The Problem with Legality (Exodus 1:8-2:10)

In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep. (Genesis 1:1-2)

In the beginning was chaos. Earth was formless — a void that lacked cohesion and structure and substance. The seas rolled and tossed under the cover of darkness, flowing where they pleased, not constrained to space or pattern but thundering and pouring at will.

Then the breath of God, which had been roaming over all the chaos, drew itself in and spoke, “Let there be light,” and out of the chaos, there began to be order. Light and darkness, night and day, a gathering of seas and a gathering of earth, plants and creatures and birds and fruits, and all things were given order and it was very good.

I like order. (Don’t judge me on that by the state of dust in my house, but take my word for it: I like order.)

  • Some of that has to do with being a single mother — my kids are busy with school and sports, and there’s only one of me to keep track of two of them; it’s important for us to organize and communicate so that I know who is where and when.
  • Some of my affection for order relates to being a writer — I like proper punctuation and grammar, and I dread the thought of sending an email in which I’ve failed to catch a typo.
  • And some of it is personality and worldview — I believe that we can impact change when we organize ourselves (order ourselves) in healthy relationships and visionary communities and intentional structures. I work for the national structure of my denomination in part because I believe that how the United Church of Christ orders itself in the national setting can positively impact UCC churches and the wider world.

So I like order. I like Genesis 1 for its portrayal of God ordering chaos in order to birth life. To me, that’s good news, and through tumultuous times in my life I have clung to the hope that God can create order and nurture life even in the worst chaos.

With the good news of Genesis 1 as a framework — God creates order from chaos, and the order is good & life-giving for all the world — consider Exodus 1:8 – 2:10. Consider the order of the ancient Egyptian world and the ancient Israelites’ lives.

The established order — the legal system — at the outset of the book of Exodus is a system of oppression. Forced labor. Backs bent low in supply cities. Backs bent low in fields. Mortars pounded and bricks formed under the penalty of death. Newborns killed under their mothers on the birthing stools. Children thrown away like trash into the river. This was the established order of Exodus 1-2. This was Pharaoh’s law. This was legal.

The established order — the legal system — from the outset of the United States has been and is racism. Forced labor first in southern fields, forced labor today in the prison system. Backs bent low to cross a border. Spirits laid low by daily microagressions. Traffic stops that carry the threat of death. Boys killed walking home from the store. Native and Black and brown girls missing in disproportionate numbers. Education financing pulled out from under the feet of our poorest kids. This is the established order of 2014. This is American law. This is legal.

And with the framework of Genesis 1 in mind, we read the stories of Exodus and we read the stories of today and we ask: What does God do when the created order is *not* good? What does God do when the order (the established systems, the lawful structures of our society, many of which were created in God’s name at varied points of history), what does God do when the lawful order is not good — in fact, is deadly?

Now I know that God’s order is not the world’s order. We know that God’s ways are not our ways. In light of the Genesis 1 framework, we can look at ancient Egypt and say, “Although the enslavement of the Israelites was legal according to Pharaoh’s world, we believe that it was chaos according to God’s order for the world.” Likewise we can look at American racism and say, “Although police actions and prison sentences and immigration policies and reproductive healthcare access and education reform may be legal, nevertheless these systems are absolute chaos according to God’s order for the world.”

We can hold onto the hope that the world’s chaos will be overcome by God’s order, just as it was at the beginning of time in Genesis 1, just as it will be at the end of time in Revelation 21 when a new heaven and a new earth will embody God’s order.

Staking our hope in God’s order, however, can lead us to stake our hope in the excellent ordering of earthly systems & communities & structures & laws. Believing in God’s ultimate order, as I’ve already confessed, impacts my conviction that we can achieve just & excellent order in our human systems. But theologically and practically, a hope in human order cannot be unequivocally sustained. We cannot love order so much that we fail to say: There are human structures that are inherently contrary to God’s order. There are human systems that are inherently destructive to life. There are human systems that are not redeemable within God’s order. We cannot, for example, organize and order the system of American racism to a point of goodness.

What does God do when the created order is not good? What is our hope when the created order is not good, when the lawful order is deadly?

Within the framework of Genesis 1, then, we have these order-chaos tensions:

…the eternal arc of God’s work brings order out of chaos…

…in light of divine order, our human order (laws & systems & structures) are chaos…

…yet these systems & structures & laws that are chaos to God are, for us as we live in these earthly moments, fully legal and the order we are given for daily life.

As I’ve watched (primarily on Twitter) the protests in Ferguson and the response of law enforcement to those protests, I’ve become increasingly convinced: if what is legal in our human institutions & systems looks like chaos in God’s order, then living faithfully within God’s order will and should look like chaos within our human institutions & systems.

Put another way: when what is legal is deadly, then what is illegal must become radically life-giving.

When Pharaoh dictated a law to the midwives that they should kill any boy born to an Israelite woman, Shiphrah and Puah chose to do what was illegal by delivering every infant and celebrating every birth regardless of whether the baby was male or female. Shiphrah and Puah caused chaos to Pharaoh’s order.

So Pharaoh commanded his soldiers to kill every son of an Israelite woman by throwing the boys into the river. As a result, mothers began hiding their sons — in flour sacks and under bed rushes and even in baskets made to float in water. The mothers chose chaos for their boys rather than obedience to Pharaoh’s law.

And when an illegal baby boy floating in an illegal basket was spotted by the Pharaoh’s daughter, she illegally spared the boy’s life and gave him illegal sanctuary in her own home, deceiving Pharaoh by calling the boy her son. Pharaoh’s daughter disobeyed her father’s law and saved the very life that would create chaos to the entire legal system of oppression that Pharaoh had built for himself.

Because what was legal was deadly, the illegal became radically life-giving.

In Ferguson, where the police response to Michael Brown was deadly, the resulting protests have resisted the (new and increasing) lines of legality — protesting late at night despite imposed curfews, standing to face police despite military guns and tear gas, holding vigils in the street and in churches and at a burned-out gas station despite lockdowns on the community. Because what was legal was deadly, the protests (deemed by some to be illegal) became defiant life-giving actions.

With Exodus and Ferguson in mind, it’s time for us to repent of loving legality, respectability and order, because time & time again we have witnessed: legality is deadly. Order is not automatically or intrinsically life-giving. We need to repent of idolizing a God of order, and we need to revisit — I need to revisit — the likelihood that God’s order amid this world’s chaos looks very much like holy chaos amid the world’s order.

And why wouldn’t it? Because God’s order is so far beyond imagination, so far beyond what we experience as normative and acceptable, how can it not be perceived as chaos? God’s order is necessarily chaotic to all the earthly ways that we have ordered our lives!

God’s order is the chaos of new life amidst suffering.

God’s order is the chaos of diversity within unity.

God’s order is the chaos of incarnation.

God’s order is the chaos of bread broken and grapes crushed.

God’s order is the chaos of the cross.

God’s order is chaos.

And though I love order, though I pray to God for the comfort of order in my life, it is time for us to confess and embody God’s chaos, which is ultimately our good news.

Sermon preached at South Haven United Church of Christ (Bedford OH), 8/24/2014.

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