Then the Lord said, “I’ve clearly seen my people oppressed in Egypt. I’ve heard their cry of injustice because of their slave masters. I know about their pain. I’ve come down to rescue them from the Egyptians in order to take them out of that land and bring them to a good and broad land, a land that’s full of milk and honey… (Exodus 3:7–8).
The Perfect Protest
In 2009, the U.S. military began paying the National Football League (NFL)to incorporate a spectacle of national pride at the start of their televised events that included playing the national anthem. Players were expected to be present for these sponsored patriotic rituals, standing in reverent observance. The military had hoped that these televised displays of allegiance would inspire more civilians to enlist into America’s armed forces.
Years later, 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick decided not to stand for the playing of the anthem in protest of racism in the U.S.
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color…There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder,” he said in a post-game interview.
Many were offended by Kaepernick’s protest, saying that it was disrespectful to the many soldiers who died to protect the liberties the U.S. offers its citizens. He heard that criticism. After a conversation with a veteran and former NFL player Nate Boyer, Kaepernick agreed to kneel during the anthem instead of remaining seated — a compromise to both commemorate fallen soldiers abroad and to protest domestic injustice.
Even after making that concession, however, Kaepernick remains target of vicious criticism to this day. His actions have been described as shameful, unpatriotic, divisive, contradictory, misguided, and unnecessary. This is not surprising. I am not aware of any form of black protest in U.S. history that has garnered the support of an overwhelming majority of white Americans.
Polls during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s convey that most white Americans felt that black demonstrators were “hurting their cause” for racial equality and that they should stop. What is remarkable about the generally negative view of Civil Rights activism is that so much of that social movement were was decidedly non-violent. Sitting down at restaurant counters, trying to register for school, sitting in the front of a city bus, trying to register to vote — those were the egregious, disruptive actions for which Civil Rights activists were labeled criminals, trouble-makers, and traitors.
Malcolm X defiantly announced that black people shouldn’t subject themselves to the violence of their white neighbors and was condemned as a zealot. Dr. King preached that we should love our enemies and they called him a liar, an agitator that was leading the nation astray.
Black Lives Matter activists have blocked traffic demanding “Show me what democracy looks like!” and have been branded as terrorists and thugs because of it. Kaepernick quietly takes a knee and is shamed as a “son of a bitch.”
In short, history shows that it doesn’t matter if it is packaged in the eloquent prose of DuBois or the livid melodies of Nina Simone. It does not matter if it presents itself as a broken storefront window or in a gracious TedTalk by Michelle Alexander. It doesn’t make a difference if it looks like little nine-year-old Zianna Oliphant tearfully testifying before city council or a scathing sermon from Dr. Jeremiah Wright. No matter the method or tone, much of America is simply not interested in hearing black Americans cry “injustice!”
Let’s be honest. The problem, for many Americans, is that they don’t think that black Americans should be protesting at all. Again, let’s be honest: the opposed don’t want for us to find a “more effective” way to cry “injustice!” they want for us to shut-up.
I Heard Them Cry “Injustice!”
Moses had settled into his new life in the desert. Out there, in the margin of margins, God’s presence was so obvious and visible that the desert Hebrews were convinced that it was God’s home (Exodus 3:1).
We don’t know how long he’d been there, but it was long enough for him to get married and have kids. Long enough for the Pharaoh that banished him to pass away. Long enough for him to become the very thing a prince of Egypt would have loathed: a shepherd, an abomination, a Hebrew. God seems to have intentionally waited for that time when Moses would fully become a Hebrew before making an introduction.
One would expect a ruler to lead with the most impressive parts of their resume (e.g. Creator of Heaven and Earth, the Uncreated Creator of All, King of the Universe, etc.). Instead, God mentions three nomads who built no cities, ruled no countries, and died in obscurity: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Exodus 3:6). God identified Himself* by His friendship with the powerless margin-dwellers of that society, rather than by His divinity. The most important thing for Moses to know, apparently, was that this God is the Champion of Hebrews.
God said that He’d been paying attention to the situation back in Egypt, in Goshen. That He’d heard the ghetto children cry “injustice!”
No one in Egypt was interested in hearing that cry. That is not surprising since the cry of Hebrews implicated the Egyptians. To take the cry of the Hebrews seriously, the Egyptians would have had to accept that they were committing a great sin together — possibly even entertain the thought of radically rearranging their society.
It would be more expedient for them to shut the Hebrews up. They tried to: Pharaoh replied, “You are lazy bums, nothing but lazy bums. That’s why you say, ‘Let us go…’” (Exodus 5:17). Right. The Hebrews — according to Pharaoh — must have been protesting their conditions because of their own laziness, not because the Egyptians had actually wronged them.
God heard the very thing that the Egyptians refused to hear. God heard the downtrodden cry “injustice!”
Too big a deal cannot be made on this point. This is not some special case — as some like to argue — where God took a cry of injustice seriously because it just so happened to have come from “God’s chosen people.” God will eventually tell these very Hebrews — once they’re safely out of Egypt — that they’d better not abuse their freedom by building a new oppressive society:
Don’t mistreat or oppress an immigrant, because you were once immigrants in the land of Egypt. Don’t treat any widow or orphan badly. If you do treat them badly and they cry out to me, you can be sure that I’ll hear their cry. I’ll be furious, and I’ll kill you with the sword. Then your wives will be widows, and your children will be orphans (Exodus 22:21–24, emphasis added).
The text is revealing something that is essential to God’s character, that God pays attention to the margin-dwellers and takes their laments, their cries of protest, very seriously.
The Real Issue Here
I mentioned in an earlier post that many white evangelical pastors have tried to skirt this point. They want to say that the real reason God intervened in this story was because God promised Abraham that his descendants would setup a kingdom in Canaan. They want to suggest that the ultimate goal of the Exodus was to get all the historical dominoes in line for Jesus to be born a Jew in Bethlehem centuries later. They want to gloss over what God says about God’s own motivations in this text and rule out the idea that God does what many in the U.S. refuse to do: listen to those who cry “injustice!”
That is not surprising, since the cries of oppressed will implicate their oppressors. No one wants to be implicated, and so we will always try to deflect, deny, and drown out cries of injustice.
Let no one, however, be deceived. This society can tell the oppressed that they’re making it all up, that their conditions are the consequences of their own choices, that they don’t have it so bad, that they’re being divisive, that they should just shut up — and it may work. But God will always be hovering in the margins, listening.
God does not shut down those who cry out in protest. God doesn’t tell them to be patient because change takes a while. Doesn’t tell them that they’ll attract more flies with honey than with vinegar — that they should be careful to not offend their oppressors as they express their pain, lest they “hurt their own cause.” God doesn’t tell them that all Egyptians aren’t bad (#NotAllEgyptians).
God doesn’t accuse them of making excuses or blaming others for their problems. Doesn’t remind them of how generous Egypt was to grant their ancestors asylum in the first place. Doesn’t tell them how much worse they could have it someplace else. The text says that when God hears the margin-dwellers lament their social pain, that God hears and acts.
Whatever we say the real issue is in this story, it must take into account that the scriptures consistently convey that God is livid when the powerful dominate the powerless. God will always take up their cause. God will always advocate for them. God will always be found among them.
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For Further Exploration:
- On the criticism Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. received during his Civil Rights work”
- On white discomfort with Civil Rights protests
- On how Colin Kaepernick’s faith inspired his activism.
**I try to avoid using gender pronouns for God in general, but sometimes the flow of my writing gets clunky trying to use “God” or “Godself.”