Speaking of Religion | Nancy Thompson: The Journey Out of Slavery – Bennington Banner

Posted: March 26, 2021 at 6:32 pm

Chag Pesach sameach; gut yontif! These are among the traditional greetings for Passover, which starts at sundown this Saturday, March 27. Observant Jews will have cleaned the house of leavened foods and are preparing for the seder, a feast that includes ceremonial foods to commemorate the holiday: four cups of wine, an egg, matzah, bitter herbs, sweet charoset, and vegetables dipped in salt water.

The meal is not just a meal. It is a ritualized commemoration, done in an order, with prayer and storytelling ushered in by the question, Why is this night different from all other nights? Reading from the Haggadah tells the story of Abrahams covenant with God, the hardships of the Israelites, the exodus from Egypt, and the liberation of the Israelites from slavery. Participants recall the various plagues that God inflicted on the Egyptians, Pharaohs eventual acquiescence after the final and most horrific plague, and then Pharaohs pursuit of the fleeing people with the intent to kill them. God parts the waters of the sea to allow the people to pass, and then closes the waters, drowning Pharaohs troops. It is a cornerstone story to Jewish identity.

As to whether it happened: no archaeological evidence has been found that would corroborate a mass migration of almost three million Israelites, asserts Rabbi Burt Visotzky of the Jewish Theological Seminary. Nor does the account fit with the control Egypt had over vast territories during the late Bronze Age. Perhaps the story was passed from a different tribe or time. But the literal factuality is less important, I believe, than metaphor. To form an identity and a cohesive group, a people left behind all that had power over them: multiple gods and idols; a ruler who believed he was divine; access to comfort and plenty. They set off into the unknown and learned to trust their own God and their own utterly human and fallible leaders, and to do right.

The message of liberation from slavery is not unique to Judaism. Buddhist practice teaches of five hindrances and of entrapment from clinging to the five aggregates through ego grasping. One of the hindrances in particular, restlessness often referred to as monkey mind is compared to a kind of slavery. A person is liberated from it through learning, questioning, and close attention to cultivating mental peace, which is no easy feat given that the monkeys are intent on wrecking the house.

In Christianity, slavery appears in a different context, with a different message. Jesus proclaimed, for example, that no one can serve two masters (Matthew 6:24). Give up your slavery to money, Jesus was in effect saying, and become a slave to God. Paul called himself a servant of Jesus (Romans 1:1). At the time of early Christianity, slavery was a fact of the Roman Empire, and there is historical evidence that slaves were attracted to the movement in numbers only once it became an urban movement and upper class people often slave owners were attracted to it, writes professor of ancient history Dimitris Kyrtatas. Hence we see New Testament texts telling slaves to obey their masters with fear (Ephesians 6:5) as well as texts telling masters to treat their slaves better, to stop threatening them, because both slaveowner and slave have the same master in heaven (Ephesians 6:9). In Christianity, slavery was not something to be abolished; it was something to be done right. In fact, part of doing slavery right was for slaves to bear up under harsh treatment (beatings, rapes, and more) to emulate the suffering of Jesus (Peter 2:18). The ultimate goal was nothing here on earth: it was gaining the kingdom of God.

How we see and cultivate relationship with God/the Infinite, and how we see our own identity, determines how we live in this world. It determines what we value and what we view as moral and immoral. It determines our path and actions. It determines whether we celebrate our own liberation while recognizing and feeling regret for the suffering others experience through their own closed minds and closed hearts. It determines whether we strive toward our own liberation from the thoughts and desires and actions that ensnare us. It determines whether we accept suffering as par for the course, maybe even as something desirable, because we think that suffering has a greater good, like the miserable child in Ursula LeGuins famous story The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, whose abject suffering enables all the citizens to live in a utopia. It determines whether we look the image of misery straight in the face, accept it, and return to all that makes us happy, or, like the few in Omelas who find the price too high, step out into the wilderness.

Nancy Thompson teaches comparative religion classes at Community College of Vermont and NVU-Online. She is author of Touching the Elephant: Values the Worlds Religions Share, and How They Can Transform Us.

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Speaking of Religion | Nancy Thompson: The Journey Out of Slavery - Bennington Banner

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