This essay is adapted from a paper given at Science, Religion, and Culture’s 2015 conference, Ways of Knowing. You can find other contributions on theological approaches to the crisis economy here in our spring issue, and here and here in our winter issue.

Following the death of Freddie Gray, on April 19, 2015, protestors filled the streets of Baltimore and, in the ensuing weeks, hundreds of demonstrators were arrested as buildings were set on fire, vehicles were destroyed, and businesses were damaged and looted. Immediately the discourse of crisis flooded the media outlets, as it has during similar event before—in Ferguson, Missouri, the previous August, in Los Angeles in April 1992, in Detroit in 1967, and during the Watts Riot in LA 1960. The term used to circumscribe various events, reactions, political and social motivations is “situation,” so that the “situation in Baltimore” encompasses and isolates whatever occurs within the city limits (which served also as the boundary for the declared state of emergency). In this way, news reporters, talking heads, and political leaders can tidily refer to “the situation” without further discussing the web of context from which “the situation” is inextricable. Stripped of context, a situation develops only from the events of the last few weeks, and actions have no catalyst other than within the period of crisis demarcated by the media. News commentators and politicians are then fully justified in describing the destruction of property and looting of businesses as “senseless,” “wanton,” and “barbaric.” In the thin slice of time and events of a “crisis situation,” none of the destructive actions of protestors is warrantable or logical.

Opposing voices, by contrast, those who argue the rationality of damage and looting, invariably seek to incorporate events within the context of years and centuries, refusing to isolate “the situation” to the city limits or the past week. One self-described purveyor of “raw, unadulterated truth,” Ms. Carmen CaBoom of YouTube fame, justifies the Baltimore looting in this way:

A lot of people had a problem with the looting—I didn’t have a problem with the looting because let’s be honest, America owes a lot of us black people—they owe us. And a lot of people might say, “Oh, nobody owes you nothing.” Bullshit. We are owed reparations. So a lot of us have to get it however we fucking get it. And, I can’t fault [the looters] for that. . . . this young generation, that’s out here looting, I salute them. Because they are showing their strength, they’re showing that they are willing to go out here and stand up to injustices. And however they want to do it, I’m okay with it. I’m okay with it, I’m not gonna oppose it. And I don’t care who doesn’t like it. . . . We are owed reparations. We need to be made whole. And these young people who are out here looting, they have nothing to lose, so what can you do to a person [who] has nothing to lose? . . . a lot of these people are walking around half dead anyway. They’re not living, they’re just existing. So you can’t do them any harm, if you put a bullet in them. You cannot do them any harm. This is a group of people who have nothing to lose. You have not set up a system for them. You have brought them into this society to fail.

Immediately apparent in Carmen CaBoom’s assessment of the Baltimore riots is her contextualization of the riots within the history of African slaves in America and the failures of Restoration, Segregation, and Integration to bring social, economic, and political equity to African American communities. Carmen CaBoom does not refer to a “situation” but a “system,” drawing her listeners’ attention to a larger apparatus at work within which the looting of the rioters is not an aberration, an illogical abnormality, but the logical end product of the machine of America.

Nevertheless, equating the spoils of looting to reparations for slavery and oppression is a bridge too far even for many who believe in the absolute right of African Americans to claim reparations from the US Government. But Carmen CaBoom is in good company. Centuries earlier, the Church Fathers used exactly the same logic in their interpretation and justification of Yahweh and his divine sanctioning of looting.

The story in question, which caused no small embarrassment to the Church Fathers, comes from Genesis and Exodus. When, in Genesis 15, Yahweh makes his covenant with Abram, he foretells the enslavement of the Israelites—but he also promises their escape and victory over their masters. Additionally, Yahweh highlights the eventual economic triumph of the Israelites over the Egyptians:

Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for four hundred years; but I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. (Genesis 15:13-14)

 

When the Israelites “ask” of the Egyptians, the verb in the Hebrew, sha-al, more likely means in context “to borrow.” The Israelites asked to borrow what they knew they would keep.

 

This prophecy unfolds after four hundred years of Israelite enslavement and suffering. When instructing Moses regarding his mission to Pharaoh, Yahweh again explicitly underlines the material goods promised to the Israelites:

I will bring this people into such favor with the Egyptians that, when you go, you will not go empty handed; each woman shall ask her neighbor and any woman living in the neighbor’s house for jewelry of silver and of gold, and clothing, and you shall put them on your sons and on your daughters; and so you shall plunder the Egyptians. (Exodus 3:21-22)

Immediately before the last and most devastating of the ten plagues, the Israelites obey Moses’ divine instruction, in Exodus 12:

The Israelites had done as Moses told them; they had asked the Egyptians for jewelry of silver and gold, and for clothing, and the Lord had given the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they let them have what they asked. And so they plundered the Egyptians. (Exodus 12:35-36)

Although the Israelites do not forcibly seize the Egyptians’ possessions, as the looters in Baltimore did, the use of “plunder” and “spoiling” derives from their deception of the Egyptians. When the Israelites “ask” of the Egyptians, the verb in the Hebrew, sha-al, more likely means in context “to borrow,” so that the Israelites asked to borrow what they knew they would keep. Certainly most Hellenistic, Rabbinic, and patristic interpreters inferred that deception took place, and this became the scandal Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Origen, among others, found themselves excusing.

The controversy in the second to fourth centuries reportedly sprung from Gnostic Marcionite interpreters, who charged that any god who would instruct a people to plunder their neighbors, through use of deception, was demonic. The emphasis on material gain further supported the Gnostic identification of Yahweh as the Demiurge, creator of the lesser and inferior material world.

Against this charge, the Church Fathers used several strategies of apologia. The first and most common justification of the spolatio was the argument that this “plunder” was the recovery of wages for the four hundred years that the Israelites labored as slaves in Egypt. Tertullian further argued that the plunder of gold and silver was not even close to full reparation, and he invited his readers to perform some mathematical calculations:

. . . the amount of that gold and silver, it is not adequate for compensation, if the labor of six hundred thousand men through all those years is priced at one penny a day (singulis nummis) each. [1]

And even if monetarily the plunder could compensate for unpaid wages, Tertullian tacks on at the end of his argument that this loot would still be too little to repay the Israelites:

And at the time of the exodus [God] provisioned his own people with some slight indemnification, a payment of damages not described as such. And clearly he told them to exact too little: the Egyptians ought to have given back to the Hebrews their male children as well. [2]

Compare this with the following statement made by Clarence J. Munford, Black Studies professor and proponent of reparations to African Americans,

The fundamental validation of the claim to reparations of African-Americans and every other Black person in the western hemisphere, lies in the Atlantic slave trade and chattel slavery. This enslavement imposed on our ancestors by white civilization entitles us to compensation. . . Africa got nothing worthwhile or healthy for its lost children whose labor was indispensable for the plantations and mines which were for such a long time the unique source of extracting the great wealth of vast regions of the Americas. . . This history of grossly unequal ‘exchange’ has left Black Africa and Diaspora Blacks the chief creditors of the white world. It would denude the United States of most of its ill-gotten wealth were it ever to repay Africa even a fraction of the debt, let alone the settlement due to this country’s African-descended citizens. (p.421)

In speaking of just compensation for unpaid wages, Munford utilizes the same logic and mathematics as Tertullian: reparations for labor are due, and even were they paid, the material compensation for unpaid labor could actually never repay the economic wealth earned on the backs of slaves over hundreds of years. By Munford’s calculations, like Tertullians, whatever is gained by looting is a pittance:

Black ‘felons’ in America who infringe white property are merely recovering values stolen from us as an oppressed and enslaved people. In an individualistic and usually unsuccessful manner, they are merely recovering surplus value created by the unpaid forced labor of their enslaved ancestors, capital assets, technologies and services for which we have never been reimbursed. (p. 414)

Set side by side, the overarching narratives of the Israelite enslavement in Egypt and the African American experience in America are strikingly similar. Of course, African American theology and church tradition has long adopted the Israelite story of enslavement and exodus as the chief biblical analogy for black enslavement and struggle. As the year 2019 approaches, so does the 400th anniversary of the first record of African slavery in North America, marking, in parallel to the Israelite enslavement in Egypt, four hundred years of slavery and economic and social marginalization.

 

Set side by side, the overarching narratives of the Israelite enslavement in Egypt and the African American experience in America are strikingly similar.

 

For Tertullian and Munford—and Carmen CaBoom—the crisis at hand, “the situation,” cannot be isolated. The departure of the Israelites after the descent of the Angel of Death upon the Egyptians and the riots following the police killing of black civilians are in their view, not isolated events to be judged as a self-contained unit. Rather, the crises in these narratives serve as an apocalyptic horizon at which judgment for an entire nexus of elements and centuries of history is due. With the arithmetizing of history, the calculation of hours worked, injuries suffered, interest due, crisis becomes the equation line at the bottom of a long column of sums.

The legal calculation of debt in both Imperial Rome and Imperial America, relies on a contractual agreement, with the deadline of repayment set by the lender. (Incidentally, in early Roman law, if a debtor could not repay his debts, the lender could not only throw him in prison but, after sixty days, subject the debtor to capital punishment or “sell him across the Tiber,” that is, sell him as a slave—in a strange inverse of the slavery and reparations logic.) Israelite and African enslavement, of course, followed no contractual agreement, or at least not with the slaves. Once freed, recourse to compensation without contractual agreement comes only through crisis.

This is not to say that other methods had not been tried by either the Israelites or African Americans. Moses and Pharaoh agreed multiple times about the release of the Israelites, only to have Pharaoh renege. Similarly, in 1915, Cornelius J. Jones sued the United States government for sixty-eight million dollars for former slaves, arguing that the government had prospered so much from the cotton tax through the cotton gathered by slave labor. The federal courts admitted that a debt did indeed exist—but the case was dismissed because the federal appeals court ruled that the United States could not be sued without its consent (i.e. because of federal sovereign immunity, rex non potest peccare).

For both Israelities and African Americans, crisis serves to force a deadline of repayment where no contract exists, without which suffering and prosperity through unanswered debt can continue in perpetuity. Crisis offers an eschatology, manifesting Revelation’s opening of books and the record of the Book of Life in present time. A counterpoint justification to the logic of arithmetic takes crisis not as a totalizing moment of judgment but as a quality of time in which no morality need operate. This rests on the principle that “all’s fair in love and war.” Thus Clement of Alexandria (Stromata 1.23.157.2-4) recasts the exodus narrative as a time of war so that “they were justified in carrying off their enemy’s property by law of conquest, stronger over weaker . . . The Egyptians enslaved the foreigners and forced them into service just like prisoners of war.” [3] Carmen CaBoom echoes Clement from across the centuries when she justifies looting in a time of police brutality.

Again, rather than isolate crisis as a “situation,” both the Church Fathers and African American voices insist on crisis as contextual, cumulative, and all-encompassing. By Clement and Carmen CaBoom’s arguments, the principle of “all’s fair in love and war” cuts both ways: nothing in the status quo is fair, therefore, the Israelites and African Americans operate in a perpetual state of war in which plunder is fully justified.

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And yet, with the spoils of plunder, both the Israelites and African Americans head into the wilderness—and the promised land—with the debt of the past seized and yet largely unrecovered.

 

And yet we might still raise significant objections to these justifications for looting, both for the third and the twenty-first centuries. Inferring from the emphasis found in Tertullian, and other Church Fathers, that the Israelites stole from the rich of Egypt, the Gnostic critics condemned the Israelites for, in reality, taking from the poor in Egypt. The Gnostics read this fact in the biblical text: in Genesis, Hebrew men and women were instructed to ask of (plunder from) their neighbors. We can assume that those neighbors would have lived beside the Hebrews in the slave ghettos—in other words, these fellow slaves benefited the very least from the years of Israelite slave labor. In exactly the same way, a closer examination of the riots in Baltimore and Los Angeles show that the majority of stores damaged, destroyed, and plundered belonged to working class minorities, especially Asians, in the inner city. This complication of the reparations argument should not surprise us: who could the Israelites and African American rioters loot except those without protection, those similarly marginalized and without recourse to walls and gates, security and insurance?

However, even keeping this criticism in mind, those who most vociferously denounce the destruction, violence, and despoiling of poor neighborhoods do so myopically. The Gnostics, as far as we can tell, did not recognize the founding narrative of the Israelite nation—the story of their enslavement and victory. They cared about making a theological claim about the nature of God and the universe. So also, those who claim that African American looting discredits any cause proclaimed by activists and protesters have a priori dismissed the fact of systemic violence and socio-economic oppression. They hold fast to an abstract political value that they are unwilling to set aside in order to recognize the validity of claims such as the one made by CaBoom. The potential for resolution for either century is elusive. Joel S. Allen, who literally wrote the book on The Despoliation of the Egyptians, concludes that there is no “cohesive solution” to be found in the history of interpretation of the spolatio. We could say the same current events.

These political and social crises—whether the plunder of Egypt by Israelites or the looting by African-Americans in Baltimore—have apocalyptic desires within them. In the Bible, the violence, upheaval, and destruction of the apocalypse mete out judgment against the oppressors and usher in a New Creation in which the slaves are delivered from bondage. The New Jerusalem, the New Age, the New Zion promise the eradication of the past. And yet, with the spoils of plunder, both the Israelites and African Americans head into the wilderness—and the promised land—with the debt of the past seized and yet largely unrecovered.

While times of crisis serve to underline and account for the sum of the past, its apocalyptic promise is always a disappointment. And yet our need for a narrative conclusion in the unbearable reality of eternal inconclusiveness demands repetitive crisis to satisfy our cravings for justice and finality. Although not all struggle for reparation and restoration is futile, the discourse of crisis functions so fluidly in all directions that it serves as a poor foundation for justice.


Yii-Jan Lin is Assistant Professor of New Testament at the Pacific School of Religion. Her current research analyzes the relationship between New Testament textual criticism and the biological sciences, beginning in the 18th century. In her forthcoming book, The Erotic Life of Manuscripts (Oxford), she explores how the metaphors of race, family, evolution, and genetic inheritance have shaped the goals and assumptions of the field. Other research areas include gender, especially ancient constructions of masculinity, sexuality, and literary theory.

[1] Tertullian, Against Marcion 2.20.3; quoted in and translation by Joel S. Allen, The Despoliation of Egypt in Pre-Rabbinic, Rabbinic and Patristic Traditions (Leiden: Brill, 2008), 200.

[2] Ibid., 2.20.4; quoted in and translation by Allen, 200-201.

[3] Clement, Stromata 1.23.157.4; cited by Allen, 262.

Image of 1965 Watts riots via Wikipedia.

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