Going Back to Egypt
[This homily was delivered at Charlotte’s Multi-faith Service Calling for the Repeal of HB2 on April 24, 2016 at Myers Park Baptist Church]
We come together for a multi-faith service. We all come from different faiths and some of us come from no formal religious faith at all. I can understand. Sometimes having faith is hard, especially in recent weeks living in North Carolina.
We all come from different faiths. My faith community, the Jewish community, is celebrating the holiday of Passover. We are meant to spend this week remembering the oppression of 400 years of Egyptian slavery as told in the book of Exodus and we are meant to celebrate our journey to freedom.
As we welcomed our holiday this past Friday night and Saturday night, we sat for hours around our dining room tables recalling the oppression and the plagues and our crossing through the sea to freedom. The essence of that meal called the seder is this teaching from nearly 2000 years ago: B’chol dor vador chayav adam lirot et atzmo k’ilu hu yatzah mi-Mitrayim. In every generation a person should see him or herself as having gone forth from Egypt.
Commentators teach that the Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzrayim, means a narrow place. We do not need to read from the book of Exodus about slavery to know about narrow places of oppression, for all of us currently find ourselves in the narrow place not of Egypt, but of North Carolina. One month ago, our North Carolina legislature passed a law that Reverend Dr. Barber labeled not House Bill 2 but Hate Bill 2. Our city spent a year putting together a comprehensive anti-discrimination ordinance that represents the best practices in the nation. Our State legislature hastily (and in some cases hatefully) put together a bill that is the worst in the nation, spending $42,000 bringing our legislators back to Raleigh for a special session. The State Senators were given only five minutes to read the law and thirty minutes to debate it before it was voted upon. The vote in the Senate and House was complete within 12 hours leaving little, if any, time for public comment. North Carolina has become a narrow place that legislates people out.
As part of the Passover seder, the youngest child asks four questions about the ritual recalling our journey from servitude to liberation. “Mah nishtanah halailah hazeh mikol halaylot – why is this night different from all other nights?” the youngest child asks.
This year, many of us at our Passover tables asked four questions about HB2. Mah nishtanah hachok hazeh m’kol hachukim? Why is this law different from all other laws?
Why is this law different from all other laws? North Carolina’s HB2 takes away power from the people. It takes away the rights of local authorities to create their own antidiscrimination ordinances, to raise the minimum wage to a living wage in their counties and to pass more progressive policies.
Why is this law different from all other laws? North Carolina’s HB2 writes discrimination into our State structure. This law nullifies a 1977 State Law Protection that allows employees to file lawsuits against their employers for all forms of discrimination including race, religion, national origin, age, sex or handicap. This law leaves our trans brothers and trans sisters vulnerable forcing them to enter the bathroom of the gender noted on their birth certificate rather than the gender with which they identify. (It is interesting to note that there is not one incident where a transgendered individual has entered a bathroom and committed a crime yet there are many incidents where Senators have committed crimes in public restrooms).
Why is this law different from all other laws? Because this law takes us back in time from the New South to the Old South, to one that supports the rights of some building upon the oppression of others.
Why is this law different from all other laws? Because this law has caused businesses and musicians and conferences to turn away from our state: PayPal in Charlotte, Bruce Springsteen in Greensboro, thirteen conventions have cancelled plans to our Queen City, and more cancellations are made each and every day.
In every generation a person should see themselves as having gone forth from Egypt, but sadly here in North Carolina, we are still stuck in the narrow straits of a metaphoric Egypt. Our challenge as people who of faith, whether it is faith in God or in a higher power or simply faith in humanity, is to lead our community forward from the oppressive place in which North Carolina finds itself to a more open place – where those from other states and other countries will feel free and safe and good about coming to visit and do business here and where we will all feel free and safe and proud to live.
How does one lead a community out of Egypt? We can learn from Moses. In the midst of the most painful period when plagues were overwhelming the Egyptians, Pharaoh’s heart began to soften. After the plague of locusts, Pharaoh said to Moses, “You can go and worship your Lord with the men.”
But Moses said, “We will not leave without the young and the old, without our sons and our daughters.”
After the plague of darkness, Pharaoh said to Moses, “You can go and worship your Lord with the men, women and children.”
But Moses said, “We will not leave without our flocks and herds.”
Moses would not leave until he took everyone with him along with their possessions.
Last year, our City Council could have passed an antidiscrimination ordinance if its members had left the transgender community behind, but our council members who understood and valued inclusion refused. Last week, Virginia’s Fourth Circuit Court ruled in favor of transgender students having the right to be treated in accordance with their gender identity. We could breathe easy now that our students are protected and we could give up our fight, but we will not.
Like Moses, those of us opposed to HB2 will not leave anyone behind. We will not leave the transgender community behind. We will not leave the broader gay and lesbian community behind. We will not leave the working poor behind. We will not leave the elderly, or the disabled or any victim of discrimination based on race, religion, national origin, or sex behind. We will not stop our protest until the entire law is repealed.
We will not allow the hearts of those who lead our state to become hardened and legalize closed doors to human rights. We will not leave till our call is heard for an open political process — where laws will be appropriately read and understood and debated to ensure they are ethical and constitutional before they are passed. We will not stop until North Carolina is the welcoming and warm state of Southern hospitality — providing inclusion and justice for all of its citizens. This is our home. This is our city. This is our state. This is our country. This is our democracy for which we will pray and fight and work in partnership to create.
We come together today as people of faith. Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan taught. “A theology which is not a plan of social action is merely a way of preaching and praying. It is a menu without the dinner.”
Our task is to rise from this multi-faith table and put our faith into action as we fight for equality.
Now I love traveling. But I did not save up my money and just pay my taxes last week to travel to a metaphoric Mitzrayim – an ancient Egypt that oppresses. I paid taxes to ensure our schools and our healthcare system and our law enforcement will be here for our betterment and keep all our kids and citizens healthy and safe. Yet, last month our legislators and Governor caused pain and harm.
We do not want to be in a metaphoric Egypt. It would be far easier to leave or to become apathetic or disengaged but like Moses, we cannot leave and we cannot stop our protest and prayer until all have the basic freedoms our democracy demands.
Leaving Egypt is exhausting for our bodies… but staying drains our souls. Some of the Israelites in Exodus were so tired that they suggested maintaining the status quo of slavery. Their spirits were crushed by the oppression they knew.
We will not allow our spirits to be defeated. We are here at this multi-faith gathering to gain strength. We are here because we have faith – in the place of promise that North Carolina can be. The great leader of protest and prayer Dr. Martin Luther King said that “faith is about taking the first step even when you can’t see the whole stair case.”
Today the staircase is quite clearly in view. Repeal HB2. I cannot even call it House Bill 2 because no house of which I am apart would cause such shame – nationally and internationally and whether we like it or not, the North Carolina House and Senate are our houses. If they think they are speaking for us as our representatives in any way, then let us be make sure they hear us loudly and clearly day after day after day.
In this case, the staircase to justice is unmistakably clear: do not debate parts of the law simply repeal all of the law.
I close with a reading by Michael Walzer that is part of our Reform movement prayer book:
Standing on the parted shores of history
We still believe what we were taught
before ever we stood at Sinai’s foot.
That wherever we go, it is eternally Egypt
That there is a better place, a promised land
That the winding way to the promise
Passes through the wilderness
That there is no way to get from here to there
Except by joining hands, marching
May we hold hands together. May we march together. May we reach across religious and political aisles to work together and give each other reason to have faith in God or in the higher power we individually affirm and in our State government. May we give each other reasons to have faith in humanity so that our State of North Carolina can be a state that makes us proud and our home that is a place of promise for all.