“Which is better, the slavery you know or the freedom you don’t?” I asked a group of 10th graders. It was a risky question for a lot of reasons, one being that I didn’t know these students yet. My teacher friend asked me to come in to his Hebrew Scripture class for a day.
“We are out of Egypt,” he told me, “but not yet to the Promised Land.” I said yes immediately for a lot of reasons, one being that I love the muck in the middle. It’s the part of the Exodus story where the Israelites are free from slavery, but not experiencing the joy of being home yet. The wilderness is uncomfortable, unknown and overwhelmingly expansive. Where is the next meal coming from? When will we get there? Will we die wandering? Is it worth it? When I asked this question of the students, I wasn’t sure they’d have opinions. Had they lived enough life to understand freedom and slavery? And would they be willing to share these moments with me?
They had, and they were.
It became clear to me very quickly that these students may not know slavery like the Israelites in Egypt. They may not know wandering in the freedom of the wilderness for forty years. However, they do understand limitations and wandering. They understand the freedom that looks like running from something, and they understand the freedom of running toward something.
“It’s like coming to high school,” one student said. “That first day of high school, man, it’s so scary I wanted to go right back to middle school where I knew the place. I knew high school was going to be better eventually, but that first taste of something bigger was rough.” Like the Israelites that wanted to go back to Egypt after the vastness and unknown of the wilderness, he was wiling to revert to middle school just to be in a familiar place.
Another admitted, “When my friends started getting their licenses, we had harder choices to make. One night when a friend picked me up, some of the others were drinking in the back seat. I decided to turn around and go back in my house. I know it was the right thing, but sitting alone that night felt like the wilderness. It was lonely. It wasn’t fun. I don’t want to get caught up in all that, but there are consequences for choosing the other path. It takes so long in high school to find new friends.”
And a third articulated, “I feel enslaved by social media sometimes. You’re supposed to be a certain person on your page. Your pictures have to show you being happy and popular. It feels like a part of me is trapped and can’t come out.”
The students had been working with clips from Birmingham, Alabama during the Civil Rights Movement as a more modern-day example. Hoses, dogs, tear gas, verbal spewing: freedom isn’t always fun. It’s not always as neat and tidy as the status quo and bad rules that limit us all. Freedom is worth fighting for, but there’s no guarantee that the Promised Land is right around the corner. And the wilderness makes no promises.
I love the Exodus story for so many reasons, one being that there are so many themes that are so very human and still speak to us today. We get used to limits. We choose comfort and the known over real, vast, scary freedom. We, like the Israelites, start complaining and want more signs as soon as we get a little free. My question for the 10th graders is a question for us all, “Which is better, the slavery you know or the freedom you don’t?”