Most of the events of the Bible happened a long time ago. They are often
about people and situations that are very different from our modern world. They
talk about things that are parts of a culture that literally is foreign to us,
because it takes place in a different part of the world; and a culture that is
primitive in its attitudes towards women, animals, children, and life in
And yet, we still read them, and some of them we still read and remember on
a regular basis.
For example, today’s story. Passover is over 3000 years old. It is a story
of the Israelite slaves being set free from Egypt. It is a reminder of a
situation where God tried and tried to persuade Pharaoh and the Egyptians to do
what was right, and let their slaves go free. God sent a messenger, Moses; God
sent signs and wonders, and God even sent plagues. But nothing worked. And in
the end God chooses to do what many of us would hesitate to do – God tells the
Israelites to kill a lamb and put the blood on their doorposts, and that night
the Spirit of God will pass through the city, and kill the firstborn of any
household which does not have blood on the doorposts.
This brutal act finally convinces the Pharaoh to set the slaves free.
That’s great, but in many ways this is a story that we find a bit gross – very
few of us are likely to kill a lamb and smear some of the blood on our
doorposts. Even the Jewish houses don’t do that, although they certainly will
eat unleavened bread and have a traditional Seder meal of lamb and bitter
herbs. But why do we who are not from Jewish households, for whom Easter has
replaced the celebration Passover -- Why
do we remember? Why do we continue to remember a story that is so old, that is
about people we have never met, and that contains instructions to do things we
definitely aren’t going to do?
Let me tell you another story, of another group running from violence,
trying to get to freedom. In the early 1980’s there was in the Assam region of
India group of Muslims that had lived in the area since immigrating from
Bangladesh and Nepal in the early 20th century.
Despite their decades of residence, the government still did not treat them
as complete citizens and they did not have the right to vote. In 1983 that change,
when Indira Gandhi decided to give 4 million immigrants and their descendants
the right to vote – it was a huge victory for human rights.
But the other people of the surrounding villages were not happy. And on
February 18th in the villages of Nellie and its nearby neighbors,
the non-Muslims decided to drive the Muslims from their land. In the just six
hours they massacred 2191 from 14 villages in the area.
One survivors says, “I saw our people leaving their homes and running... I
tied one of my sons to my back and held the other one... I ran... I was
thirsty... I made my sons sit down... The older one walked towards the river
and drank the murky water... Then they started to fire at us... I ran...”
And due to the graphic nature, I will stop quoting him there.
What is amazing about this event is that it is largely forgotten. Very few
people talk about it, even in India, even though nearly 2200 people died. The
director of What the Fields Remember a
documentary about this almost forgotten event says, “There hardly exists any
conversation around Nellie except as some kind of a footnote when we talk of
places where mass violence has taken place. So I was also interested in the
larger question of what we choose to remember and forget — basically the idea
of collective memory and amnesia. I am hoping that the narratives of the
survivors will leave the audience with some of these questions — questions not
just about Nellie, but places that have seen conflict or continue to.”
Why is this event nearly forgotten? And of course it would take a
sociologist to really answer that, but here is what I was left thinking –
Perhaps the better question about Passover is why would we dare to forget
something that is so vital to who we are as Christians just because it happened
so long ago, just because it makes us uncomfortable?
The truth is that we can forget that we were once part of a people who were
oppressed, who were enslaved. We can forget that we were once the people that
were crying out to God for help, against the evils of the world. We can forget
that we share a common history with every person who is oppressed today, who
lives in a land that is not their first home, who does not feel welcomed, who
is enslaved, or watches their children die at the hands of evil governmental
regimes or at the hands of angry mobs.
And what happens when we forget? Oh we know the quote don’t we. I probably
don’t even have to share it, but I will. “Those who cannot remember the past
are condemned to repeat it.” George Santayana. Yes, that is the problem with
forgetting. When we forget that we were once on the receiving end of
mistreatment, what often happens is that we are tempted to step into the role
of the oppressors. We are tempted to be the people who enslave others, we are tempted
to take up sickles against people we think are the foreigners. That’s what
happens when we forget – we become the Pharaohs of today whose hearts become so
hard that we don’t care if others are suffering as long as we are doing okay.
But let me be more specific. One of the absolutely necessary steps in the
development of compassion for other people is being able to share in their
pain. That is what compassion means. The root passion means to suffer, and the
prefix com means with. Compassion is suffering with another person.
But to have compassion for another person we must feel connected to them.
If we feel like unconnected, if we feel like they are others, outsiders,
totally different from us, we cannot have compassion on them – we won’t suffer
with them and our hearts will be hard. The only way to soften our hearts is to
see how we are alike in our humanity. It is seeing ourselves in others, seeing
in their pain our pain.
We need to be able to see ourselves in the hungry, in the enslaved, in the
suffering. We need to be able to see ourselves in the hurting. That is part of
the essential development of compassion: a realization that their pain is my
If we want to avoid being hard-hearted like Pharaoh, if we want to follow
the words of Paul in Ephesians 4:32, “Be kind, compassionate, and forgiving to
each other, in the same way God forgave you in Christ.”, If we want to follow
the words of Jesus in Luke 6:36, “Be compassionate just as your God is
compassionate.”, we dare not forget. We have to remember, otherwise we will
lose our link to the suffering and the enslaved, and we may find ourselves one
day on the wrong side of God’s will.
You see, that’s the other reason we remember this story. Not only do we
remain connected to each other as human beings, but this story helps us to stay
connected with the heart of God.
It reminds us that God cares so much about the plight of the oppressed that
God is willing to go to great lengths, uncomfortable lengths to end evil and
oppression. It reminds us that Jesus came not only to set souls free, but to
help people to live life fully and abundantly here on earth. That he was sent
“to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and
recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the
year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)
This is good news! It means that God not only cares about you after you
die, but God cares about your situation now. It means that God wants slavery to
end. It means that God sees the suffering of humanity and not only cares, but
is actively at work saving those who are oppressed.
When we remember that, we can share the hope of Passover – that God has set
people free in the past – and we can be agents of that hope as we work to set a
new people free. We can say, “We understand that it feels like nothing is
changing.” We can talk about how plague after plague Pharaoh resisted and
refused to budge, how systems can seem totally impossible to move—but God will
not give up on you. This type of sharing
keeps hope alive in people who are suffering so that they hold onto the dream
of change, it keeps hope alive in people who are working for change so that they
know God is helping them along the way. It reminds us that true peace, true
justice, and true mercy are being woven by the master weaver into the tapestry
That is why we remember these stories even though so much about them is
foreign to us. We remember because they teach us compassion, they teach us
God’s heart for the suffering and oppressed, and they proclaim everlasting
hope. And we need that. Our world needs that!