Rewriting History, Part II of III

Rewriting History Sermon Series

Sermon by Jonathan L. Walton, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church of Harvard University, for the Memorial Church's Sunday Worship Service. 

“Now a new King arose over Egypt, who knew not of Joseph.” Exodus 1:8

We are in the book of Exodus. The second book of the Hebrew Bible. Last week I began a three-part sermon series entitled Rewriting History. Part one provided some narrative backdrop in order to frame the legend of Moses. It provided a larger context to understand how the Children of Israel ended up in Egypt. 

All hinged on the character Joseph. His gifts of dream interpretation endeared him to the Pharaoh. His incredible imagination saved the mighty empire from famine. And in the process, Joseph earned his people access to all the power, privileges, and rights Egypt had to offer.

Yet this is only part of the story. It’s the part that the Israelites probably preferred. I suspect they rarely discussed how Joseph was treated by his brothers. I suspect they rarely owned their people’s participation in his discrimination. Nor would any Hebrews ever admit that they, too, would have sold this nonconforming, curious kid Joseph into slavery. In hindsight, we always place ourselves on right side of history.

This is one way that we rewrite history. We laud activists and agitators of the past for their courage.  Yet we often ignore the pain and suffering that our society made them endure. We appreciate all that people did to take a stand against injustice.  But we fail to see how we continue to condemn those today who push the envelope too far.

So, last week we focused on the injustices of the Israelites. This week I want to focus on the ignorance of the Egyptians.  Let’s follow the storyline of the legend. There arose a Pharaoh, who knew not of Joseph. He knew not of Joseph’s people. He knew not of their contributions to Egyptian society and culture. He knew not of their contributions to the economy. He knew not of the ways that the Hebrews had become vital and valuable members of the Egyptian society.

It is not difficult to imagine that after generations of being in the land of Egypt; after generations of working, living, and loving alongside the Egyptians, this was the only land that many Hebrews ever knew. It’s the place many Hebrew children called home. Yet there arose a Pharaoh who knew not of Joseph.

This seems a curious claim to me. How could someone so uninformed about national history rise to power? How could someone so bereft of basic knowledge occupy such a powerful position? Maybe it says as much about the society at a given moment, as it does the leader. Maybe the Pharaoh’s ignorance reflected a broader social trend born of anti-intellectualism.

The great historian of American intellectual life Richard Hofstader defined anti-intellectualism as suspicion and resentment of the life of the mind. Anti-intellectualism minimizes the value of learning and knowledge in a society.  It subsumes ideas under supposed results. It diminishes curiosity and elevates productivity.  Ethical reflection is replaced with realpolitik.  In other words, anti-intellectualism fetishizes the cult of the practical. It worships the god of material.

Maybe Pharaoh became so concerned with maintaining Egypt’s reputation of prosperity that he never stopped to consider how “foreigners” like Joseph helped to make the nation great. Pharaoh was so concerned with mass building projects, that the grand legacy of Egyptian art, philosophy, and ideas seemed like a waste of time.

“The Art Council—Blah!  Higher Education—Impractical.  National Parks—too much leisure!  Arts Education—a waste of resources!” 

Can’t you hear this Pharaoh? Can’t you hear him declaring, “Who cares about those entitled, privileged, sensitive sandflakes with their grand ideas?  I’m going to produce jobs. I’m going to put real Egyptians back to work.” 

In a culture that cares more about results than ideas, empty public pronouncements tend to soothe, if not satisfy. For a people who want to identify with power by any means necessary, I am sure Pharaoh’s uninformed promises of prosperity struck a chord with Egyptians. Unfortunately, the tune was based on bias and bigotry.

Hebrew contributions to Egyptian prosperity became an inconvenient truth. Egyptian dependence on foreign brain power like Joseph is reframed. Immigrant contributions are a liability, not a strength; a burden, not a gift. Such a reframing of history meant that Egyptians were willing to pay a price to reclaim “their true culture,”—Yet the price of this culture was a lie.

Most of us here know the dangers of this sort of anti-intellectualism. It’s been a facet of American life since it’s inception—from the Puritans onward. It ebbs and flows in response to national trends and political patterns. In 1828, Andrew Jackson defeated John Quincy Adams on the platform, “John Quincy Adams can write, and Andrew Jackson can fight.” Adams education and intellect was associated with aristocracy, and Jackson’s appeal to the common man was paired with radical democracy—a pattern that we have seen played out on the national scene ever since.

Let me be clear, by critiquing anti-intellectualism, I am not championing a pedigreed elitism. If you’ve heard me more than one time from this pulpit, you know my position. An Ivy League degree does not determine quality of character. Nor should advanced degrees supplant viable experience or wisdom.  Recall those pulling the economic levers in the run up to the Great Recession.  I so appreciated the way my dear brother Professor Sam Hayes and his 50th Reunion Class from Harvard Business School raised this point a few years ago.  We have to own our culpability for the culture we helped to create.  Nevertheless, we we should all want leaders who ask the difficult questions; professionals who read widely and think deeply; and intellectuals who understand like William Shakespeare “what’s past is prologue.”

So maybe that was Pharaoh’s problem. He rode the winds of anti-intellectualism to power. He presented himself as the common Egyptian.  And through one misspelled Tweet, I mean, hieroglyph at a time, he told anxious and insecure Egyptians what they wanted to hear. Pharaoh spoke to their most uninformed assumptions. He inflamed their base bigotries. He manipulated their misery.

But that’s just one possibility.  Maybe his ignorance was born of anti-intellectualism.  But there is another option—a more cynical one. When we read there arose a Pharaoh that knew not of Joseph, should we believe it? Pharaoh may have been ignorant. But maybe his ignorance was intentional. Maybe it was willful.

There arose a Pharaoh who knew not of Joseph. Or there arose a Pharaoh who denied knowing of Joseph.  Because if he knew of Joseph, he would be forced to confess knowing about their contributions. He would have to legitimize their legacy. And, most importantly, he would have to acknowledge their humanity.

This is why we segregate. This is why we build walls. This is why we look the other way. Because it is easier to deny the humanity of those we do not see. It’s easier to discriminate against those who we believe to be fundamentally different and inferior. We have to convince ourselves that they mean us harm. You and I should never underestimate how comforting it is to have someone to blame!

Over the summer, my daughter and I read John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath together. This is the scene that Steinbeck paints as migrants from Oklahoma moved into California. Steinbeck writes, “Men who had never been hungry saw the eyes of the hungry. Men who had never wanted anything, saw the eyes of want in the migrants…the men of the town and the soft suburban country gathered to defend themselves; and they reassured themselves that they were good and the invaders bad, as man must do before he fights. They said the Okies are dirty and ignorant. They’re degenerate, sexual maniacs. These Okies are thieves. They’ll steal anything….The local people whipped themselves into a mold of cruelty.” It’s easier to fight those whom we fear. It’s easier to kill, those we do not view as human. 

It’s a logical sequence.  The king denies any knowledge of Joseph and the legacy of the Hebrews.  Then he convinces the Egyptians that they are dangerous. “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and powerful. Come let us deal shrewdly with them.”

A new king arose over Egypt, who knew not of Joseph.  Verse 11. “Let’s set taskmasters over them to oppress them.”

A new king arose over Egypt, who knew not of Joseph.  Verse 12. “The Egyptians came to dread the Israelites.”

A new king arose over Egypt, who knew not of Joseph.  Verse 13 & 14 “The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites. They made their lives bitter with hard service. 

A new king arose over Egypt, who knew not of Joseph.  Verse 16: “The king said to the midwives, when you see a Hebrew woman on the birthstone, if it is a boy, kill him.” 

First, we deny their contributions.  Then we deny their humanity.  Then we deny life. 

One of the great injustices of the contemporary moment is the way some seek to deny the contributions of those our nation deems as “other.”  We are a war memorial here at the Memorial Church.  So, let’s consider the Vietnam war. While certain tough talking men were receiving draft deferments for bone spurs, an estimated 14-19% of American casualties were Latino, including Harvard Law School graduate Nelson Ramon Morales. This death toll is disproportionate to the Latino 11% U.S. Latino population during the war years.

Or consider the current contributions of Latinos to the American economy. According to one study sponsored by RBC Capital Markets, Latinas wield more than $1.3 trillion in buying power. Affluent Latinx households are growing faster than the overall population.  Latinx households earning more than $150,000 grew 194% in the past decade.  Latinx owned businesses grew by 46%.  This means that Latinos accounted for 29% of real income growth during that decade. And since the median Latina age is 28, they are nine years younger than the national average. So if we want to make this nation great, it seems that we better embrace the Ramirez’s and Rodriguez’s among us. For like the history of Joseph and the Hebrews in Egypt, they have so much to teach us about ingenuity, entrepreneurship, and resilience against the odds. Like Joseph in Egypt, our future is found in their dreams!

Fortunately, there were some Egyptian and Hebrew women who viewed the understood in this story that hate is not the answer. When Pharaoh decreed for them to kill the first born, the disobeyed.  They resisted. They opted for righteousness and love.  They rejected the rule of law.

This is what I am certain God is asking of us today.  As people of faith we are called to live lives that honor rather than harm; respect rather than revile; and uplift rather than oppress. 

In the face of such evil and injustice, God deputizes us as His partners.  We are Her miracle workers.  Life gives us lemons, we make lemonade.  When life tears us into parts, we stitch beautiful quilts.  God put us into this world, to make out of it what we will.  And when the majority us choose to act with compassion, kindness, and grace, then justice and decency will prevail.  When the majority of us opt for historical ignorance, indifference to suffering, and egoism and selfishness, then the world will be filled with death and destruction.  We all must choose this day, who and what we shall serve.


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Rewriting History, Part III

Rewriting History, Part I