Shiphrah, Puah, and Pluralism
SHIPHRAH AND PUAH BROKE THE LAW. When Pharaoh ordered the midwives to kill the male Hebrew newborns, they conspired instead to lie to him. “Hebrew women are not like Egyptians. They give birth too quickly, before we arrive.” This implies that Pharaoh wanted the deaths to happen quietly, without much fuss, in the seconds immediately following birth, when infants are especially fragile. The midwives said it couldn’t be done.
I wish I could tell you their deception saved the boys, but in the long-term, it did not. Pharaoh simply ordered a mass execution. But the midwives did what they had to do, even at enormous danger to themselves. Pharaoh represented absolute authority. His orders were the law of the land. Shiphrah and Puah, presumably, felt obligated to a higher sort of law, to the laws of their Lord, to what they knew was right. Preserving the babies was an act of resistance.
What do we do when the rules, or people in authority, require us to do what we believe to be wrong? Most of us encounter this question for the first time when we’re very young, perhaps when a teacher says “sit and be quiet” but we know a friend of ours needs help. We have to decide: which prompt do we obey? The one from external authority, or the one that moves us in our heart?
I find it very compelling to say, “Do what is right; let the consequences come.” That’s certainly what our Quaker ancestors did, at least the ones we tell stories about. They followed the promptings of the Holy Spirit, and if necessary, they went to jail. Civil disobedience demonstrates moral courage and plays a role in nearly every historic social change.
My friend JC, with whom I went to middle school, has direct experience with this. He’s been to jail for civil disobedience. He’s a highly morally principled person — which I can recognize even though we disagree about some significant things. This is why he surprised me when he answered a question I posted on Facebook: “What do you do when ‘the rules’ conflict with what you know to be right?”
He wrote about living in a pluralistic society. “Sometimes the law will not be in accordance with what we believe is right,” he said, “because that’s what happens in democracy. We have to be willing to go along with the law much of the time because that’s what our society, collectively, has decided will be the law of the land. It’s very easy to slide into vigilantism, and that will eventually undermine our ability to live together. When I violate the law, I believe I’m right. But when someone violates the law and I disagree with them, I feel differently. I have to recognize that conflict.”
I found this extraordinarily compelling. Certainly there’s a boundary — a limit to what we should go along with in respect to a pluralistic society–and I think Shiphrah and Puah’s story is a clear example of a time when breaking the law was required. But I rarely hear anyone loudly stating, “Sometimes we must compromise in order to thrive as a democratic pluralistic society!” It’s not the sort of message that makes us feel heroic.
Friends, in theory, have practice at this. Every time we enter corporate discernment, we commit to trusting the community’s discernment over our individual sense of Spirit’s leadings. When we affirm sense of the meeting, we are not affirming our personal belief that a decision is right. We are affirming that we recognize the community’s sense that the decision is right.
Seeking the will of God in discernment is not the same as voting for representatives. Voting is a lot less elegant and, in my experience, discernment is more satisfying. In my country, when I vote, I very often feel I’m choosing between a bad option and a worse one. I’m trapped by the choices given to me. There’s no such thing as finding a third way.
But I am worried about my country. I am worried that the actions of my government may be morally wrong, but I am even more worried about my fellow citizens. I am worried that we are losing our commitment to living in a pluralistic society. I am worried by how many people are deciding that what they believe is right is the ultimate authority, the only perspective worth listening to. I worry about how many people in my social media streams are saying, “X is right, and Y is wrong, and anyone who disagrees with me is immoral and undeserving of a voice.”
I don’t see moral certainty as the fundamental problem, really. I’d be pretty hypocritical if I did, because there are a number of matters regarding which I feel moral certainty. It’s the second part that’s worrisome: “anyone who disagrees with me is immoral and undeserving of a voice.” It is a very short leap from “underserving of a voice” to “I will take away your voice” and from there to committing or excusing violence.
Those of us in the United States are living through a dangerous era. The headlines are filled with major societal, legal, and cultural shifts, and most of us have very strong beliefs about which of these shifts are morally right and which of these shifts are morally wrong. It feels like a battle between good and evil. I don’t want to minimize that feeling for anyone. Many of us are experiencing this time as a fight for survival, or something close to it. That’s a lot to be living through.
What we cannot do is define the battle between good and evil in a way that places 50% of our neighbors on the evil side. We Friends know, when we stop and breathe, that every person deserves a voice, and as a matter of natural consequence, some will use that voice wrongly. We can be in relationship, we can try to convince, we can pray for those who are doing wrong…but while we are doing all we can to promote what we believe to be right, we must also testify to the inherent value of every human being.
Testify. Not just believe. It’s not enough to believe in the inherent value of every human being. In today’s society, we must talk about it out loud, and we must be explicit that when we say “everyone” we include those with whom we disagree. We must talk about what it means to live in a pluralistic society. The only alternative to a pluralistic society is denying some people a right to a voice. And historically, that always leads to violence.
There are Shiphrah and Puah moments coming. There will be times when we cannot compromise. But I suspect there will be more times when we are specifically called to affirm the humanity of the opposition, and that might be the hardest part.