Exodus (pt. 10): Free to Worship

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‘The LORD, the God of the Hebrews, has sent me to say to you: Let my people go, so that they may worship me…’ (Exodus 7:16).

Separate and Unequal

In the early 1900s the black residents of Tulsa Oklahoma were legally confined to the neighborhood of Greenwood. It was the only place they could do business, and they made it work.

The black businesses of Greenwood were booming, but the community wasn’t flourishing just economically. Greenwood was also bustling with the sounds of jazz, black people were excelling in the practice of medicine and law, and the community had garnered a reputation for being deeply religious. Greenwood’s prosperity was so renowned that it came to be known as “The Negro Wall Street.” All of that was — apparently — unacceptable to their white neighbors. The black people of Greenwood were supposed to live in the margins, not thrive.

Over the course of 48 hours, angry white Tulsa residents descended on Greenwood, slaughtering their black neighbors and razing their businesses to the ground. The Red Cross reported three hundred Greenwood residents dead, nine thousand left homeless.

The last survivor of the disaster, Dr. Olivia J. Hooker, recalls how angry white men invaded her family’s home that day. How those men snatched the freshly made biscuits from her family’s oven and stamped them into the mud. How they hacked her family’s piano to bits. How they left nothing standing in her family’s house but “an old rugged cross.”

“They were sending us a message about what we were supposed to have,” Dr. Hooker, now 102-years-old, explains.

The story of Black Wall Street shows that a dominant group is not always satisfied with keeping an oppressed group confined to separate spaces. Signs of thriving in the margins are likely to be perceived as a threat to those at the center. The destruction of Black Wall Street contradicted the slogan of American apartheid:“separate but equal.” Even in separation, something approaching actual equality between whites and blacks proved unacceptable to the whites.

What Worship Looks Like

In the Exodus passage above, God demanded that Pharaoh release the Hebrews so that they could worship. The message seems to imply that freedom is somehow essential to worship. To fully appreciate that message, however, one must consider what God had in mind by “worship.”

It is true that the Hebrews could worship God while stuck in the ghetto (and, in fact, had already done so upon first hearing the good news of God’s concern) but what God was ultimately looking for was more robust than whatever worship looked like in Goshen. When the Israelites would finally be freed from Egypt, “worship” would turn out to be a holistic, embodied experience including constructing a sanctuary complex with ornate sacred furniture, dietary instructions, religious holidays, modes of dress, etc. Worship would be a culture, a social practice, a way of organizing society itself.

The Egyptians initially enslaved the Hebrews because those ghetto children were doing something totally uncontroversial (as far as human activities go): procreating. If the Hebrews had even tried to worship God in Goshen the way they would later be instructed to in the desert, their Egyptian neighbors would’ve likely descended on them like the white residents of Tulsa descended on Black Wall Street.

Their captors would have likely burned down their sanctuary, stamped their sacred food into the mud, and hacked their instruments of worship to bits. They might very well have brought Goshen down to ruins, leaving behind only a statue of Pharaoh or some other Egyptian god. They’d send those ghetto children a message about “what they were supposed to have.”

In a previous post, I mentioned the gospel that Moses brought back to Goshen — a message that was beautiful, holistic, socially relevant, and deeply relational. It was a subversive message that countered the official story of the palace: that the gods were on the side of the elite. When Pharaoh heard that an alternative story had been spreading through the ghetto about a God from the margins — a story stirring hope in the hearts of the Hebrews there — he made his best effort to squash it:

…Pharaoh commanded the overseers … “Don’t continue to supply the people with straw for making bricks, as before…But require the same quota of bricks from them as they were making before; do not reduce it. Impose heavier work on the men. Then they will be occupied with it and not pay attention to deceptive words (Exodus 5:9).

The “deceptive words” Pharaoh was talking about above was the news that God planned to rescue to the Hebrews. Pharaoh was convinced that more oppression could distract the Hebrews from the message and gut their hope. He was right. The message that initially moved the ghetto children to worship God rung hollow after they were commanded to make bricks without straw:

Moses told this to the Israelites [again, that God intended to rescue them], but they did not listen to him because of their broken spirit and hard labor (Exodus 6:9, emphasis added).

Again, this story shows how political violence is hard, not just on the body but also on the spirit. God knew that, which seems to be — in part — why God decided it would be best that the Hebrews be free to worship.

For We Are One Body

Moses’ message to Pharaoh implies that freedom is essential to worship. The Exodus event to come later in the book will show that the Israelites needed to be saved from the system of oppression they endured in Egypt so that they might have the liberty to give God the worship God desires.

Some Christians get nervous when I make this point. “You’re making it sound as if coming to Jesus will make all of your problems go away,” some say. “People can still worship God while they’re being oppressed,” others insist.

So allow me to be clear. I’m not saying that God never allows God’s people to suffer. I’m saying that free people worship God under ideal conditions. I’m saying that God loves worship from the oppressed, and would rather them not be oppressed. I’m saying that one can worship God in a prison camp, but probably not in the same way that they could in a Sunday morning service at Hillsong.

Some are tempted to say that, because oppressed people can (and do) worship God, that oppression has no relevance to one’s worship. One is in the political category and the other is spiritual.

I disagree. God’s message to Pharaoh in the Exodus passage considered here speaks to the fact that political suffering, social pain, physical oppression, can all have spiritual effects on their victims.

People are not divided into rigid compartments that never touch. The apostle Paul says the following idea as a metaphor for the different members of the church “body” but his words apply equally to the different facets of the “body” and spirit and soul of people: that the eye is connected to the hand, and the hand is connected to the head, etc (1 Corinthians 12). He is trying to illustrate how people are connected to one another; but his argument is based on the fact that each individual person is made up of a complex system of many interconnected parts. If we believe that we also have spirits and souls, then we would do well to appreciate that those parts of us are also deeply interconnected with the rest of our body.

Therefore, what happens to our bodies because of social and political realities can affect us in our intangible parts — our thought patterns, our feelings, our imaginations, our expectations of life, our faith.

It is true that there is a part of us that can remain out of reach of any affliction in life. We’ve read and heard such heroic stories: women and men passing through the flames of history’s worst atrocities with their hope intact.

It is also true that some people have had their faith lynched by calamity. God knows that suffering can put a person’s worship at risk. That is why — this text in Exodus seems to affirm — that God commands Pharaoh to “let my people go” so that the people then would be free to worship.

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For Further Exploration:

  1. On the Destruction of Black Wall Street: Survivors Still Hope for Justice
  2. More on the Destruction of Black Wall Street: An Interview with Dr. Olivia J. Hooker

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Writer, speaker, & musician contending for a world without racism.