In an attempt to be more gentle and hopeful in the weeks after my experience in Charlottesville, I am re-watching the BBC show Call the Midwife. The series tells the stories of nurse midwives working in the east end of London, after the destruction of World War II, just as the national health system is being implemented. The midwifery practice is headed up by Anglican nuns who partner with young laywomen to serve the impoverished community where many live a precarious existence in crowded conditions. The nurse midwives work together, serving the community, and each other. The midwives not only help bring new life into the world, they help make their corner of the world a better place.
As Mr Rogers says, when things are scary, when things are hard, when you aren’t sure what to do, “look for the helpers.” The midwives are the helpers, in the east end of London and in our story today. “The Helpers” give hope when it seems there is no hope. “The Helpers” step in and step up.
Our story today tells us there is a new king, a new pharaoh. This new pharaoh does not remember history; he chooses to forget that Joseph of the Israelites, saved the Egyptians from famine. Instead, the pharaoh perceives the Israelites, their love of life and their God, as a threat. He is afraid that these “foreigners” are gaining power and will soon outnumber the Egyptians. He is all too aware of how badly the Israelites are treated and he fears they will side with his enemies should there be a war. So instead of trying to win favor with the Israelites, he launches a war inside his own country – against the Israelites. The pharaoh increases the pressure against the “dreaded” Israelites. He enslaves them and turns his own people into overseers, slave masters. “Work them hard, they will give up; I will make them die out.”
The pharaoh’s master plan backfires. As the years pass, instead of dying out, the Israelites multiply. With increased hardship the people find solace in each other – and more babies are born. And still there is no mercy for the Israelites: they are practically crushed by intense labor. Nevertheless, they resist, loving their God and each other and the babies keep coming.
The day finally comes when the pharaoh is so unnerved and afraid of these prolific Israelites that even he turns to the helpers, the midwives: Shiprah (which means “beautiful”) and Puah (meaning “splendid.”) But the midwives will not help the pharaoh. They are “God-fearers” who are more committed to life than to the pharaoh. They have a ready excuse when the pharaoh calls – “the Hebrew women are so robust that we just can’t get there in time for the births.”
Since The Helpers won’t help with wickedness and death, the pharaoh goes one step further and decrees that the baby girls can live but the Hebrew baby boys must be thrown into the Nile River.
Though the pharaoh puffs himself up with his proclamation at least one Hebrew woman and her daughter continue the resistance with a basket of reeds and a riverside hiding place.
Then the miracle: the pharaoh’s daughter just happens to walk along the Nile to bathe. And she just happens to send her attendants further down the river so she can have some privacy. And she just happens to find a baby boy in a basket in the reeds. Really?
Just as the other women in this story have agency and resist the evil systems the pharaoh is building, I think the pharaoh’s daughter also resists. Surely she knows about her father’s decree, that the boy babies of the Israelites must be thrown into the river. She and her attendants have always walked to the river to bathe, but since the decree their bathes have increased. And they have added a rescue mission to their bathing routine; they search the river for babies.
On this day the pharaoh’s daughter does find a baby, and unknowingly (or perhaps knowingly) returns him to his mother along with the promise of payment for services rendered. No wonder this daughter of the pharaoh is eventually disowned by him.
In this story, only the midwives and the baby have names. Later on, we find out that the baby’s mother is named Jochebed, “YHWH is glory.” The older sister is of course Miriam, meaning “rebellious” in Hebrew. The pharaoh’s daughter may be disowned by her father but Jewish tradition does not allow her to remain an orphan. She too receives a name, Bithiah, “daughter of God.” She marries Mered, of the tribe of Judah and has her own daughter named Miriam. And Bithiah names the baby Moses, meaning “drawn out” of the water.
Also unnamed in this story is the pharaoh, who is an archetype for every power-hungry, brutal ruler. He is every irrational, fearful, ruthless dictator. As he ascends to power he does not respect history but invents his own reality even as he attempts to destroy life.
It is the Helpers, the midwives, Shiprah and Puah, who stand up to the pharaoh, who talk back and give the people hope. Shiprah and Puah have the temerity to contradict the cruelty of the pharaoh by slyly suggesting that even women, in the vulnerability of giving birth, are more powerful than he is. No wonder they are remembered as Splendid and Beautiful.
We are relearning this story in real time so we also must turn to the Helpers. Who are the midwives? John Powell writes a column for Mennonite World Review this month titled “Passing the torch to a new set of midwives.” He quotes the late Vincent Harding, after the 2008 election of President Obama. Harding suggests we are mid-wives of a new America: “Perhaps we are the ones who will walk through the great dangers into the marvelous opportunities for helping our nation begin in a new way to realize its best possibilities – to be born again.” (http://mennoworld.org/2017/08/14/columns/powell-passing-the-torch-to-a-new-set-of-midwives/) That was then, when we imagined that “Joseph” would make it all right. But now there is a new pharaoh.
It makes me squirm to talk about “America” in church. Church politics are one thing but US politics? Much of the time as Anabaptists we like to imagine ourselves as beyond borders, “in the world but not of the world.” However, this seems like a time, when we must pay attention to not only our story as it is found in the bible and our story as Anabaptists but also our story as people who reside in this country. When the biblical text, and African American leaders John Powell and Vincent Harding all converge at “midwives,” we have to pay attention. We must look for the midwives.
In the bible, we get only the Jewish perspective of the experience under the Egyptian pharaoh. Today, we have not only our view and experiences here in the United States, people around the world are observing, and learning from, our situation. We read that dictators and human rights abusers around the world are emboldened by the rhetoric and coded language they hear from the United States. (http://www.cnn.com/2017/02/21/africa/mugabe-93rd-birthday-2018-election/index.html) At the same time, the “United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has issued an early warning over conditions in the US.” https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/aug/23/charlottesville-un-committee-warns-us-over-rise-of-racism?CMP=share_btn_fb We must look for the midwives.
As we look for the midwives, we might see what is happening right now, not as death but as new birth? What if we, with Sikh activist and lawyer Valarie Kaur, see this time of darkness not as a tomb but as a womb. (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2017/03/06/breathe-push-watch-this-sikh-activists-powerful-prayer-for-america/?utm_term=.364179369951) What if this is not the death of the country but we are waiting, as Vincent Harding says, to be born again?
It will not be easy. We will need to prepare ourselves, attend birthing classes, learn nonviolent strategies and actions. We will need to do pre-natal exercises: singing, contemplative prayer, dancing, telling and re-telling our story so that we have stamina for the long and difficult labor. We will need to practice being together, never leaving anyone to face the birth pangs alone.
As Vincent Harding says there will be “great dangers.” We know that already our neighbors, classmates and co-workers live in great fear of deportation. We know that many live with the fear of being stopped or even killed for DWB (driving while black) or WWB (walking or working while black) or SWB (shopping while black.) There may be other dangers: We may encounter white supremacists who want to separate and segregate families and communities like ours. We may come face to face with people whose main interest is violence.
And, a big “and,” we who are white and straight will need to recognize that we are not the main players. We are not the experienced midwives. We can be assistants, we can be the ones who wipe the tears, sputum, and blood. But we will need to step back to learn from those midwives who are trained and prepared, who know about painful birth, who have been doing this work for generations.
The midwives will probably look different than the white, male doctors we usually look to and take orders from. Midwives are often outside the system, many times not even respected by the system. Yet the wisdom and knowledge of midwives, who understand the rhythm of the body, who have birthed several generations in one family, these are who we need to look toward.
I don’t want to let us off the hook as white people, as educated people, as people of faith. Everyone is needed for this big push toward something new. It’s just that this time we do not need to be in charge. We need to show up, make no mistake about that. But then we need to step back. We can ally and be accomplices to the experienced midwives without being in charge. We can listen and learn about transforming the breathlessness of death into deep breathing that pushes toward new life.
Paul is not writing about birth in Romans 12 but it sounds an awful lot like giving birth – “present your bodies as a living sacrifice.” What else do birthing mothers and midwives do but sacrifice their bodies for new life. Paul calls all of us to present ourselves, our bodies, as living sacrifices. Shiprah and Puah faithfully present themselves and, the text tells us, God gives them families of their own. midwives and mothers both.
It can feel like a time of deep despair so I was surprised when a Friend said last night, “I am so proud of this country. We are working together and it gives me hope.” Yes, there is hope. We can look to the midwives, Shiprah and Puah, Beautiful and Splendid, with their clever courage. We might find hope in Jochebed and Miriam, reaching toward life and health despite all odds. We might even find hope in wealthy Bithiah, daughter of the pharaoh, who risks position and inheritance to collaborate with the very people her father fears, despises and rages against.
Let us look with hope for the Helpers: let’s work together with the midwives, breathing deep through the pain as we are born into freedom and justice.