Joseph and the Way of Forgiveness, part 1

See: "Joseph and the Way of Forgiveness: Intro"
"Joseph and the Way of Forgiveness: Part 2"
"Joseph and the Way of Forgiveness: Part 3"

I come today to re-tell an old story – to look again at what it tells us about being human and being animal. Before I get into Joseph and his brothers, let me say that I think a lot about stories – how we need them, and what happens when we don’t have them. Stories tell us who we are and make us who we are: individually and collectively.

Shared stories make a people a people. “I” and “me” are made of narrative – as are “we” and “us.” In these polarized times, where division rives the land, we don’t have shared story about who we are.

This contrasts sharply with the decade I was born in: the 1950s. The 1950s were, in many ways, an awful time. Jim Crow segregation and the racist attitudes that went with it were virulent. Gender oppression was stifling. LGBTQ folk largely stayed in the closet for their own safety. Anti-Semitism was worse.

It was also a time of cohesion. Very low income inequality, very low political polarization, tremendous levels of emotionally stable civic participation – churches, PTAs, civic clubs and bowling leagues had sky-high memberships.

In the mid-1950s, 89 percent of the US population was white. Moreover, the white numerical and cultural dominance was the settled norm: from the 1910 through the 1960 census, the percent of the population that was white never got below 88.6% or above 89.8%. Today the Census bureau says 60% of the population is nonhispanic white – which is a big change. It’s projected to fall below 50% before 2050.

We had a story. It was, frankly, a racist story. The history of humanity as I learned it in grade school was a mostly-Western history of Europeans accumulating great ideas and innovations, from the Egyptians, through Athens, Magna Carta, the Age of Faith, the Renaissance, the printing press, Western science, and democracy with a free press, independent judiciary, and a bill of rights. In the rap battle of cultures, Europeans, it seemed, need only say, “Plato, Shakespeare, Newton” – and drop the mic.

The story – in the version it came down to me – did not ever say "white people are genetically superior," or "white people are God's favorite." But the story also provided no other explanation for why these "great ideas and innovations" did not appear in the pre-Colombian Americas, sub-Saharan Africa, or East Asia. We now have some available stories that do address how the dominance of Europeans came about: stories that elucidate how European ability -- and willingness -- to cruelly subjugate the globe were products of particular conditions. Jared Diamond points to geography: the uniquely temperate climate, availability of multiple domesticable grains and multiple domesticable animals which allowed for accumulation of wealth and the rise of cities, which became hubs of innovation as well as centers of communicable disease (and, eventually, immunities). Other conditions include unintended effects of the sort of power dynamic that happened to develop between a centralized Christian church and decentralized secular rulers, which led to the Crusades, which provided the template for conquest and colonization all over the world.

Stories that identify the conditions that made one group of people interested in and capable of world domination are rather complicated, and they aren’t t broadly or well known. A lot of the general populace clings to the old story, tacitly accepting that there must be something special about white people. Among scholars who have looked most closely into the question, there’s disagreement about how much weight is carried by each of the various conditions, and the folks that approve school textbooks are even farther from consensus on a new story to tell.

We definitely needed to drop the racist, patriarchal story. The thing is: now we don’t have a shared story, which means we don’t know who we are as a people. Without knowing who we are as a people, the sense of belonging grows thing. We have more loneliness, more distrust, more isolation, alienation, depression, suicide. We need stories.

I don’t know if the people of the US will ever again have a unifying story that tells us who we are as a people. Yet we can tap into the vein of shared stories and keep them alive, even if they aren’t the sort that tell us who we are. So we come to the story of Joseph – which ironically is a chapter in the origin myth of the Jewish people. It has been, for millennia, precisely a story telling a people who they were. And it has come to be a part of the cultural storehouse for Christians as well as Jews, and for black, Hispanic, and white Americans – and some indigenous folk as well. Less so for Asian Americans, but many of them have been willing to learn the stories central to the mainstream culture of the nation they have moved to -- just as this mainstream culture has been willing to learn (some would say, appropriate) some Asian stories. (Perhaps you saw the latest Mulan movie?)

In other words: telling and re-telling stories from the Torah helps in the maintenance of a common narrative vocabulary. This won't do much to keep us from fighting each other. After all, the European powers warring which each other for a millennium and a half after the fall of Rome, and the two sides in America's Civil War, shared a common narrative vocabulary. But things are even worse when there isn't a shared narrative vocabulary.

In this case, it’s a story about what we might call the Way of Forgiveness. That’s what Stephen Mitchell calls it in his imaginative retelling and expansion of the Joseph story titled: Joseph and the Way of Forgiveness.

There are many kinds and levels of forgiveness. You can say it – “I forgive you.” You can say it and not mean it. You can say it and mean it, but still have not fully done it because a part of your heart continues to harbor a resentment.

Also, you can mean it, but never say it. Or neither say it, nor mean it, but nevertheless let go of your grievance – release all the resentment. Felicia Sanders, the mother of one of the nine victims killed by Dylann Roof in a Charleston church in 2015, told Roof, "I forgive you." I have no reason to doubt that she meant it. I just know that there are some times when forgiveness hasn’t actually happened just by being said – even when it’s meant.

The Way of Forgiveness though isn’t about the necessary and sufficient conditions for a single act or utterance to qualify as truly forgiving someone. The Way of Forgiveness is about a whole approach to life that isn’t about blaming – that isn’t about identifying specific wrongs and healing from them. Such identifying and healing might sometimes be necessary, but that's not what we see happen in the Joseph story.

Joseph never says, “I forgive you.” When his brothers come to beg his forgiveness -- which they don't do until after Jacob's death leaves them feeling vulnerable -- Joseph says to them:
"Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” (Gen 50: 19-21)
He reassures them he won't be seeking punishment or revenge, but doesn't say he forgives them. His own brothers were close to killing him. They sold him into slavery instead because, by a fluke, the opportunity to do so happened to arise. Joseph would seem to have a lot to forgive. But Joseph sees life as working out for the best – as under a divine plan. All things happen as they should, so there’s never a grudge, and never a need for a specific process of releasing the grudge. How does that work? And how does Joseph's story tell us something that will help us make sense of our world? I’ll look into that in part 2.

See: "Joseph and the Way of Forgiveness: Intro"
"Joseph and the Way of Forgiveness: Part 2"
"Joseph and the Way of Forgiveness: Part 3"

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