Behold the Snake of Brass

“We came when it was a wilderness …. We leveled your forests; our hands removed the stumps from the field …. We have been with you … in adversity, and by the help of God will be with you in prosperity.”

-Frederick Douglass

________

The season for Passover allows for some timely reflection on the writings of David Brooks of the New York Times on the role that the Book of Exodus plays today. While much more imminent theologians are certainly available, I turn to Brooks given his proclivity for insightful commentary on this topic and the fact that rarely will the New York Times publish anything of value when it lets its reporters discuss theology at length.

On April 14, 2014, Brooks’ published his op-ed titled “A Long Obedience,” where he explained that the Exodus of the Israelites from the oppression of one unjust ruler in Egypt required that the children of Egypt be tied down to a new governing structure in an effort, for not only obedience and order, but to ensure that future leaders remain bound to a standard of practice not seen in the workings of Pharaoh. This ancient leader took for himself not only divine qualities, but also the type of authority later claimed in the Dictatus Papae by Pope Gregory VII in the church/state power struggle of the Middle Ages. This will to power is a prevalent theme today and will continue to be so as Trump becomes more engaged in foreign relations despite his seeming campaign promises of isolationism. His recent comments on North Korea make that abundantly clear.

Furthermore, Brooks also does well to spell out the many flaws of Moses as an imperfect vessel made useful for the furtherance of God’s work: not to mention the poignant lesson for us today—in relation to the recent strike on Syria—“that even well-motivated acts of liberation have to be done under the structure of control and authority.”

Finally, Brooks wisely notes that “Exodus is a reminder that statecraft is soulcraft, that good laws can nurture better people,” later adding to this that:

Exodus provides a vision of movement that is different from mere escape and liberation. The Israelites are simultaneously moving away and being bound upward. Exodus provides a vision of a life marked by travel and change but simultaneously by sweet compulsions, whether it’s the compulsions of love, friendship, family, citizenship, faith, a profession or a people.

During the Constitutional Convention, anti-Federalists like George Mason and Patrick Henry were among the loudest voices who feared the the language of the Constitution would leave too much room for executive abuse. David J. Barron notes in Waging War [p. 26]—while quoting Henry in imagining that the next man may be full of “ambition and abilities”—these concerns:

“This Constitution is as to have beautiful features; but when I come to examine these features, sir, they appear to me horrible frightful,” he cried. “Among other deformities, it has an awful squinting; it squints towards monarchy.”

While I’ve seen little to suggest Trump to be a man of great ability, ambitious he is. We must remember that the story of Exodus is an overlapping story of escaping from tyranny while, as Brooks writes, simultaneously “being bound upward” to a just King.

On April 3, 2015, Brooks again returns with “On Conquering Fear,” where he tells of a ritual described by post-Temple commentaries where the Israelites return from a slavish day to sit in the evening with their wives an observe one another in a mirror, gazing, as he describes, at their “dirt and fear . . . challeng[ing] each other to see beauty in the other”—after having done so, they begin to “sense unexpected possibilities.” As Brooks moves forward, I am reminded by a current crisis that envelops the faith and equality factions of today’s society on the matter of the gay and trans community and the power of stories to impute a sense of empathy. Brooks, in speaking about the role of storytelling, writes of its capacity to help us overcome fear while instilling in our imagination the prospect of different routes.

Storytellers expand the consciousness, waken the sleeping self and give their hearers the words and motifs to use for themselves. Jews tell the story of the Exodus each generation to understand the fears they feel at that moment. Stories create new ways of seeing, which lead to new ways of feeling and thinking.

Being mindful of the legal challenges and competing rights that deserve principles and balanced resolution, I somehow wonder if our own physical and mental distance from each other is the central reasons for our disconnect? Perhaps, if we join the opposite community in fellowship instead of being consumed by the murmurs in our own exclusionary devices, we can join in storytelling and song as the Israelites did when their fear was replaced with strength and their bondage left with the shadows.

On March 21, 2017, Brooks pensThe Unifying American Story,” where he begins with maybe the most poignant observations about our culture today:

One of the things we’ve lost in this country is our story. It is the narrative that unites us around a common multigenerational project, that gives an overarching sense of meaning and purpose to our history.

I do not know whether Brooks is a Christian, but his vision of Exodus in drawing communities together has an almost transcendent quality. While there are many flaws of today’s social justice movements, there is an underbelly seasoning that seeks for universal justice, beckoning for us to ignore the advice of Jacques Maritain when someone asked him how the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was possible.

He sad, it was possible, so long as we didn’t ask: “Why?”

 

 

 

 

 

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