Enslaved

April 20, 2008
Rev. Victoria Weinstein

 

READING FROM THE CONTEMPORARY        

from the Forward by Gloria Steinhem: Enslaved: True Stories of Modern Day Slavery, Jesse Sage and Liora Kasten, Directors of the American Anti-Slavery Group

In wealthy nations like the United States, we may see occasional television exposes of undocumented immigrants forced to work for no pay at guarded sweatshops in our cities, yet our responses still have the blame-the-victim quality of "Why don't they escape?" After all, slavery ended in the nineteenth century.

We may read about Midwestern farm girls found chained to beds in Times Square or Tokyo, but our understanding of the Stockholm Syndrome is more likely to focus on intellectual political prisoners than young females whose will to survive is sapped by human traffickers adept at luring them with false promises, then "seasoning" them until are convinced that no one will ever accept them again.  After all, slavery ended in the nineteenth century.

In developing countries, we see the abduction and auction of child slave laborers, families trapped in debt-bondage toiling in the fields, phony "adoptions" or poor children, false promises of good jobs used to lure and enslave domestic labor across borders, and even the use of the enslaved as sources of organs to be sold in a burgeoning black market.  Yet many people vulnerable to these dangers continue to avert their eyes, if only because the need to survive leads to denial. After all, how could slavery exist in the same world with modern police and the United Nations?

Even by the strictest definition, slavery's soul-murder and slow death are facts of daily life for millions of people.

Yes, most forms of slavery are now illegal, at least on paper. But some cultures normalize them by caste or debt servitude or sexual practice; others create laws but do not enforce them; may pay or supervise officials so poorly that bribery becomes a way of life; and most of the enslaved themselves are too dependent, invisible, or fearful of reprisal to speak – even supposing they would be listened to.

 

THE SERMON

Exodus 6: 1-13  Exodus 12: 14-20

Moses died on April 5, did you hear? Of course I'm not speaking of the actual Moses, but of actor Charlton Heston who will always be Moses for some of us.  Right in time for Pesach, or Passover, the holiday observed by Jewish families this week as it has been for thousands of years. 

I went to my first Passover Seder as a kid, and I haven't been to many since.  It's a very long meal with prayers and songs and recounts the story of the liberation of the Jews from slavery in Egypt in (at anyone's best guess) about fifteen hundred years before the Common Era.  There's a recitation of all the plagues (Exodus 7-12) and you get to do fun things like throwing drops of wine from your goblet onto your plate and some not-so-fun things like eating symbolic items like bitter herbs, horseradish and gefilte fish.  And speaking of wine, there's a lot of it.  I went away from my first Seder thinking that it was sort of a religious drinking game, sprinkling wine on our plates as the plagues were read off ("Frogs!" "Locusts!")  and drinking four full glasses at prescribed times during the meal. 

Why not celebrate your survival when you're one of the most ancient ethnic groups in the world who have been the objects of systematic and organized efforts to annihilate you since the beginning of your history?

Jewish history is a wild history, and the Passover Seder is rowdy.  It is not a synagogue observance but a family observance that happens around the dinner table.  It commemorates terribly violent events and turns them into a feast of rejoicing.   The songs are loud and triumphant. It reminds me of a saying I learned from a Voudon priestess, also the ancestress of slaves: "I will build my house upon the heads of my enemies."  It is no accident that the African-American people embrace the story of Exodus as their own, as have enslaved people everywhere.

What a story Exodus is.   There is that portion we just heard where God is instituting the observance of Pesach and where, within 6 verses, he repeats the words "unleavened bread" or "no leaven" nine times. God doesn't just tell the Hebrews to avoid leavened bread during this seven day festival, he demands it nine times.  He's like your mother before a long car ride when you were a kid.  "Did you go to the bathroom?"  "Yes, Mom, I went to the bathroom."  "Are you sure you went?" "Yes, Mom, I went."  A minute later she says, "This is a long ride and I don't want to have to stop. You get in there and use the bathroom."   ("MA! I told you, I WENT!")

I wonder if there's a drinking game at a liberal yeshiva somewhere where they read Chapter 12 of Exodus and take a shot every time God says "leaven" or "unleavened?" And it's not just God who emphasizes unleavened bread. Moses gets into it, too.  In chapter 13 of Exodus, as he is reminding the Israelites of their duty to remember what God has done liberating them, he tells them that for during this observance for seven days they shall eat no leavened bread.   He says it five times in four verses.

Now, you could say that this is just the style of the unknown author who recorded Exodus for posterity.  But I don't think so.  I am sure that rabbis don't think so, either, those experts at finding every nuance in every book of their Bible and debating and illuminating every possible meaning over centuries upon centuries.  So in the rabbinical tradition, if I may, I would like to share my own sense of why the word "unleavened" is repeated so many times in the telling of the exodus story, and my thanks go to our student minister Misty-Dawn Shelley for suggesting the idea in the first place:

When freedom comes, there is no time to waste.  When we are set free from enslavement in a literal or a spiritual or psychological sense, we must be ready to move, and to move fast, and to leave behind things that weigh us down, ready to leave behind even things that we think we need, things that will not serve us on our flight out of captivity.  You heard how the Israelities first responded to Moses when he told them they were to be set free: they didn't believe him.  Slavery had broken their spirits and they weren't ready for this news.  They weren't able to believe in the possibility of freedom.

We are all captive in some way or another.  Captive to damaging ideas, limiting attitudes, family or societal expectations that stifle, responsibilities that keep us careful where we might want to be more risky, grounded where we would like to try to fly.  That is the human condition.  When we have an opportunity to experience liberation from limitations that bind us, it is also very human to say, "But I can't change. I can't leave what I'm familiar with.  I've always baked bread this way.  Just wait until this dough rises and I'll be right with you."

God in this story is saying, and saying, and saying again, "You don't have time for the dough to rise. Grab what you have and go.  I am making this happen NOW."

Go. Go.  The freedom train is here, get on now.  God is going to send horrific plagues to kill the oppressors.  God is going to open the Red Sea and send it crashing closed after the Hebrews have crossed it and just as Pharaoh's charioteers are starting across in pursuit of them.  This story is littered with corpses, is full of blood and vengeance.  It is a very tough read, more action adventure film than anything we think of as "spiritual."  We don't like the old blood-and-guts mafia don God.  I understand that.  I share with you the hope that if there is a divine unity underlying creation, it is characterized by Love and experienced as peace, healing and harmony – not traveling through the night as an angel of death killing the first born of the people of anywhere.

It is a tough read.  Even the animals suffer. Even the land is destroyed.  "The hail shattered every tree of the field."  Awful.

But yet, as I spent time these past weeks in these ancient stories, there was  part of me that appreciated this enraged God.  Because if there is anything holy in this world, shouldn't it be each human being's absolute right not to be owned by another human being? If anything enrages the great "I AM," would it not be slavery? The Ten Commandments expressly forbid humans owning other humans, we all agree that it is an outrage. I think, therefore, that it is a good thing for the human community to keep alive a story that says when a spokesman for an oppressed people cry, "Let my people go," you had better do it or there will be hell to pay.

There's that old expression, "fear of the Lord" that free-thinkers don't much use anymore.   The Passover story, filled as it is with terrifying and vivid images of a divine wrath unleashed on a hard-hearted leader who insists on basing his economic might on slave labor, makes me think that a nation or a people that have lost a good, healthy "fear of the Lord" may have also lost the ability to be ashamed of themselves.  Fear is the beginning of wisdom, so it says later in the Bible.

Where is our shame today, all nations who permit humans to be owned as chattel? Slaves still hold up much of the world's economy on their broken backs. 

Let me share with you some information about slavery today, provided by the United Nations, who sponsored the first International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade on March 25, 2008.

"The first annual International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade also serves as a reminder that contemporary forms of slavery – such as human trafficking, forced prostitution, child soldiers, forced and bonded labour and the use of children in the international drug trade – are still flourishing today, largely as a result of vulnerability exacerbated by poverty, discrimination and social exclusion.

"Despairingly credible comparisons of scale and suffering may be drawn with the trans-Atlantic trade in Africans in the Americas in which more than 12 million people were forcibly transported over the ocean in four hundred years. It is to our great shame that if today's statistics are correct, and 700, 000 people are now being trafficked across borders into slavery annually, we will have equaled that total in a mere 20 years."

And we thought the cause of abolition was an outdated one!!??

That latter quote comes from Mrs. Ndioro Ndiye, the Deputy Director General International Organization of Migration (IOM).  "It is to our great shame," she says.  A good word.  A good word if it means that the conscience is activated, that we come out of our shells a bit and say, "If this is going on in such high numbers, where might it be going on around me? Am I willing not only to hear the stories of those trapped in systems of slavery, but am I willing to look for it, to investigate how my life, my assets, my comforts, might be tangled up in these systems? What am I consuming, wearing, eating, using and enjoying that was produced by slave labor?" Modern people should have morally progressed far enough to understand that we plague ourselves by refusing to see the Pharaohs in our midst, and to hold them accountable.

The congregation of Beth El in Sudbury, Massachusetts, contributed this reading to the Unitarian Universalist hymnal.  It speaks of our human responsibility to do the work that the Bible story says Moses and God teamed up to do so long ago.  It reads,

What sacrifices would we make for freedom today?

What would we leave?

How far would we go? How deeply would we look within ourselves?

Our ancestors had no time to await the rising of the bread.

Yet we, who have that time, what do we do to be worthy of our precious inheritance?

We were slaves in Egypt… but now we are free.

How easy it is for us to relive the days of our bondage as we sit in the warmth and comfort of our Seder.

How much harder to relieve the pain of those who live in the bitterness of slavery today.

To live enslaved must be absolutely brutal.  We are lucky not to have to know the pain of it.  But to be free is also to bear a burden.  It is to bear a burden of responsibility, of constant moral decision-making, of self-cultivation, of obediences and obligations chosen out of respect, not out of coercion.  To be free requires speaking and living the truth as best we understand it to and with other free people, sometimes trying to persuade, sometimes trying to listen more carefully in order to understand. And always, always at the end, to advocate for everyone's liberation from every kind of enslavement.

The easiest thing is to be technically free but unconscious, entirely self-interested, pursuing only what is comfortable, only what is pleasant, mostly what is familiar, and concerned only with the well-being very small circle of family and friends.  To be truly free is to recognize that we are easily lured into a smaller life and field of vision than is best for us to have.  To be truly free means to rail against the self-imposed chains of ignorance and pettiness.  To be truly free is not only to be free from something but free FOR something – something that magnifies our souls and beckons toward ever onward toward a shining goal.  Freedom is not a gift granted us once and finally, but is a process, a calling, and is the work of our lives to embody in the certainty that, in the words attributed sometimes to Mahatma Ghandi and sometimes to that great author, Anonymous, "no one is free when others are oppressed."              

Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt land.

Tell old Pharoah, let my people go.