In this week’s reading, we hear one of the most central stories of the Hebrew Scriptures, the deliverance of God’s chosen people from slavery in Egypt, and the inauguration of the Passover festival which celebrates God’s mighty act.
The problem here, from a grief perspective, is that this great liberation comes as a result of the death of the firstborn among the Egyptians, the final plague loosed by God on an obstinate Pharoah. So while the Israelites are preparing for a new life, and celebrating justice done by the God on whom they have waited their whole lives, the Egyptians are grieving more loss than they’ve ever experienced, including at least one member of every family. While the Israelites set out in freedom with God in the lead, the Egyptians are left without their firstborn, their crops and livestock decimated, their family heirlooms plundered.
Please don’t mistake me here: I am not asking you to have compassion on the slaveholders, on the oppressing empire, in their grief. I am simply noticing that this story is emotionally complicated, as most stories are, and wondering about how that kind of complication is still impacting our congregations, communities and nations today. The empire’s grief shows itself to be a powerful force every time the status quo is challenged.
When a woman accuses a powerful man of sexual harassment and/or misconduct, the old boys club grieves the “jokes” they can’t make anymore. When a white person uses an outdated and racist colloquialism they grew up using and gets called out for it, they grieve the rise of “political correctness”. When a pastor calls God “She” or “They” or “Mother”, congregation members grieve the loss of the God they identified with, which they identified as theirs.
This kind of grief is born of sin, of status quo that has always been antithetical to the ways of God, but it is still grief. And if there is one thing I am sure of in grief, it’s this: Grief doesn’t care whether it is right or wrong, whether it’s feelings or thoughts can be justified. Grief simply demands space to be what it is, and not allowing that space is dangerous to our individual and communal health.
The church is rife with such grief, largely unacknowledged and often judged by its clergy as inappropriate or unbecoming of “good Christians”. So it festers in silence, manifesting in passive aggressive actions, anonymous notes to the pastor and leadership. It creates silos inside and between our congregations. Grief is the number one force that makes our congregations resistant to change, even if most of that grief is anticipatory, based on the fear that change means losing something precious to us and gaining nothing.
It is not every pastor’s job to tend this grief. In fact, for those whose grief is caused by the status quo the church wants to maintain, it is violence to ask them to tend the grief of the other side. But for those who understand (and maybe even share) their members’ grief about the ways the church and world are changing, perhaps the most important pastoral work they have is to help members process this grief. There can be no moving forward as a whole when a portion of the body of Christ is mired in what they’ve lost.
I can’t imagine that Pharoah made space for the grief of the Egyptians, since he acts out of his failing power to send his army after the fleeing slaves. But I can imagine a present-day empire, either the church or America, which makes space for some to process their grief over what is no longer, while others build a future that will cause fewer to grieve.