In the wake of the eruption of white supremacist protests in Charlottesville, and on the last night of our vacation, my brothers and I sat down for Eucharist. We had no idea that the Sunday lectionary would so perfectly speak to the situation we have been facing into as a nation.
With tears in our eyes, we read about the jealousy, fear, and hatred that led Joseph’s brothers to sell him into slavery. And from Paul, we heard one of his many reminders of our common humanity: “there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.”
As we discussed these readings, some very human and very familiar dynamics began to rise to the surface. It was his brothers’ fear and jealousy that led them first to cast Joseph into a pit to starve and then to sell him into slavery. At each point in the story these men not only made peace with evil, but negotiated with it in order to attempt to wash their hands of wrongdoing. Each compromise was a further acquiescence to the darkness inside them.
I have heard it said of Joseph’s slavery that while his brothers may have intended it for evil, God intended it for good. I don’t know about all that. It seems to me that the real miracle in this story isn’t that, in the end, Joseph saves the Israelites from famine. It’s that, despite everything, he is able not only to forgive but truly to love those brothers who sent him off to die in bondage.
This is the hard call of gospel life for all of us in this moment: to make no peace with evil and, at the same time, to recognize the deep pain that haunts the lives of those who choose evil.
White supremacy enslaves every single person in this country. That is not to say that my emotional bondage is comparable to chattel slavery or to the systematic commodification of black and brown people. But it is to say that to the extent I am wed to my so-called superiority as a white person, I am not free. It is also to say that to the extent I am wed to my hatred and fear of those who bow down to the altar of whiteness, I am not free.
Paul continues in Romans:
But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”
It seems to me that Paul was able to bring the good news of God in Christ because he had first suffered that good news in his own life. He knew the pain and the cost of conversion, and so his entire life could tell the story. The same is true of Joseph, who took evil onto his flesh and allowed God to transform it into love.
We are called to do the same: not to fight evil, but to allow God to transform it in and through our lives. And then to go out, and allow that love to radiate the story of God’s redeeming and reconciling work.
For each of us this journey will look different. I only know how I do it, and that’s mostly through allowing God to break my heart open again and again and again. Charlottesville has broken my heart yet again. The fear and the hatred and the jealousy of my white brothers and sisters breaks my heart. The memory of all my black brothers and sisters who died in chains breaks my heart. The knowledge that people I know and love could be stopped and killed because of a traffic violation breaks my heart. And the knowledge that so many, many people, of every skin color, lead lives of desperation and anxiety breaks my heart.
It may seem strange to say it, but only a broken heart can love. And only a broken heart can pray. May God give us such broken hearts. May God transform the evil that oppresses us into a love that unites us.
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