As Passover approaches I realize I am in a different mindset than I ever have been before when preparing for the holiday’s approach. In past years I have been drawn to metaphors about spiritual enslavement. To bring myself into the season I have thought about the ways in which my heart has been hardened, like Pharaoh’s, and the ways I am enslaved to ways of being, thinking, and doing that restrict me from manifesting my full self. In reflecting on our narrative of freedom and redemption, I have imagined these states of being as readily accessible, if only I worked on freeing my own mind, heart, and soul from the bonds I impose on myself. These internal, personal metaphors still feel powerful and relevant to me, but this year the struggle for freedom from oppression that I am connecting to is one that is much more tangible and physical.
The prison ministry course I am taking at Boston College this semester has exposed me to firsthand accounts of the injustice and racism that are at the foundation of our country’s prison system—a system that in many ways acts like an extension of slavery. Life behind bars is a reality for over 2 million people in this country. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, 39.4% of the total prison population in 2009 was black, even though blacks comprised 13.6% of the U.S. population. According to a report by The Sentencing Project, census data from 2000 shows that in twenty states, blacks were incarcerated at a rate 5 times greater than their share of the resident population. Our prison system is not simply a system used to punish wrongdoers for their crimes; it is also a system of systematic disenfranchisement of specific parts of our population.
The injustices inherent in our prison system had not been a major part of my consciousness until this year. Hearing from formerly incarcerated persons and reading moving and terrifying accounts of life in prison such as A World Apart: Women, Prison, and Life Behind Bars by Cristina Rathbone, has begun to show me the way our prison system affects the most vulnerable among us: people of color, women, children, immigrants, and those suffering from poverty, mental illness, drug addiction—to name a few. This learning has caused me to think much more deeply about whom we imprison and why we imprison them.
Bringing our discussions from Prison Ministry into my own preparations for Passover has opened up my midrashic imagination to the connections between ancient and modern day oppression. Learning about the discrimination and racism built into the foundation of our prison system has prompted me to ask: What can Exodus account can tell us about the factors that led to the enslavement and oppression of the Israelites in our Passover story, and what can this teach us about oppression in our time?
In looking closely at the biblical text, I have begun to understand the account of the origins of the Israelite’s enslavement in the beginning of Exodus as descriptive of the origins of all forms of oppression and slavery. To start, in Exodus 1:8 we read, “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.”
As Nahum Sarna points out in his commentary on Exodus, the Hebrew verb “to know,” “is not essentially or even primarily rooted in the intellect and mental activity. Rather, it is more experiential and is embedded in the emotions…not to know is synonymous with dissociation, indifference, alienation, and estrangement; it culminates in disregard for another’s humanity.” Our ability to oppress begins with our ability to “not know” the other.
The text goes on, “And [the king] said to his people, 'Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us!'Dehumanizing the Other paves the way for us to see the Other as a threat to our own existence. Because the Israelites are an unknown entity, they become scary to the point of becoming a potential enemy. Now, something must be done to protect society from the threat we imagine this Other poses to our own security and wellbeing.
Exodus 1:10 reads, “Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground.”
Those in power, in this case the king, determine that they have something at stake that is threatened by the Other. They then use whatever means are at their disposal—wealth, influence, fame, law, coercion—to convince the rest of society to turn against the Other. To sway the minds of their people they incite in them the fear that this Other has the potential to destroy them.
In the following verse we read, “So they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor; and they built garrison cities for Pharaoh.”
Fearing the Other as a threat to their own power, those in power then turn their discriminatory attitudes into policy. They use the Other to advance their own wealth and status. By forcing the Other into such work, they further dehumanize them by treating them like the animals who labor for them.
The numerous books, articles, and personal narratives we have encountered in Prison Ministry have detailed these same factors as clearly apparent in the U.S. prison system: Dehumanization of the Other, fear of the Other, a general shift in attitude among the population with regards to the Other, and the creation of a system of oppression that further dehumanizes and advances the capitalistic motives of those in charge of the system.
In learning about the prison system, I have begun to see that it is not only those convicted of a crime who suffer. Prisoners and guards are locked in together behind the gates of the prison. As Rev. Dr. Joyce Penfield, longtime chaplain in the Rhode Island prison system said in a recent class of ours, in prison “the distinction between offender and victim is a technical one.”
To expand this notion beyond those physically inside of prison, the freedom of each and every one of us is compromised by the injustices in this system that we actively or passively support.
In Mishna Pesachim we are told that, “In every generation one is obligated to see oneself as one who personally went out from Egypt.” We are commanded to fully enter into the story so that we hear and feel the journey from slavery to freedom as though we ourselves suffered at the hands of the Egyptians and burst through the Sea to freedom behind our leader Moses. At this time in history it seems important that we also see ourselves as the Egyptians who feared and oppressed the Israelites in their midst. While each of us is continuously struggling against various kinds of oppression, we also must be grappling with the oppressor that simultaneously exists within us.
What would it look like if we used some portion of the eight days of Passover to embody, investigate, and begin to deconstruct the role of oppressor the same way we place ourselves, personally, in the role of the oppressed? Perhaps we would be radically transformed. As it says in our haggadah, “Whoever expands on the telling of the Passover story is praiseworthy.”
May this year be a year when we challenge ourselves to push our boundaries of comfort and familiarity in the telling of the story of our people becoming free. And, in so doing, may we come one small step closer to a day when all people can stand on the sea’s shore and together sing a song of freedom.
Image by Lidia Kozenitzky via Wikimedia Commons