Who Are the Pharaohs, Caesars, & Abu-Jahls of Today? -- An Introduction

 Introduction by Rabbi Arthur Waskow

This brief essay introduces five reports on what we consider  major "pharaohs" of the 21st century: Global corporations in the four arenas of Big Coal, Big Oil, Big Banking, and the Big Military-Industrial Complex, plus a report on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has drawn on massive amounts of money from all thse corporate pharaohs to become a domineering force on its own. These five reports are by Basia Yoffe, a volunteer researcher who responded to a request from The Shalom Center, and they were edited by Marc Gave, program coordinator on The Shalom Center's staff. You can access all these reports by clicking to our "Globalization & Economic Justice " section here.

First of all, what does it mean to ask this question: "Who are the Pharaohs, Caesars, & Abu-Jahls of Today?" 

It stems from the world crisis we are living through, a crisis in which arrogant centers of top-down, pyramidal power are bringing social and ecological disasters on the world in much the way—according to the great archetypal stories of our great traditions—ancient Pharaoh, Caesar, and Abu-Jahl did.

In these formative stories,  all these power centers fell or were transformed by grassroots communal energy that responded to Power-over and Control-over that ran-amok—not by restoring older forms but by shaping new forms of community.

And in all the stories, it was the power of the Unity that interbreathes all beings in the world that brought success to freedom and community.

In Judaism, and by inheritance in Christianity and Islam, this archetypal tale of arrogance and resistance centers on Pharaoh. His stubborn tyranny over human beings brings him into collision with the Earth itself, and a series of “plagues” results in the liberation of part of the society he rules. The archetypal tale credits YHWH, the sacred unity of the world, perhaps the Breath of Life, perhaps the deep root of all change and becoming, with the victory over subjugation and pyramidal power.

In the crisis brought upon the biblical Jewish community by the Roman Empire, both those Jews who created Rabbinic Judaism and those who created Christianity drew deeply on the story of the Exodus in responding to Caesar. The archetypal tales in the Gospels of nonviolent resistance to Rome, carried forth especially during the week of Passover, crest with the Passover Seder that gives rise to Holy Communion, and with the death that becomes a victory, a Resurrection.

In Islam, stories of Moses and the Exodus take up about one-fifth of the Quran, and the story of the prophet Muhammad echoes it. In Muslim tradition, a brutal and tyrannical member of the Meccan power elite, Abu-Jahl, was one of the bitterest enemies of the nascent Islam—a pharaonic figure. Muhammad was forced to leave Mecca, as Moses had fled Egypt, only to return in triumph with the help of God, as Moses had, and lead the new community to become a transformative force in and beyond Arabia—as Moses had led the ancient Israelites.

(For essays on how Rabbinic Judaism, early Christianity, the Quran, and Black churches in America drew on the Exodus tradition, see the book by Rabbi Phyllis Berman and me, FREEDOM JOURNEYS (Jewish Lights). It is available through The Shalom Center's "Shouk Shalom:" Click on the "Buy Books" banner on the left-hand column of this page.)

In all these cases, part of the tasks of liberation and community-building was locating and resisting the source of oppression.

And that is a part of our task today.

At this point in the 21st century, great global corporations are even more powerful and even less responsible to public governance than governments are themselves. Indeed, the wealth and power of corporations are so great that often they turn governments into sheepish doers of their bidding.

So The Shalom Center commissioned Basia Yoffe and Nossen Yoffe to examine great global corporations in four sectors of the world economy, to understand the bases and the uses of their power: Big Oil, Big Coal, Big Banking, and Big Military-Industrial Complex. (Nossen has focused on Big Banking.)

After these four, Ms. Yoffe looks at one power center that has become crucial in the politics of the United States, and therefore of the planet: the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

We commissioned this report to be available in time for Palm Sunday, Passover, and Holy Week of 2011. We encourage all who celebrate these festivals of freedom and all whose sacred texts and ethical wisdom care for the process of liberation and community-building to integrate this knowledge into their efforts to make a world of fuller freedom.

—Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Director, The Shalom Center