A Change of Heart

Remember Joseph and his Amazing Coat of Many Colours? (Note how I carefully avoided copyright violation there?)

Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt, after briefly plotting to murder him. Over the following years, Joseph was a slave, a wrongfully convicted prisoner, and a dream interpreter to the king, which finally led him to a position of power. He was responsible for famine relief for an entire nation.

Joseph’s family were affected by the famine too, and his brothers came to buy grain. They didn’t recognize Joseph, but he knew them well enough, and used his bureaucratic powers to make their lives miserable for a few weeks. They were investigated as spies, arrested as thieves using planted evidence, and were just terrified by what might happen to them.

In Genesis 45:1-15 we see Joseph break down, and end his campaign of revenge and harassment. Not only did he forgive his brothers, but he invited his whole extended family to move to Egypt to escape the famine. He saved all their lives.

Central to all of this is the fact that Joseph, regardless of his resentment, his (totally justified) anger, and his secret delight at tormenting his brothers, ultimately couldn’t do it anymore. He knew their suffering, because he had experienced it himself. Once the thrill wore off, he couldn’t bring himself to treat them badly anymore. His own experiences gave him the room to be empathetic to the people who had oppressed him so badly, and caused him to end his own oppressive behaviour when the tables were turned.

They say that love and hate aren’t opposites. Apathy is the opposite of love, while hate is the flip side of the coin of love. Some of the bitterest feuds and fights have started in love and built from there. But as we can see with Joseph, those feuds can be resolved and the hate can be reversed if only those who feel bitter can manage to remember the humanity of those opposite them.

Actually, the group Life After Hate suggests that we should really say: “remember their own humanity.”

This is their mission statement:

LIFE AFTER HATE is dedicated to inspiring individuals to a place of compassion and forgiveness for everyone, including themselves.

As I understand it, this is an organization of people who used to be White Supremacists, Neo-Nazis, Skinheads, and members of other hate groups. Their leadership has been interviewed a lot on CBC with what is going on in the States and Canada right now.

As former members of violent, racist groups themselves, one of the points they make is that these hate groups are full of people who can’t see the humanity in the people they target. They suggest from their own experience that the real problem is that they have lost sight of the humanity in themselves, and can’t empathize.

Joseph had good reason to be angry with his brothers. But his own anguish as a slave, as someone unjustly accused and jailed, and his own ability to remember how that felt prevented him from inflicting too much vengeance, even on the people who deserved it the most.

An amazing example of this came from an interview on the CBC Radio Tapestry series in 2015. A black lawyer, Bryan Stevenson, was defending someone in the deep South prison system. The prisoner was a young man with a mental disability. He had indeed done the crime, but he was being given a terribly harsh sentence. Stevenson tried to show the court that the young man’s life in “the system” as a survivor of multiple foster homes, and frequent abuse, had contributed to his situation, and a different kind of sentence would be appropriate.

Whenever Stevenson visited his client in prison, a particular white guard deliberately made his life miserable. Not only was he disrespectful, but he subjected him to strip and cavity searches every time he visited his client, while letting all kinds of white visitors through with barely a glance. This same guard had a confederate-flag decorated pickup-truck in the prison lot with the bumper sticker: “If I’d known it would be like this, I’d have picked my own cotton.”

One time this same guard accompanied Stevenson and the prisoner to a court hearing. He heard what Stevenson was arguing. The next time Stevenson showed up for a visit, the guard treated him with great respect. He nervously apologized for his previous behaviour. Then he thanked him for what he was trying to do for this young black prisoner. The guard, it turned out, had been in the same foster system, and had suffered similar abuse.

When he heard Stevenson’s words, the guard was re-connected with his own humanity. He was able to see the humanity of the prisoner under his authority. He even became able to appreciate this lawyer who was trying to help: a successful black man who represented everything he formally and deliberately hated. This is as close to a modern miracle as I can imagine.

Jesus himself showed us how this worked. (See Matthew 15:21-28) He was effectively on vacation near Tyre and Sidon, an area outside of the traditional Jewish lands. A Canaanite woman who lived there wanted her daughter cured. Now, a parent who desperately wants help for a child can be one of the most stubborn and persistent humans in the world. This woman’s constant shouted pleas for help were annoying Jesus’ disciples.

Jesus ignored her. That was pretty rude, but her people were ancient enemies of the Hebrews. And under Jewish law, as a Gentile, she was unclean, and female to boot. Men weren’t supposed to speak to unrelated women in that region, although Jesus made lots of exceptions to that rule for his own people.

Jesus declared that his mission was to the lost children of Israel, which is like saying: “Sorry, technically you’re not worthy, and it’s out of my hands.” He didn’t really say it to her, but he said it so she could hear it.

What follows is a clever but rather insulting debate between Jesus and the woman. Jesus is very rude to her. He basically calls her and her daughter bitches, which is an even worse insult in the Middle East than it is here. And yet he is so taken with her clever response, and possibly with her courage and dedication, that he has a change of heart and helps her.

Look at the steps involved:

Jesus demonstrates the cultural assumptions he grew up with, the same ones everyone else shared and assumed were right, and maybe even ordained by God. He completely ignores her: he won’t even say “talk to the hand.” It’s like she doesn’t exist, she doesn’t deserve the slightest attention. Formal apathy is what we see.

The next step is engagement. It’s hard. It starts with a nasty debate. More of a test, as this man with power puts the woman totally on the spot. Before she even has a chance to make her case directly to Jesus, he explains how unworthy she and her daughter are: lower than dogs.

At least an argument is better than silence. The woman does her best to break through Jesus’ position, and her best is quite amazing. She manages to maintain her dignity, standing before him in debate, while refusing to be baited by his provocative language. She not only accepts the humiliating name of dog, but she cleverly uses it to her advantage.

The final step is that Jesus sees her as a human being. As Luke’s gospel puts it, he is moved to love her, and help her.

Jesus has gone from demonstrating coldness, possibly apathy, or maybe just an inherited, ritualized prejudice with no fire behind it, to showing full acceptance of her humanity, in one brief encounter.

That is the example we have of the steps needed for reconciliation between people who are far apart. It matches what we are hearing from others today: we need to learn to see others as fully human people; not as stereotypes, or categories, or any other kinds of objects.

As individuals and as a society we are called to refuse to remain silent, to be unwilling to turn our backs. We have to enter into dialogue and be ready for it to be difficult. We can predict that it’s likely to include old-fashioned name-calling at some stage.

As we are engaged in that difficult dialogue, we are called to discover the humanity of the other person or group. And in the process, we may rediscover those parts of ourselves that need healing, or help, or forgiveness; those parts that make us sensitive, or angry, or reactive. We all have them. Jesus did: do we dare to pretend that we’re better?

And in building relationships with others who provoke us for some reason, we can discover that the healing ministry of Jesus is still active: as we heal relationships, and as we find unexpected healing for ourselves.

You could call this our model for reconciliation:

1: we listen

2: we learn about the human reality of someone different

3: we open ourselves to the possibility that we will feel moved to help.

That last one is the proof that this works. Love won’t let us sit still and do nothing.

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