Oppression is a Narrow Space

Heliconia standleyi (Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden, Papaikou, HI)


Just before the start of Passover I called David*, a friend who has been hosting beautiful, magnificent Seders for his friends since he was a teen.

“Tell me something you’ll be bringing up tonight?”

“Well…there’s the frog,” he said. “Do you know about the frog?”

“Sure, I know about the frogs! Second plague!”

“Not frogs-sss,” he said, drawing out the sss. “In the text it’s actually frog-gh. Singular. One frog that descended on Egypt. At least, that’s what Rabbi Akiva thought.”

“One frog?” “One really big frog.”

“Whoa.” I said. “They could be doing a much better job with that in the movies.”

  * * * * *

Judaism is not my tradition, but Passover has never failed to inspire me—thanks in no small part to people like David, who understand the Exodus story as a call to fight inequality and oppression in every place and every era.

“Ok,” I said, “I dig the One Big Frog idea. Now tell me something I can really meditate on? It’s been a tough stretch since my father’s death. I could use some inspiration.”

“How about this: do you know the root of the Hebrew word for Egypt?”

Of course I didn’t. What I do know is that the Hebrew language is based on a relatively small number of roots that take on different shades of meanings as they emerge in various words. By understanding the roots you can see intricate relationships among words and concepts that may not be evident at first.

“Egypt is Mitzraim,” he explained. “Strip it down, and you’ve got tzarar, which means “to bind.” As a noun, it becomes something like “affliction.” As an adjective, it means “narrow.”

So the word for Egypt, Mitzraim, conveys this sense that oppression is a narrow space. Liberation, in other words, is like moving from a narrow space into an open one.”

“It’s like the process of birth.” I suggested.

“You could go there,” David replied.

“Of course I’m going there. I’m five months pregnant.”

 * * * * *

Oppression is a narrow space.

I’ve been meditating on that idea all week, even as the drama over Indiana’s Restoration of Religious Freedoms Act (RFRA) peaked, ending in hasty amendments whose implications are unclear.

As originally proposed, the law would have let Indiana businesses and corporations use religious freedom as a defense against claims of illegal discrimination. Of course, existing State and Federal law would prevent businesses from refusing to serve or hire African Americans or Jews or women “on religious grounds.” But LGBTQ individuals have no similar protections—not in Indiana at least—and, in my opinion, it seems obvious who the bill was targeting. The law would have passed in that form, had it not been for a fierce national boycott action that even threatened Indiana’s ties to the NCAA.

As the debate raged, what surprised me most was how much attention there was to wedding cakes. The “wedding cake effect” owes in part to a couple of recent, high-profile lawsuits against bakeries that refused to sell wedding cakes to same-sex couples. (Maybe after the big gains on same-sex marriage, straight America imagines the only challenge left to LGBTQ folk is how to throw the reception?) But even among critics of the law, the wedding cake scenario often seemed to define the issue.

And seriously: if the big issue were really “freedom of conscience for small business owners” versus the “right to your choice of wedding cake”, the Indiana law might start to look reasonable.

What we’re seeing is the legacy of the closet. Until very recently, LGBTQ people have not been free to speak openly about their lives, and many still put themselves at risk if they do. Because if you actually know this community’s stories, you know that wedding cakes are the least of it. You know how often LGBTQ individuals are shut out of housing by bigoted landlords…refused spots for their kids in day care…asked alarming questions in job interviews…refused employment for inscrutable reasons…relentlessly harassed on the job…denied medical services…treated in degrading ways by medical professionals…

That’s just to name forms of discrimination and degradation that the proposed law would have directly protected.

Even with the bakeries, there’s so much more at stake than wedding cake. When groups of people can legally be excluded from routine business and commerce, they inevitably appear to be less than full citizens.

What of the fact that gay men and lesbians aren’t always “obvious”? Under the law that almost passed, there’s be a subtle pressure to self-identify at every turn, just to ensure that your contracts and working relationships would be honored. (“Your Honor, I had no idea this woman was a lesbian at the time she ordered the cake. She looked so…natural!”) The sense of branding and intrusion could be pervasive.

The debate around RFRA rightfully focused on issues of law. How could the law have been drafted more fairly? What’s the right balance of rights? In the end, the only real question is whether or not we make our nation a more narrow space.

None of these kinds of discrimination I’ve been talking about ever widens the space of religious freedoms. All they do is narrow the space of dignity and equality for LGBTQ people.

  * * * * *

A follow-up call to David revealed that this year’s Seder was, as usual, a smashing success.

The One Big Frog story drew a lot of laughter and Godzilla jokes.

There were vows to continue the struggle to ensure that #Blacklivesmatter.

There were tears of sadness for the students killed in Nigeria.

And there were tears of joy over David’s recent marriage to the man he’s loved for many years. It was, I hear, a shining Passover moment.

Meanwhile, I was home on base. Last Sunday, I celebrated Easter and felt my own spirit renewed. I wait eagerly for our next child to make the passage from a very constricted space to the wide-open promise of becoming exactly who this child is meant to be.

I enter this spring hoping fervently that all of us—gay or straight, believer or nonbeliever—come to realize that we are not diminished by the presence of others. We are only diminished by the narrowness of our hearts and the narrowness of the spaces we create.

There’s no way to flee Mitzraim anymore. No more Promised Lands left to occupy. There are only the places we live and love, and we are the ones who decide how narrow or wide open they will be.

Akaka Falls (Honomu, HI)