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Sermon Delivered on Sunday, March 1, 2020 (Adapted for print)

Throughout the six weeks of Lent 2020, we are considering the implications the kind of fast that God chooses—a fast that breaks the chains of injustice within our criminal justice system. When we think about the injustices within our criminal justice system, we often think about the injustices that can happen after a person is arrested for committing a crime: coerced confessions (by torture), money bond and pre-trial detention, innocent people being encouraged to take plea deals, wrongful convictions, mandatory minimum sentences and “three-strikes” laws, the use of solitary confinement (which is considered a form of torture by the United Nations), and the re-instatement of the death penalty. THAT’S A LOT OF INJUSTICE! But an unjust justice system does not begin with arrest, but with unjust laws and policies.

A Story of Oppression and Unjust Laws
Today, we read the story of an unjust and oppressive policy that was put into place by Pharaoh when he and the Egyptian people were deeply concerned about the growth rate of Israelites and the potential impact on Egyptian national security. Pharaoh’s solution was a new public policy: kill all the boy babies at birth.  (See Exodus 1:8-22).  Now, we would all consider that public policy oppressive and unjust, and say, “That ain’t right!” But that’s what Pharaoh ordered.

Pharaoh brought in two Hebrew midwives to implement the policy, but Shiphrah and Puah refused to carry out the policy. They understood that the law was unjust and immoral. So, when Pharaoh questioned why they were not carrying out his order, they lied. And God blessed them. Shiphrah and Puah are heroes—women who refused to cooperate with an unjust system and disobeyed an unjust law.

When Pharaoh could not get the cooperation of the midwives, he did something that is deeply disturbing—he went to his base, the Egyptian people—and ordered them to implement the infanticide policy, putting all Israelite women and baby boys at risk of state-sanctioned Egyptian vigilante-ism. There are no statistics on how many woman and children were killed under this policy, but the context would suggest that the threat of death was real–so real that Moses’ parents went to great lengths to protect him.

From an Egyptian point of view, this policy was justified. It was in the national interest. But we must remember that from God’s perspective, legal is not the same as moral and legal is not the same as right.

Two kinds of Laws
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King ,Jr wrote in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

Unjust laws don’t just show up. They are enacted and implemented out of fear and a need to control others. For five hundred years in this country expanded the institution of slavery for the building of an economy. After the abolition of slavery and the end of Reconstruction, southern states immediately began passing laws known as the Black Codes to ensure that the freed slaves would not be able to enjoy all the rights of citizenship. White fear of former slaves led to passage of unjust laws. Laws to preserve and promote white privilege and superiority were required. The Black Codes became the basis of Jim Crow laws that strictly controlled the former slaves—keeping them separate from white people on public transportation, in schools, public restrooms, restaurants and at drinking fountains. Interracial marriage was illegal. Voting rights were denied using literacy tests and poll taxes.

Some people challenged the constitutionality of the Jim Crow laws, but the Supreme Court ruled in Plessy Vs. Ferguson (1896) that “separate but equal” treatment for blacks and whites under the law was constitutional. So “separate but equal” became the law of the land for almost 70 years.  The practice of “Separate but equal” spread from the South to other parts of the country—to California where it was used to separate Mexicans; to Oregon, where it was used to prevent intermarriage between whites and indigenous people. Race-based laws can be found in dozens of states between 1876 and 1965. It wasn’t until the Civil Rights movement that the old laws were challenged and more just laws were passed. (Brown Vs. Board of Education in 1954 ended school segregation and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended race based discrimination and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 ended poll taxes and literacy tests, and Loving Vs. Virginia in 1967 ended the ban on interracial marriage, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 ended housing discrimination based on race or religion.)

The Old Oppression in New Clothes
While these laws ending racial discrimination are still on the books, we cannot naively imagine that the problem of unjust laws has been eliminated. Don’t be fooled. New unjust laws and policies continue to be proposed to limit the participation of the poor and people of color as full citizens. There are many examples, but let’s look at one.

Let me introduce you to ALEC. ALEC writes a lot of laws for the government—especially state governments. ALEC isn’t an elected representative of the people. ALEC isn’t even a person. ALEC is the American Legislative Exchange Council, a group of corporations and select legislators that write laws that primarily benefit the interests of big business and conservative social agendas. ALEC writes so-called “model bills” that are presented in state legislatures (often verbatim). In the past eight years, 2,100 model bills have been passed. For example, one member corporation, CoreCivic—formerly call the Corrections Corporation of America—builds and operates private prisons for states. CoreCivic has written legislation for states that included “Truth-in-sentencing” and “three-strikes” provisions in order to increased prison population—and thereby increasing the company’s profits. ALEC has written thousands of laws that support publicly funded private education, limit consumer protection, promote “stand your ground” laws, and chip away at environmental regulations.

Life in the New Egypt
We live in a new Egypt under a new pharaoh who acts to preserve his interests by denying (legally) the rights of those who are perceived to be a threat. Here is what history could write about life in the New Egypt (based on Exodus 1).

A new Pharaoh rose to power in New Egypt who didn’t respect democracy. He and his people were afraid of the increasing numbers of people who didn’t look or act or believe like them, and he decided that something must be done to stop the those people from taking over New Egypt. It was a matter of national security. So the new Pharaoh announced new policies: a travel ban from certain countries to his land and a policy to separate children from their parents when they attempted to enter his land without permission. Some objected, but the Pharaoh turned to his people, who shouted “Build That Wall!” and “Go Back to Your Country.” And the new Pharaoh looked the other way while his people attacked anyone that didn’t look like them and treated them as if they weren’t citizens of his land–which, in fact, they were. And the new Pharaoh’s agents sent the unwanted people to jail when they tried to enter and took their children and put them in cages. And some of the children were infants. And some of the children got sick. And some of the children died.

But there were men and women and children who rose up, like the angelic hosts of heaven, and refused to cooperate with the orders of the new Pharaoh and called the policies exactly what they were: racist and unjust. And they stood up and said “We will not follow your unjust laws that lead to death. We will not bow down to you. We will cry out to the One that is far above all human authority. And we will listed to the Voice who calls us to ‘break the chains of injustice!’ We will do justice in the land. We will enact just laws that give life. And we will set the oppressed free.”

A Call and a Choice
Honestly, that last paragraph is my hope for the Church in New Egypt. But it is not guaranteed. For too long, the church has cooperated with the new Pharaoh, believing that God requires us to obey the laws of the government—even the unjust laws. And for too long, the church has chosen to be silent while the new Pharaoh has unleashed destruction on people and planet. Now, a decision is required and Lent is a good time to choose. Will we be complicit with death or will we break the chains of injustice? Will we be Shiphrah and Puah, or will give into fear? Will we join the oppressor or will we set the oppressed free?

God says, “See, I set before you life and death. CHOOSE LIFE.” Choose liberation. Choose the break the chains.

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