Monday, August 25, 2014

Sermon: Shiphrah and Puah in Tucson: White Privilege and the Power of One

Shiphrah and Puah in Tucson: White Privilege and the Power of One
A Sermon for Sunday, August 24th, 2014
By Mother Clare Yarborough

Lesson: Exodus 1:8-2:10    
Psalm: Psalm 124
Epistle: Romans 12:1-8    
The Holy Gospel: Matthew 16:13-20

Episcopal News Service photo: Ferguson merch Aug 15 20141.    The first I heard about the news out of Ferguson was from a cryptic remark on Facebook made by Mike Kinman, dean of Christ Cathedral in St. Louis, Mo on August 10. It said, “Sometimes events happen that compel you to tear up your sermon and start over.  Yesterday’s shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson is one of those events.”

At the time I sort of assumed that this was a local kerfluffle in St. Louis that needed to be addressed but would quickly subside.  Mike cares for his community and he’s in the forefront of trying to make systemic change for the better in St. Louis and its neighboring communities.  (Not surprisingly, he’s a St. Michael’s Eagle.)  So I thought it was natural that, of course, he would tear up his already written sermon to address a local concern—that’s the mark of a good pastor.

It wasn’t until the next day that I realized that the shooting of Michael Brown was not a small local incident, but one more chapter in a much larger story that implicates every one of us in this country. 

Another unarmed black youth shot by a white police officer in the name of self-defense.  His body lay on the street for hours, his mother prevented from going to him as it was a “crime scene”. 

You can imagine the rage that erupted as a result in that mostly black community with the mostly white police force.  You can also imagine the fear in the police force, the defensive reaction to the rage that resulted in the riot gear, the tear gas, the rubber bullets and the sound horns.

This, (of course), produced more rage, then more fear, and even more violence. 

2.    There came a time in Egypt where a king came to power who did not know Joseph.  And he said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.”

Bring out the riot gear!

Shiphrah, Puah, Jocheved, Miriam, Pharoah's Daughter, and the infant Moses - mural, Dura-Europos SynagogueAt first the fear simply led to enslavement.  Pharaoh needed builders and the Hebrew slaves built, first Pithom and then Ramses.  They became more numerous.  Pharaoh’s fear grew and so he instructed the midwives Shiphrah and Puah: “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.”

The Scripture says that these two women feared God more than Pharaoh, and so they did not do what they were commanded.  They let the boys live and became the first non-violent “conscientious objectors” of Scripture.

When questioned, they adopted a nonchalant shrug: “Oh, it’s those Hebrew women, they aren’t like the Egyptian women, they are vigorous and have their babies before we even arrive!”  Thus,
Pharaoh’s fear is intensified—the Hebrews aren’t like us.  The Hebrews are the other

3.    Egypt and the Israelites.  Europeans and Native Americans.  Turkey and the Armenians.  The Nazis and the Jews.  The Killing Fields of Cambodia.  Montt and the Ixil Mayans.  The Hutu and Tutsi of Rwanda. 

The history of genocide is a long and bloody one.  Although there are some overall patterns of how a single population is first defined, then marginalized and then systematically persecuted—each genocide seems to leave its own distinctive mark.  Some erupt almost spontaneously, such as Rwanda and Cambodia, others develop gradually over time—moving so slowly that it’s hard to actually identify the Tipping Point into wholescale mass slaughter.

Not every genocide has a Kristallnacht. 
But all usually have a Ferguson, and not just one, many.  There has to be a well-defined other to be feared.

Ferguson is Ferguson because it is not an isolated incident.  Mike Brown is not the only young unarmed black man shot because of being in the wrong place at the
wrong time, mouthing off the
wrong words to the
wrong person. 

This has happened too many times.  Too many times this has been the end result of a situation that could have been resolved in so many other ways.

Except time and time again we have the same end result because that we have a
•    a history of oppression and persecution,
•    A history of threats and intimidation
•    A history of fear that has created a deadly dance of violence between black and white in our country.

4.    We are invited to a different dance. 

Instead of dancing with Pharaoh, we have the opportunity to partner up with Shiphrah and Puah and dance with God.

So how do we join in when it looks as though the dance floor is in another part of the country? 
How do we know in fact whether we are dancing to the right tune when there are conflicting reports about what actually happened at the time of the shooting, and its aftermath?  How do we know we are picking up the right rhythm to this dance?

First, I think we have to realize that whether we realize it or not, we are on the same dance floor regardless of whether we find ourselves in Ferguson or Tucson.  White privilege looks the same across the country.  It’s so embedded in our cultural DNA that most of the time we aren’t even aware of it—
•    We turn on the tv and most of the people will look like us. 
•    We don’t have to scrounge to find toys for our kids that have the same skin color or eye color. 
•    We can walk along the sidewalk without hearing car doors lock as we approach.  Or women nervously cross the street. 
•    We can even pretend that white privilege doesn’t exist because if we choose, we can surround ourselves pretty easily with other white people.

And so we benefit from the same set of circumstances that created a Ferguson.  And we, like it or not, are on the same dance floor.  The first step to doing anything about it is to recognize the privilege and the fact that we did not earn it, we were born with it.  We can feel a little guilty about having something we did nothing to obtain—but quite frankly, guilt is useless if it does not spur us on to action.  So we are obligated to acknowledge the advantage of white privilege and the power it gives us, and then use it to act.

And the first action we can take with this privilege and power is to SHUT UP and LISTEN.  We need to listen to the voices of those who live in other realities.

•    Listen to the mothers who have to tell their sons NOT to run down the sidewalk lest it attract too much attention from the authorities.  Listen when they tell you how their hearts are in the mouths every time they hear of a shooting until they see their own sons come through the door safe and sound.
•    Listen to the youths who all too often are stopped by police just because they look as though they might not have a valid driver’s license. 
•    Listen to the young women who leave history class during a movie on the Civil Rights Movement because the police are turning fire hoses on men who look just like their dads and granddads. 

When we feel their pain and their anger and their fear, then it is easier to replace our fear with compassion and empathy.

Then we are ready to dance with God.  We will be ready to stand up and witness that we human beings are ALWAYS going to have more that unites us rather than divides us.  We will be ready to act on the truth that there is no “other” when we are all children of God.

We do not have to journey to Ferguson to make this point.  There are ample opportunities to witness here in Tucson: ample opportunities to listen to stories of oppression with compassion and empathy! 

5.     Shiphrah and Puah were not exactly considered privileged by the standards of Egypt—not when compared to Pharaoh.  But they were able to make their own moral decisions and act accordingly within the sphere of their influence.  The moment came when their sphere of influence coincided with Pharaoh’s interests.  Where before they had limited power, in the birth room they had all the power.  

They chose compassion over fear.  Life over Death. 

And the boys lived.

None of us know when we will be called to moral action.  We do know for sure is that we have the power to choose: compassion over fear, God over Pharaoh. 

There may be more Fergusons in our future as a nation.  What we can do here is our best to keep our Tucson Compassionate, Kind, and Free of Fear.

We can be the Shiphrah and Puahs of the Old Pueblo—

and do what we can to keep our Michael Browns safe so that they can go home to their mothers at the end of the day.