Shiphrah, Puah, Grandpa, and Me: After Charlottesville

Post Author: Gia Hayes-Martin

This sermon on Exodus 1:8–2:10 was preached on August 27, 2017 at St. Bede’s Episcopal Church in Menlo Park, California.


The author (left) and Rev. Erica Schemper (right) protesting in San Francisco.

My grandfather, Captain William Eigel, Jr., served in Patton’s Third Army during the Second World War. He landed in Normandy only a few days after D-Day and joined the long, hard push eastward towards Berlin. It was troops from Patton’s army who stumbled across Buchenwald, the first Nazi death camp liberated by the Americans.

Grandpa was not one of the liberators of that camp, but Eisenhower sent a number of American units to see it. He wanted the soldiers to know what they were fighting against. So it’s quite possible that Grandpa saw the camp, the stacks of bodies, the mass graves, the emaciated survivors. He was stationed in Germany for several months after V-E Day, trying to bring some order to the postwar chaos as evidence of Nazi crimes mounted.

Grandpa was horrified by what he witnessed in that year and a half in Germany. He saw what happens when one group of people decides they are inherently superior to everyone else. What made it worse was that he was of German heritage himself. The people who had done this were related to him. He never talked about it, but he never forgot. Twenty years later, my mom asked to go to West Germany as an exchange student, and he absolutely refused to consider it. He couldn’t stand the thought of his child going to the place that had done those horrible things, and living among the people who had done it and allowed it to happen.

We turned a corner this morning in our Old Testament readings. All summer we have been in the book of Genesis; we’ve been hearing the stories of the matriarchs and patriarchs of Israel. We ended last week with Jacob’s son Joseph making a life in Egypt, and his brothers and their families joining him there during a famine. Today we have jumped ahead four hundred years to the time of Moses in the book of Exodus. And the story of Moses begins in Egypt in the reign of Pharaoh.

In the days before Moses is born, there’s a new king in town, a new Pharaoh, who doesn’t know the Israelites or their history in Egypt. He’s nervous about having such a large, powerful group on the borders of his territory, they might ally with the enemies of Egypt, and Pharaoh’s worried about the Israelites outnumbering the Egyptians. Four hundred years the descendants of Jacob have been in Egypt, and still they are foreigners, untrustworthy, not one of us. So out of ignorance and fear, Pharaoh enslaves the Israelites. He forces them to make bricks and labor on farms. The farms produce so much grain that Pharaoh has no place to put it all. He has the Israelites build supply cities to store the surplus. The Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann points to the unrelenting demands of the system that Pharaoh creates.[1] Pharaoh wants more and more, so the enslaved Israelites have to produce more and more. Pharaoh enlists the Egyptian people in the system, and together they make the Israelites’ lives bitter.

What is the result of all this forced labor for Pharaoh? Does he spend his days reclining on his chaise longue eating bonbons? No. Administering this enormous hungry system is more than a full-time job. As it demands more and more from the Israelites, it demands more and more from Pharaoh, too, until it threatens to consume him as well as his slaves. Pharaoh cannot rest. Compulsive activity is the rule. There is no rest in Egypt, not for the Israelites, not for Pharaoh. He too is a victim of the system he has created.

Oppression is never God’s will, and even as Pharaoh and his insatiable system try to dominate every aspect of the Israelites’ lives, God is laying the foundation for that system’s destruction. Pharaoh personally summons two Israelite midwives named Shiphrah and Puah to his palace. He commands them to kill all the newborn boys of the Israelites. But to Shiphrah and Puah, that kind of obedience belongs to God alone, so they decide they’re not going to do it. Because Shiphrah and Puah say no, baby Moses lives.

Somebody else says no, too, somebody completely unexpected. Pharaoh’s own daughter finds the baby floating among the reeds in a basket. She knows perfectly well that no male Israelite child is allowed to live, but instead of doing what she’s supposed to and having the baby killed, she adopts him. We don’t know why she does it, but she does. Because Pharaoh’s daughter says no, baby Moses grows up. Shiphrah and Puah give birth to the Israelite resistance, Pharaoh’s daughter nurtures it to adulthood, and that resistance ultimately brings down the system of Pharaoh. The collapse of oppression begins with these three women saying yes to God and no to Pharaoh.

Did they know they had that kind of power? That their actions could lead to freedom in the promised land? Pharaoh’s daughter might have; she was aware of her money and position. But Shiphrah and Puah were just ordinary people, nobodies really, trying to be faithful to God and do the right thing. They could not have predicted the profound effect of their actions years and years into the future. They were like yeast, tiny, but creating something that grew and grew until it changed the world.

This month, this long, hot, painful August in the year of Our Lord 2017 has called our attention to another oppressive system that holds us captive, a system from which God longs to set us free. That system is white supremacy. I certainly hope none of you need me to tell you that white supremacy is absolutely contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is one of the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.

I could stand up here and condemn the neo-Nazis and Klansmen in Charlottesville two weeks ago, and the white supremacists planning rallies in San Francisco and Berkeley this very weekend, yet somehow that seems too easy.[2] I suspect that being set free from white supremacy, as God longs for, is going to require more from us, especially those of us who are white, that each of us will have to reflect honestly on our own lives and admit how we are entangled in white supremacy–because only when we acknowledge what we are up against, how white supremacy has infiltrated every aspect of our lives, only then will we be able to change the system.

I’m the preacher, so I get to go first. My parents are good people; you all have met them; they taught me that everyone is equal in the eyes of God. Unfortunately, the messages I got from American culture overwhelmed what my parents taught, and the messages I got from our culture are that I am superior because of the color of my skin. I have benefited from that. I benefit from it still.

There are many ways, but I’ll name two. One: a generation ago, redlining made it impossible for most black people to buy a house. For at least four generations, my family have owned their own homes. Homeownership created wealth for my family, and that wealth meant there was never any question about how I would pay for college. White supremacy got me a bachelor’s degree, my first master’s, and my PhD completely debt-free. Two: when I fell in love with a non-American and wanted to bring him to the United States, I went to an immigration attorney. She told me I would have no trouble because Melville is white, western European, and speaks English. I didn’t even have to hire a lawyer; I could file all the paperwork myself. White supremacy sent us to the front of the immigration line, and it saved us a thousand dollars to boot.

And yet, like the system Pharaoh created that worked him to exhaustion, white supremacy has cost me a lot, too. I am also one of its victims. There are many ways, but I’ll name two. One: the messages I got from American culture taught me to be afraid of people who don’t look like me. As much as I hate to admit it, when I’m around people of color, my instinct is to be scared for no reason, and in this great country of ours, there are a lot of people who don’t look like me. White supremacy makes me live in a constant state of fear. Two: I have no connection to the culture of my ancestors. When they arrived in North America beginning in the late 1660s, it didn’t take long before they stopped being English or French or Dutch. Their cultures were subsumed into being white. The ethnic traditions that made my ancestors who they were have been lost. I don’t have recipes or songs or crafts or proverbs handed down from generations ago, and without that, sometimes I’m not sure who I am. White supremacy robs me of my heritage. I look at what I gain from this oppressive system, and I look at what it costs me. It’s not worth it. The cost to my soul is far worse than whatever benefits I receive. I want to be set free.

The good news is that white supremacy is not God’s will for any of us. God longs for us to be set free. In baptism, we renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God. We turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as our Savior; we put our whole trust in his grace and love (Book of Common Prayer, 302). We renounce white supremacy, and we turn to Jesus Christ. With God’s help, we can change the system.

Since Charlottesville, I have been trying to imagine what my Grandpa Eigel would have said about Nazi flags being carried openly in American streets, about the president’s refusal to condemn these groups immediately and unequivocally. Grandpa would have been appalled. He saw with his own eyes where this vicious, hateful ideology leads. He saw how it hurt the German people as well as their victims. Because of him, I knew I had to go to a counter-protest this weekend–not only because my Christian faith demands that I persevere in resisting evil. My Grandpa Eigel died before I was born. I did not know him in this life. When I meet him in the life to come, I want to be able to look him in the eye and say, “You did your part, and I tried to do mine.”

So I went to the interfaith prayer service at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco yesterday, then joined Bishop Marc Andrus to walk to the main counter-protest at Civic Center. When we got there, we found a party: music, laughter, dancing, a couple of food trucks. It was like the white supremacists had melted away. Do you know why? Because of ordinary people like Shiphrah and Puah. Tens of thousands of ordinary people across the Bay Area decided to resist. They said no to white supremacy, not in our community. “Not today, Satan,” as one sign read. And that was enough to send our opponents running.

When I think about where we go from here, that’s what I see: how Shiphrah and Puah and Pharaoh’s daughter’s small acts of resistance eventually brought down the system of slavery in Egypt. We have that power too. We have the power to say no to white supremacy wherever we find it–not in ourselves, not in our families, not in our circles of friends, not in our church, not in our community. God longs for us to be set free. And we will be set free, with God’s help. We too will reach the promised land.

[1] Walter Brueggemann, Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now (Westminster John Knox, 2014), Kindle edition.

[2] This section is inspired by Nadia Bolz-Weber, “Lord, Save Me! (A Sermon on Christianity and White Supremacy),” August 15, 2017 (accessed August 23, 2017).

The Rev. Gia Hayes-Martin is rector of St. Bede’s Episcopal Church in Menlo Park, California. She lives in San Mateo, California, with her husband.

Image by: Gia Hayes-Martin
Used with permission
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