Plunder: a reading of Exodus for June 2020 (and july-august-september, Lord have mercy)

[I wrote a draft of Plunder on June 2, in the wake of George Floyd’s death, and at the beginning of the uprising. It wasn’t ready then, for public consumption – mostly, probably, because I wasn’t ready. These last months have been brutal and earlier this week, I came back to this piece and determined it still had life. Yesterday, a grand jury decided to file no charges in the death of Breonna Taylor. And today – once again – their cries get louder, the river bleeds, the sky falls. May we have favourable sight. -hg]

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And I will give this people favour in the sight of the Egyptians; and when you go, you shall not go empty, but each woman shall ask of her neighbour, and any woman who lives in her house, for silver and gold jewelry, and for clothing. You shall put them on your sons and on your daughters. So you shall plunder the Egyptians.” – Exodus 32:21-22

plun·der/ˈpləndər/ verb
– to steal goods from (a place or person), typically using force and in a time of war or civil disorder. “looters moved into the disaster area to plunder stores” 
– the violent and dishonest acquisition of property. “the farmers suffered the inhumanity and indignities of pillage and plunder”




I’ve been thinking about the Exodus.

A People acquired, enslaved –
their descendants become fruitful, filling the land.

And Empire, threatened –
their new dictator-king becomes enraged,
enforcing orders & laws, law & order,
ruthless working conditions – intent to weaken, silence, subdue,
an forced labour – inhumane and inhuman.

Even those newborn baby boys, a threat.
And so, the state-sanctioned murders
of all those inconvenient infants.

But then… the quiet dissenters, conscientious objectors,
midwives defying death, making way for life,
making way for those women to do that which their powerful,
unstoppable bodies were made to do.

A kind, generous God
to those enslaved,
and to their allies.

But the king, he rages on,
grows shaky and loose, darker and more vile.
His narrative troubled by a little baby boy
who floats into the wrong camp,
in fact, into the palace itself
and the arms of his daughter.

This baby boy, escapee of the ghetto/camp/slave quarters,
a tiny infiltrator of the royal family who toddles through the headquarters of power,
and then grows up to one day remember
his roots, his story, his people.

That one day he sees an overseer
kneeling on the neck of one of his own,
masks fall and pretense gives way.
He snaps, no longer standing by,
but sheds his privilege
and therein becomes and enemy of the state –
and indeed his own family.

He shirks and hides, attempting distance and normalcy.
But nothing changes.
One king dies – another rises,
and still the system holds.

The people groan.
Their God hears,
remembers,
looks,
reaches,
and lights a fire.

Their God calls his name (Moses),
and asks him to #saytheirnames,
to hear,
remember,
look,
reach.
But surely there is someone more qualified, more prepared,
more woke to the task.

Me and you, God promises.
Here, now.
Then, there.
You’ll see…

The activists organize,
a peaceful assembly.
They ride that freedom bus all the way
to the front steps of the big house.

But the king emboldens, cracks down,
unleashes the horsemen, dispatches the military.

Conditions worsen,
become impossible.

Disunity in the Movement is reported.
Faulty leadership, they say.
The platform is too wide, too deep.
It’s taking too long.
There is no way.
Incremental freedom might be more feasible.
It’s not worth it, some say.
You’re only making things worse for us.

And up the chain, the grumbling passes,
from Moses’ mouth to God’s ears.
This is taking too long.
It’s not worth it.
You’re making things worse for us.

It’s coming, God replies. I’m still here.
Me and you.
Here, now.
Then, there.
You will see.

God tells them again
the longer story, remembers the dreams of their fathers*.
He #saystheirnames
and teaches a history no doubt in need of revision
from that of palace schools.
And then, they hear their own names – Moses, Aaron –
and therein realize that they are the dream,
that none of us is free until all of us are free*,
that this work, indeed, is ours.

Again and again,
they walk, they march.
They plead, hold banners,
raise fists,
and take a blessed knee.

Their cries get louder,
the river bleeds,
the sky falls.

But the king emboldens,
cracks down,
unleashes his horsemen,
dispatches the military…

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When I follow the story, it does get worse for us.
Yes, us. Yes, you – white sister, brother, neighbour, friend.
Yes, me – fragile, privileged oppressor and profiteer.
(You didn’t think we were they, did you?
Oh, no, my love, we’re the ones holding the gold.)

And for us, the deeper we entrench,
the more adamantly we defend the systems
that weaken and enslave them,
and that maintain and enrich us,
the worse it gets.
And it gets so. much. worse.

At first it’s ludicrous,
inconvenient,
and then uncomfortable.
Our health is taken,
our crops destroyed –
this year’s harvest,
and then any promise of fruit in the next.
Our economy collapses,
it all goes dark.
And one day we find that our babies too are dying.

Because it must have always been true
that none of us is free until all of us are free,
that our lives don’t matter unless theirs do.

It was always true that their God
was hearing
and remembering
and looking and reaching,
and would not stop – relentless their God –
until – and forever after –
they had passed over and were safe on the other side.

It was always the plan that our riches
were intended to be their plunder,
to be the reparations they carried into freedom,
to be the threads which would eventually
be woven into the altar cloths
that received the gratitude
and memory
of a people restored,
and healed,
and free.

So who am I now, but the neighbour called to favourable sight?
Who am I but a woman living in a house built with bricks made without straw by a people
whose bodies have been broken,
sons have been killed,
wages withheld,
and whose Sabbath rest has been denied?
Who am I but the one being asked to fill another woman’s empty hands
with the silver, gold and clothing, I sit clutching,
purchased on my privilege,
credited to my complicity.
She asks now that she might clothe
whatever sons and daughters she has left.
She asks for favourable sight.

And so, yes, let me see with all favour.
Yes, let her have all she asks.
And thus, let her plunder me.

And the Lord had given the people favour in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they let them have what they asked. Thus they plundered the Egyptians. -Exodus 12:36

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notes:

  • This telling follows the freedom story of the Hebrew people told in the book of Exodus, chapters 1-12.
  • Some of the lines in this piece are thoughts from (and shout-outs to) other freedom voices, most notably: