A Biblical Answer to America’s Racial Divide
Joseph, the 11th son of Jacob and first son of Jacob’s chosen wife Rachel, served God’s purpose in the history of His covenant-people Israel by living as Jacob’s favorite son, being the oppressed son (by his brothers), becoming the son of his father’s sorrows, having the help of God through it all, and inheriting the birthright.
In his life story, and the related stories of his brothers, recorded in Genesis 37, 39-48, 34, 49 and 50, I summarize here several noted lessons that address the racial divide in the United States.
1. Justice, Judgment, and Reconciliation God’s Way
When Joseph was seventeen, his ten brothers, motivated by envy and resentment, captured him, considered killing him, and ultimately sold him into slavery. They lied to their father, Jacob, leading him to believe that Joseph had been killed by a wild animal. In doing this, they conspired and carried out a great evil against their brother and father.
About twenty years later their sinful actions began to be uncovered when they went to Egypt to acquire food and unknowingly encountered Joseph, then Governor of the land. Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him. As the powerful ruler under Pharaoh, he could have dealt vengefully against them, but he did not. Analyzing his actions and what followed, we can see a pattern that discloses how God’s justice can work among humans who submit to him, and that justice can result in reconciliation between humans who have struggled with adversity in their relationships.
Considering Man’s Justice
Before we look into Joseph’s real actions, let’s consider what Joseph could have done as a human living in a humanly-governed world. Soon after he encountered his ten brothers, he could have confronted them for selling him into slavery, using his authority to impose a sentence on them – perhaps enslaving them, or even worse, punishing them ultimately to death.
In addition, he could have exposed their actions to their father Jacob, who could have imposed his own humanly-inspired penalty upon them for their evil against their brother and deceit of their father.
Neither of these occurred. Instead, Joseph, not feeling vengeful toward his brothers, took a different approach.
Without Hostility, Joseph Confronted His Brothers
Joseph’s actions toward his brothers involved no hostility. First, he kept his identity secret. He deliberately chose to act as if he did not know them, speaking to them through a translator, concealing his knowledge of their language. To put them on the defense so that he could wisely work with them, he accused them of being spies, although he knew that they weren’t. This went on for a while.
In the meantime, the brothers found that their efforts to acquire food resulted in some unforeseen outcomes; they received the food but were frustrated in the requirements imposed upon them, requirements that worked to remind them of their evil deeds in the past. Joseph’s careful and somewhat cagey method of confrontation worked with other conditions – notably Jacob’s demands – to force them to reconsider the guilt that increasingly haunted them.
Joseph Deferred Justice to God
He refrained from imposing judgment on them, and by doing so, left judgment to God. The narrative in Genesis does not say that Joseph was leaving vengeance to God for repayment, but in effect, that is what he did. Of course, God was fully aware of the evil actions of the ten brothers but seemed, at this point, to have withheld doing anything about them until that dreaded moment when the brothers became convinced that their sins had found them out.
Joseph Forgave His Brothers
At the moment that they were at his mercy, Joseph’s behavior showed no intent to repay his brothers for their actions, and he did not speak about them until they humbly brought them to his attention. His actions and words convey an attitude of forgiveness from his heart.
As a result of Joseph’s non-hostile, wisely-confrontational, non-judgmental, non-vengeful, and forgiving actions, as well as the circumstances explained in the story – circumstances that seem to be Providential – the ten brothers were convicted in their hearts of their evil actions and showed genuine remorse. When Joseph made plain his forgiveness, the family started a process that became full reconciliation.
2. Implications to American History and Current Events
I would like here to consider Joseph’s and his brother’s stories, with their lessons, in light of the history of human oppression in the United States of America by people of European origin against non-European peoples. This history is no secret, but it is usually seen by a majority of Americans as so far in the distant past that it is irrelevant today. Of course, a minority of Americans, descendants of those who were oppressed, insist that it is neither irrelevant nor confined to the distant past.
Confiscation of Land and Annihilation of its Inhabitants
The Bible does not mince words. In Genesis 49:5-6, we read “Simeon and Levi are brothers—their swords are weapons of violence. Let me not enter their council,
let me not join their assembly.” As written in Genesis 34:25-31, these two sons of Israel did evil when they annihilated a tribe and confiscated their possessions in response to a sexual crime against one of their women.
Even though these two men were the heirs of the land, and their violence was against those who God decreed were to be driven out, their actions were unjustifiable and excessively cruel. God, speaking through the Patriarch Jacob, reprimanded their actions and decreed a lasting legacy upon their descendants to remind them forever that ethnic cleansing and similar crimes have no place in God’s realm. Never should anyone think to take upon themselves such action in the name of God.
Can we see in the actions of Simeon and Levi the similarity to the treatment of Native Americans by the European settlers of America? So, what recourse is necessary?
Involuntary Enslavement and Legalized Oppression
The Bible is direct and straightforward, calling evil exactly what it is. In Genesis 50:17 we find the words “sins,” “wrongs,” and “treating… badly” admitted by the ten sons of Jacob against their brother Joseph in selling him into slavery. They were so stricken with guilt and fear of the consequences that they “came and threw themselves down before him. ‘We are your slaves,’ they said.” They seemed to think that justice would result in their enslavement.
Imagine the perpetrators of involuntary enslavement and similar crimes against humanity in our day responding with such trepidation and remorse! Can we see in this the similarity to treatment of African Americans, not only in the involuntary enslavement by European settlers of America, but by the hateful extensions of slavery by many of their descendants for generations afterward through Jim Crow laws, lynching, police brutality, and hate-motivated discrimination? Again, what recourse is necessary?
Discriminatory Oppression of Immigrants and Aliens
Immigrants to America from Ireland, Italy, Germany, and other European countries also experienced mistreatment and oppression. Asians and Jews found themselves the recipients of similar mistreatment, and so did immigrants from elsewhere. However, the treatment of these immigrants, improper and illegal as it was, was not as extensive, severe, and inhumane as the acts against the original inhabitants of the land and people of African descent mentioned above.
Because the United States of America began as a country of immigrants, and its laws were written specifically to address immigration as a national reality, it naturally was susceptible to the misunderstanding, suspicion, and paranoia that accompanies the introduction of aliens into a human culture. Throughout human history, every culture has exhibited this problem and still does.
The ancient Israelites experienced it when their population growth in Egypt transitioned them from a small immigrant tribe into a large alien community. Exodus 1:7-10 tells of the Egyptian reaction: “Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous.” When later they lived in their own homeland, The Statutes of God’s Law given to Moses reminded them to be careful about their treatment of aliens that they do not repeat the sins of Egypt: “Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt” (Exodus 22:21).
Despite the United States Constitution that made many such actions illegal, the nation fell short of observing this ancient Biblical injunction. Should recourse be ignored?
Of course, as could be cited, court decisions have addressed many of these wrongs, and over time, laws have changed to protect the rights of individuals of all races. Indeed, it is true; much has changed! So why is the United States divided along racial lines today? Why have not the centuries of attempts to address such problems caused them to become only the subject of history lessons?
The recent emergence of white supremacist groups from obscurity into open influence may hint at an underlying answer to the question about this nation’s lingering division. When at least part of a majority believes that it is superior to a minority, what motivation is there to consider equality? The question arises, how pervasive and deep seeded is the ideology of white superiority in 21st-Century America?
A Civil War was fought with unprecedented and unequaled national loss of life, and a Civil Rights movement forced extensive changes in national and state laws; nonetheless, current divisions prove that these national tribulations have not changed human hearts. In many ways, America today is still where Jacob’s sons were before they encountered Joseph as the Governor of Egypt.
3. The Effect on American Christianity
Members of American minority populations who have received the Gospel of Jesus Christ have wrestled with the implications of America’s sin to their faith. African Americans, rejecting discriminatory practices in established churches in the 18th and 19th centuries, formed their own churches and denominations that remain largely segregated to this day. There is little conflict between the churches; they exist autonomously alongside each other, almost as if to each other they scarcely exist. This separation, as well as similar involving Christians of Latino heritage, and, to a lesser extent, Asian heritage, results in divisions among Americans who otherwise share the same faith of Jesus. Many churches lament this Sunday-morning segregation, so why does it persist?
Christianity or What?
Christianity’s roots are in the Middle East, and it spread from there to Africa, Asia, and Europe within its first 100 years. About fourteen centuries later, it spread by colonial settlement to the New World of North, Central, and South America.
In the United States, in churches attended by members of the majority population, one of the strong features that distinguish them from those attended by minority populations is the element of intense patriotism. Not that minority church members are less patriotic; it simply is not as aligned with their faith. This patriotic element manifests itself in high regard for the national flag (not that minorities disregard the flag), the veneration of the military and law-enforcement agencies, being enamored with guns, and the elevation of parts of the Constitution to near-Scriptural status.
This element was not part of the first-Century Church or of its progeny throughout the world. It is unique to the United States of America, having evolved after settlement of Christians from Europe, taking on its own flavor in reflection of American culture and the innate belief in American exceptionalism. Of course, in every nation, churches are influenced by their culture and exhibit certain national or regional features. But I suggest that this feature of American Christianity stands out large and loud, and it negatively influences the appearance of Christianity to non-Christians both home and abroad.
Is it really Christianity with Jesus Christ at its center? Or, would it be more accurate to call it something like Christo-Americanism, a spiritual eccentric, the mixing of nationalism and patriotism with Jesus Christ? If so, it is a bad mixture, because Christianity is about Christ alone!
The Political Divide
In the predominant two-party system of American government, increasingly it is characterized as Left vs. Right and vice versa. But a close examination of recent national elections exposes a strong cleavage between the majority and minority Christian communities.
A large proportion of Evangelicals voted for Donald Trump for President in 2016, but not all Christians were in this camp – especially among minorities. Those who voted predominately Republican said that their stance against abortion, their concern about LGBTQ rights, the makeup of the Supreme Court, and political correctness lie at the heart of their political position. But other than the nomination of a conservative Supreme-Court Justice, President Trump’s first-year agenda has largely been economic – with his “America first” policies.
Many Christians have opposed his administration’s stance on immigration, healthcare, climate change, and racial issues. It seems that this presidency, more than those that preceded it, has highlighted, if not exacerbated, the growing gap between the two Christian camps.
From the beginning, the governing of the United States has been a well-conceived, competitive process designed to avoid the inequities of totalitarian governments. That is a good thing! It is not the differing viewpoints of competing political positions that I call out here; it is the division along moral, ethical, and humanitarian lines between those who claim to be followers of Jesus Christ. The divisive effect upon American Christianity flies in the face of the unity that Jesus specified for His followers. It is not the fact of this division that I cite; it is that the division is unacceptable in God’s sight. According to Jesus’ prayer, as explained in the book Echo of Jesus’ Prayer – in the Church and supported in the Blogs on this website, His followers are to be one with each other as He is one with the Father. Unity not only affects personal relationships that Jesus commands to be based on love, it also affects the viewpoints of non-Christians toward Jesus Himself as well as the Church. For details on these points, please read the book.
If as His followers we take His prayer seriously, we will sincerely consider reconciliation of these differences.
Resolution and Reconciliation
A large part of reconciliation needs to be along racial lines. To help, let’s return to the story of Joseph and his brothers as described above. The Israelite family was torn by the evil act of the ten brothers against Joseph – selling him into slavery and deceiving their father. As long as that act was unresolved, starting with the admission of guilt by the brothers, and proceeding to complete reconciliation, the family bore a huge scar, and the peace between the family members was jeopardized.
The same is true in American Christianity. The division, rooted in dysfunctional racial relations, not initiated by the Church but contracted like an infectious disease from colonial attitudes and perpetuated by systemic racism, now fully infects American politics, preventing unity and peace. How can this breach in the Church be healed, and what affect would such healing be upon the nation?
I propose that we look to the word of God for answers.
Some of this nation’s tensest times have been times of confrontation with racial issues. Violence has been the usual outcome. Accusations are met with denials. Intractable positions are taken. The Civil War erupted, nearly tearing apart the world’s first democracy. One hundred years later, the Civil Rights movement swept the South and major metropolitan areas, again tearing at the fabric of American society. Before these two major eruptions and between them, there were other confrontations, and it did not end in the 60s. One reason for the repetition of confrontations is the reluctance or refusal to admit wrongdoing, and consequently, the continuance and even invention of new wrongs.
Most recently, the Black Lives Matter movement arose to counteract police brutality against African Americans. Some answered with “All lives matter.” Yes, indeed all lives matter, but how does that response address the issue of racially-focused brutality, repeatedly caught on camera? Correct as it sounds, the phrase only serves to shout over the complaint, refusing to listen, thereby concocting another denial!
Jesus said, “if your brother sins against you, rebuke him.” Confrontation is essential, but it has never been well received. If there is to be progress, there must be admission of wrongdoing and remorse.
To the credit of the victims of oppression, the confrontations have not been the type of violent retaliations seen in other countries. There have been no coup attempts and no organized terrorism. The primary reason that confrontation has been vocal and non-violent is that minority victims of oppression still consider themselves citizens of the United States of America. They do not want to destroy this nation that they love, and they do not want to see the demise of their fellow American citizens. In that sense, the victims of oppression are a bit like Joseph, who saw himself as a son of Israel even after his rejection by his brothers.
Dr. Martin Luther King was like a prophet of confrontation to this nation, and the Civil-Rights movement that he led served as a national conscience, reminding us repeatedly of America’s failure to live up to its platitudes. As the prophets of ancient Israel were persecuted, so was he and those who served with him. So have prophetic voices since.
However, when we consider the lesson of Joseph, we see that he was extremely clever and discreet in his confrontation, hoping that it would produce favorable results. As Dr. King insisted on non-violent methods, so must confronters today. Riots, assaults, destruction of property, and violence against opposition are not effective means of confrontation.
Consider also Joseph’s patience. He did not hurry the outcome or become frustrated that the favorable result was not early forthcoming. He trusted in God to exercise justice and correct the wrongs, and his patience paid off. So must confrontation patiently persist today. Hearts are not easily or quickly reached, but God is on the side of the afflicted who trust in Him.
Retribution is the normal response of a human who has been wronged toward the wrongdoer. The “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” principle runs through not only many legal systems but through most human rationale. For that reason, Joseph’s brothers expected retribution from him, as Genesis 50:15 says: When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?” This seems to be the fear and dread of some if not many people of European descent as they see the non-European population of the United States steadily increasing toward an inevitable majority; they expect racial retaliation.
They may be surprised to find that most members of minority racial groups have no such intentions. Joseph’s brothers asked him to forgive them, saying: “Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father” (Genesis 50:17). His answer gave them tremendous relief as he reassured them and spoke kindly to them (Genesis 50:21).
Not only did Joseph forgive them but so did their father Jacob. In his prophetic pronouncements of their future, although he mentioned some of their serious sins in the context of consequences, he did not mention their act against their brother and their lies to him. This family had gone through wrenching experiences that could have destroyed their relationships, but these acts of forgiveness led to peace.
The same can apply in the Church in the United States, and if such peace settles upon the Church, “the salt of the earth” in Jesus’ words, the nation itself will be greatly helped toward racial reconciliation.
Some might object and insist on justice and retribution. I hope these objections do not come from followers of Jesus Christ. For them, forgiveness from the heart is required by the Lord (Matthew 18:35), who promised believers that retribution belonged to God (Romans 12:19).