Wednesday, 23 August 2017

The Exodus in Our Time, Pt. III

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam each in its own way claims to be the legitimate heir of the religion of ancient Israel. While we often point to Abraham as the figure that links them, thus the term "Abrahamic" religions, in at least Judaism and Christianity the figure of Moses looms much larger. The entirety of Jewish religious life is organized around remaining faithful to God's law, as communicated to Moses at Mount Sinai, and Christian understandings of the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth are steeped in imagery associated with the exodus (after all, the Passover is precisely a commemoration of that event). In many ways, "Mosaic" would be a more appropriate description of Jewish and Christian religion than "Abrahamic." And thus can it reasonably be said that the core of the western religious tradition derives from the successful flight of enslaved persons from Egypt. At the fountainheads of western civilization--that remarkable fusion of Hebraic and Greek experiences--stand escaped slaves.

This has two obvious consequences. The first is that any effort to use the Jewish or Christian traditions to defend slavery ultimately must come up against the reality that such defense betrays the foundational impulse of these traditions. This first consequence has a further consequence: efforts to use these same traditions to support racism must up against that same reality. At its core, the exodus is a radical affirmation of human dignity, one that states that all persons, Egyptian or Hebrew, high-born or low, all deserve the freedom to live free from bondage and abuse. More, it introduces into history an insight that as far as I know was never previously so realized, namely that freedom is a sort of force in its own right. In the words of Ambassador G'Kar of Babylon 5: "There is no greater power in the universe than the need for freedom. Against that power, governments and tyrants and armies cannot stand." This is not obviated because we see later biblical texts that suppose slavery as a given. All that reality says is that the radical affirmation of human dignity that is the exodus had not yet fully penetrated human moral imagination.

The second obvious consequence is that unreasonable denial of the exodus vitiates this radical core at the heart of the western religious tradition. And this has real consequences. When one apprehends that Christian religion in a very real sense can trace its origins back to a group of Semitic slaves flying to freedom, the white supremacists chanting anti-Semitic slogans in defense of monuments to slavery while wielding symbols of the Christian faith are revealed not simply as trollish haters but in fact deeply idiotic persons who do not even apprehend the very civilization they claim to defend. Add in that this seminal event happened not in northern Europe but rather in Africa, and they begin to look utterly foolish, even more than their home-made shields and bizarrely neurotic need to wear bicycle helmets and wield bargain tiki torches already have made them. Of course, such considerations cannot be used to adjudicate whether or not there was an exodus or a Moses, but given that the arguments against the historicity of either are hardly as strong as often assumed--in fact, they largely boil down to arguments from silence and the fallacious supposition that if the Israelites were of Canannite extraction they must have always dwelt in Canaan--then one wonders why, in the face of rising hate and renewed efforts to justify the past enslavement of entire human populations, we are not working more diligently to retrieve this vital core of the western tradition. We who are inheritors of the Jewish, Christian, and post-Christian secular traditions cannot fully become ourselves if we do not acknowledge fully the seminal debt that we owe to the wisdom and courage of slaves.

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