Pr16A Blessed are the woke

Exodus 1:8-2:10
Romans 12:1-8
Matthew 16:13-20


“A new Pharaoh arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.”  Exodus 1:8

About 400 years before the new Pharaoh arose,[1] Joseph had been kidnapped, transported to Egypt, and sold into slavery. (Gen. 37) He survived enslavement, false accusation and unjust imprisonment and became a manager in the Pharaoh’s household. Anticipating a world-wide famine, he prepared ahead by warehousing food and grain. Later, he saved Egyptians from starvation by selling the food and grain.  When the famine was over, thanks to Joseph, Pharaoh was rich, owning all of the goods and land in Egypt as his personal property.  (Gen. 47)

The new Pharaoh who arose 400 years later did not know the truth about where his wealth came from.

For us, 400 years ago was 1619 when the first enslaved Africans were brought to an English colony in the Americas. We do not know much about the 20 people in that first ship. We know a bit more about their descendants – how they lived and died, what they suffered and endured but we do not know what that has to do with us now, 400 years later.

It has everything to do with us now.

  • The enslavement of those Africans and their descendants made American capitalism a success.[2] Africans enslaved in America were tortured and threatened with torture to increase the amount of cotton they harvested. That cotton was what built the United States into the second greatest industrial economy in the world by 1840.[3]
  • After “Emancipation,” private vigilante violence alongside state and federal policies (g., segregated public housing, racially exclusionary zoning laws, racially discriminatory FHA appraisal standards, judicial tolerance of restrictive property covenants) systematically prevented African Americans nationwide from accessing the wealth-building and educational opportunities available to white people.[4] And the wealth black persons did acquire could be plundered without out consequence. Think Tulsa in 1921 or Rosewood in 1923 or the federal interstate highway system which isolated and destroyed black neighborhoods.
  • Racial discrimination in housing was finally outlawed in 1968. As if in response, in the 1980’s the “War on Drugs” was used to label people of color as “criminals”, giving new life to legal discrimination in employment, housing, education, public benefits, jury duty service and voting rights – all used by an increasingly militarized, government-funded policing industry to manage Black persons and communities. [5]

White Americans do not know these things. They learn a version of history which hides these truths. White supremacy is a system designed to keep white Americans asleep and ignorant of the ways in which it has moved our history, shaped our nation and perpetuated white privilege, power and protection.[6] Coming to learn the truth is, as they say, becoming “woke.”

The new Pharaoh was not woke. In the gospel, Peter looked beyond the accepted history and its traditions and gained a new insight into who Jesus was.  Peter was becoming woke.  And Jesus said, blessed are the woke.


Photo by Trisha Downing on Unsplash

[1] Exodus 1-18: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, William H.C.Propp. The Anchor Yale Bible, Yale University Press, (New York & London, 1999) 135-136.

[2] The Half Has Never Been Told, Edward E. Baptist (Basic Books, New York, 2016) at 421.

[3] The Half Has Never Been Told at 413.

[4] The Color of Law, Richard Rothstein (Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2017) at 215-217.

[5] The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander (The New Press, New York 2010 & 2020.)

[6] Me and White Supremacy, Layla Saad (Sourcebooks, Naperville, IL. 2020).