The Exodus. Freedom from slavery. Moses standing up to the Pharaoh and saying, “Let my people go!” The 10 plagues that God visited upon Egypt each time the Pharaoh’s heart hardened and he refused to release the Israelite slaves: the locusts, the frogs, the darkness, the storms of fire and all the rest. Eventually the pharaoh relents and agrees to let the Israelites go. They gather everything can, their clothes and and pots and pans and livestock anything they can carry and flee en masse. Of course, we know that the Pharaoh changes his mind and chases after them until he has the Israelites trapped against the shores of the Red Sea which takes us to the story from scripture that we heard today where even when things appear most bleak, there is hope. We will not be forgotten. The Red Sea parted and there is deliverance.
It is easy to see why this passage, this epic story of freedom for the Israelite slaves, has become the central story for liberation theologies. Liberation theology refers to a variety of contextual theologies that seek to challenge systemic oppressions each in its particular contexts. The term Theology of Liberation was coined by the Peruvian theologian Gustavo Guttierrez in a response to the grinding poverty present in Latin America in mid-part of the 20th century.
It is important to understand that there are liberation theologies. That is, several different liberation theologies that explore different contexts. There is a Black Theology and a Feminist Theology and because black women felt unheard in both, there became a Womanist Theology. Similarly Latina women developed a Mujerista Theology and Koreans Minjung Theology.
One of the main slogans of liberation theologies are that God is on the side of the poor and the oppressed. They point to the Gospel of Luke, where right at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry he quotes for Isaiah and says,
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim Jubilee!
Jesus is proclaiming good news for the poor and the oppressed. Jesus is proclaiming Jubilee. Now Jubilee is the Israelite practice that every fifty years prisoners are freed and debts are forgiven. The land that your family once had would be returned you. It would be like a reboot where everyone starts again at square one. Every fifty years we would start over with everyone at the same point. Of course it is doubtful that Jubilee was every actually practiced but it captures the sentiment that everyone is important. That we are all worthy and we all deserve healing and wholeness. It captures the sentiment of liberation.
So it is easy to see why the story of the exodus is so important to theologies of liberation. It is an amazing story of hope in the face of despair. Even when the Israelites are trapped with Red Sea to once and the Egyptian Army bearing down on the other there is still hope. The slaves go free! No matter how grim things are there is the chance of liberation! There is hope! God is with us and wants what is best for us.
But even in the midst of this very real hope in the face of despair there is something about this unsettling about this story. There is a glee and a glory with the rejoicing at the death of the Pharaoh and his army. Perhaps this is understandable. Celebrating the demise of your former oppressors who were about to massacre you may be the appropriate response. But there is zeal to the violence that is uncomfortable to read.
Moreover, it is as if this violence is part of a desire for domination. The Israelites are relieved that they are free from slavery but rather than resist the systems that promote slavery they rejoice in a reversal for fortune. The liberation doesn’t lead to transformation of the Israelites. They don’t reject violence and control. They simply rejoice that it worked to their advantage this time.
This desire for domination and control is evident when take the Exodus story in its larger context. The Exodus doesn’t end immediately on the right side of the Red Sea. There’s the 40 years of wandering in the desert and the establishment of the Mosaic Law before they reach the Promised Land. In fact, Moses only gets to see the Promised Land and never sets foot on it. It is Joshua who leads the Israelites into the Promised Land. There is one problem however. The problem is that the Promised Land was occupied. Promised Land, also known as Canaan was filled with Canaanites. The desire for domination rears its ugly head here as well and the book of Joshua begins with the genocide of the Canaanites.
This is the argument made by Robert Warrior, an enrolled member of the Osage nation, in his germinal critique of liberation theology, “Canaanite, Cowboys and Indians.” In fact, Warrior identifies the indigenous people of Turtle Island with the Canaanites. When the Israelites stream into the Promised Land Warrior as an indigenous person does not identify with the Israelites but rather he identifies with the Canaanites. The upshot is, Warrior believes that the use of Exodus as the motif for the liberation of the oppressed is misguided in that in the Exodus story liberation is too tightly intertwined with conquest and domination.
In the end, Warrior believes that looking to Liberation Theology or indeed wisdom from the Christian Tradition for ways to liberate the indigenous peoples is misguided. Rather, Warrior believes the liberation of the first peoples must be grounded in Indigenous systems of knowledge and values. In fact, I tend to agree with Warrior that the solution requires an indigenous lens. And whether or not you agree with Warrior and me I think it is a defensible position. One can make that argument that liberation of native peoples requires engagement with indigenous systems of thought and practice.
However, I don’t think that this is contradictory to the most important themes of the bible. The task in reading the bible is not defending every sentence or phrase. The violent imagery and the desire for conquest pointed out by Warrior are problematic to say the least. But even if indigenous liberation needs more than liberation theology I think it is important that we review our history and our tradition from all kinds of points of view both inside and outside of our tradition.
From outside the tradition we have critiques such as Robert Warrior’s. From inside our tradition we have the prophets and the ministry of Jesus. What is redeemable from the story pf the Exodus is that God is with us. The joy of the story of the story of the parting of the red sea was that in the greatest moment of despair God is with us. God is with us and God cares.
And while I believe that Warrior offers a valid critique on Liberation Theology I disagree with him when he says that even if we try to interpret the bible in more liberatory way the “text itself will never be altered by interpretations of it.” While Warrior is not taking the bible literally he is saying its meaning is unchangeable. He is saying that the meaning of the text is set in stone.
Andrea Smith points out that in recent years religious scholars have engaged postructuralist theory in reading the bible. Poststructuralism holds that a text doesn’t have an intrinsic meaning so much as it has a meaning that comes to life through a community. A text, any text does not have a fixed meaning but is always subject to contestation.
One way to contest the desire for domination present in the exodus story is through the lens of Jubilee. I spoke earlier of the Levitical concept of Jubilee where every 50 years there should be a reboot where we all start over. This is what Jesus proclaimed as central to his ministry. And maybe we should be proclaiming Jubilee. But we know it’s not practical. We can’t give the land back. It just wouldn’t work. It’s impossible.
But it is also what John Caputo calls “The Impossible.” Caputo contends that “the impossible” is actually something for which we pray and weep and long for with a restless heart. In fact, as we lose our grip (or better still, let go) we are transformed. For the impossible is what makes experience to be Experience with a capital E: an occasion that really happens! As Caputo triumphantly puts it, the impossible is what gives life its salt. It follows, then, that Experience itself has a religious character and edge. When we read this text of Jesus framing his ministry through the impossible and exotic act of Jubilee perhaps we can participate in liberation.
One way we might participate in liberation in relation to our indigenous neighbours is through our Treaties. You may have noticed that every Sunday during the welcome I acknowledge that we are on Treaty 4 land and that we are treaty people. When I say we are a treaty people I am acknowledging that the treaties between indigenous and settler people are a fundamental part of the formation of Canada. Our country is at least in part based in the nature of the treaties ad how we live out the commitment made in them.
Perhaps Jesus’ call to Jubilee might help us in living out these treaties. Not that we can practically return the land every 50 years but that impossible call to Jubilee might always be in our minds and in hearts as we try to live up to the treaties. Perhaps if we commit to living in relation with the First Peoples of Turtle Island in the Spirit of Jubilee, perhaps in that impossible spirit perhaps we can be transformed and the world in which we live can be transformed and perhaps liberation is possible. Amen.