They Would Not Die
by Christopher C. Thompson, 10 February 2017.
But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread; so the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites and worked them ruthlessly. Exodus 1:13-14
I have always been enthralled by the story of the exodus. I think my favorite part is when God says to Moses, “I have seen, I have seen, the oppression of my people in Egypt.” It’s a powerful moment of revelation for Moses wherein God not only reveals himself as the Transcendent One, but also as having great compassion. The bush is burning and is not being consumed, yet Moses is cannot be distracted by this physical anomaly, but rather he is engrossed in the reality that he is being invited to cooperate with the Almighty in an act that will ultimately change the course of human history. Moses, is reluctant, yet overwhelmed by this awesome invitation.
Then there is the verse in chapter one where the midwives argue that the Hebrew women have a strong constitution and so they are able to give birth before the midwives can intervene. Although it was shared in an effort to be deceptive it could almost serve as a partial explanation of the text above. For some reason. Whether it was because God had endowed them with some special disbursement of grace and strength, or that having been nomadic wilderness dwellers they had developed a sort of rugged, earthy toughness that undergirded them. Either way, they confounded the Egyptians in that despite their incessant maltreatment, the Israelites still prospered.
I am amazed by the Hebrews. The Egyptians sought to break their backs and crush their spirits with harsh punishments and heavy labor, but the Hebrews still prospered. Then Pharaoh proclaimed an executive order of genocide against them, but the Hebrews continued to grow and prosper. Finally, God sent Moses and several miraculous events to ensure their deliverance. Yet it was dependent on Moses and later, his understudy Joshua, to finalize their deliverance to the promised land of Canaan.
Why didn’t they fold? Why wouldn’t they die? I admire them.
When Moses first stood before Pharaoh and demanded their release, he watched as their punishments and workload increased. They complained to him that his efforts had only made things worse. They were certain that freedom would never be realized and thus it’d probably be better if he would simply let things be. Let sleeping dogs lie. Don’t rock the boat. But Moses was resolute. He boldly demanded, “Let my people go so that they may worship God in peace.”
I’m currently reading a book about Charles Hamilton Houston and how he “socially engineered” the legal battle against Jim Crow. He was the professor and mentor to Thurgood Marshall and according to Marshall, Houston “taught me everything I know.” These two men were unicorn figures in a time when justice for blacks in the courts was simply nonexistent. You might argue that they were somewhat akin to Moses and Joshua. Moses determined to speak truth to power, and Joshua saw it through. Houston charted the course and manufactured the plan, and Marshall executed it masterfully.
I am still amazed by African-Americans. What could cause a people so downtrodden, so deeply depressed, to still develop the likes of a Charles Hamilton Houston or a Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King Jr. and W.E.B. Dubois? And how could they develop the temerity and tenacity to defy the dictates of white supremacy with such ingenuity and diplomacy? How is it that Madame C.J. Walker, Mary Mcloed Bethune, Katherine Johnson and Eva B. Dykes distinguished themselves as consummate professionals in the face of bigotry and discrimination all while maintaining their dignity and class?
Why didn’t they fold? Why wouldn’t they die? I admire them.
When Charles Houston and Thurgood Marshall saw how terribly dilapidated, under-resourced and unsafe the black schools were in the south compared to the white schools, they knew exactly what needed to be done. Plessy vs. Ferguson ensured that schools would be separate but equal. These men traversed the south and found that that the schools were definitely separate, but they were most certainly not equal. They traveled all around the south trying cases in the local courts that demanded that something be done about these inadequate learning spaces.
In those days there was no interstate highway system and hotels would not accept “colored” guests. So these men traveled dangerous dirt roads in racist southern towns and tried to find shelter among local blacks who would take them in. But it wasn’t safe to house these troublemakers. One could make themselves a target and find a cross burning in their yard that night, be threatened with violence or even death. Doubtless, there were many who were certain that freedom would never be realized and thus it’d probably be better if they would simply let things be. Let sleeping dogs lie. Don’t rock the boat. Yet Marshall was resolute.
Brown v. Board of Education was unavoidable because in the south, Plessy vs. Ferguson was impossible. The Voting Rights Act, the Fair Housing Act, and countless other legal precedents were realized because Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall resolved to speak to Pharaoh what God had already spoken to them.
Today I look at Michael Eric Dyson, Oprah Winfrey, Barry Black, Barack Obama, Colin Powell, and I can hear Thurgood Marshall arguing his case before the Supreme Court. I can hear Moses saying, “Let my people go!” I am mindful that these have taken their place because they are the descendants of a people that would not fold and would not die. And then I think about my own church.
I pastor in an impoverished community that still bears the marks of brutal economic and political oppression. We still have so much work to do to make certain that everyone has the opportunity to live and learn in an environment that’s safe, secure, attractive and appealing. And without that how could we expect that they would worship God? Without having basic needs met: access to quality healthcare, access to quality schools, access to healthy food, and a living wage how can we in good conscience expect that they will serve God with all their heart?
Today I’m convicted to keep working, not simply so that people can know God and have abundant and eternal life, but I also work so that people can have a decent life now. This world is not my home. And so, I preach to invite others to come and go with me to my Father’s house. But what good is that if when they leave my church they have no house of their own to go back to that night, or no food to eat when they get there? Today I am thankful for those who strived and fought so that we could have a better life. They refused to fold. They refused to die. And for that I am grateful.
I admire them. I want to be like them.
Christopher C. Thompson is the pastor of the Hillcrest Church in Pittsburgh, PA. He and his wife Tracy have one son, Christopher II. The three of them live in Pittsburgh’s historic Hill District.