On Friday night, Leroy and I saw the new film “Glass Castle.” The reviews have been so-so, but we like Woody Harrelson and the trailer intrigued us. It’s based on the childhood of Jeanette Walls, a former gossip reporter and writer for MSNBC. Walls was raised in poverty within a spectacularly dysfunctional family. Her father was brilliant, creative, alcoholic and abusive. Her mother was an artist who enabled her husband and generally neglected her four children. Jeanette and her sisters and brother basically took care of themselves and protected each other from their father’s drunken rages. Their primary goal in life was to get out of the house, alive, as soon as they could. As an adult, Jeanette essentially disowned her parents as a way to cope with her past and to succeed with her career and marriage. The movie ends (and I promise is not a spoiler) with questions about family relationships and reconciliation when there has been deep, sustained hurt. I left the movie not entirely satisfied with how that was resolved in the movie and I wondered how true it was to life. I guess I should read the book and see if the end is any different.
The story of Joseph is not about an abusive father but about scheming, treacherous brothers who commit the ultimate treason: selling their own into slavery. After years of separation during which Joseph ironically prospered while his brothers suffered from famine, they were brought together. By now Joseph had risen to fame and fortune and power in Egypt. His gift of interpreting dreams had endeared him to the Pharaoh. There is no way to adequately express the surprise and terror his eleven brothers must have felt when they realized the man before them as they begged for food was the boy they had sold to slave traders. With one word he could have sent them off to be tortured and killed. Instead, the words of today’s text are an emotionally powerful description of reconciliation. Confusion and shock and fear and shame were followed by weeping, kissing, and the assurance that Joseph would take care of the brothers and their father throughout the remainder of the famine. It’s an amazing and moving story. And like the ending of the film Glass Castle, I’m not entirely satisfied with how it ends. I can’t say “I guess I need to read the book to see if it ends any differently,” but I’ve seen the stage production a few times, and it is pretty much the same!
Twenty-some years ago, I was a member of the men’s movement called Promise Keepers. It’s a bit awkward and embarrassing to admit that now, but at the time it seemed like a good group to belong to. I wanted to be a good husband and father, and while I’m not a football fan, I love being in big stadiums filled with cheering crowds. One of my favorite cartoons shows two collared clergy sitting in a stadium filled with screaming fans spilling beer while one says to the other, “I hate the game, but I just like to be where people are excited about something.” I probably felt the same, especially when I joined forty-thousand other pastors in Atlanta for a Promise Keepers clergy event. A major theme of that event in 1996 was racial reconciliation. I was moved to tears when black and white and Hispanic and Native American speakers spoke about the ways Christian leaders and followers have hurt one another because of racial differences. Their words were followed by acts of reconciliation and men washed one another’s feet and repented of the sin of racism.
I went home and told an African American colleague about this amazing experience of varied races coming together to embrace unity and love one another. He was not impressed. He asked me point blank: “What was said about racial justice?” And my honest answer was that basically nothing was said. Looking back, I tend to remember that event in Atlanta as an opportunity for about 39,000 white folk, meaning white men folk, to feel good about themselves and believe that they had conquered race barriers and crossed bridges through their Christian faith. We were not challenged to confront and dismantle the systems that continue to oppress the poor and by default people of color within our nation. We were not urged to acknowledge white privilege and find ways to level fields of opportunity. Instead, we held hands and joined in our theme song which said,
“Let us be a holy nation
Where pride and prejudice shall cease
Let us speak the truth in love
To the lost and least of these
And let serve the Lord in unity so others will believe."
If converting people to Christian faith and simply achieving unity is the goal of our pronouncements about race, it will never be enough apart from the hard work of assuring justice for all.
My problem with the story of Joseph and his brothers isn’t about the reconciliation that occurred. It’s the apparent absence of what we would call today “restorative justice.” The goal of such justice is in reconciliation, but it does not negate or ignore the harm that has been done. The offender takes responsibility for his or her acts and works in concert with the victim to make whatever amends are possible. It is not sweeping hurt under the rug. It is shining light on it and finding ways to transform injustice as the perpetrator and victim work together.
When our president tweeted last Saturday about coming together in unity, many did not consider that message complete without acknowledging the specific evil of white supremacy. In other words, we can’t just ignore what divides and harms us. The uproar was loud and clear and elicited the needed condemnation of white nationalist groups on Monday. But that was essentially retracted within a day, and we are left with happy supremacists on one side and other citizens on the other, wondering how far back we will turn the clock on their rights. It’s a good thing to urge unity, but only when it is a unity committed to liberty and justice for all.
In the days when the Bible was written, the natural world was understood as a means by which God conveyed messages. Joshua described the sun as standing still in the sky as a battle was fought and the people were victorious due to the lengthened hours of the day. The message they saw in the sun was that God was on their side. Both the Old and New Testaments talk about the sun turning to darkness and the the moon to blood as a sign of God’s coming judgment. I wonder what the writers of scripture would say about tomorrow’s total solar eclipse? What meaning would they attach to it, coming so soon after the unrest in our country or the threats of nuclear annihilation which keep reverberating around the world. I have heard and read so many words of prophetic judgment in the past week from Christians, some of which I agree with wholeheartedly and some of which I reject. Even our president’s spiritual advisors are divided. Who is right? In the end, I have to come down on the side of love and believe that God is always on the side of what lifts up and affirms the value of all persons. I don’t believe that eclipses are a sign from heaven, but I can see the blotting out of the sun’s light and its reemergence as a vivid picture in the sky of Martin Luther King Jr.s’ well-known words: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
The story of Joseph and his brother appears near the end of Genesis. Eventually, the family went from a place of prominence in Egypt thanks to Joseph to a life of servitude as successive generations were enslaved by a new Pharaoh. Moses led the people from captivity across the Red Sea and forty years later to the Jordan River. Canaan was on the other side, and as the people crossed over, Joshua told leaders of the twelve tribes to take rocks from the river bed and pile them up as a monument to their freedom. Immediately afterward, they began a campaign of genocide, starting with Jericho and moving on to the other cities of Canaan as they claimed the land of milk and honey as their own. That is a case of a monument being erected prior to death and devastation. In our own country, monuments were built after 620,000 Americans died while either protecting the Confederacy and its support of slavery or else opposing it. Many of the monuments put up as a means of intimidating black during the days reconstruction and Jim Crow. While I personally think they should go as a form of restorative justice, we do have to remember our history, all of it, so
we don’t keep repeating it as we seem to be doing now.
Yesterday evening, United Church of Christ General Minister John Dorhauer, reflected on his experience in Boston earlier in the day as he joined the counter-protest there:
“By the time our march reached the Boston Commons all twenty of [the supposed free speech advocates] had been removed without incident or harm. Their vile speech, a contrast both in content and impact on the public narrative, was silenced. Their collective impotence was on full display while 15,000 strong justice advocates rang down through every corridor of this city. The young black women and Latina women who led the march through the streets were powerful, strong, courageous voices. They made me proud to be their follower through the streets. Residents watched us, chanted in support with us, held their children and let them witness this display of love, peace and courage. They were hanging out windows, standing on rooftops, front porches and front steps. They sang with us, they hugged us, they clapped for us, and they cried in front of us. The city expressed what this whole nation is now rising up to say: hate has had its day. We choose love.”
At the end of the day, Joseph chose love as he held all of the power of Egypt in his hands and could have destroyed those who betrayed and nearly destroyed him. He welcomed them and calmed their fears. Maybe there is more to the story and there was also some form of justice mingled with the acts of reconciliation. Regardless, Joseph knew that his family relationships were to be valued and restored at all costs. We are part of a human family that stretches around this globe and also included every member of this nation that we love. Our relationships with one another cross differences of race and economics and geography and gender and belief and more. Those relationships are to be valued and restored at all costs. May we be those who initiate reconciliation, knowing that the reconciliation of all people can only happen when there is justice for all. Amen.