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.