Choosing Not To Forget

Alas, we are being punished because of our brother. We saw the anguish of his heart when he pleaded with us, yet we paid no heed; that is why this anguish has now come upon us.

Genesis 42:21

 

Today we read of the encounter between Joseph and the brothers who deserted him and left him for dead and are now dependent on him for their survival. It is a story of reversal of fortune and of power. They who once used their power to reject and even attempt to eliminate the one whom they so envied and hated now find that in order to receive the help they need and to survive they must face and admit to the truth of their guilt. Violence and evil have consequences in the world; consequences that in time will redound on ourselves who have inflicted such evil and violence on others.

Joseph’s brothers, because they are now threatened, remember that they saw the anguish of Joseph’s heart as they abandoned him to what they were certain was his death. They had heard his pleas at the time and “paid no heed” to them. Yet, it seems that soon thereafter they readily forgot what they had heard and seen. It only recurs to them when they are called to account by the unrecognized Joseph himself.

This initial encounter between Joseph and his brothers so many years after their betrayal of him evokes in me some most uncomfortable questions. How do I manage to live as if unaware of what my own actions and inactions are doing to perpetuate violence, evil, and suffering in the world?  What is the cost to my own soul and humanity to carry on as I do, in relative comfort, in a city, a country, a world in which so many of my brothers and sisters are betrayed, ignored, and killed?  Must I wait  until I am threatened until I remember their “anguish of heart” and their pleas?

In this story of Joseph and his brothers, one of the great stories of the literary tradition, we read and we hear in our hearts of the kind of moment of reversal that those of us who have lived in positions of power in the world most dread. The United States, which has dominated the world and the powerless now for the better part of a century, has become in our day a frightened and pitiful giant. Many of our people have retreated into the stance of racist and xenophobic reaction. Perhaps our great fear arises from our recognition of the impending reversal of power. There is an appeal to building walls, banning immigrants, and suppressing the votes of the poor as a defense against the inevitable and impending reversal. Those who have been suppressed in support of “our way of life” are about to become the majority. Our great fear, as that of Joseph’s brothers, is that how we have treated and used others is about to redound on ourselves.

To this day I keep a copy of a picture that appeared in the New York Times over 8 years ago when Barack Obama was inaugurated as President. It is picture of a grade school class in Harlem taken as the students watched on television Obama’s Inaugural Address. The very young children of perhaps 8 or 9 sat up so attentively, eyes wide open, with hope and possibility radiating from them. No one needed to tell them the significance of seeing a person who looked like them assuming the most important role of leadership in our country.

Eight years later an electoral majority of the country, and the relative indifference of many others, has led to the election of one who represents the worst of our racist and xenophobic fears and tendencies. As Joseph’s brothers, there lies within us the sense that to preserve our place we must dominate or eliminate those who threaten it. For all our pretenses to live by superior values, we cannot believe that in God’s world it is possible for all of our brothers and sisters to flourish as we do. What the great spiritual teachers from the Buddha, to Jesus, to Gandhi all understood, however, is that no one will win the wars of cultures and civilizations. As Martin Luther King, Jr. declared at Oberlin College; “We must all learn to live together as brothers [and sisters] – or we will all perish together as fools.”

As individuals and as societies, we are fearful. We mistakenly think that our wellbeing is not, in the last analysis, intimately connected to the wellbeing of all. From the time we are children we look for our rising from a place of impotence to power, a power to be exercised for our own good and privilege and which thus requires the domination or elimination of who and what we perceive as threats to us. From this perspective we forget, as Joseph’s brothers forgot, the anguish of heart and the pleading of our brothers and sisters who are the victims of our demands for comfort, success, and dominance. Yet, we are not so unmindful of others as not to fear them. We fear that when the power passes from us to them, they will do to us what we have done to them. There is political as well as spiritual wisdom in the “Golden Rule” of Rabbi Hillel:  “That which is despicable to you, do not do to others.”

The struggles and sufferings of the world seem to always threaten to overwhelm us. We fear remaining awake to the anguish and pleas of our brothers and sisters lest we be overcome. All of the world’s pain and suffering is not for us to solve. Yet, we also must not choose to ignore and forget. Blaise Pascal declared that “The heart has its reasons which reason does not know.” Closing down our hearts is never the answer. As our hearts expand, by our refusal to ignore and forget, perhaps its reasons will in time direct us in the ways we should go.

 

Now it is true that the geographic togetherness of our world has been brought into being, to a large extent, through modern man’s scientific ingenuity. Modern man, through his scientific genius, has been able to dwarf distance and place time in chains. Yes, we’ve been able to carve highways through the stratosphere, and our jet planes have compressed into minutes distances that once took weeks and months. And so this is a small world from a geographical point of view. What we are facing today is the fact that through our scientific and technological genius we’ve made of this world a neighborhood. And now through our moral and ethical commitment we must make of it a brotherhood. We must all learn to live together as brothers – or we will all perish together as fools. This is the great issue facing us today. No individual can live alone; no nation can live alone. We are tied together.

I remember some time ago Mrs. King and I had the privilege of journeying to that great country, India. And I never will forget the experience – it was a marvelous experience – to meet and talk with the great leaders, with the hundreds of thousands of people all over the cities and villages of that vast country. These experiences will remain dear to me as long as the cords of memory shall lengthen. But I say to you this morning, my friends, that there were those depressing moments, for how can one avoid being depressed when he sees with his own eyes evidence of millions of people going to bed hungry? How can one avoid being depressed when he sees with his own eyes millions of people sleeping on the sidewalks at night; no beds to sleep in; no houses to go into. How can one avoid being depressed when he discovers that out of India’s population of more than 400 million people, some 380 million make an annual income of less than $90 a year. And most of these people have never seen a physician or a dentist. As I noticed these conditions, something within me cried out, “Can we in America stand idly by and not be concerned?” And an answer came, “Oh no! because the destiny of the United States is tied up with the destiny of India and every other nation.” I started thinking about the fact that we spend millions of dollars a day in our country to store surplus food, and I said to myself, “I know where we can store food free of charge – in the wrinkled stomachs of the millions of God’s children in Asia and Africa, in South America, and in our own nation who go to bed hungry at night.”

Martin Luther King, Jr., Commencement Address at Oberlin College, June 1965

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