Rev. Don Beyers, Christ Church, Bolton
The following is available for download as a PDF file.
Is it just me or have you also sensed people are angrier today than ever before? I’ve noticed people are more aggressive in stores. Drivers seem to be more reckless than before. Social media, once considered digital space for people to meet, now serves as a forum for hate and a battleground for people to wage their ideological wars. While we Canadians may pride ourselves on our social civility and unity, we ought not to ignore the increasing violence in our own culture. Just the other day CBC radio had a report on the number of threats against members of our current government. Apparently our prime minister and the members of his cabinet have had more threats made against them than any previous government.
No doubt the pandemic is wearing on us all. Still, this isn’t the first time humanity has faced a pandemic and global crisis. We’ve been here before. Why are we so angry then?
One of the books I’ve read recently offers an interesting take on the current state of affairs. Manuel Castells, in his book Rupture: The Crisis of Liberal Democracy, suggests the political discord and social violence we experience today has long been in the making. Despite seemingly increased standards of living for many of us in the past two decades, vast numbers of women and men have been left behind and now face financial uncertainty. Their jobs gone and their communities devastated by years of neglect, many of these persons feel further dismayed by a political elite that appears to be less concerned about their own good. In turn, many of these persons lash out against other social groups, believing them to be responsible for their state in life. Simply put, Castells’ theory for why we see the rise of the far right today is precisely because of the alienation felt by certain groups. Unfortunately, as he notes, those feelings have given further rise to a rather bizarre state of political affairs across the world, and not just south of our border.
The recent polarisation, social and political discord, and Castells’ thoughts all came to my mind this week as I read our first lesson from Genesis. While I haven’t preached on the story of Joseph these past few weeks, the scene we hear of in today’s lesson is quite moving and I think apropos to our time. The story of Joseph is a message of generous love even in the face of adversity and despair.
Joseph, you might recall, was a beloved son. Envious of their brother, Joseph’s siblings plotted to cast him away from their father and to take what was his. Although the brothers considered killing Joseph, they decided to do otherwise and left him in a pit only to be captured and eventually led off to Egypt into a life of slavery and servitude.
Despite the injustice he encountered, Joseph remained faithful to God and received the gift of interpreting dreams and the ability to discern the hand of God in the world. As the story recalls, Joseph eventually wins the favour of the Egyptian ruler and rises to great power within Egypt. While Joseph easily could have let his new found fortune go to his head, he heeded God’s call to store up the abundance of Egypt’s crops in preparation for a great famine and to provide not only for the Egyptians, but for all God’s people, particularly his own tribe and family, even the family who left him for dead.
Today’s lesson of the Genesis story of Joseph relates to us one of the most deeply moving scenes in his story. Despite all that his brothers did to him, Joseph not only forgives them, he welcomes them and their families into his household and ensures they will not suffer the tragic fate of the famine. Joseph and his brothers embrace and remain together for many hours in conversation.
By the world’s standards, Joseph had every right to impose harsh punishment upon his brothers. He had every reason to be furious. Yet Joseph is able to see beyond his own suffering, beyond his brothers’ earlier violence against him, and extend forgiveness and love to them.
While I’m sure many would retort that Joseph was in a good position and the wounds of the past no longer inflicted him, I don’t believe that is the situation in this story. Rather, Joseph exemplifies tremendous virtue. Joseph’s actions can teach us a lot today, such as how not to abuse one’s authority and how to share the treasures and gifts given to us with those who are in need.
Although we may imagine ourselves as a deeply egalitarian society, the injustices we’ve witnessed over the past few months clearly show that not to be the case. I believe our society’s fundamental problems lie in our abuse of power and misuse of the treasures we receive. We grasp for power, for places of pride in society, all the while oppressing those who threaten our authority. And some in our society have amassed such wealth that their financial resources exceed the majority of those in the world. In one study, the world’s 2,153 billionaires have more than 60% of the world’s population. The same report illustrated how getting the richest one percent of society to even give a half percent more in taxes could create the investment needed for 117 million jobs in education and healthcare. Contrast that with Joseph’s story: what would’ve happened if Joseph decided not to share the treasures he and the Egyptian rulers stored up?
While I don’t always understand or appreciate the increased rage in our society, I wonder if much of it is driven by people’s perception of being left behind while a few prosper? Those feelings of despair are further inflamed by political leaders seeking their own self-aggrandisement.
The Judaeo-Christian message offers another approach to power and prosperity. Those in power are to use their authority for the good of all. Those who prosper are not to wield it over others, but to share their wealth and ensure the well-being of all God’s people, even when one lends to another. In fact, the scriptures are adamantly against usury, or the practice of charging burdensome interests rates on loans. Several Christian councils and teachings further condemned the practice, even as late as the 19th century. Yet go into some of the most impoverished neighbourhoods of the Greater Toronto Area and you will find payday loan companies who set extraordinary interest rates on loans to those most desperate for aid.
As Christians we have to deeply consider and reflect upon our own use and misuse of wealth and authority. While I realise few of us have great financial wealth, we still need to reflect on how we contribute to the wellbeing of those in our community. As we’ve heard so many times before, there are many in our community confronted with poverty and hunger on a daily basis. While we may not have much, we can certainly use our voices to advocate for support and against acts that oppress people. We can take practical steps to care and feed others, such as our community garden (if you haven’t had a chance to help, I encourage you to consider doing so.) And, if we’re financially able to do so, we can support organisations that care for the vulnerable.
Joseph exemplifies the virtues we are to strive to live: servant leadership, generous giving, and compassion and forgiveness even for those who have hurt us most. Perhaps we can exemplify these very virtues in our own life. Amen.