David McLoughlin looks at how the liberation of Exodus still needs to happen for many enslaved men, women and children, even in contemporary Britain.
8 Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. 9 He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. 10 Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.”… 13 The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, 14 and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labour. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them. Exodus 1:8-10; 13-15
8 Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labour and do all your work. 10 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work – you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it. Exodus 20:8-11
Slavery continues to exist even in our own country. We see it with up to 24,000 car wash workers exploited and completely controlled by someone else without being able to leave. We see it hidden in care homes, food outlets and in the domestic servitude of wealthy houses. Many more working men and women seem to have very little control over the hours they work. People commonly speak of needing every hour God gives to get their work done! There is a different vision in the Scriptures and Catholic Social Teaching.
In the Book of Exodus, God calls stateless nobodies out of a slave existence where they have no control of time or rest. In Egypt, oppressive work is imposed on them. In desperation they meet the targets their taskmasters set with no opportunity to look up and enjoy the world around them, and no time to be with their families. Their sense of themselves as created in the image and likeness of the free God has been lost. They have long lost the memory of their distant origins in the great adventure of Sarah and Abraham, who set out from comfortable Ur in search of the living God. Instead, the Hebrew slaves search day and night for straw and dig clay to make bricks for the great temples of the Egyptian gods.
But the God who reveals Godself to Moses as “I am who I am” is an utterly different God! This God is not content to keep things as they are. This is the God who chose to bring all things into existence in freedom. Yahweh’s creating is open-ended, boundless, capable of change and the new. It is this free God who through Moses calls the oppressed Hebrew slaves to become Is-ra-el – the people of God! Yahweh creates a new people who indeed are to work, but whose work shares God’s own boundary with work, a boundary of joy and rest. Work is not the full meaning or end of life as we see in the creating of the Sabbath, which offers a time to delight in the Creator and the Creator’s creation.
Underneath these experiences of work are different ideas of time. The Egyptians had a cyclical view of time which focused on the seasons, and above all the annual flooding of the Nile. Every year when the waters had receded, rich new fertile silt was left in which to grow the next year’s wheat which was Egypt’s great wealth and staple. So the Egyptian gods were called on in worship and sacrifice to keep this natural cycle going. To keep things as they were – including slavery.
Yahweh breaks this cycle in liberating the Hebrew slaves, and a new liberating linear view of time gradually emerges. All are invited to join the movement from a blessed past, through present struggles, towards a promised future. This will become the basis for ideas of development and observable change in the world, and ultimately of science. But that will take a long time! Importantly, it gives us the idea of time as chronos – that is: years, months, weeks, days, hours, minutes and seconds. But this chronological time has now become a burden for many of us. In the world of work we hear of it in “watching the clock“, “clocking on“, “chasing time“, “no time for…”, “time is money“, “time and motion studies” etc.
But there is another notion of time in the Jewish-Christian tradition. Time as Kairos. Kairos is time as pregnant with meaning for me, for you, for us. When the Churches eventually got together in South Africa to oppose apartheid and to face the need for rebellion against the government, they named their statement of purpose The Kairos Document. They were emphasising that this was a moment of extraordinary significance for South Africa, a moment whose significance would go far beyond the writing and reading of the document. And indeed that was the case. The regime fell and nothing has been the same since. The moment had a significance long after its happening. Kairos is time understood as ‘meaningful event’, as the potential yet to be realised. When we fall in love, the time spent with our ‘beloved’ however long or short, is kairos not chronos. It’s not thirty six equal minutes on a park bench while the sun sets. It’s an unforgettable moment, filled then with possibilities, still perhaps being worked out 10, 20 30, years later.
In Christianity, time is, in a very special way, Kairos. The entry of God into the created order, into human life as the worker Jesus of Nazareth, opens up a dimension of meaning which time as chronos can never exhaust. Human life has meaning beyond the progression of moments. It is taken into the divine reality which breaks out of the bonds of mechanistic moments. Suddenly, human life and the decisions we make have ultimate significance. We no longer merely suffer the passage of time but are invited to create our history, our future, our meaning. This was the invitation to Abraham and Sarah at the beginning of the history of the Jewish, Christian and Islamic faiths. Abraham’s call was a kairos moment. His and Sarah’s response would open up new possibilities for all people. In the light of the experience of Abraham and Sarah, of Moses and the Exodus, of Jesus, we are not simply the playthings of the gods or of fate, or of oppressive work practices. In human work we are called to share in creating ourselves and our history.
In the encyclicals of St. John Paul II there is an understanding of the worker as a person that corresponds to the vision of the Scriptures, especially the promise of Exodus and the blessing of the Creator in Genesis. For the Pope, human work is wider than industrial labour (Laborem Exercens nn1,4). It applies to all who contribute to the building up of society. The marginalised and the unemployed are also workers, still called to make their contribution. We build our society, by becoming responsible agents and creative subjects of our own history (n6)..
The originality of St. John Paul II’s writing lies in this insistence on the subjective dimension of work. He insists that in human work, the subjective or personal transformation experienced is of greater importance than the object produced (n6). For him freedom is social and therefore, ultimately indivisible. We cannot be truly free if others are still oppressed. This was understood well by the Prophets and the legislators of the original Israel with their insistence that the widow, the migrant worker (“the stranger”) and the orphan, all examples of the powerless, should be held in reverent care at the centre of the new society. In Israel, God’s own people, there is “time” for all.
It is for this vision that we still need to fight today. Here in our own country, men and women from Romania, Albania, Poland, Nigeria and Vietnam, and even our own nationals, are caught up in modern trafficking. Hundreds are being trafficked into forced labour in construction, agriculture, manufacturing, sexual exploitation, care-work, hospitality and hand car washes. The Church of England’s Clewer Initiative against anti-slavery and the Roman Catholic Santa Marta Group have launched the ‘Safe Car Wash App’ which identifies and shares data with the National Crime Agency (https://theclewerinitiative.org/). Helping to detect and target the perpetrators could be the beginning of current time slaves escaping to lives where they and their work are properly valued, and where they celebrate the freedom of a new Sabbath and lives of joy and creativity.
What is your own experience of time in relation to work?
Is this experience shared by your colleagues and friends?
What ideas about work do the biblical texts provoke in you?
Is there still a need for a “Sabbath” day of rest and recreation, even for those who are not believers?
In this surrealist lithograph print by the Dutch artist M.C. Escher, we are invited into an imaginary world. First printed in 1953 and called ‘Relativity’ here is a place where the normal laws of gravity do not exist, yet everything is held in balance. This picture is one of the most familiar images in modern art demonstrating one of Escher’s signature techniques – the visual relationship between geometry and illusion.
Here is a space-distorting interior that could never exist in our reality. The more we look the more we find it hard to focus since the dominant staircases continue in all directions. And there are 16 faceless figures slowly walking up and down as if they are robots programmed in a future age.
While the architectural structure appears to be the centre of a community or network, there are windows and doorways leading to outdoor settings with trees, plants and sunlight. Even the three parks provide us with some optical challenges – at first glance, they seem correct but their relationship with each other is more complex since they exist in opposite planes.
In this world of Relativity, there are seven stairways, and each stairway can be used by the figures from different planes. The three main staircases form what is called a ‘Penrose triangle’ which doesn’t exist in our current application of geometry. It is a shape that can be drawn but not replicated in solid form. There are three gravitational points, each being at right angles to the other two. Each figure inhabits a place where normal physical laws apply but as soon as they walk up or down the stairs they will enter another gravitational space and source. This creates an illusion of movement and energy between the figures: of those ascending or descending, those appearing to walk normally without bumping into each other, and those who are trying to avoid each other altogether. Perhaps there is a silent code much like in a monastic order. Since nobody is pausing to chat or acknowledge a fellow human being in their path.
So what can this picture tell us about the human condition? Our 24/7 work patterns and remote living, our contactless engagement and virtual communication, have created a world in which we also have become faceless. Modern day slavery controls our time, our income and our choices. It depersonalises us, diminishes our dignity and restricts our God-given freedoms. Not only this, but it prevents us from developing our natural altruism since we cannot help others if we ourselves are in chains. And society only truly flourishes when our focus is the common good.
We have lost sight of the incarnation because we prioritise convenience over time. We no longer connect with each other first in the flesh, but through our digital devices. To meet another person in real life takes more energy and hours than to Facetime or Zoom from the comfort of our sofas. When Jesus rose from the dead, it was his physical body that believers saw not just his spirit passing through. It was his physicality that defined this miracle and the beginning of our faith. It is in the body and blood of Christ that we meet him each week and which opens the door to our salvation.
This picture alerts us to the world we have already created rather than to predictions of the future. Escher illustrates a sphere in which we are little more than cogs in the wheels of work and time. And to what end? What would be the purpose of walking up and down stairs forever? These robots exist but do they contribute? It calls us to reflect on the human condition, to review our illusions about work and purpose, our focus on money and lifestyle and to choose a different path. It shows us that hierarchies fail, since reaching the top of any of these staircases leads us nowhere in the longer term. While this labyrinthine masterpiece offers us multiple viewpoints and perspectives, its message is clear. Life is absurd if we simply follow the crowd. Life is unjust when even some are enslaved. To free ourselves and our fellow citizens, we have to take steps: give voice to the silenced, walk with each other’s pain, dismantle illusions and build a new world on an equal plane.
Give us the vision and courage to make a difference this day and every day.
You raised up Moses to lead the alienated workers of Egypt,
out of oppression into a land where there would be work for all.
Help us to see the powerless ones in our lives, our communities, our countries.
Help us to recognise and understand more clearly who they are
and how we, with them, can be liberated from oppression.
Give us the vision and courage to make a difference this day and every day.