Embracing Strangers in a Foreign Land

Reflection for Sunday, 8/20

Pamela Butler, Obl. S.B.

 

Good morning!

In today’s reading from the Old Testament, we hear the story of Joseph, the youngest son of Jacob. He reconciles with his 11 brothers who’d sold him into slavery many years earlier because of the favoritism shown to him by their father. They sold him to the Ishmaelites who took him into Egypt. Thru several twists and turns of fate, Joseph works his way up the Egyptian socio-economic ladder to eventually become Governor of the land, second in power only to the King.

Years pass, when a severe famine strikes the people of Israel, leaving them starving. So, Jacob, who believes Joseph has died, sends his remaining sons into Egypt to purchase grain for their family. It is Joseph who’s now in charge of selling the grain. Overwhelmed with emotion, Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, grants them forgiveness and the family is reconciled.

But the story doesn’t end there. If you read beyond today’s passage, you’ll discover that, with the Lord’s blessing, Jacob and his remaining sons, together with their wives, children and grandchildren, decide to leave the famine-struck land of Canaan and “move-in” with their now wealthy and influential relative in Egypt. They grow large families and remain close to Joseph until his death. Here ends the Book of Genesis.

Continue reading into the first chapter of the Book of Exodus and you’ll find the descendants of Joseph and family are now facing a drastically different situation in Egypt. Forced into slavery, the Jews’ lives have become bitter in every way. Overseen by harsh and ruthless task-masters, they are compelled to hard service in brick and mortar projects and field work of every kind. One can’t help but stop and wonder, “What happened?”

While we don’t know how much time elapsed or what events occurred between the conclusion of Genesis and the beginning of Exodus, the Bible provides us with a brief clue. In Exodus Chapter 1, verses 8-10 we read:

Now a new king arose over Egypt, who knew nothing of Joseph. He said to his people: “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous…than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase. In the event of war, they may join our enemies and fight against us…”

So, what we know about the relationship between the Israelites and the Egyptians during the time of Exodus is this:

  • The Jews were foreigners living in an adopted country. They migrated there to escape hunger and destitution.
  • The Egyptians by this time had forgotten their shared history of prosperity with the Jews and the many contributions of Joseph and his family.
  • The Israelite population had grown to the point that the Egyptians now feared becoming minorities in their own land.
  • The Jews practiced a different religion, perhaps feared and frowned upon by the Egyptians.

From these facts, we can imagine the thoughts of the everyday Egyptians from this time. “The Jews are taking our jobs.” They’re robbing us of our resources.” “They’re bringing crime and disease.” “They distort our national identity.” “They’re terrorists conspiring with our enemies.” “They don’t pay taxes to the Pharaoh.” “This is NOT the Egypt we remember!!!”

Does this description of affairs sound uncomfortably familiar in our own day and age? What’s to be done? How does God wish us to treat those different from us who live in our midst?

The Bible is clear. Jesus said, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” Today’s Psalm 133 begins, “How good and pleasant it is when brethren live together in unity.” And in today’s gospel from Matthew, Jesus says, “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out…” Words have tremendous power to hurt or to heal.

As we’ve learned from as far back as the days of Exodus to as recently as last Saturday’s tragic events in Charlottesville, slavery, violence and oppression are not the answer to our differences. Love is.

This week, the Bishops of the Virginia Diocese issued a joint statement addressing these issues. Here are several excerpts: [click here for full text]

(Last) Saturday our hearts were broken…. The violence and loss of life suffered in (Charlottesville) signaled yet another escalation of the hate-filled divisions of our time.  The peace of a beautiful university town was shattered.  The images that some had of America were broken.

The echoes of the heartbreaking tragedy in Charlottesville will remain with us for a long time to come…Angry white supremacists…organizing to bring their ugly and racist rhetoric to other towns and cities…Angry resisters more than ready to meet their violence with violence.

It’s hard to imagine a time when the Church is more needed in the public square.  It’s hard to imagine a time when our need would be greater for God to take our broken hearts and break them open for wise, loving and faithful witness in Christ’s name.

As followers of Christ, we are admonished to heed God’s call to love our neighbors through prayer, through speaking out and (taking) concrete action for the sake of all, particularly the poor, the oppressed, the judged, the demonized.  That witness was on display last Saturday in Charlottesville. Such witness must continue.

We must be prepared to meet…challenges, not with violent confrontation, but by exemplifying the power of love made known in concrete action.

The bishops go on to make recommendations for things we can do in the face of those whose message is counter to Christ’s embracing love.

  1. Be clear about the issues. Make distinctions of the following kinds:
    • All individuals and groups in this country have a right to free speech. All have a right to their convictions and to speak those convictions publicly. Individuals and groups do not have a right to assault, attack or cause violence against anyone else based on their views – or for any reason.
    • The issue of removing Confederate monuments is a complex one with a number of legitimate points of view. Reasoned discussion and decision-making processes are called for. Using these points of view to justify violence is wrong and cannot be tolerated under any circumstances.
    • Many Americans lovingly cling to their heritage, which provides them with pride and identity. Some suggest that the white people who gathered to protest in Charlottesville were there to proclaim and protect Southern heritage. However, Nazi and fascist flags, symbols, salutes, slogans and uniforms are not and never have been part of the heritage and history of the American South. We as a nation suffered over a million American casualties in order to defeat the Nazi regime. We have been clear as a nation that the Nazi worldview is evil, and we must remain clear.
    • As Americans and as the Church, we believe that inclusion of all persons in our common life is central to our identity. We seek to welcome and include all people. We understand that there is a wide range of legitimate perspectives on the issues that are most important to us. We do not, however, welcome, include or legitimize all behaviors and all words. Some words and actions are simply not acceptable. We need to keep making distinctions about what behaviors and actions we will not tolerate.
      ..
  2. Write to your representatives in the Virginia General Assembly:
    • Urging them to enact legislation to track hate crimes in the Commonwealth. As it stands now, we do not have the tools we need as citizens to track what seems to be an escalation of violent acts and therefore to respond appropriately.
    • Urging the Legislature to form a task group, in the language of the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, “to propose how Virginia can create an environment that welcomes and offers opportunity to all people of color, Muslims, immigrants, women, LGB and poor white men.”
      .
  3. Create conversation groups in which you can get to know people from different backgrounds or with different political perspectives from your own. Talk to one another. Listen deeply to one another. We as a society have forgotten how to talk and listen openly. We in the Church can help rediscover the skills.
    .
  4. Pray.
    • For the civic and religious leaders of Charlottesville, for all citizens of Charlottesville, for all the people who live and work in the Charlottesville area.
    • For those who died in Charlottesville on Saturday: Heather Heyer, Lt. H. Jay Cullen, Trooper-Pilot Berke M.M. Bates, and for their families.
    • For all who were injured in violence in Charlottesville on Saturday.
    • For those with whom we disagree.
    • For peace in our nation and in the world.
      .
  5. Pray alone and in groups. Join in the prayers of those who pray from different traditions or styles from your own. Hearing the prayers of others can expand and deepen our own praying.
    ..
  6. Do a moral inventory of yourself. How do you feel about free speech? Are there limits? If so, where do they lie? What is not acceptable? What resonance do you have with exclusionary rhetoric either on the right or on the left? As Jesus said, take the log out of your own eye and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.
    ..
  7. White people, speak out against white supremacy. It is we white people who must speak to white supremacists to make clear that we do not agree with them, that they do not speak for the “white race.” Our silence will be heard as complicity.

(Here ends the bishops’ commentary).

We know how the story of the Israelites in Egypt ends. Let’s not wait for plagues to come down or the Sea to part a second time before we embrace our neighbors and make peace in our world.

Amen.