From Compassion to Justice

a reflection on Exodus 1:22; 2:1-10 by Rev. Yael Lachman

Sunday, September 6th, 2020

An Imperfect Ally, painting by Lisle Gwynn Garrity

Today, we are invited to step once again into a familiar story. A beloved Sunday school story in which Moses’ mother, whose name is Yocheved, is so desperate to save her infant son that she puts him in a basket and floats him down the Nile. I wonder if we might take a moment and just see if we can even imagine this mother’s pain, this mother’s sorrow, as she releases that basket into the current, not knowing what will befall her child. As you picture this scene in your mind’s eye, maybe you can just glimpse the baby’s sister, Miriam, as she hides in the reeds, keeping watch. Maybe you can hear the sound of footsteps as Pharaoh’s daughter arrives with her attendants to bathe. Maybe you can hear the whisper of the river grasses in the morning breeze, the lap of waters upon the shore as the princess sees that basket and rescues the infant Moses from the waters of the Nile. If you hang around on the riverbank for a while, you will see Yocheved again as she arrives to reclaim her child. Perhaps you notice the way she struggles to hide her emotion as she receives her infant and carries him home, leaving Pharaoh’s daughter to her bath and to her thoughts. Thoughts, perhaps, about how, in a few months, she is going to have to explain the arrival of a newly weaned Hebrew child in the royal household. 

This week, as I have lived with this familiar story, a surprising thing began to happen. I noticed that in my imagination, another woman arrived to join Pharaoh’s daughter on the riverbank. This time, it was a modern woman by the name of Warsan Shire, whose words we hear in today’s prayer of confession: “No one puts their children in a boat,” she says, “unless the water is safer than the land.”

Warsan Shire is a Somali-British poet and writer who was born in Kenya to refugee Somali parents. She is a woman who knows first hand what kind of terror and suffering convinces a mother to do whatever it takes — from crossing a treacherous border to putting an infant in a deathtrap of a boat — in order to give that child the hope of new life. In my mind this week, Warsan Shire appears beside the river Nile to genuinely thank the Egyptian princess for her act of compassion. In my mind, Warsan Shire thanks Pharaoh’s daughter for showing mercy to the infant she finds among the reeds.

But I am here to tell you that while the imaginary riverside conversation begins with this expression of thanks, it does not end there. Because Warsan Shire knows, as we ourselves know, that while pulling a baby out of a river is a necessary act of mercy, it is not justice. Justice does not begin until we are willing to eradicate the horrific conditions, and to dismantle the systems of oppression, that cause desperate mothers to put their children in the river in the first place. 

In a familiar modern parable (attributed to the medical sociologist Irving Zola) some people are standing on a riverbank when they are surprised to see a crying, struggling baby floating down the river. Someone immediately dives in to rescue the child, of course. But as soon as that child is safe on shore, another child comes floating down the river. Then another…and another! Suddenly, the good folks on the riverbank are jumping in to save the babies as fast as they come downstream. Finally, one person begins to walk away from the group.  “Where are you going?” the rescuers shout. “We need everyone’s help to save these drowning babies!” To which the other replies: “I’m going upstream to stop whoever is throwing babies into that river.”

It is often said that church folks are very good at pulling babies out of the river, but that churches tend not to walk upstream to stop the injustices that cause those babies to be drowning in the first place. I’m going to leave it to you to make your own determination about the truth of this observation. Take a look around. My guess is that you will see churches of every persuasion feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, and visiting folks in prison — as indeed we are called to do. I also suspect that you will not find many churches who are organizing to dismantle the underlying social, political, and economic systems that keep people hungry, and homeless, and incarcerated. All over the world, and right here at home, the church has a reputation for pulling babies out of the river without walking upstream to stop whoever is putting them there in the first place.

As Pharaoh’s daughter knows, to pull a baby out of the river is a necessary act of mercy. As Warsan Shire knows, to dismantle systems of social and political oppression is the work of justice. 

What does the Lord require of us? You know the answer, because we sing it every time we gather. The Lord requires us to seek justice, friends. The Lord also requires us to love mercy, for sure. But not without justice. 

And so there they stand, these two women of Africa — two women with huge and compassionate hearts are standing on the bank of the Nile and inviting us into their very interesting conversation. A conversation across the centuries about what it takes for us humans to get from mercy to justice. A conversation that may very well determine the course of our collective lives on this planet. A conversation that will determine the well being of the most vulnerable, human and otherwise, for centuries to come.   

And I believe we know what we are called to do at a moment such as this. We know because our sacred stories show us, again and again, that ours is a God who breaks into history on the side of justice for the most vulnerable; a God who, yes, asks us to jump into the river…but who also expects us to walk upstream and put a stop to the madness. Even when that work is really, really hard. 

This is why we read these ancient stories, friends: because they embody for us the story of our own human lives, and the story of our life with God. Moses’ rescue from the Nile is not the end of God’s story. On the contrary, this act of mercy is only the beginning of God’s plan for social and economic justice. A divine plan in which one woman’s act of mercy saves a child who grows up to be called by God to completely disrupt the slave economy of Egypt. When God calls to Moses out of that burning bush, God is using that now-grown child as the vehicle by which God breaks into history to dismantle a corrupt and cruel socioeconomic system: a system that was using up human beings and throwing them away; a system that was killing infants in order to protect the power and privilege of the political and social elite.

Friends, this is a radical act of social justice. When Moses answers God’s call, Moses becomes an agent not only of mercy but of justice and freedom. There on the riverbank, Warsan Shire stands beside the Pharaoh’s daughter and asks her — just as she asks us — if we are willing to do the same. 

What a difficult conversation these two women are having in my mind. The princess who has just completed a beautiful act of great mercy and compassion. “Isn’t that enough?” the princess asks. And in my imagination, the Somali-British woman who was born to terrorized refugee parents replies that no, it is not enough. We must also walk upstream. We must offer not only mercy, but also the justice that God intends for all children, and for all creation.

These conversations are never easy, are they? It is scary, and sometimes dangerous, to work for real justice. The kind of justice that demands the dismantling of privilege and power. It is much easier to side with Pharaoh’s daughter; to offer compassionate charity and leave it at that. But the God of Moses does not stop there. The God of Moses will not stop calling us until the captives go free and the whole crumbling pyramid of privilege and oppression comes tumbling down.

Beloved, there is beautiful mercy on the shore of the river. And there is also a path — a thorny path — that leads upstream to real justice. The choice before us is whether to stay on the shore or to take that thorny path. And I believe that every individual, as well as every congregation and every nation, must make this choice, either with intention or by default. This election season in particular, I am praying that we will take the time to make a conscious choice between mercy alone or mercy combined with the systemic change required by justice. Will we settle for offering charity? Or will we dismantle our unjust political economy and build a new social order devoted to the common good?

I don’t know how this conversation will play out on our riverside trails and around our dinner tables and in town hall meetings this season. But I am praying that we, along with the worldwide Church, will remember that God calls us from every holy corner of this burning planet; that God calls us not only to love mercy but to seek real justice as well.

May we find the courage to walk upriver together and to do the difficult, disruptive work that justice demands of us. May we find true and brave new friends for the work ahead. Amen.

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