My Divisive Rhetoric


1Afterward Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go, so that they may celebrate a festival to me in the wilderness.'” 2But Pharaoh said, “Who is the LORD, that I should heed him and let Israel go? I do not know the LORD, and I will not let Israel go.” 3Then they said, “The God of the Hebrews has revealed himself to us; let us go a three days’ journey into the wilderness to sacrifice to the LORD our God, or he will fall upon us with pestilence or sword.” 4But the king of Egypt said to them, “Moses and Aaron, why are you taking the people away from their work? Get to your labors!” 5Pharaoh continued, “Now they are more numerous than the people of the land and yet you want them to stop working!”6That same day Pharaoh commanded the taskmasters of the people, as well as their supervisors, 7“You shall no longer give the people straw to make bricks, as before; let them go and gather straw for themselves. 8But you shall require of them the same quantity of bricks as they have made previously; do not diminish it, for they are lazy; that is why they cry, ‘Let us go and offer sacrifice to our God.’ 9Let heavier work be laid on them; then they will labor at it and pay no attention to deceptive words.”

Pay attention, here, cause this is empire 101. You see, for empire to work, you have to have an enemy. And if you don’t have an external enemy, an internal one will do nicely. It’s good if you have some kind of foreigner/outsider that you can blame for all of your problems. And it’s good if you can sully their character in some way. “Lazy” is an easy one on that front. It’s especially useful if you call them “lazy” while they’re doing the jobs the insiders don’t want to do. Oh, and if you take away the means for them to do the work efficiently so that you can blame their character defect for their lack of efficiency? Golden!

Some things never change. The powerful will use rhetoric to pit the weak against the weaker. How different was the plight of the Egyptian underclass from that of the Hebrews? Irrelevant. They are outsiders and are naturally the cause of all of the problems. “Othering” is a powerful tool in the hands of the empire. Divide and conquer. Tear down those who are unlike you so that you can eat the scraps from the emperor’s table.

Of course, I’m talking about “other” people who do the othering. I’m a progressive man with incredibly liberal sensibilities. I couldn’t be guilty of such heinousness. Except, we good liberals do it too. We look down our noses at people we see as uneducated and intolerant. We love to look more enlightened and sophisticated. We point our fingers at the ignorant rubes who fall for the populist rhetoric of the day. And we neglect the work of building bridges across differences when those differences begin to feel insurmountable. God, forgive us. God forgive me. I do my own scapegoating. I look at those who I imagine have been responsible for bringing the cultural climate down to the lowest common denominator and I resent them. I blame them for the way things are. May I take the time to hear their fears and know their anxieties.

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