This post is part of our series on the politics of scripture. While the focus is on weekly preaching passages, we also welcome commentary on sacred, classic, and profane literature as well as artistic expression. Submissions may be sent to Tim Simpson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 Pharoah, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt.
In his sermon, “Our God is Able,” Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “At the center of the Christian faith is the conviction that in the universe there is a God of power who is able to do exceedingly abundant things in nature and in history.” From this perspective, God does not merely respond to the events of history, but he also orchestrates them. Often this orchestration allows evil action on the part of humanity. Even more mystifying is Paul’s assertion in Romans that God anticipates, and even instigates these acts of evil which then lead to the fulfillment of his purposes. While many of us scoff incredulously at the idea of a loving God willfully incorporating fraying threads of evil into the tapestry of history, in our lectionary text this week Joseph sides with Paul.
Joseph’s brothers callously exchanged him for twenty pieces of silver, and yet Joseph identifies that act of evil as a turning point in his life. His being sold into slavery, while flagrantly unjust, was also the catalyst for the realization of his destiny. His telos was to preserve a remnant of Abraham’s seed upon the earth. By identifying the injustice he suffered with actualization of divine will, Joseph had no need or use for vengeance or retaliation. Knowing that God was fully in control of his life and the trajectory of history, Joseph could forgive wholeheartedly.
If we take Joseph’s assertion regarding history seriously, then we also understand that the king who ruled Egypt following Joseph’s death was also a part of God’s plan, even though he initiated the slavery that would oppress the children of Israel for 400 years. Regarding this ruler, Paul says in Romans 9:17-18, “Scripture says to Pharaoh: ‘I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.’ Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.”
Rather than falling prey to a stultifying pessimism regarding the continuous existence of evil, injustice, and oppression in our world, as Christians we should rejoice that God is in control of history, and that even evil will ultimately work to realize the glorious future of God. With this in mind, Christians should not be overcome with thoughts of retribution expressed in a political perspectives that seek victory through war, bloodshed, and imperial domination. Instead, we should abandon the premise that effectiveness at any cost is desirable. This premise arises from the hopelessness that accompanies the idea of a future made solely by the frailties of human ability. We who look forward to a future in which God redeems his creation are much more hopeful.
Does the Christian abstain from statist political participation, knowing that the course of historical events is already ordained? By no means! As citizens of the City of God, we are to prophesy regarding the sin and injustice that pervade our political systems—sometimes from within the political apparatus itself. In doing so, we witness to the love, compassion, and faithfulness of Christ regarding the least of these. As we surrender our lives to be instruments of righteousness and justice, transformation of sinful and wayward institutions will ensue. We must be careful, however, not to imitate the regnant methodology of the world that favors victory and effectiveness at all costs. Our faithfulness will sometimes conflict with pragmatic efficacy. Our nonviolent methods may lead to mass martyrdom in the face of tyranny. Our nonconformist positions on social issues may cost us recognition, promotion, and adulation, offering us instead vilification, vituperation, and oppression by the powers of society.
In the face of such evil, we must forgive and never retaliate, knowing that history is the servant, but God is forever the master. Martin Luther King, Jr. often quoted this poem of James Russell Lowell that embodies the irony of history:
Will the cause of evil prosper?
Yet ‘tis truth alone is strong
Though her portion be the scaffold,
and upon the throne be wrong,
Yet that scaffold sways the future;
and behind the dim unknown
Standeth God within the shadow,
keeping watch above his own.
Aaron Howard is a second year PhD candidate in Ethics and Society at Vanderbilt University. He is an ordained elder in the Church of God in Christ and has been happily married to his wife Mimi for 12 years. He has two children, a son Yosef, and a daughter named Blaine.