Last Sunday in worship our sermon was in the form of a dance. Liturgical artist and founder of “The Dancing Word” Betsey Beckmann put together an ensemble to tell the story of the Exodus from the perspective of Miriam, Moses’ sister. Miriam was a prophet who, according to the story, led her people in dance and song after God brought them out of slavery in Egypt and delivered them safely to the far side of the Red Sea, heading for the Promised Land.
The dance on Sunday was beautifully done. A chorus sang as Betsey and others moved through the story. One gifted dancer waved her scarves of red and orange until they rippled upward just like fire and it was as if God was among us all, speaking through a burning bush. Children stretched out ribbons of blue cloth to form the Red Sea, first blocking and then opening the path to freedom. The dance ended with tambourines and song, the whole congregation joining the chorus: “Let us sing to the Lord who has set the captives free.”
I was mesmerized. It was beautiful.
Except . . .
There was something about seeing the story embodied as it was told that also raised a shadow.
In this story, God passes over the first-born of the Israelites, but the first-born of the Egyptians are killed.
In this story the Israelites pass through the sea but when the Egyptian army pursues them, the sea rushes closed and the Egyptians are drowned.
I was moved, and I was troubled. What do we do with the violence that shows up in our stories of faith?
It does no good to simply ignore them. They are there at the center of so many of our stories. To pretend differently is to cut ourselves off from something important they have to say about our human condition.
It does no good to say that violence is in the “old” stories but the newer ones are about love. Jesus told stories of compassion, yes, but also stories that end with folks being cast into outer darkness and fire.
What do we do with the violence that shows up in our stories of faith?
There is enough depth to this question to fill books, and in fact one I would recommend to those who would appreciate a deeper dive is John Dominic Crossan’s How to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian. Crossan points us to context and purpose as one path through. The writer of Exodus is telling a story of deliverance. God is able to set people free in spite of all the odds. The powers of empire and the weapons of war will not prevail. When the point of the story is such deliverance, what happens to those from whom one is delivered is that they are defeated. Harsh but true.
Crossan suggests a second way of understanding God’s wrath is to recognize that the stories themselves represent a conflicted human understanding of God. Scripture argues with itself about God’s nature and God’s power, first proposing a loving, compassionate and justice-oriented God but then giving in to the ever-present temptation to imagine that “our God” is on “our side.” The bad things that happen to our enemies are offered as proof. The bad things that happen to us are God punishing us for not being “good enough.” This partisan God often shows up at football games, by the way.
A third way to read the text, and one that Betsey herself suggested, is that the Egyptians represent the forces of oppression. Such forces will always, in the end, collapse and be destroyed by their own weight.
Another way of reading such stories, and one that I often find helpful, is to recognize them as archetypical representations of the human struggle. Images of captivity and release live deep within me, and my ongoing spiritual work is the resist the power of empire within, to “put to death” that which would hold me captive, and to move forward into the freedom of grace and love. Rabbi Ted Falcon is well-known for his Passover seders that consistently invite participants to confront their “inner Pharaoh” and then to “awaken to freedom.” If you have never attended one of his interfaith seders, I recommend that you consider it.
Of course I have only skimmed the surface here. Scholars, teachers, and people of faith spend a lifetime struggling with these questions and puzzling over these stories. Some form of the question, “Does God punish?” comes up regularly in my work as a pastor.
Which brings me back to the dance on Sunday. There is no way to answer deep questions of faith in a fifteen minute monologue. And last Sunday, because the “dancing” portion of the sermon was long, I kept the “word” portion very short. I set the prophet Miriam beside the modern-day prophet Lilla Watson, who is famous for saying “If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” I invited us all to consider, however the story might divide up the sides, the reality is, and has always been, that our liberation is bound up together.
As for the dance last Sunday, some in the congregation loved it, recognizing the power of the embodied story. Some were troubled by the portrayal of an angry God. Most, like me, probably felt both of those things. But we all sat together and witnessed the story. We all were invited to the struggle, to the conversations of what it means to be delivered and what it means to be bound up together in God’s care. I hope those tough conversations are continuing.
I believe a deep reading of our sacred texts will always take us back to the foundational truths of compassion and distributive justice. Let’s not stop too soon and make our God an angry God. Let’s keep going through our different stories into the arms of the God of Love.
As we sang at the end of the service last Sunday, we are all invited to “dance, then, wherever we may be,” along with the Lord of the Dance.