Rewriting History, Part III of III

Rewriting History Sermon SeriesSermon 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. 


"But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, "Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” The midwives said to Pharaoh, "Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families." Exodus 1:17–21


Two weeks ago I started a three-week sermon series based on the first two chapters of Exodus. By looking at the legacy of Joseph and the cultural memory of the Hebrews and by examining the insecure and willful ignorance of a new King in Egypt, we witnessed two ways that we rewrite history.

Some of us wear rose colored lenses. Moral hindsight is 20/20. We lift up moments of progress and gloss over pain. We lift up those we now deem heroes and minimize our objections and indifference. We can celebrate a dreamer named Joseph while denying that we would have ever been like his brothers. Never would we have bullied. Never would we have been among those who mocked his dreams.

Others of us wear blinders. We ignore the history of some. We remain intentionally ignorant of the struggles, successes, and aspirations of particular groups. Like the new Pharaoh in Egypt, when we deny groups of people their history, we can deny their humanity. And when we deny their humanity, we can justify or excuse the harm we inflict.

So, two weeks ago we looked at the legacy of Joseph. Last week we examined willful ignorance among the Egyptians. Today I want to consider some courageous women in the text. Some of you remember from last week that the insecure King sends out a decree. The handmaidens are to murder the male children born to Hebrew women. That is a new law. That is the new Egyptian federal policy. For in Pharaoh’s mind, the Hebrews are the source of the nation’s demise. Who cares that the nation owes its prosperity to Joseph’s ability to both envision and interpret dreams? Who cares that, according to legend, the Hebrews were active and engaged members of the host society? This new Pharaoh was scared and insecure. He was politically incompetent and morally weak. And history reveals to us that weak leaders need strong scapegoats.

Fortunately, there were women in this story—women who adhered to a higher moral ethic than the Egyptian state—women who answered to a higher moral authority than the prescribed law—the Hebrew handmaidens at the end of chapter 1, Shiphrah and Puah, as well as a Levite woman in chapter 2.

These women are exemplars of ethical integrity. When the law said to murder, they opted for life. When the law sought to dehumanize, they opted for dignity. Whereas the law fostered cruelty, these women opted for compassion. They defied Pharaoh to adhere to a higher standard. These women exercised moral clarity. They demonstrated moral courage.

What do we mean by moral courage? Usually, we associate courage with physical feats of bravery. Think of first responders at the twin towers sixteen years ago on 9/11. Think men like Purple Heart recipient and Harvard Business School graduate Colonel Everett Spain. Col. Spain was just one hundred yards from the finish line of the Boston Marathon when two bombs exploded. He ran toward, not away from, the danger to provide medical care for those badly injured. These are valiant acts of physical courage that we applaud. These are courageous acts that we appreciate.

Moral courage, however, is not just about physical prowess in the heat of a moment. Moral courage is the ability to uphold one’s values—particularly in the face of personal loss. Moral courage is our capacity to stand for what’s right despite negative consequences. Moral courage is our ability to affirm noble truths against more convenient and even soothing lies. It is choosing the difficult right rather than the comfortable wrong.

Now I realize that it is easy for some to appeal to moral courage anytime one makes an unpopular decision. It is easy to claim moral courage anytime somebody directs harsh criticism our way. Consider the holy roller who loves to tell everybody else how they’re going to hell. Think about the blowhard boss who is heavy handed with negative criticism and withholds praise. Or even note the uncompromising politician who champions austerity and financial cuts to the detriment of the most vulnerable. All of them can declare, “I don’t care if nobody likes me. I am a truth teller. I have moral courage.” Probably not. We may just be acting like a jerk.

When we think about the values that constitute moral courage, I like those that the late author Rushworth Kidder identified. These values include honesty, responsibility, and respect. Telling the truth, a willingness to accept the price for our actions, while acting in a way that is respectful toward all. Honesty. Responsibility. Respect. These are very important. But there are two more: fairness and compassion. Having moral courage means we seek to expand rather than deny opportunities for others. We seek the difficult path of providing care rather than the relatively easy road of indifference.

These women in the text demonstrate moral courage. I can hear Puah saying to Shiphrah, “I know we are not supposed to defy Pharaoh. I know he gave us direct orders to murder any boy born to the Hebrews. I know we will probably lose our jobs if he finds out. We can lose our positions or be imprisoned if he discovers our plot. But our job is to give life, not take it. Our job is to deliver, not deny. So I would rather suffer temporarily, to be on the right side of eternity.”

There comes a time in life where we all have to decide to choose the difficult right over the convenient wrong. There are times—in our jobs, in our communities, in our communities of faith—that we have to weigh decisions through the framework of honesty, responsibility, respect, fairness, and compassion. There are times where we must choose civil disobedience over civil obedience. Too many have suffered. Too many have endured pain and agony at the hands of tyranny because too many of us have remained civilly obedient. In the words of Howard Zinn, “if we define patriotism as the love of one’s country, and loyalty to justice and democracy, then patriotism requires us to disobey government whenever it violates those principles.” Civil disobedience is not against democracy; it is vital to democracy.

Consider a young woman in Montgomery, Alabama. She knew that the Jim Crow laws of public transportation were unfair and unjust. Riding home on the bus one day in 1955, she was in the section designated “colored.” But it was the custom for bus drivers to have African American riders stand up and give up their seats to whites on crowded buses. When the bus driver told the women to move, she refused. She said, “I paid my money like everyone else and I ain’t going nowhere.” She ended up in a Montgomery jail cell.

Though some of you are thinking of Rosa Parks, I am talking about a fifteen-year-old girl named Claudette Colvin. This arrest took place nine months before Ms. Parks’ arrest. Ms. Colvin knew something about the unjust nature of segregation. She was a member of the NAACP Youth Council where Rosa Parks was the director. And just that day she had written a paper in class about segregation while shopping. African Americans could not try on clothes or shoes in department stores. Customers had to carry a brown paper bag to outline one’s foot to shop for footwear. So, less thinking about herself, when she saw that she was being asked to give up her seat along with a pregnant African American woman by her side, she refused. She was “fed up, and wasn’t taking it no more.” She would rather go to jail with dignity, then have her soul imprisoned by injustice.

Similar might be said of Moses’s mother. The handmaidens help this woman hide her son for three months. She builds him a waterproof basket. She strategically places him in the Nile. Pharaoh’s daughter retrieves the basket. And with quick and clever thinking, Moses’s big sister runs up and says, “Do you want me to go get a Hebrew woman to work as your nanny?” She retrieves her mother and allows this woman to raise her own Hebrew son within the Egyptian halls of power.

From what we know about Moses’s later life and own moral convictions, it is clear that Moses’s mother passed down her values. Honesty. Responsibility. Respect. Fairness. Compassion. When tied together, these are the virtues that constitute moral courage.

I can imagine Moses attending school with other Egyptian boys during the day, but Mother Moses teaching him different lessons each night.

I can imagine she taught him about their rich Hebrew history.

She taught him “God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no more water, but fire next time.”

She taught him that “Abraham and Sarah stepped out on nothing, confident they would land on something. 

She taught him that “Jacob wrestled with the angel of the Lord all night long. For justice takes patience and persistence.”

And she taught him about Joseph, and that if you want to live honest and right, sometimes you must pay for it with persecution and abuse.

I would suggest that this is how he ends up staring down evil and injustice. This is what animated him to ultimately stand before Pharaoh and declare with crystal clear conviction, “Let my people go.” These women implanted something deep down on the inside of him. These women were moral exemplars of virtue and courage. Most importantly, they were rewriting history. Because of their efforts, today we honor Moses, not Pharaoh. We sing a song NOT of Egyptian military power, but of a God who can part the Red Sea.

What history are we going to write? What legacy are we going to leave? Some want to mark this moment as one of xenophobia and Islamophobia. Some want to mark this moment as buffoonery and bigotry.

But I dare to believe that our young people have the moral courage to rewrite the moment. I’ve seen them in the street chanting “education not deportation.” I’ve seen them raising rainbow signs declaring “love wins.” I’ve seen them joining hands with Jewish, black, brown, and Asian brothers and sisters singing:

No need to clutch for power.
No need for the light just to shine on me.
But I need to be one in the number,
As we stand against tyranny.
We who believe in freedom shall not rest.
We who believe in freedom shall not rest until it comes.


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Rewriting History, Part II

Rewriting History, Part I

Prof. Jonathan L. Walton speaks at pro-DACA rally in Harvard Square on Sept. 7, 2017