I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. -- Gen.45:4b-5
I woke up thinking about this story of Joseph, and here it is in today's readings! I was remembering how our previous pastor's wife appreciated the fact that God had taken something so terrible as Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers, and had turned it into something so good. At the time, when she said this, our church was going through a very painful division over the issue of homosexual partnerships. Lines were being drawn. Hurtful words were said by people on both sides. As we moved towards separation, we could only hope that out of our pain God would create something good.
In the story of Joseph, there is separation, relationships are broken, and in the end, there is reconciliation. Joseph abused his position as the favored son and claimed superiority over his brothers. His brothers, angry at his self-righteousness, wanted to knock him down a peg or two. They put him down as far as they could. Literally: they left him in a pit in the ground. Many years later, when they meet again, Joseph is again in a position of superiority. He has the ability to take his revenge on his brothers, and continue the cycle of oppression. But he doesn't. He reaches out to help them. Perhaps he has recognized his own role in what happened. He seems to have forgiven them already. Though he tests his brothers repeatedly, he also takes great care of them, and in the end, embraces them all.
I read about Joseph yesterday in Miroslav Volv's "Exclusion & Embrace" (which is probably what made me recall that memory this morning). In his book, Volv describes a four-step process that must take place in order to move from exclusion to reconciliation. These steps are: repentance, forgiveness, openness to the other, and forgetting. He uses the story of Joseph to illustrate this movement, and in particular what he means by "forgetting".
As Volv points out it is a strange kind of forgetting. For Joseph, upon first seeing his brothers after so many years, is forced to remember the suffering his brothers caused. He subtly reminds them of it, too. Yet Joseph has also chosen to put those painful memories in the background. We know he has done this because he made a memorial to the past by naming his son Manasseh -- "one who causes to be forgotten". Manasseh's presence recalls the memories while at the same time uplifting the need to forget them. Joseph is able to embrace his brothers only because he chooses to forget the pain of the past, to put it behind him. If the painful memories had been kept in the forefront, there would have been no reconciliation. (p.131-9)
I am still sorting through my feelings about the past division in our church. The process towards reconciliation has been slow, much slower than I expected. I make movements that I recognize as progress, as being generous towards those who left. But, I wonder, would I be able to embrace the ones who left if we met in person? I'm not sure if I am there yet. Perhaps that is because painful memories keep getting in the way. Not only my own memories, but the memories of others who have stayed with the church. Our memories are wrapped up together.
It is important to remember. We learn and grow from the lessons of the past. But it is also important to forget. As Volv writes, "We remember what matters to us and forget what does not; and only what we remember can matter to us whereas what we forget cannot." (p.132) We are always selective about our memories, consciously or unconsciously. Perhaps forgetting can be a matter of will, in addition to a matter of time.
Dear Lord, you said "I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more." For which I am grateful. Please grant me the ability to do the same, so that I may one day embrace, as brothers and sisters again, all who see things so differently from me.