Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Shiphrah and Puah and Miep

When I first heard about the Stockholm Syndrome, I thought it might describe the stresses of a Swedish elementary school.

In fact, the term refers to a 1973 bank robbery in Stockholm in which hostages became emotionally attached to their captors and defended them after nearly a week in captivity. The syndrome, described by psychiatrist Nils Bejerot, was cited a year later when heiress Patty Hearst, after being kidnapped, bound and raped by the Symbionese Liberation Army, changed her name to Tanya and blithely joined the band of hippy cutthroats.

Maybe that’s not exactly what’s happening in the fifth grade, but I can remember instances when my teacher seemed more like a subjugator than an educator.

Mrs. Seymour was not the best teacher in the Morrisville-Eaton school district, but she was the strictest disciplinarian. Her morning roll calls hummed so quietly that we could hear the muffled chaos in adjoining class rooms. Mrs. Seymour kept order by using her hand as a weapon of mass destruction. She believed in corporal punishment and she could slap kids silly.

She had two favorite targets: an African American girl and a boy with huge ears. The girl usually caught the teacher’s hand when she turned from a whispered conversation with the girl behind her and the sharp slapping sound made the hair stand on our heads.

I would hear the girl sobbing as Mrs. Seymour walked away but I was afraid to turn around and look at her. She was the only child of color in the room, so it wasn’t hard to discern Mrs. Seymour’s problem with her. I don’t know what bothered her about the big-eared boy. Maybe she thought he was funny looking. She would slap him without warning and he would look stunned, protecting his cheek with his elbow.

Of course I knew it was abusive behavior but I never mentioned it to anyone, not even Dad, who was a teacher in the same building. At 11, I thought nasty teachers were a rare but unavoidable fact of childhood and I did my best to keep conflict to a minimum. I made a tactical decision never to associate with the weeping girl or the stunned boy. Mrs. Seymour was nice to most of the other children in the class. Long before we knew what the Stockholm Syndrome was, I greedily accepted her affection and occasional hugs.

It’s not a happy memory and it’s not even an unusual experience. Most of us had toughening moments on the Serengetis of our playgrounds and we try not to remember the details. We learned very early how difficult it is to stand up to abusers and bullies.

That's what makes it all the more remarkable when we discover people who have the courage to take that stand. Judged by the behavioral standards of the Genesis patriarchs, two characters introduced in the first chapter of Exodus are exceptional:

The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, "When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live." But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. Exodus 1:15-17.

It’s impossible to exaggerate the courage of these two women, and equally difficult to emulate it.

Shiphrah and Puah were members of an oppressed class whose daily survival depended on their ability to stay out of the way, avoid attracting attention and do what they were told. Pharaoh, the undisputed monarch of a vast empire, was worried that the enslaved but prolific Jews would soon outnumber his army. He decided to thin their ranks by killing the boy babies. It’s unclear if he gave the order to other midwives, or how many of them decided to get along by going along and smothered the babies between their mothers’ legs. But we do know that Shiphrah and Puah defied Pharaoh and let the boy babies live.

They lied to Pharaoh and told him the Hebrew women delivered their babies before they could get to them, and Pharaoh, a unique blend of ruthlessness and dumbness, let them go. But Shiphrah and Puah had no reason to count on official stupidity to protect them. When they defied Pharaoh, they expected to die. They chose to die rather than carry out an order they knew was wrong. Their survival was an unexpected miracle.

It’s a little surprising that Shiphrah and Puah are such minor characters in our Sunday school lessons. Their courage and faithfulness transcends all whose stories were told in Genesis, and sets the stage for the dramatic events that will follow in Exodus.

They are pivotal figures whose roles were noted but not fully acknowledged by the writers of Exodus, who were of course male. With a little more insight, Exodus would have opened with the lines, “Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not notice Shiphrah and Puah, lowly Hebrew women who would soon outsmart him and ignite the long fuse to revolution.”

Shiphrah and Puah set the gold standard for defending the powerless against bullies and tyrants. Almost all of us get a chance to take stands similar to theirs, even if on a smaller scale. All of us would like to think we would have their courage to stand up for others. But when you look at the history of the world, you quickly realize how rare were Shiphrah and Puah.

During the Holocaust, the Gestapo offered small rewards to citizens who turned in hiding Jews: a bottle of schnapps, a bag of sugar, a carton of cigarettes and occasionally a handful of deutschmarks. It doesn’t add up to 50 pieces of silver, but to many trying to survive in the stark deprivation of wartime, it was temptation enough.

Tens of thousands willingly followed orders comparable to Pharaoh’s command to kill Jewish baby boys. Those who reported Jews to the Gestapo received minor gratuities, but if they had failed to do so they could be shot or dragged outside their houses and hanged. Thousands who followed the model of Shiphrah and Puah to save Jews from certain death paid with their own lives.

We know some of the names of those who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. Miep Gies (pictured above), who died at 101 in January 2010, is the woman who hid Anne Frank, her family and friends in an unused room over an office building in Amsterdam. It was Gies who rescued Anne Frank’s diary when the family was betrayed and arrested in August 1944. Anne’s father, Otto, the sole survivor, published the diary in 1947.

Gies, who would have been summarily executed if police had known of her complicity in hiding the Franks, believed it was worth the risk. Television interviews reveal a woman with a distinctly non-heroic demeanor. She was small and soft-spoken and her ability to disappear into a crowd may have helped save her life. It was only in a figurative sense that she stood tall, like Shiphrah and Puah.

Toward the end of her long life, Gies wrote, “I stand at the end of the long, long line of good Dutch people who did what I did or more – much more - during those dark and terrible times years ago, but always like yesterday in the hearts of those of us who bear witness. Never a day goes by that I do not think of what happened then.”

Persons who stood in that long line of good people were Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat who saved an estimated 90,000 Jews in Hungary by granting Swedish passports, setting up safe-houses, and distributing food and medical supplies. Jan Karski was smuggled into the Jewish Ghetto in Warsaw and reported what was happening to President Roosevelt and other world leaders.

Too, Cardinal Archbishop of Lwow (Count Andreas Szeptycki) ordered that the clergy reporting to him act to save Jews. Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, a founder of the Polish resistance, organized an underground organization comprised mostly of Catholics to save Jews.

It’s no coincidence that so many of the righteous gentiles who risked their lives for their fellow human beings were Christians.

One of the remarkable phenomena to emerge during the period was the Confessing Church, a reaction to the pro-Nazi German Christian Movement that embraced Martin Luther’s anti-Semitic statements and de-emphasized the Old Testament.

When Hitler embraced the movement, the Confessing Church arose and declared the Nazis to be heretical. Some of the leaders of the Confessing Church, such as Martin Niemöller or Heinrich Grüber, were sent to concentration camps. While Grüber and Niemöller survived, not all did: Dietrich Bonhoeffer was sent first to Tegel Prison, then to Buchenwald concentration camp, and finally to Flossenbürg concentration camp, where he was hanged.

Throughout history there have been Shiphrahs and Puahs who have risked their lives to stand as a barrier between the powerful and the weak. And, like Shiphrah and Puah, “they feared God; they did not do as the King … commanded them” (Exodus 1:17). They recognized an authority far above the powers and principalities of perfumed Pharaohs and ranting dictators.

Pharaoh’s power was dazzling and limitless. The Nazis were evil on a scale that drains the imagination. They were all archetypal bullies against which all other bullies pale.

Usually, the forces we are called to confront are not as awesome. Racist fifth grade teachers. Homophobes who shout “God hates fags” at soldiers’ funerals. Islamaphobes who think Muslims are the enemy and yell vile threats at Muslim children. Xenophobes who think 11 million undocumented people living in the U.S. should be arrested, deported, or deprived of basic protections under the law. Ecclesiophobes who hate the churches for accepting and welcoming everyone – everyone – into the fellowship of Christ.

We often encounter individuals or groups who don’t believe God loves everyone, or that Jesus accepts everyone. What do we do when we hear these people say hateful, bullying or merely ignorant things about the people they don’t understand?
My approach is to be passive-aggressive. Not wishing to get involved, I listen silently and politely to the rants of ignoramuses. But I write nasty blogs about them later.

The lesson of Shiphrah and Puah is that we have to take a stand when evil is afoot. And the lesson of the Gospel is that we don’t have to keep silent about it. God has given us the authority to speak out.

Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." And Jesus answered him, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. (Matthew 16:16-20)

Jesus (in the non-apostolic view) is not addressing Peter alone.  He is addressing all who confess him. Jesus calls you and me individually, and all of us together, to be the bedrock on which the church is built. And along with that comes the keys to the kingdom, the authority – and the responsibility – to speak God’s truth.

Shiphrah and Puah took a courageous stand to speak God’s truth in action, even if it meant their lives. Jesus bids us to take similar stands. Because he has anointed us

to bring good news to the poor … proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18).

Whenever tyrants or bullies or ignoramuses bid us to do evil, or to stand aside silently while they taunt and threaten the weak and powerless, Shiphrah and Puah have shown us the way. And Christ gives us the authority and, God willing, the courage to act.

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