Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Scariest Book I've Read

I will be speaking on “Generosity in Three Movements” during the 11 a.m. worship of Georgia Mountains Unitarian Universalist Church this Sunday, Nov. 2, and leading a free workshop on The Cloud of Unknowing immediately following the service. (Pizza will be served, and remember that Daylight Savings Time ends at 2 a.m. that morning, so we “fall back” an hour.)

As All Hallows’ Eve approaches, I recommend a book that makes Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol feel likes romps through a garden.

I am presently reading, or trying to read, or avoiding reading Laurel Dykstra’s book, Set Them Free: The Other Side of Exodus.  It is the scariest book I’ve ever read.

“Rather than claiming that Christians are subject to a higher authority than others, I suggest that we in the radical discipleship movement admit that we are subject to lower authorities, the dubious and multiple authorities of the most oppressed speaking on their own behalf,” this member of Tacoma’s Catholic Worker Community and Episcopal Divinity School graduate writes in her introduction. In the margin beside this quote, I wrote, “Off to a good start!”

But halfway through the book, I feel like I’m reading The Grinch Who Stole Exodus.

I have always taken heart in the Exodus story, that of Israelites escaping the bondage and oppression of Egypt, as a model for the Civil Rights Movement, Liberation Theology, and for others seeking freedom, including my own LGBTQ community, in which both Dykstra and I identify. Rather than negate this, she suggests yet another way of reading the story.

More than once I heard biblical scholar Jim Sanders say, “When reading a biblical story, if you’ve identified with the good guys, you’re probably not ‘getting’ it. Read it again and identify with the bad guys,” he would say.

After all, we think WE would never crucify Jesus, but today it would be the U.S.A. and the privileged First World, the Presbyterians and Methodists and Baptists, for example, who might find his so-called “gospel” intolerable.

In other readings I have had inklings that WE are Egypt: that we live well at the cost of others’ deprivation and suffering and exclusion. But in no book I have read has the message been so unrelenting and clear that developed nations and multinational corporations are the new Pharaohs with hardened heart.

I cringe when even liberal U.S. presidents declare our foreign policy should be based on OUR national interests, rather than the interests of the whole world. As this book implies, our neocolonialism smacks of the same paternalism as its predecessor.

This is not just about the very rich, the fraction of the one per cent who benefit the most from the way things are. Those of us in the middle class and those of us in the church are also complicit with this power structure that continues a new “middle passage” and “trail of tears” of the downwardly mobile because we too benefit from their impoverishment and enslavement and do little to prevent it. “For most of us trying to get along, finding a bargain does not seem like an act of violence,” Dykstra observes.

I’ve been reading Set Them Free in my morning prayers and have wondered if I should rather read it later in the day. This morning I felt so debilitated by what I read that I didn’t feel worthy of being in God’s presence. I felt downright shame. I tried to pray, but all I could do was ask forgiveness. My concerns that I might have otherwise eagerly lifted felt parochial and self-absorbed.

Blessedly for writing this reflection, Dykstra quotes Phyllis Trible saying “reflections themselves neither mandate nor manufacture change; yet by enabling insight, they may inspire repentance.”

And Dykstra quotes and paraphrases the Pan African Healing Foundation: 
They raise the question, “Are people of privilege capable of change?” There is an old African American proverb that says “it is easier to get the people out of Egypt than to get Egypt out of the people.” It refers to the responsibilities of freedom. But for people of privilege, for whom Egypt and empire have offered not only security and comfort but everything we have known, leaving Egypt and ridding ourselves of egyptian (sic) ways and habits will be slow and hard. Acknowledging our role in empire is a first step in the long, slow journey out of it. 

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Copyright © 2014 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved. 


  1. Buying a shirt from store like WalMart, a shirt that might have been made in swear factory by child labor, does not seem to be act of violence BUT it might be. Some rationalize that if buyers did not buy product, then the child laborers might not be able to eat. So, we continue to participate. What to do? what to do. We used to finish everything on plate with thanksgiving and remembrance that other children had nothing to eat and if we did not finish our food, then we should "send it to China". Odd but kept me thinking about those less fortunate but did little to help me figure out what to do. I REALLY LIKE YOUR PASSING ON THE EXERCISE TO PUT MYSELF IN THE PLACE OF "THE BAD GUYS" WHEN READING A BIBLE. I also like that you're getting the message out that U.S.A is indeed empire in a rather bad way, anymore. thanks, Chris. I pray with you.

  2. Looks like this book asks all the hard questions, that is, the right ones!