Monday, August 18, 2008
Compassion over Law
It's a week before classes begin at Hastings College, so I have taken this final opportunity to get out of town for a few days and visit one of my favorite parts of the country, southwestern Colorado. Unfortunately, though, I am without the comfort of a book-lined office and an extended period of time at my desk to write my customary reflection. But I have been able to slip into this nice little bakery, Baked in Telluride, to put a few thoughts on paper. I did not want to pass up this chance because the passages this week are so central to my understanding of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and because they are perhaps more relevant now in U.S. history than they have ever been. From my perspective, Pharaoh's daughter is one of the unsung heroes of our faith, not only because she was able to save a savior – to draw out of water the one who would later lead the Hebrew people through the tumult of the Red Sea – but because she embodies a fundamental tenet of both the Hebrew and Christian traditions, that one should love justice and show mercy (Micah 6:8), and prefer compassion to the cold logic of the law.
As I look around here in Telluride, I am fascinated by the wealth of diversity (not to mention the obscene economic wealth): bikers and hikers, investment bankers and ski bums, college students and furloughed professors like me. But if there is any constant in the shops and restaurants I have ventured into these last few days, it is the skin color of the people who take my money, clean my rooms, or pick up my trash. "Mexicans! They're going to take us over if we're not careful!" The retort is as common here in the mountains as it is among the cowboys and farmers back home in Nebraska. "Something has to be done," they say, "we can’t just sit by and watch these illegals make a mockery of our immigrations laws!" Still, we have no problem when it comes to enjoying the menial services that these people provide, especially when it involves fashioning from bovine blood and guts the carnal building blocks of our American diet.
I can imagine that this attitude is not too far removed from that of Pharoah and his willing minions as they looked out across the land of Goshen and beheld with fear a rising tide of outsiders whose numbers could easily overwhelm them if they were not careful. So they put their finest intellects to work to come up with a plan. It was a cost-benefit analysis, really, with all the numbers in place and every equation balanced. What they found was that efficiency of brick production would not be considerably hampered by an equally proficient extermination of male Hebrew children, especially if this could be carried out by those presumably unconnected with the powers-that-be. "We need bricks," they were heard to say, "but too many of these dusty little brick-makers will surely be bad for business." So the conspiracy went into action. And it might have worked had it not been for the one wild card that seems always to foil so many best-laid plans: compassion.
I have often wondered what was going through the mind of Pharoah's daughter as she ventured down to the river to bathe. Was it just another day in the life of one of Egypt's rich and powerful, a morning dip in the Nile to refresh the body and the senses, or was there perhaps something more symbolic going on? Certainly this woman knew of her father's policies, and probably had more than just an inkling of the suffering it was causing among people whose most basic needs in life were little different than her own. It is not difficult to imagine that this woman's need for water over her flesh on this morning exceeded the daily ritual of cleansing and ventured also into the realm of spiritual renewal, of sanctification, of seeking some kind of symbolic atonement for the suffering that her father's inhumane laws were producing. So when a Hebrew child was found among the reeds floating precariously in his little make-shift craft, the compassion that had long been growing inside her was able to manifest itself in constructive action.
And so Pharoah's daughter becomes, in effect, an adopted child of the covenant. She embodies, as well as ensures, one of the basic principles of God's chosen people – that while the nations may trust in their horses and chariots, and in their laws that maintain the efficiency of production, the Hebrew faithful will remember the name of their God by welcoming the stranger within their gates.
This is relevant, I think, to Jesus' curious warning upon accepting Peter's messianic pronouncement. Yes, this affirmation of the Nazarene is the very rock on which the church is founded, but what exactly does it mean? Roman Catholics and Protestants have quibbled over this for close to five hundred years – is it Peter himself that Jesus is referring to here, or is it merely his loyal confession? Putting this ecclesiological debate aside for the moment, it is important not to overlook Jesus' desire for secrecy on the part of his disciples. How uncharacteristic of a man who has so recently been walking on the Sea of Galilee and feeding thousands of hungry wayfarers. Why stay tight-lipped on the matter? After all, isn't this good news? Isn't this the message that the apostles were to spread throughout all of Galilee and Judea, even to the ends of the earth? What's the use in being a "secret messiah"?
There are various explanations that can be offered here, the most obvious being that Jesus does not want the Romans to catch wind of this claim lest it be perceived as the kind of political subversion it actually was. This possibility seems to appeal most directly to my students who want to see in Jesus a kind of business manager who is interested primarily in the efficient operation of his mission. But I'm not convinced. Rather, I am more drawn to the likelihood that Jesus wants to buy a little time, not because he dreads what awaits him in Jerusalem, but because he needs ample opportunity to teach his disciples what centuries of hope in a political or apocalyptic savior had erased – namely, that the anointed one has come to complete a mission whose precedent could be found in an unlikely daughter of Egypt. In other words, Jesus was there to draw out of the chaotic waters of empire a new people of God and to initiate a Kingdom whose integrity rests less on the cold logic of the law than on warm-blooded compassion.
So as I sit here in this hip little Telluride bakery and consider the Hispanic woman working the register, or think of all the meat processors who have come to populate my own corner of the country, and all the other brick-makers upon whose backs our affluent economy has been foisted, I have to wonder where we as Christian Americans (or as any national group dealing with immigration issues in the global marketplace) have come to place the bulk of our faith. What do we do with the command to welcome the stranger within our gates? What do we do with the fact that the one whose name we invoke as central to our spiritual lives was himself a convicted outlaw, an enemy of the state? Are we more enamored with the cost-benefit analyses that have defined this issue so simplistically for us, or are we more inclined to follow the lead of one of the unsung heroes of our faith tradition, Pharaoh's daughter?
There are indeed many these days who are in need of being "drawn out of water." In light of this, one of the most important questions we can now ask ourselves is, Where do we as Christians truly belong? Are we first citizens of a nation, or inheritors of a Kingdom? More to the point: are we going to allow ourselves simply to be people of the law, or will we become – like Pharaoh's rebellious daughter – children of justice and compassion?
On a not entirely unrelated note, if you have not heard the band Pharaoh's Daughter you should really check them out.
Art and Images
1. Photo by Karen Endacott, Last Dollar Trail, Uncompahgre National Forest, San Miguel County, Colorado (August 18, 2008).