The second plague: “… (Frogs) shall come up into your palace, into your bedchamber and your bed, and into the houses of your officials and of your people…” (Exodus 8:3).
The fourth plague: “…I will send swarms of flies on you, your officials and your people, and into your houses…” (Exodus 8:21) “And great swarms of flies came into the house of Pharaoh and into his officials’ houses…” (Exodus 8:24)
The seventh plague: “For this time I will send all of my plagues upon you yourself, and upon your officials, and upon your people.. “ (Exodus9:14a)
The eighth plague: Locusts “shall fill your houses, and the houses of all your officials and of all the Egyptians…” (Exodus 10:6a)
The 10th plague: “At midnight the Lord struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of the Pharaoh who san on his throne to the firstborn of the prisoner who was in the dungeon. … Pharaoh arose in the night, he and all his officials and all the Egyptians; and there was a loud cry in Egypt, for there was not a house without someone dead.” (Exodus 12:29-30)
What struck me this time though the Exodus story, in case you haven’t figured it out, was the repeated warning to Pharaoh that the plagues would affect him, his officials and his people. Always in that order.
It got me to thinking, given the leadership our nation has had in the last few years, about the importance of a leader’s personal experience in the way they lead and in the choices they make.
Now I acknowledge that I am solidly Democratic, proudly liberal and view life through a lens of grace and forgiveness, and caring for the other. I am also very much a product of a white, Southern upbringing — but in many ways the anthesis of the stereotype you may apply to that picture. I lay claim more to the legacies of Ralph McGill and Jimmy Carter than to George Wallace or Bull Connor.
Obama, Clinton and Carter (sort of) grew up outside of the world of privilege. In the case of Obama and Clinton, they were products of broken homes, where parents and grandparents struggled to provide a life and an education for their children. In Carter’s case, the Carter family may have been well off compared to its neighbors, but have you ever been to Plains, Ga.? I have and I tell you it is not a place where one grows up sheltered from the rest of the world.
Contrast that with the upbringings of the Bushes, or Mitt Romney. In all cases children of wealth and privilege. That’s not to say they might not have worked hard along the way or did not struggle to succeed in their own pursuits, but it is to say that they had advantages the others did not have and it is doubtful they experienced the kind of struggles of Obama, Clinton, et al.
I think you can even carry this further back: Lyndon Johnson might have ended up wealthy, but he didn’t start out that way. If you ever get the chance, travel to Johnson City, Texas to see where he began life.
Some may want to argue and suggest the backgrounds of Ronald Reagan or Dwight Eisenhower, or the privilege of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy invalidate my premise — which I realize I haven’t quite articulated yet — but as we go forward I’ll address that.
So just what is the premise?
That our leaders who have experienced real struggles just to exist on a day-to-day basis are much more inclined to understand, appreciate and try to solve the real struggles that most of us face on a day-to-day basis.
Which bills to we pay? How are we going to finagle healthy meals and a warm shelter? What do to if a significant, unexpected expense, e.g. major illness, natural disaster, etc., comes along?
How are we going to make life better for our children and their children?
There are many stories illustrating how recent Republican leaders have been out of touch with day-to-day life, characterized best by several Romney moments in the last presidential election. (My favorite was Romney’s suggestion that struggling college students just ask their parents for money.) There’s also the somewhat apocryphal, if since debunked, story of Bush 41’s amazement at a grocery scanner.
It is clear from the Exodus accounts, and God’s strategy to get Pharaoh to let God’s people go, that in order to effect change, you have to get to the highest councils and counselors of the land. And they have to experience what the people are experiencing in order to make wise, correct decisions.
It would have been easy for Pharaoh to continue to ignore Moses’ pleas on behalf of the Hebrews if he had not had to deal with frogs, swat flies, cope with locusts and, finally, mourn his son’s death. It would have been easy for Pharaoh’s advisors to counsel him to resist if they had not faced the same calamities. It would have been easy for popular opinion to insist on keeping the slaves in place if “the people” had not struggled as well.
Of course it is better in the first place if you don’t have to change a leader’s mind to look out for the people, if they have their own experience of what most people face.
Which is why if you look at the Democratic children of privilege, e.g. FDR and JFK, you find in their stories many instances of being with and understanding more average folk. And as for Ike and Reagan, many of today’s more ardent and vocal Republicans label them “RINOs,” that is Republicans in Name Only, because some of their policies are so opposed by today’s GOP’s top dogs. (See gun control, government spending, military-industrial complex, etc.)
And these learnings, indeed instructions, from Exodus give us another example of what Karl Barth was talking about when he “advised young theologians ‘to take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.'”
Life, politics and leadership are inseparable from faith and the Bible. That does not mean we should not be careful about the intersection of the two, but it does mean that — individually — we should be instructed and led by our faith.
And that when we make choices about our leaders, we look closely at their own experiences and backgrounds to get a picture of what their decisions may mean for “the least of these.”
Grace and peace.