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Pharaohs & Slaves

It was Election Day, 1996. My father started his day over a cup of coffee with a group of retired men from his church—white, middle class, over-educated, emotionally rather repressed, good-hearted, responsible guys. If you want a better understanding of these sorts of men, I would suggest that many of you (typical readers of The Twelve) simply look in the mirror. If that doesn’t work, try observing the Elders that serve on your congregation’s governing body.

Because it was Election Day, the conversation flowed in that direction, but not extremely so, not with any great passion or vitriol. Several men made comments to the effect that Bob Dole was a decent man, an experienced senator, clearly the sensible and safe choice for president. Those who didn’t speak nodded knowingly.

From the morning coffee group, my father headed out to teach English to a group of young men—mainly Latino, with some eastern Europeans, southeast Asians and east Africans, too. Most were recent arrivals in the US. They worked as lawnmowers and dishwashers and laborers. That day they were a bouncy crew. They, very much, wanted to use their rudimentary English to discuss the election. For almost all, it was the first American presidential election they had beheld. Some were newly naturalized citizens, voting for the first time. Here the chatter was “Clinton! Clinton! He’s a good guy. I like Bill Clinton.”

Ever since my father told me of his experience, that story has become emblematic for me, a handy-dandy political compass. I’ve distilled it down to, “When it comes to pharaoh or the slaves, side with the slaves.”

I’m well aware that political realities are always more complex than my simple maxim. The nice Christian gentlemen of my father’s coffee group are hardly hardhearted pharaohs. They have no secret plan to enslave people. They have been amazing achievers and contributors in the lifetime. They have no more blood of injustice on their hands than I do.

Still, I just can’t get the image of the excitable refugees and newcomers chanting “Clinton! Clinton!” out of my mind. Clinton was no Moses, let alone a messiah. Neither is Obama. But I want to support the kind of folk in that English class. They may not be Hebrew slaves, but they’re more so than I or my father’s coffee companions.

I realize that many folk, like my father’s coffee companions, sincerely believe that their political views will eventually bring about the betterment of the English students’ lives. Trickle-down, of a sort. I know that many (most?) of the people whom that coffee group represents have a genuine concern for the refugee, the poor, the marginalized, the widows and orphans. I totally get that many/most are not out to shaft the weak and downtrodden. Well-meaning pharaohs? Unintentional pharaohs?

A few years back I was a delegate to the Reformed Church’s “General Synod”—its annual gathering and decision-making body. The “African American Council” brought a recommendation designed to overcome racism in the church. Virtually all of the delegates—most of whom resembled my father’s coffee companions—believed it was a worthy idea. They were not, however, in favor of the African-American Council’s ideas and strategy for moving toward this goal. In an irony so huge it was almost impossible to actually see, a bunch of older, white, reasonable men thought they were more able to understand and strategize about undoing racism in the church than the African Americans among us. I’m glad to report that eventually the Synod changed its mind, and/or the Holy Spirit intervened!

I don’t want to simply side with slaves against the pharaohs. I think I want to take my cues from them. I want to be for what they are for.  I definitely don’t want to tell them what is best for them.

Baseball geeks can cite Jackie Robinson’s statistics, and discuss the pluses and minuses of his game. But everyone now recognizes the hopes he inspired, the breakthrough he represented, the long term change he ushered in. So my vote for Obama is less about his specific policies, his failures or successes, but rather simply about who he is and what he represents. In a way that far surpasses economics, foreign affairs, political party, and even Obama personally; he still conveys “hope” and “change.” No doubt real world politics have put some dings in the change. And Obama’s own temperament has taken some of the luster off the hope. But beyond the squabbling and shortfalls, and the even messenger himself, the message of hope and change remains.

Comedians seem to be today’s prophets. When Chris Rock tweeted, “Barack Obama: Preferred by: women, gays, seniors, minorities, teachers, auto workers, students, people who see doctors, & non-angry whites” I chuckled and said, “Thanks be to God!”


Gratitude and kudos to Lynn Japinga, and also her husband Jeff, for their outstanding and faithful blogging on The Twelve during my sabbatical absence! Thank you.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is a recently retired minister of the Reformed Church in America. He has been the convener of the Reformed Journal’s daily blog since its inception in 2011. He and his wife, Sophie, reside in Des Moines, Iowa.

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