By Laurel Dykstra
Now you know and I know, that lice, mice, roaches, bed-bugs, and rats are no respecters of persons. They invade the house of Pharaoh, the houses of his officials, and of all his people (Exod 8:21, 10:6); they infest the luxury hotels and the welfare hotels. But when the special shampoo costs eight dollars a bottle, and a visit from the exterminator $125, those that can—pay, and those that can’t, or whose landlord won’t—scratch.
We fill in the rat holes, stand the bed legs in tin cans, comb the kids’ hair, and if times are tough, we skim bitty baby roaches off the top of the water when the noodles sink to the bottom. Skip the milk and butter, you can mix the powdered cheese with water. But still we resist.
From my home in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, the most notorious and pathologized neighborhood in Canada, bugs and rodents are what I think of when I read about the plagues in Egypt; bugs, rodents, HIV, Hepatitis, addiction, child apprehension, and the murder of aboriginal women.
The narrative portion of Exodus tells the story of God acting with the enslaved Hebrews for their liberation, and the Egyptian empire’s prolonged refusal to release them. Culminating with the passover (Sunday’s assigned lection) the plague narratives, Exodus 7-12, relate in detail an epic battle between opposing deities, leaders, cosmologies, and political realities. In this contest, water, sky, plants, animals, and the Egyptians themselves are battlefield, ammunition, and target. The engagement takes the form of an escalating series of interactions, which follow a repeating pattern:
God instructs Moses, with or without his brother Aaron, to go to Pharaoh demanding the Hebrews’ release and threatening some environmental sign. Pharaoh refuses, either directly or by inaction, and the threatened hail, bugs, or sickness comes. Pharaoh summons Moses, asks for intercession, and negotiates Israel’s release. When the sign is removed, Pharaoh reneges, his heart hardened, and the sequence begins again.
While I think the most accurate way for white North Americans to read Exodus is from the perspective of “the functionaries in Pharaoh’s court, living in the Downtown Eastside I cannot identify absolutely with the power and privilege of empire. My race, language, education, and nation, place me clearly in Egypt. But I am also a Queer, low-income, woman, raising children in a notorious neighborhood, attending to my own family’s joys and struggles, and trying to live in solidarity with my neighbors. These alliances, and experiences place me among the Egyptian members of the mixed multitude (erev rav) who went out and were birthed with the Hebrews from Egypt (Exod 12:38). The erev rav, from which we get the word riff raff, are only mentioned once, but the biblical text is clear that Egyptians took part in the exodus. Although it requires the exercise of some biblical imagination I identify with these allies, rejects, and defectors and read from the perspective of the riff raff.
Here with rats and roaches in the heart of decaying empire, my experience, and that of my neighbors, is much like that of the ordinary Egyptians pummeled by plague after plague. In small acts of community resistance, we are like those Egyptians who called out, “Do you not yet understand that Egypt is ruined?” (Exod 10:7). The powerful and wealthy in our city, protected in condos and gated communities, while private security guards patrol what used to be public space, are like Pharaoh who returned to his palace with a hardened heart.
Brazilian theologian Ivone Gebara describes her neighborhood, which has much in common with mine, thus: “[t]he ecofeminist issue is born of the lack of municipal garbage collection, of the multiplication of rats, cockroaches, and mosquitos, and of the sores on children’s skin.” Her words could be taken for a short version of the plague narratives.
Reading Exodus 7–12 with an ecofeminist awareness that attends to gender, economics, and the environment, the almost complete absence of women and underclass Egyptians is glaring. Gods and leaders struggle and display their power, while the land and the least powerful people are pummeled or rendered invisible. Reading the Downtown Eastside in light of the text, it becomes clear that real estate developers, law enforcement, social service agencies, transnational corporations, drug lords, and politicians are the forces displaying their power, and that our neighbors themselves are the battleground for these struggles, at least as much as the street corners, alleys, hotel rooms, and vacant lots.
But while these powers and principalities threaten and posture, the riff raff—women, drug users, welfare recipients, working poor, aboriginal people, people with AIDS, and more privileged allies—are living out a story of resistance which both echoes and challenges the biblical text. This “lived reading” of the Exodus counters the pious elitism of the P narrative. It also avoids the liberation tradition’s imperative for divine violence by reading sickness, vermin, and pollution, not as God’s punishment, but as signs.
African American Hebrew Bible scholar, Randall Bailey points out that the language of “signs and wonders” comes from the P narrative of piety and power, while “plagues” are associated with the liberation tradition. But in my neighborhood the meanings are reversed. In an age of HIV, when individual sin has been sexualized and structural sin ignored, to call the diseases and troubles of our neighborhood “plagues” is to uphold the agenda of the pious and the powerful. I call them signs, indicators of our culture’s fractured relationship with creation and the mundane consequences of political and economic decisions. Beside these signs of empire’s failure, I also see signs of hope and resistance.
When Vancouver won the bid to host the 2010 Winter Olympics, a coalition of community groups organized a homegrown popular theatre event to protest the vast resources channeled by our city and province toward the Olympic spectacle. Our Poverty Olympics became an annual event that increased in popularity as local residents were evicted to make way for tourists, hidden costs of the games were discovered, and promises of housing, community improvements and environmental sustainability were repeatedly broken. As Cree activist Robert Bonner put it, “spending $178 million for a skating oval isn’t very impressive when you’re sleeping in a doorway.”
During the weeks before the “official” games, the Poverty Olympics stole the international media spotlight. An online video showcasing the soup kitchens and hotel rooms of our “athletes” was seen widely, a giant torch in a garbage can was pushed on a hospital gurney through nearby cities, and neighborhood residents and anti-poverty activists spoke in newscasts all over the world. Under the slogan “End Poverty—It’s Not a Game,” athletes competed in bootstraps high jump, welfare hurdles, and a popular event where children—representing justice, community, and solidarity—wrestled (adult) real estate speculators to the ground. The province received a gold medal for the highest child poverty rate in the nation.
Like the Olympics, we had our own mascots, Chewy the Rat, Itchy the Bedbug, and Creepy the Cockroach, chosen because they represent “what many low income people, especially people who live in residential hotels and rooming houses, have to deal with every day.” The mascots, costumed in discarded bike helmets, recycled vinyl, and thrift store fun fur, marched in the streets and spoke at rallies demanding an end to homelessness and poverty. According to their designers, “Itchy, Creepy, and Chewy all show that we need better housing in BC, housing that our governments could afford to build with some of their massive surpluses.”
During our opening ceremonies Robert Boner explained how the Poverty Olympics are a sign of hope and resistance beyond our community. “[T]ake note, people around the world are watching you. There is a movement growing here and around the world for justice. You know when regular folks like us start making bedbug costumes and organizing a province wide Poverty Olympics torch relay that something really important is happening!”
By creating the Poverty Olympic mascots, my neighbors have taken what others see as plagues—God’s punishment, and indicators of our helplessness and degradation—and made those into signs of resistance and liberation. As with the signs in Egypt, these signs are a protest against storing up surplus wealth and grandiose building projects that serve the elite. In the neighborhood we find laughter, education, and solidarity in the signs we have created. Those more aligned with the courts of Pharaoh view the signs with unease; they are not a threat, but perhaps a promise, that condo walls and security gates are no protection against Itchy the Bed Bug, the riff raff, and the justice we demand.
Wild Lectionary is a weekly blog on ecological justice themes in scripture, curated by Laurel Dykstra, gathering priest of Salal + Cedar, Coast Salish Territory.