume five times the grain (wheat, rice, rye, barley, etc.) as people in India, three times as much as people in China, and twice as much as people in Europe. “THE BLAME GAME: Who is behind the world food price crisis,” Oakland Institute, July 2008.
10. How many cars does China have for every 1,000 drivers? India? The US?
A: China has nine cars for every 1,000 drivers. India has 11 cars for every 1,000 drivers. The US has 1,114 cars for every 1,000 drivers. Iain Carson and Vijay V. Vaitheeswaran, “Zoom: The Global Race to Fuel the Car of the Future” (2007).
11. How much grain is needed to fill an SUV tank with ethanol?
A: The grain needed to fill an SUV tank with ethanol could feed a hungry person for a year. Lester Brown, CNN.Money.com, August 16, 2006.
12. According to The Wall Street Journal, the richest one percent of Americans earns what percent of the nation’s adjusted gross income? Five percent? Ten percent? Fifteen percent? Twenty percent?
A: “According to the figures, the richest one percent reported 22 percent of the nation’s total adjusted gross income in 2006. That is up from 21.2 percent a year earlier, and it is the highest in the 19 years that the IRS has kept strictly comparable figures. The 1988 level was 15.2 percent. Earlier IRS data show the last year the share of income belonging to the top one percent was at such a high level as it was in 2006 was in 1929, but changes in measuring income make a precise comparison difficult.” Jesse Drucker, “Richest Americans See Their Income Share Grow,” Wall Street Journal, July 23, 2008, page A3.
13. How many people does our government say are homeless in the US on any given day?
A: A total of 754,000 are homeless. About 338,000 homeless people are not in shelters (live on the streets, in cars or in abandoned buildings) and 415,000 are in shelters on any given night. The 2007 US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Annual Homeless Report to Congress, page iii and 23. The population of San Francisco is about 739,000.
14. What percentage of people in homeless shelters are children?
A: HUD reports nearly one in four people in homeless shelters are children 17 or younger. Page iv, the 2007 HUD Annual Homeless Report to Congress.
15. How many veterans are homeless on any given night?
A: Over 100,000 veterans are homeless on any given night. About 18 percent of the adult homeless population are veterans. Page 32, the 2007 HUD Homeless Report. This is about the same population as Green Bay, Wisconsin.
16. The military budget of the United States in 2008 is the largest in the world at $623 billion per year. How much larger is the US military budget than that of China, the second-largest in the world?
A: Ten times. China’s military budget is $65 billion. The US military budget is nearly 10 times larger than the second leading military spender. GlobalSecurity.org
17. The US military budget is larger than how many of the countries of the rest of the world combined?
A: The US military budget of $623 billion is larger than the budgets of all the countries in the rest of the world put together. The total global military budget of the rest of the world is $500 billion. Russia’s military budget is $50 billion, South Koreas is $21 billion, and Irons is $4.3 billion. GlobalSecurity.org.
18. Over the 28-year history of the Berlin Wall, 287 people perished trying to cross it. How many people have died in the last four years trying to cross the border between Arizona and Mexico?
A: At least 1,268 people have died along the border of Arizona and Mexico since 2004. The Arizona Daily Star keeps track of the reported deaths along the state border, and it reports 214 died in 2004; 241 in 2005, 216 in 2006, 237 in 2007, and 116 as of July 31, 2008. These numbers do not include deaths along the California or Texas borders. The Border Patrol reported that 400 people died in fiscal 2206-2007, while 453 died in 2004-2005 and 494 died in 2004-2005. Source The Associated Press, November 8, 2007.
19. India is ranked second in the world in gun ownership with four guns per 100 people. China is third with third firearms per 100 people. Which country is first and how widespread is gun ownership?
A: The US is first in gun ownership worldwide with 90 guns for every 100 citizens. Laura MacInnis, “US most armed country with 90 guns per 100 people.” Reuters, August 28, 2007.
20. What country leads the world in the incarceration of its citizens?
A: The US jails 751 inmates per 100,000 people, the highest rate in the world. Russia is second with 627 per 100,000. England’s rate is 151, Germany’s is 88 and Japan’s is 63. The US has 2.3 million people behind bars, more than any country in the world. Adam Liptak, “Inmate Count in US Dwarfs Other Nations'” New York Times, April 23, 2008.
For most Christians, it is the most familiar passage of scripture, the one part that nearly all of us have memorized – Matthew 6:9-15, commonly called “The Lord’s Prayer,” the “Our Father,” or “The Prayer that Jesus Taught Us.” Despite our familiarity, despite the fact that this prayer is said in Churches every Sunday, despite the fact that it is prayer in small groups, prayer meetings, in the morning when we rise and at night as we lay down to go to sleep – despite all this, I would hazard to guess that the vast majority don’t realize what we are really saying. Taking this prayer apart line by line, paying close attention to Jesus’ words here, reveals just how deep this revolution is that Jesus is stirring up.
We start at the very beginning, “Our Father.” The first emphasis is on the “our,” the plural possessive. The first word in the prayer reveals first of all the communal nature of the prayer, that we come to God as a people, in a group, with others. This is no individual, between “me” and God prayer. Jesus’ “our” places us alongside everyone else in our relationship to God, making our faith about “us,” not about “me.”
And the title Jesus chooses here for God is literally “Abba,” closer in many ways to “Dad” or “Daddy” then “Father.” What it denotes is a level of intimacy and closeness to God, but it is an intimacy that is still rooted in authority—the relationship is child to parent, not sister to sister or brother or brother. Such a relationship implies God’s claim on us, and our accountability to God, albeit a God who is intimately involved in and aware of his/her responsibility to us as well.
Moreover, perhaps the most important thing about the emphasis on “Our Father” is not the relationship it defines between us and God, but rather the relationship it defines between us and other people, between me and all of these other human beings I come into contact with everyday. Approaching God as “Our Father” implies that all of us, every human being, that we are brothers and sister to one another, family; and therefore, each human being also has a claim on us and we a claim on them. Despite the forces of society and culture and creed that endeavor to separate and divide us, we are, under this Parent God, brothers and sisters to one another, responsible for each other, a reconstituted family. This is especially true for those of us who claim discipleship to Jesus, membership in the Church, but also to all people everywhere, by virtue of God’s “parenting” of them too. The implications that such an insight—that we are truly brothers and sisters, one family—in terms of our lifestyles, our political participation, our economic decision-making, and more are astounding. If we are truly brothers and sisters, then imagine how much we must change in how we see those whom our country is killing in wars or those who are in economic distress because of our nation’s policies? The implications of being “one family under God” are far-reaching and incredibly critical of the status quo.
In verse 10, we read: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” In many ways, the notion of “kingdom” is anachronistic in our world. The time of nations ruled by monarchies is pretty much over. So we need to get behind the reality of what the word kingdom is all about. Kingdom refers to a political reality in the world; a kingdom is a people or place over which another has authority or reign. In praying this prayer, after acknowledging God’s intimacy to us as “Father” and our relationship to one another as family, we then acknowledge our hope and longing for God’s authority over this world, this reality here and now, as God rules in that other reality we call “heaven.” But if we are calling for God’s rule here on earth now, then we are also tacitly acknowledging the illegitimacy of any other “kingdom” or rule on earth. At the very least, we are implying that the kingdoms of this world (the authorities, the political system, the governments) are NOT equivalent to God’s kingdom and that we long for them to be replaced by God’s kingdom. Again, the implications for us and for our way of being in the world—not just as individuals or as the church but as states and nations—are revolutionary. Our prayer pledges us to God’s kingdom, not whatever nation we live in or have citizenship in. We are saying, in fact, that we are citizens of the kingdom of God FIRST, not of the United States, or England, or Brazil, or China—that our first loyalty is to God’s kingdom, indeed to God, not to our political leaders or systems or nation. And most poignantly, we are praying that God’s will be done—not the will of our country or elected officials, not our national interest or self-interest be done. Praying that God’s will be done implies that we already are aware how little of God’s will is done, and so we must pray for it, invite it, yearn for it and be about the business of making it happen here, now, for the benefit of our entire, reconstituted family, the human family.
Then we pray that God gives us “our daily bread.” This verse conjures up for us the story of the Exodus, of the Israelites recently freed from Egypt finding the manna in the wilderness. We remember the prescriptions about the manna: Take only what you and your family need for TODAY. And those who took more than they needed for one day found it turned wormy and rotten. This is again a radical understanding of what type of security we ask God for. We do not pray for perceived needs or needs that we may have a week from now or a year from now or for that time after we retire in 20, 30, 40 years. Our security is in our God who takes care of us for today. And if we take only what we need for today, we find, like the early Israelites wandering in the desert, that there is ENOUGH for everybody; No one is hungry, no one dies of starvation, everyone gets what they need when each of us only take what we need for today. This is a radically contrary ethic, one that believes there is enough as long as some of us don’t take too much; and that the reason we find that there isn’t enough is because some in our world are taking more than they could ever need. In essence, when we take more than we need for today, we are stealing from others and contributing to a system where some have way too much and others die because they cannot even get what they need for today. Praying for daily bread is an indictment of an entire system predicated on manufacturing “needs” and encouraging us to get as much as we can as quick as we can before someone else takes it from us. An ethic based on God’s provision of daily bread where there is enough for everyone would be a drastic change in the way our society works now.
This section, which is at the center and the heart of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount (both thematically and structurally), ends with two reminders about forgiveness—first in verse 12 and then again in 14 and 15. Jesus seems to be telling us just how central forgiveness should be to humanity. This emphasis on forgiveness should give us pause, especially because Jesus intimates that our own forgiveness is dependent on our willingness to practice forgiveness toward others. This is no simple “please forgive me God” and we find ourselves forgiven. It is, in fact, a quid pro quo: God will forgive us ONLY if we forgive others. And again the reality of what we are praying should strike us to the heart. Whether as individuals or churches or communities or nations, we can only be assured that our own mistakes are forgiven if we forgive the mistakes of another. It is an ethic of reconciliation based on reciprocity, rooted in the basic reality that our relationships to other human beings are reflective of our relationship to God.
So when we pray this prayer, do we really have any understanding of what it is that we are praying? And if we do, do our lives give testimony to what it is that we are really praying here? If the millions of Christians who prayed the “Our Father” every day really did understand and believe this prayer, our world and our relationship would look radically different I think.
The sixth chapter of Matthew’s gospel opens with Jesus addressing what have become the three hallmarks of Lenten observance in the Roman Catholic and other Christian traditions: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Interestingly, the first of these that Jesus addresses is almsgiving.
The first thing that strikes me about the passage is the assumption Jesus makes that performing “righteous deeds” is part of one’s life of faith. There is no “If you are going to perform righteous deeds, then. . .” Jesus asserts simply that any disciple of his WILL perform righteous deeds; it was part and parcel of sincere Judaism during Jesus’ day and it can be assumed that for those who follow Jesus today, righteous deeds are a regular practice of sincere discipleship.
But it begs a further question: In the Judaism of Jesus’ time, who was almsgiving aimed at? The Hebrew Scriptures suggest that almsgiving was a practice focused on a particular class of people usually referred to as “the widow, the orphan and the stranger,” three archetypes of people within ancient Hebrew society which would find themselves in an incredibly vulnerable position. Widows, orphans and strangers (i.e. foreigners within Israel) were particularly vulnerable to financial and physical threat because they had no one to speak for them, or to defend them. They were outside the stabilizing and protective circle of “family” or “tribe” or later, “nation/state.” So it is important for us to recall the context for almsgiving during Jesus’ time, and to ask ourselves whether our “righteous deeds” today are performed for the uplift of those who are most vulnerable among us and least protected by our circle of family, community, society or nation.
Those words—“alms” and “almsgiving”—are not words we use much anymore. Many would substitute today the word “charity.” But the first verse employs a Greek word—Dikaiosynē—which translates to “righteousness/righteous deeds” or “justice/just works” which connotes that what happens in this practice is not simply “charity” in the way we have come to understand the word today. Rather, there is also a note of “justice,” of redressing the wrongs that play themselves out in our political, economic and religious systems. Acts of charity today are often done with an implicit quid pro quo—sure we do something nice, but we also get something back for it. Sometimes it is a tax break; others it is the admiration or acknowledgement of friends and community. But in Jesus’ sermon, the “rightness” of the act is sufficient in and of itself as far as things go here on earth; any reward here too easily leads to a corruption of the goodness of the act apparently.
The thrust of the passage – that doing good in order to be praised or rewarded for it— is a warning to those who are listening to Jesus. It is a “false pride” that ensnares us when we receive adulation for our good work. Such adulation and the false pride it engenders takes away from the importance of “doing justice” in and of itself. The issue is that we have directly or indirectly benefited at the expense of others in our society who go without enough food, or care, or love, or security; and our “almsgiving” is not to be praised, but rather the simple practice of healing our societal brokenness, correcting inequities among us, redressing wrongs. This isn’t something to be praised; it is simply something that good people—including those who would follow Jesus—should do.
The final point in this opening passage of this section is that Jesus also puts on the listener the responsibility for performing such acts. The act of doing justice, giving alms is not left to one’s church or one’s government or some other institution. It is a personal responsibility of each and every person who walks this way with Jesus. It cannot be passed on to another level but must be practiced oneself. Such practice, if it becomes second nature to us, fulfills the meaning of verse three: “do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” Our practice is rooted in our integrity, it becomes natural to us, without thought eventually, simply part of who we are and what we do.
Last week, we started to look at a long section (2:23-4:17) of the story commonly referred to as “the call of Moses.” In 2:23-3:10, there are several things we want to note which give context to the overall passage. The first is that a long time has passed following Moses’ murder of the Egyptian, subsequent flight from Egypt and his “settling down” in the land of Midian. He has gotten married, had a child, and become part of the family business (“tending the flock” in verse 3:1). In short, what the story tells us is that Moses is long past the distress of seeing his “kinsfolk” oppressed by the Egyptians which led to his killing the Egyptian and the confusion over witnessing the behavior of his fellow Hebrews, both to each other and toward him. He has forgotten, or suppressed, or chosen to leave behind that situation and that part of his history.
We are also told that, back in Egypt, the Pharaoh, under whom Moses’ presumably lived and who sought Moses’ death, has died and been replaced by another Pharaoh. But despite the change in administrations, the basic reality in Egypt has not changed for the Hebrews. Their slavery and oppression continues.
Finally, we have this remarkable encounter around a bush, which, “though on fire, was not consumed.” From the burning bush, Moses is addressed by God, who says that “I have witnessed the affliction of my people in Egypt and have heard their cry of complaint against their slave drivers” and proposes to send Moses to Pharaoh to lead the Israelites out of Egypt.”
In 3:11, we hear Moses’ reply to this mission from God, and the reply is evidence of both Moses’ reluctance to accept God’s invitation and also his concern about his acceptance by the Israelites. The question for us is: Why is Moses reluctant? What has changed that has made him less than enthused to be part of the liberation of “his kinsfolk,” as he named them back in 2:11? The roots of Moses’ reluctance lie in his earlier killing of the Egyptian then witnessing his own people’s brutality toward one another and their distrust, or at least suspicion, of him. The consequence of those events was an identity crisis for Moses. Born a Hebrew but raised in the palace of Pharaoh as part of his family, Moses found that despite his self-identification as “Hebrew,” he shared little in common with those of his people who had lived under the jackboot of Egyptian authority. Indeed, it could even be said that Moses’ own lifestyle up to this point had been built on the oppression of the Hebrews for the benefit of the Egyptian royal family. And despite his attempt to provide some remedy or relief from Egyptian brutality (i.e. killing the Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew), he is aghast when he comes the next day and witnesses the brutality of one oppressed Hebrew against another oppressed Hebrew, and is confused by his “fellow” Hebrew’s questions of him and accusation that Moses might be thinking of killing him “as you killed the Egyptian.” The overall result of this encounter is that even though Moses has destroyed the protection he enjoyed as part of the Egyptian royal family, he has also recognized the distance between himself and the other Hebrews, a distance which he chooses not to try and overcome. Overwhelmed by his actions, by what he has learned about the society in which he lives, by the threat to his life, and by a crisis of identity, Moses chose to flee the situation, to leave it in the dust. So, God’s invitation to enter back into that situation must not strike Moses as particularly appealing, especially since he has now set up and built for himself a fairly good life here in Midian.
But what becomes clear in the conversation between Moses and God throughout this section is that there is one major difference between then and now. The major shift is that Moses will go to the Israelites not on his own behalf, but rather on the behalf of God. What hasn’t changed is the oppression of the Israelites; that continues in all its brutality and inhumanity. And while Moses’ first attempt to do something about that failed, this next attempt will not be rooted in Moses’ partial understanding of the situation, the fleeting passion of witnessing the brutality first-hand, nor the ideals of Moses’ youth; rather this attempt is rooted in God’s enduring love for and mercy toward those who suffer oppression.
Furthermore, Moses’ crisis of identity will be resolved as well. In this section, we see Moses no longer referring to the Israelites as “my kinsmen,” “my kinsfolk,” etc. Rather, we hear the distance he has cultivated between himself and them. Now he speaks of them as “the Israelites.” But God asserts Moses’ identity as an Israelite. God commissions Moses to go to them, to tell them what God has stated. But to assure that Moses is heard, God gives him what amounts to good advice that many an adept organizer would recognize. Yes, God send Moses to the Israelites, but in verse 3:16 God specifies that Moses is to “assemble the elders of the Israelites” and share with them God’s concern. By convincing the leaders of this oppressed people—those who others respect and look to for advice and guidance—Moses will have greater legitimacy in the eyes of the people. And again, God states that it will be Moses AND the elders of Israel who will go before the Pharaoh to negotiate, not Moses alone. The people who were reluctant to claim or recognize him as one of them before, he will now lead. A struggle he had fled from because of his own limited understanding and abilities, he will now embrace—indeed, lead. God is calling Moses out of his comfortable, but inauthentic, life on the sideline to an uncomfortable, but deeply authentic and necessary life, on the frontline.
The Exodus story so far has unfolded against the backdrop of the oppression of the Israelites by Egyptian state power (under the direction of the Egyptian “god-king,” Pharaoh), as well as the resistance of both Hebrew and Egyptian women (the midwives, Moses’ mother and sister; Pharaoh’s daughter and her handmaids) to the official policies of the repressive regime. In this week’s passage, Exodus 2:11-15a, the story moves forward with the introduction of the person who will become the major character in the story, Moses. (While Moses appeared in a passive role as a baby in our earlier passage, it is here that he first asserts himself by becoming an agent of action and speech.)
The opening verse, verse 11, serves several purposes. The first is that it reveals for us who it is that Moses understands himself to be. The repetition of the phrase “his kinsmen/kin/kinsfolk” both at the beginning and at the end of the verse helps us to see that Moses considers himself to be a Hebrew. This might seem obvious to us because of our familiarity with the rest of the story, but we need to remember that the previous verses have Moses being “adopted” into the royal family of Pharaoh where Moses must have been at least somewhat shielded, if not completely oblivious, to the plight of his kinsfolk, the Hebrews, who have been treated as slaves. We can imagine that Moses has probably enjoyed a comfortable, even luxurious, lifestyle under the protection of Pharaoh or Pharaoh’s daughter despite his Hebrew identity. Second, the statement that Moses sees the Hebrews’ “forced labor” and “an Egyptian striking a Hebrew” reasserts for us the power dynamic of the time: the brutal oppression of the Hebrews by the Egyptians for the benefit of the Egyptian social and economic system.
Moses’ reaction to what he witnesses—the unjust treatment of and the use of violence against those he considers his people—is both passionate and calculated. The text reads, “Looking about and seeing no one, he slew the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.” Moses doesn’t simply fly into a rage, but rather discerns what he could do to rectify the injustice he has just witnessed without having to face retribution for his actions. He kills the Egyptian, the person he identifies as the perpetrator of the violence and injustice, and he gets rid of the evidence.
The next verse has Moses repeating the action of verse 11, i.e. “he went out again,” but this time the scene is somewhat different—or at least the players are. This time the violence is between two Hebrews. Moses asks the first great question of the passage, “Why?!” “Why?” he asks the one “in the wrong” or “the culprit.” “Why are you striking your fellow Hebrew?” There is something here he doesn’t understand. Based on yesterday’s experience, maybe he thought he understood the situation. Maybe he thought he had “rectified” the situation, solved the problem—the problem being the individual actions of a particularly corrupt or abusive Egyptian overseer toward his Hebrew workers. But why, Moses wonders, would two people who share the same ethnic identity, his kinsmen who share the same general situation in life, act with such violence toward one another? Moses thought he understood the situation, but his simplistic analysis and attempt at solving the problem have not changed the overall situation of the Hebrew people. Perhaps the situation is more complex than Moses has understood. Perhaps there is a “systemic” problem here, one in which even some of the Hebrew people have internalized, and his simple recourse to violence has not changed anything except to give him some momentary satisfaction for his deep abhorrence of the injustice and violence he witnessed first-hand yesterday?
The response that Moses gets is equally unsettling. Perhaps he had thought his action in killing the Egyptian the day before had won him some good will among his kinsfolk, or proven his identity as one of them. But in verse 14, the Hebrew worker puts forward the second great question of the passage: “Who?” “Who has appointed you ruler and judge over us?” He goes on to query whether Moses plans on killing him, intimating that he understands Moses to possess the opportunity, wherewithal and power to kill him and get away with it, just as he killed the Egyptian. The question, “Who?” reverberates over this passage just as the question “Why?” did from the verse prior. For, as one of our folks in the study last night quickly pointed out, Moses’ identity is a central motif of this passage. Or in other words, Moses is having an identity crisis. Who does he see himself to be? Who do his fellow Hebrews, aware of his upbringing in Pharaoh’s household, understand him to be? Is the question about being appointed ruler and judge rhetorical on the lips of the Hebrew who knows where and among whom Moses was raised? Moses considers himself to be Hebrew, but what is it to truly be a Hebrew in Egypt at this moment in history? Does Moses really have any understanding of this? Has he lived as a Hebrew—oppressed, forced into slave labor, worrying over the safety of his newborn baby boy, etc? Who is he?
With these two great questions—“Who am I?” and “Why is it like this?”—Moses, realizing that he has lost the protection of Pharaoh by killing an Egyptian, and that no amount of pleading or justifying to any Egyptian institution will ever make it okay that a Hebrew killed an Egyptian, decides to flee. But he does not flee or seek refuge among his kinsfolk, his Hebrew family, with whom he so strongly identified at the beginning of the passage. Maybe the precariousness and systemic brutality of their life under Egyptian oppression is suddenly dawning on him. Where does he flee? To Midian, away from Pharaoh, and away from “his kinsfolk”—no longer with answers, now only questions.
It was seven years ago that we christened our first home “Jeremiah House” (named so because it was like the pit I imagined that Jeremiah’s fellow Israelites threw him into). Out of that small, 2 bedroom house, we started the Gainesville Catholic Worker in October 2000. During those early months, we started the Breakfast Brigade (with lots of strange looks at the labor pools when we showed up with homemade bread and eggs, and folks were both suspicious and thankful); we formalized the Sunday dinners at St. Francis House, which Kelli had started while working at St. Augustine’s Church; and we shared our home with a few guests in need of a place to stay. The house was too small and falling apart so we opted out of our lease in June and started looking for a better, bigger place in the same neighborhood, Pleasant Street.
For the next three years, Kelli kept it all going: The Breakfast Brigade was run out of her home (with her, some Pax Christi students, her kids and their friends handling it all); the dinners at St. Francis House kept on going with help from Diedre and the youth program out at the blueberry farm; Kelli started community gardens at numerous schools thru the Neighborhood Nutrition Network and a group of us, on behalf of the GCW, ”adopted” the garden at the Sidney Lanier School/Anchor Center, working with the kids there; and Kelli shared her home on occasion with young women in need of shelter. And we kept looking for a new house where we could have a live-in, intentional community, host dinners, do alternative theological education, etc.
In March 2004, we started negotiations to buy our current home, “the Blue House,” at 218 NW 2nd Ave (formerly The Birth Center). We closed the deal in July 2004, took several months moving in and getting started, and we “formally” opened in October 2004, making this also our 3rd anniversary at our current location. The last few years have been both a challenge and a blessing as we have thrived and struggled, made mistakes and seen many of our dreams for this Catholic Worker community come to fruition.
So, this is our ”Anniversary Week,” culminating on Sunday with an anniversary party and open house from 1-4pm, and we are SO hopeful that many of you–friends, supporters, volunteers, EVERYONE–will join us!
Please come and celebrate with us if you can, or join us anytime this week for any of our regular activities which will include an ”anniversary” theme!
Join us for a simple vegetarian dinner Tuesday thru Friday, 6pm.
TUESDAY – Breakfast Brigade, 4:15-7am. If you’ve always wanted to, but just couldn’t quite get out of bed, this is the week we know you can do it! Join us in preparing a homemade breakfast of fresh-baked cinnamon-raisin bread, hard-boiled eggs, and fresh fruit, which we share with our friends at three area labor pools. AND you get to eat some of the bread–with honey butter–too!Scripture Study, 6-7:30pm. We’re studying the book of Exodus, and last week we looked at the birth narrative about Moses, where all the women–even Pharaoh’s own daughter–are breaking the law on behalf of the vulnerable and oppressed. (Click here to read more about last week’s study.) We share a simple meal just before we study so feel free to come hungry or even bring something to share.
WEDNESDAY – Morning prayer at the GCW, 7:15-45am. Join us for a simple, reflective morning prayer each Wednesday at the house. Jake leads this week’s reflection.At 11:30am, on the Plaza of the Americas at UF, our good friends from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) will be staging a march and rally to address justice issues they have with Burger King. The CIW folks will be staying at the GCW on Tuesday night before the rally and also speaking in town at several locations, including the Civic Media Center on Tuesday evening. Please join us in supporting the workers by coming out for the rally!Wednesday Night Live, 6-9pm. Students and graduates from UF and Santa Fe provide an evening of fun–a meal and a movie–for our friends, visitors and guests at the house. Join them at 6pm to help prepare this week’s meal, with serving beginning at 7pm.
THURSDAY – Roundtable discussion and dinner. Being our anniversary week, Johnny will share about the Catholic Worker movement, the Gainesville Catholic Worker’s projects and philosophy, and answer all your questions. We discuss and converse while sharing a delicious meal at 6pm. We’ve been getting great turnouts for roundtables this semester, and we’ve had to stretch the food to feed everyone (a good dilemma to have). SO, please bring a dish–salad, bread, some fruit, anything–to share if you can. If you can’t, no worries; just show up!
FRIDAY – Breakfast Brigade, 4:15-7am. A second chance (!) to join us in preparing a homemade breakfast of fresh-baked cinnamon-raisin bread, hard-boiled eggs, and fresh fruit, which we share with our friends at three area labor pools.
SUNDAY – GCW anniversary celebration, 1-4pm. It will be a potluck event, so please bring drinks or food to share (finger foods, et al) with the Servants of Christ Anglican Church providing food as well! We’ll have music, ongoing tours of the house, and at 2pm, Dr. David Hackett, chair of the Department of Religion at UF and a regular volunteer at the house (with his two kids), will give a short talk about the Catholic Worker movement, take questions, etc. Everyone is invited and you can drop by anytime between 1-4pm.
When we study scripture at the GCW, we look carefully at what the text actually says, often going through the passage a sentence at a time. Part of paying close attention to the story itself–identifying characters and what we know about them (social status, gender, occupation), the setting, the action taking place, the dialogue, etc–helps us to often see how different the passage can be from how we may have remembered it, from how it was told and interpreted for us by our churches, family members or even in the popular culture (i.e. in movies, TV, books, et al).
Our passage on Tuesday night, the birth narrative of Moses in Exodus 2:1-10, gave us a good example of this. In the opening verses of this passage, we read about how a woman had a baby boy and kept him hidden for three months (the genocide of Hebrew male babies was Egyptian state policy at this time). When she could keep him hidden no longer, she put him in a basket and … and what? The NRSV version of the Scriptures reads “she put the child in it (the basket) and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river.” Everyone present agreed that the popular telling of this story has the baby in a basket, floating down the river – a scenario found in movies from The Ten Commandments to The Prince of Egypt. But the text itself says nothing about the baby floating down the river; instead it shows a mother, fearing that the authorities are coming for her baby, very strategically putting the baby in a basket and hiding him among the reeds on the bank of the river. Furthermore, in verse 4, the sister of the baby is “stationed” at a distance to keep an eye on the baby.
Our popular understanding of this passage, a mother putting her baby in the river and abandoning it to fate, is challenged by a closer reading of the text. What we now see is a mother, faced with an imminent threat to her child because of the genocidal policies of the empire in which she lives, enacting what seems to be a concrete and strategic plan to protect her son–a plan which took intelligence, forethought, (having the bitumen, reeds and pitch on hand; picking out a safe place along the river bank), and strength of character to carry out. The baby being placed in the reeds and the daughter keeping an eye on him (far enough away not to draw the authorities to his hiding place) possibly suggests the mother’s intention to retrieve the baby once the threat has passed. Again, our understanding of the woman in the story changes from a powerless woman simply acting in desperation to a woman who understand what she must do for her family’s survival, she is “street-smart” and adept at finding ways to resist the oppressive system she is living under.
Next Pharaoh’s daughter finds the baby boy and identifies it as “one of the Hebrews’ children” in verse 6. She is faced with a dilemma. She knows that her father’s law is that all baby boys born to the Hebrew women are to be “thrown in the river” (notice the irony here of the Hebrew mother following the letter of the law while circumventing the spirit of the law). Yet she feels pity for the crying baby, and is faced with the dilemma of what to do – act on that compassion, or obey the law which she has surely been indoctrinated into, and kill (or at least ignore) the child. But before she acts, the sister of the baby boy pushes Pharaoh’s daughter to cross the line with a well-phrased question: “Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” Notice how she helps Pharaoh’s daughter to identify with the child and to identify her responsibility to the child with that “for you?” And so Pharaoh’s daughter, who shares in the status and power of her father, will use her own power to diametrically oppose her father and her father’s policies. Where he used his power to inflict indiscriminate death on a people he despises, she identifies with those people who are being oppressed, breaks the law of the land, and uses her status and power to protect and nourish that life instead. She is risking much here, and she is modeling for future generations who read this story what it means for people who have power and status to practice solidarity – to use what they have on behalf of the struggle of those who are oppressed. It raises a powerful question for those of us who have some degree of power and status: Do we identify with those who oppress and enjoy the benefits of that oppression? Or do we identify with the struggle of the oppressed, practice solidarity alongside them, and risk losing what we have?
Here we have again, like the two midwives in Exodus 1, two women–this time from very different social locations–who model resistance to unjust power (wielded so far by men) and show readers, wherever we fall on the spectrum, what it is that we too are called to during our time in history–a time not so different than the one we read about in Exodus all those years ago.