The Rev. Sarah Buteux
August 27, 2017
Exodus 1:8 – 2:10
Proper 16 A
There was a story I loved as a kid. It was the story of how a group of people in Denmark confounded the Nazis during WWII. During the occupation, when the order came down that Jewish citizens would be required to wear a yellow star of David, the Danish people thwarted the order by all electing to wear yellow stars so their Jewish neighbors could not be easily singled out.
Anyone else remember hearing that story as a kid? The way I heard it, it was the mayor of a small town who went door to door under cover of darkness whispering the plan of resistance to his neighbors. No one knew who would go along with the idea, but when morning came, every townsperson stepped out into the light with a star on.
The story you see nowadays online holds that it was the King of Denmark who came up with the idea.“One Dane is exactly the same as the next Dane,” he said. He vowed that he himself would wear a star and he expected his loyal subjects to do the same.
Either way, according to the story most of the Danes complied and many Jewish lives were saved as a result. It’s a great story. A story of ordinary people confounding the powers of evil without lifting a weapon or harming a soul. It’s an incredible example of the power of creativity and solidarity in the face of forces that seem insurmountable. I wanted to know more about the story so I looked it up on line and guess what I found out?
It’s not true.
I hate Snopes.
(Actually, that’s not true. I really appreciate their work. For those of you who don’t know, SNOPES is a website that debunks all the apocryphal stories your well meaning friends and family insist on forwarding to you. It’s a total killjoy – an equal opportunity killjoy – but a killjoy none the less.)
The truth is that it’s hard to find good stories of non-violent resistance and civil disobedience. Which is not the same thing as saying that we lack for good examples. There are plenty of good examples.
But good stories…stories with a crisp clear beginning, ingeniously brave middle, and triumphant end – like the one about everyone wearing yellow stars- stories like that are hard to come by because campaigns of change that rely on civil disobedience are hard to pull off.
Non-violent resistance is rarely the obvious route. It’s often slow and quiet. It can seem weak and ineffectual. It isn’t sexy or powerful, at least not in the conventional sense. And it isn’t safe. But unlike fighting force with force – which only ever seems to beget more violence – more often than not, it works.
Like yeast in the dough or seeds in the ground, non-violent resistance and acts of civil disobedience have the power to ever so slowly re-shape the landscape, up-end the status quo, and change the world.
Take a look at Shiphrah and Puah, the midwives who defied Pharaoh. Now here we have both a good example and a good story. In fact, this is the first recorded story of civil disobedience in scripture. And hey folks, I know the Bible can sometimes seem outdated. After all, these events took place over 3000 years ago, but hang in there with me and see if any of this sounds relevant.
We’re reading this morning from the book of Exodus where we learn that a new “king” has arisen in Egypt. This new Pharaoh is the now the most powerful man in the unfree world. He rules over all yet, like all tyrants, he himself is ruled by fear…fear that he could lose it all if he’s not careful.
And so to shore up his power he resorts to the age-old strategy of rallying his base against a common enemy: in this case the Hebrew immigrants who had fled their homeland out of desperation and come to settle in his country.
Well, Pharaoh doesn’t trust these Hebrews. These foreigners pose a security risk, he says. They are not like us. They don’t speak our language. They are not of our race. They could align with our enemies at any moment. Not only that, there are so many of them and so few of us, says Pharaoh, that we need to do something before they take over our country.
We’re losing our edge here. Things are out of hand. We need to make Egypt great again, so here’s an idea: let’s put them to work. Let’s work them so hard that they’ll be too tired to multiply anymore. We’ll give them the hardest, most menial labor we can imagine – all the jobs we don’t want to do. We’ll push them down so far they won’t ever be able to rise up …and then we’ll feel safe again.
But the Hebrews merely grew stronger and more numerous and as a result Pharaoh only grew more fearful and suspicious. He exercised nearly complete control over them, but it wasn’t enough, and as a result his mind took an even darker turn. He decided he needed to get to the root of the problem…babies…we need to kill their babies… Which is horrific, sure, but not all that surprising, because that’s how the logic of racism works.
In his “The Other America” speech in 1967, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said as much:
“In the final analysis, racism is evil because its ultimate logic is genocide. Hitler was a sick and tragic man who carried racism to its logical conclusion. … If one says that I am not good enough to live next door to him, if one says that I am not good enough to eat at a lunch counter, or to have a good, decent job, or to go to school with him merely because of my race, he is saying consciously or unconsciously that I do not deserve to exist.”
Deep down, Pharaoh does not believe the Hebrews deserve to exist, so he calls upon Shiphrah and Puah for help. Now, it is not clear in scripture whether these two women are Hebrew midwives, or Egyptian citizens who serve as midwives to the Hebrews, but either way, these two women are called to the throne room, and told to kill all the boy babies born to the Hebrew women.
Don’t worry about the girls, says Pharaoh. What harm can girls do? (This may also be the first use of dramatic irony in scripture. I’m not sure). Anyway, don’t worry about the girls, he says. Just strangle the baby boys and we’ll be all set.
Now Shiphrah and Puah could have taken a stand right then and there in the throne room. They could have said, “With all due respect sir, we are health professionals. We took an oath to do no harm, and we will die here in defiance before we break our sacred promise.” They could have gone down in history as martyrs and ignited a movement. They could have gone big. They could have been bold.
But instead, they played it cool. They gave Pharaoh some serious side eye, got out of there, and proceeded to quietly thwart his plan. They didn’t allow him to define a new normal but hewed to the very values that had motivated them to become midwives in the first place – their reverence for mothers, babies, and the miracle of life. They may have feared or revered Pharaoh, but they feared and revered God even more.
And when Pharaoh called them back to say, “what gives, there are still tons of these Hebrews around?,” their response is brilliant. They use Pharaoh’s own racist views against him: We tried to do as you asked, but as you yourself know sir, “the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous (khayot – literally like animals) and give birth before the midwife comes to them” (Exodus 1:19).
They know that Pharaoh has ceased to view the Hebrews as fully human. How else could he command that their babies to be killed? The midwives use his own racism against him and he’s so blinded by prejudice that he believes them at their word and these women who have quietly and courageously defied Pharaoh, go free.
Shiphrah and Puah continue their life giving work in the world, the Hebrews thrive even more, and Pharaoh in desperation calls on all “good citizens” to start throwing foreign born baby boys into the Nile. Can you imagine? It must have been a very dark time. But in the midst of it all a very special baby is born.
When his mother looks down upon him she sees that “he is good” – the Hebrew here a perfect echo of the words God spoke over creation. She places him in a little boat, literally an “ark” made of reeds. And in her own way she adheres to the king’s command by releasing him into the great river.
The baby’s sister, Miriam, stands at a distance and keeps watch only to see Pharaoh’s own daughter find the baby. “This must be one of the Hebrew’s children,” she says with pity in her eyes.
Miriam, thinking fast, proposes an arrangement and the Princess, thinking just as fast, agrees. It’s wonderful. A mother, whose baby had survived at all thanks to the stealth courage and quick thinking of two midwives, effects a desperate little act of resistance of her own which opens the door for a princess to commit a small act of non-compliance and reparation.
The same Pharaoh who said, “let every girl live,” is undone by the small, quiet actions of women at every turn. Pharaoh’s own daughter adopts the baby, and then offers to pay his mother – a slave – to raise her very own son…a son the princess will name Moses… a man who will grow up and set his people free.
Now that’s a great story. A story of ordinary people confounding the powers of evil without lifting a weapon or harming a soul. It’s an incredible example of the power of creativity and solidarity in the face of forces that seem insurmountable. No one did anything “heroic,” in the traditional sense. They just quietly went about their day refusing to comply with policies they knew were wrong.
Which brings us back to that story I started with about the Danes. It would be really cool if that story about everyone donning stars were true. But the good people at Snopes did the research and what they can tell us is that rather than fight a war they could not win, when the Nazis rolled into Denmark, the Danes surrendered and lived under occupation for 5 years. Nothing particularly heroic about that.
But throughout those 5 years, you know what the people did? They engaged in symbolic acts of resistance. They wore red and white ribbons tied around coins in their button holes, which represented the date the occupation had begun. People in government resigned rather than carry out policies they found repugnant. Workers went on strike. Tales spread – some real, some not so much – of the King finding ways to snub both Hitler and the Nazi brass.
And one Swedish newspaper had the courage to print a cartoon wherein the King of Denmark is asked what everyone should do if the Jews in Denmark are ordered to wear yellow stars. The cartoon version of the King responds by saying , “well, then we’ll all have to wear them.”
The apocryphal story we all know so well probably hails back to that cartoon. But little things – even cartoons – can make a big impression. Small acts can turn the tide…and turn it did in October of 1943 when the Germans finally ordered the deportation of Danish Jews to concentration camps.
Luckily by then, the people were organized, most of their Jewish neighbors were in hiding, and ex-government officials worked with Sweden to smuggle as many out of harm’s way as possible.
According to Snopes:
Only 284 of an estimated 7,000 Jews in the area were rounded up, and over the next several weeks most of them made their precarious way to Sweden on fishing boats, private vessels, and any other type of floating craft that could undertake the journey. Fewer than 500 were deported to (concentration camps), and nearly 90% of them survived to return to Denmark after the war.
Although this legend may not be true in its specifics, it was certainly true enough in spirit. The rescue of several thousand Danish Jews was accomplished through the efforts of “thousands of policemen, government officials, physicians, and persons of all walks of life.” The efforts to save Danish Jews may not have had the flair of the “yellow star” legend, and they may not have required quite so many citizens to visibly oppose an occupying army, but those who were rescued undoubtedly preferred substance to style.
And in our own time, I have no doubt that this story, even if it didn’t quite happen the way I thought, has inspired people to stand in solidarity with those who are being persecuted. I think of the people of Bucks County, PA who all put menorahs in their window after their neighbor’s home was vandalized one Chanukah. ”We wanted to make sure that the family knew that they had our support,” said Margie Alexander, a Roman Catholic who lived just around the block.
I think of the way people all over the country flocked to airports after the Trump administration enacted a travel ban against seven Muslim-majority countries. They appeared with signs saying:
Mexicans for Muslims
Love Trumps Hate
No Human Being is Illegal
And “we all Muslims” in imperfect Arabic, because that’s what happens when you use google translate.
And I think of Charlottesville and the trauma our Jewish siblings have just suffered. Alan Zimmerman, the president of Congregation Beth Israel in Charlottesville posted an account of that horrible weekend. With forty congregants at prayer in their building, he watched – just two weeks ago! – as men in fatigues with semi-automatic rifles stood across the street from their temple.
Had they tried to enter, I don’t know what I could have done to stop them,…” he said.
Several times parades of Nazis passed our building, shouting, “There’s the synagogue!” followed by chants of “Seig Heil” and other anti-Semitic language. Some carried flags with swastikas and other Nazi symbols.
A guy in a white polo shirt walked by the synagogue a few times, arousing suspicion. Was he casing the building, or trying to build up courage to commit a crime? We didn’t know. …
When services ended, my heart broke as I advised congregants that it would be safer to leave the temple through the back entrance rather than through the front, and to please go in groups.
This is 2017 in the United States of America.
…And yet, in the midst of all that, other moments stand out for me, as well.
John Aguilar, a 30-year Navy veteran, took it upon himself to stand watch over the synagogue (alongside the security guard we hired) through services Friday evening and Saturday. He just felt he should.
We experienced wonderful turnout for services both Friday night and Saturday morning to observe Shabbat, including several non-Jews who said they came to show solidarity (though a number of congregants, particularly elderly ones, told me they were afraid to come to synagogue).
A frail, elderly woman approached me Saturday morning as I stood on the steps in front of our sanctuary, crying, to tell me that while she was Roman Catholic, she wanted to stay and watch over the synagogue with us. At one point, she asked, “Why do they hate you?” I had no answer to the question we’ve been asking ourselves for thousands of years.
At least a dozen complete strangers stopped by as we stood in front the synagogue Saturday to ask if we wanted them to stand with us.”
Standing with. It might not seem like much. It’s not flashy. It’s not sexy or exciting. It doesn’t make you feel powerful or strong. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like you’re really doing anything of consequence at all.
But showing up for one another.
Being there for one another.
Refusing to comply for the sake of the other.
Making our little cardboard signs, showing up at rallies, writing editorials, putting menorahs in windows, people of all ages, abilities, and walks of life using all the creativity and courage at their disposal to confound those who would abuse their power, even a frail old Catholic woman standing outside a Jewish temple… it adds up.
It can change the world, and you and me, right now, we are living in a world that needs to change. Amen?
Welcome to the resistance.
Let us pray: O God, these are not easy times for any of us. It is exhausting to carry around so much fear, disillusionment, anger, and despair. It would be so much easier to find some place to lay all this down and just walk away. But that is not what you require of us. You require us to do justice, love mercy, walk in kindness, humility, and solidarity with the oppressed of this world. And so I pray you would come now and help us to not only hold all our fear and angst but that you would help us to see our dissatisfaction as something holy. Bless the unrest we feel inside.
Bless the hunger and thirst for justice that is roiling within us.
Ignite in us a holy refusal to back down or give up or settle for this as our new normal and may that holy refusal break open our hearts to a holy hope that your kingdom can come and your will can and will be done here on this earth as it is in heaven. Amen