In this week of the killing of Osama I am preparing a study in the first chapter of Exodus and struck by some contemporary resonances.
In Exo 1:7, the death of the hero generation is contrasted with the extreme fecundity of the Israelites. In words meant to recall the original creation blessing in Gen 1:26-28 the people ‘were fruitful’, ‘multiplied greatly’, ‘became exceedingly numerous’ and ‘filled’ the land. Fear was the inevitable result.
The new Pharoah uses classic Us/Them language to scapegoat a people and isolate them as threats to national security. The Israelites are ‘much to numerous for US’ so therefore let us ‘deal shrewdly with THEM’, otherwise THEY will join OUR enemies and fight against US (Exo 1:9-10). The text appears to make a connection between this stereotyping and the experience of knowing.
Then a new king, who did not know Joseph, came to power in Egypt.
Not knowing the people, not being able to distinguish them as people from the swarming mass, and, perhaps most crucially, failing to appreciate the role of the ancestors of these people in his nation’s history, means they become an object of fear to the new Pharoah, who was only too aware of external threats to national security.
This us/them language is death-dealing and destructive, so much the opposite of the fruitfulness of the Israelites themselves. Again the text layers words upon words not this time to describe fertility, but to depict oppression: ‘slave masters’, ‘oppress’, ‘forced labour’, worked them ‘ruthlessly’, ‘bitter’, ‘hard labour’, used them ‘ruthlessly’ (Exo 1:11-14). Yet the creation blessing of God does not give way and they continue to thrive (Exo 1:12).
How much easier it is to oppress a people when I do not know them. How easier it is to do violence when my enemy is anonymous, part of a swarming, teeming mass. How important it is therefore, that I learn to know my enemy, to be informed about the world and my place in it. It’s been true here in Northern Ireland where we have traditionally kept Protestants and Catholics well apart. Killing them is less about the individual and more about a blow against THEM, those who are different and to be feared and a threat to my security. How much harder is it when my enemy has a human face and a name.
The killing of Osama Bin Laden, and the celebrations that have followed, make me uncomfortable. That is not to offer any justification whatsoever for what he may have done. I’m uncomfortable because I think that he may stand as a convenient cipher for our culture’s lack of understanding of Islam, and our fear of THEM and their numbers and the perceived threat to National Security, which in turn justifies his killing.
I slip easily into thinking of him as a terrifying global terrorist, but not as the husband of a wife who was prepared to throw herself in front of a special forces operative to save his life.
I wonder how the flag waving and chanting at Ground Zero and outside the White House looked to TV watchers in the Middle East. Would they have experienced it any different from the way we watched celebrations of the 9/11 atrocity?
This is from Paolo Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed,
… almost always, during the initial stage of the struggle, the oppressed, instead of striving for liberation, tend themselves to become oppressors, or “sub-oppressors.” The very structure of their thought has been conditioned by the contradictions of the concrete, existential situation by which they were shaped….
As the oppressors dehumanize others and violate their rights, they themselves also become dehumanized. As the oppressed, fighting to be human, take away the oppressors’ power to dominate and suppress, they restore to the oppressors the humanity they had lost in the exercise of oppression.
It is only the oppressed who, by freeing themselves, can free their oppressors. The latter, as an oppressive class, can free neither others nor themselves. It is therefore essential that the oppressed wage the struggle to resolve the contradiction in which they are caught; and the contradiction will be resolved by the appearance of the new man: neither oppressor nor oppressed, but man in the process of liberation.