October 16, 2022
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I grew up in a family that was obsessed with science fiction and fantasy literature. My brothers and I spent a lot of Saturdays with Return of the Jedi in the VCR during our childhood, smashing our Han Solo and Darth Vader action figures against each other. Dad read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings to me before bed every night. Mom used to chase us around the house with her very own toy proton pack from Ghostbusters. As we got to high school, my brothers William, Joseph, and I devoured books like Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, and deeper cuts like A Canticle for Leibowitz, as well as classic films like Blade Runner, Alien, and 2001: A Space Odyssey.
There’s something missing, though, from this hodgepodge canon my brothers and I cobbled together. None of them are works by women authors, directors, or artists. This year, I’ve been working really hard to address that deficit. Right now, I’m making my way through Octavia Butler’s dystopian climate change novel Parable of the Sower. This summer, I was reading the meditative masterpieces of Becky Chambers’ Monk and Robot Series alongside some of our students in Princeton Presbyterians.
But my favorite has been an undisputed genius of American literature: the author Ursula K Le Guin.
It’s easy at first glance to fit sci-fi and fantasy into a box, to dismiss it as kids’ stuff with all its lasers and magic swords and made-up names. But in an essay in her book, No Time to Spare, Le Guin gets at the heart of great science fiction and fantasy literature with a simple statement: “It doesn’t have to be the way it is.” [Pause] That’s what science fiction and fantasy have to say to us. It doesn’t have to be the way it is.
Le Guin writes, “It doesn’t have to be the way it is is a playful statement, made in the context of fiction, with no claim to ‘being real.’ Yet it is a subversive statement.
Subversion doesn’t suit people who, feeling their adjustment to life has been successful, want things to go on just as they are, or people who need support from authority assuring them that things are as they have to be. Fantasy not only asks “What if things didn’t go on just as they do?” but demonstrates what they might be like if they went otherwise—thus gnawing at the very foundation of the belief that things have to be the way they are.”
“It doesn’t have to be the way it is” is the powerful rallying cry of women in the book of Exodus. Princeton Presbyterians is in the middle of a sermon series on women in Exodus, and last week, Len preached about the midwives Shiphrah and Puah. When the Egyptian Pharaoh saw that the enslaved Hebrew people were becoming a large nation, he demanded that midwives kill any male Hebrew children at the moment of childbirth.
But Shiphrah and Puah, leaders of the midwife guild, refused. They made excuses, they slow-walked the order, they bungled the roll out, they failed to comply. Over and over again they invented new ways to resist this cruel edict from Pharaoh, and thus saved the lives of many children.
When Pharaoh learned he’d been deceived, his policies became even more violent, demanding that Hebrew children be thrown into the Nile River. Exodus tells us that at least one woman, whose name we later learn is Jochebed, refuses to obey. When she and her husband Amram have a son, she faces an impossible choice: give him up to the authorities, or try to raise this little boy in secret and endanger the whole family.
So Jochebed takes Pharaoh’s order and twists it. Pharaoh said all male babies had to go into the Nile River, but Jochebed knows that Pharaoh didn’t say how. She says to herself, “it doesn’t have to be the way it is.” She makes a basket for her baby—a tevah in Hebrew—Robert Alter explains it is the same word for “ark” from the story of “Noah’s Ark” in Genesis. She carefully waterproofs it and adds a covering so he’ll be safe. Jochebed places her newborn baby into this basket, this ark, and sends her daughter, Miriam, to follow it.
Under the pressure of extreme, cruel demands, Jochebed makes a choice deep in her heart—a hidden choice from Pharaoh and his edicts—to use all her creativity, love, and trust in God to resist and help this baby survive. It’s a heartbreaking, desperate choice: Jochebed lets go of her child in the hopes that something, someone, will deliver him from these deadly circumstances. A young woman, a servant to the daughter of Pharaoh, finds the baby in the reeds. Pharaoh’s daughter sees this little human being, realizes it’s one of the Hebrew children, and she, too, chooses compassion and defiance of her father.
The young sister Miriam runs over and gets involved: wouldn’t you know it, her mother Jochebed would be the perfect nurse for a baby like that. Pharaoh’s daughter names the baby Moses, an ambiguous choice that sounds like an Egyptian name for “Son,” and also the Hebrew word for “drawn from water.” It’s a story that depends on a mother, a sister, a servant, a princess making a hidden choice in their hearts, each one saying to themselves, “it doesn’t have to be the way it is.”
Biblical scholar Terence Fretheim observes that God doesn’t speak in the story of Exodus until the burning bush, when Moses is well into adulthood. At first glance, God seems to be absent. It’s just human beings looking out for each other in Exodus until the swarms of locusts and frogs and darkness and plagues show up to afflict Pharaoh into letting God’s people go.
But Fretheim proposes that God might be at work among the courageous decisions of these women—Shiphrah and Puah, Jochebed, Miriam, the Egyptian servant girl, Pharaoh’s daughter—as they make these hidden choices to resist and defy the king. God chooses in freedom to work with human beings when they do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly. We worship the God of hidden choices, who sees and hears resistance to evil and decides to get involved. God is a storyteller, after all, and whenever she sees evil and injustice she will find a way to work with those who resolve deep in their hearts that “it doesn’t have to be the way it is.”
Our series on women in Exodus with Princeton Presbyterians has, unfortunately, taken on new gravity since we began with Shiphrah and Puah last week. Protests in Iran that began with the death of Mahsa Amini in government detention have swelled into a women-led rejection of Iran’s brutal morality police and calls for other reforms.
Since last spring, we have seen the courage of women like Marina Vladimirovna Ovsyannikova, a Russian journalist who burst onto a live broadcast with a sign saying “NO WAR.” She fled house arrest in Moscow for Germany last week and continues to condemn the war in Ukraine.
Amid one global crisis after another, when it often feels like there is no word from the Lord, is it possible to imagine that God telling some new story in and through the voices of women who are shouting out, “it doesn’t have to be the way it is”? When it’s hard to see good news on the horizon, Exodus urges us to remember the stories of women who have said and lived out this truth. When we remember that the God of hidden choices has been faithful to us in the past, we can place our trust in God to provide a surprising, hopeful future.
I’ll close with a story I’ve told before at Breaking Bread about women who transformed their community by saying “it doesn’t have to be the way it is.” In Spring 2013, I traveled to El Salvador with a group of students from Davidson College. We were there to learn about how Christians lived out their faith during a terrible civil war in the 1980s. One of the places we visited was a small town called Suchitoto. Suchitoto is a beautiful place in the mountains, and its name in the indigenous language Nahuatl means “Land of Birds and Flowers.”
During the war, Suchitoto had been subject to some of the worst abuses of the government, including attacks by soldiers, bombing runs by American-funded warplanes, abductions and torture of citizens by paramilitary groups. It is a place where Catholic priests and laypeople, many of them tenant farmers on coffee plantations, endured persecution as they organized and demanded things like the right to vote, meaningful access to public education, economic reforms that would lift most of the population out of subsistence living. Suchitoto carries deep generational trauma, and a long history of witness to human rights.
We met with a local women’s rights group, and they talked about some of the ways those traumas continued to have an impact on the community. At that time, the town was struggling with an increase in incidents of domestic violence. They showed us a home where one of the organizers lived. The group had spray painted a stencil of block-printed words: “EN ESTA CASA QUEREMOS UNA VIDA LIBRE DE VIOLENCIA HACIA LAS MUJERES.” “In this house, we want a life free from violence against women.” It was a sign that this house, these people, this family had agreed together that they would transform deep generational trauma through a radical commitment to non-violence. They would not hurt each other, and they were committed to being a safe haven to any neighbor fleeing an abusive situation at home. Part of the stenciling was a little drawing of a bird resting on a flowering branch, a symbol of the ancient name of Suchitoto, “land of bird and flowers.”
Standing there, surrounded by the green mountains of the Cuscatlán region, my students and I looked as one of the women gestured from her home to the other houses on her street. Every few houses, all the way down the lane, families had spray-painted walls that said, En esta casa queremos una vida libre de violencia hacia las mujeres. In this house, we want a life free from violence against women. Birds and flowers. Hope that the way the world has been is not the way the world has to be. Resurrection hope for a better future that can transform deep-seated trauma, violence, and despair.
“It doesn’t have to be the way it is.” That’s something we hope our students learn from their experiences in Princeton Presbyterians. Not simply as criticism or constant dismissal, but as an invitation to creative resistance to deadly ways our world silences and breaks people down. We trust that, in Jesus Christ, the God of hidden choices has said, “It doesn’t have to be the way it is. I am coming soon. I am making all things new.” Amen.