What do we do about people who hurt us? There are a lot of factors at play when we attempt to answer such a question, and truly how we answer it depends on our particular circumstances. Our lectionary this past Sunday attempted to provide responses to two such scenarios—how to process and move forward after a hurt has already taken place, and how to respond to a hurt as it is currently happening to us.
'Joseph said to his brothers, "I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?" But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence.
Then Joseph said to his brothers, "Come closer to me." And they came closer. He said, "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. For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, 'Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay. You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children's children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. I will provide for you there--since there are five more years of famine to come--so that you and your household, and all that you have, will not come to poverty.'"
And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.'
--Genesis 43: 3-11, 15
Let’s start with the first scenario, which we find in the story from Genesis about Joseph. You remember Joseph, Jacob’s son with that amazing technicolor dreamcoat?
Actually, the Bible only says it was a coat with long sleeves, not one of many colors, but that’s a topic for another blog post!
Joseph’s 11 brothers were homicidally jealous of Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams and his high favor with his father, so they sold him into slavery. If anyone had a right to bear a grudge, it was Joseph. Years later, as Joseph finds himself in the court of Pharaoh, he is reunited with his brothers when a famine strikes the land. We almost expect him to enslave or imprison them as the consequence of reaping what they sow. How many of us would blame him? Yet when given the choice to act out of vengeance, Joseph instead chooses to feed his brothers and ensures their survival (and that of the 12 Tribes of Israel). He kisses them and weeps over them, and it seems the hurt has been forgiven. But how?
In Joseph’s case, he had years to process the incredible pain of being forced into slavery. Day after day he must have wrestled with it. Over time, though, Joseph comes to see that the grace of God has worked even with this horrific set of circumstances, and now, in a reversal of fortune, as Joseph has authority over his brothers, he is able to act from a place of compassion for them. It is only in retrospect, however, and by way of claiming his own power, that Joseph is able to affirm that even the event that ripped him from his homeland and family and sent him into the hell of slavery has now been turned by God to a providential purpose. It took time, and it took Joseph coming to see that even in misery God was still moving, still acting, still giving him strength. Standing before his oppressors, looking back on God’s activity in his life, Joseph is given a choice, and he chooses mercy, able to let go of whatever temptation he once had for vengeance on his brothers because now it is he who has power over them. A family that was once broken apart by jealousy and sin is reconciled, but only because Joseph managed to see God’s action and claim the power that God was working through him.
For those of us who have been hurt deeply, the Joseph story provides hope that God can transform a curse into a blessing, but it does not happen immediately. It happens with time and the gift of retrospect, and it happens when we claim the power that God is working through us. Those who hurt us do so because they have power over us—as Joseph’s brother did—but God’s grace can work in us—as it worked in Joseph—to bring us to a place where we can claim our power, and once we seize that power we can make the choice, as Joseph did, to act with compassion, rather than vengeance. But what, then, for those of us who are still caught in the cycle of hurt, who have not had the gift of retrospect and chance to process, who cannot claim our power? What then can we do?
'Jesus said, "I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you."'
--Luke 6: 27-31
This is where Jesus’ teachings in the Gospel come in. He begins with the oxymoronic statement to 'Love your enemies,' then gives examples of what that love looks like in action: do good to those who hurt you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who abuse you. If we take this passage and try to put it side-by-side with the one from Genesis, we might be quick to say that the way we address being hurt is to not seek vengeance, as Joseph does not seek vengeance, and to simply love and forgive and do good, as Jesus instructs. This, quite frankly is the low-hanging fruit that we could easily grab, but it’s fruit that’s rather rotten. The fact is that Joseph and Jesus are in two very different contexts. Remember, context is everything! Jesus is talking to people who are in the middle of being oppressed themselves by their Roman occupiers, while the story of Joseph happens years after the initial offense. The ability to forgive, to choose not to seek vengeance and to have compassion, is only possible if you are in a position of power, as Joseph ultimately finds himself in. The folks Jesus is speaking to, however, have no power at all. Simply forgiving will only repeat the constant cycle of oppression and abuse that they are experiencing. So what are they to do? His advice to do good, bless, pray, turn the other cheek, and giving their shirt are actually methods by which the power dynamics of their time are flipped upside-down. To do those things robs their oppressors of the power they have and restores dignity to those being oppressed. For more detail on what those actually mean, you can check out my blog post here from two years ago.
Yet if we are perfectly honest, this text has some problematic pieces for those of us who may be in the midst of a hurtful relationship right now. If we are in an abusive relationship, doing good and blessing our abuser will not stop the cycle of oppression. Turning the other cheek doesn’t have the same transformational power in our culture as it did in Jesus’. This is also where it does not help us to try to apply the example of Joseph to the example of one who is still in the midst of being hurt. Too many people—especially women—have remained in abusive relationships because they are told—especially by clergy—to be like Joseph and to not seek vengeance, and to just forgive. They are told, in the words of Jesus, to love the one who beats them, to bless that person, and to keep treating them way they would want to be treated. But what if the other party isn’t interested in that arrangement and only continues the cycle of abuse? In that case, Jesus’ words may be of little comfort, but there is one line that can help those caught in that cycle to claim some power for themselves: pray for those who abuse you. Honestly, this is a hard one, and again, it has been misused by clergy to condone remaining in abusive relationships, but when we pray for someone we do, indeed, take some of their power over us away. We commend them to God, and therein lies some a measure of hope for our future. Therein lies power for the powerless. Prayer is the only weapon we Christians have, and do commend an abuser to God in prayer is a powerful action. We must remember, however, that praying for one’s abuser does not equal staying with that abuser, and sometimes the most loving action one can take is to walk away and end the relationship—as Jesus instructs his disciples to do when they themselves enter a town and are abused: shake the dust off your feet, he tells them.
Brothers and sisters, how we deal with hurt is hard and complicated. So much of hurt has to do with power, who has it, and how it is wielded. Sometimes there is no simple solution, and while I wish our Scriptures gave us universal truths that can always be applied to all places and circumstances, the reality is that that is not always the case, thus the similar, yet distinctly different, messages of our texts today. Indeed, it takes some real digging, some hard analysis of the context to find good news sometimes, but it’s there. It’s always there. The lesson from Joseph’s forgiveness of his brothers gives those of us who have processed our hurt the hope that we can claim our own power and act with compassion instead of vengeance when the opportunity is given to us. For those of us still caught in the cycle of abuse and oppression, Jesus’ words to love, bless, and do good may ring somewhat hollow, but his urging the abused to pray, to commend the abuser over to God, and when necessary to leave and shake the dust off of their feet is a mighty reclaiming of power and the truth that they are beloved of God. At the core of all Scriptures, even the hard ones, is that truth, that we are beloved of God, and that our power lies in that truth. When we seize that power all things can and will be healed. And that is always Good News!