America, as successful as it has been in creating a country where people risk their fortunes and their lives trying to enter, has remained a work in progress. Its past leaders, often imperfect by today’s standards, stretched the fabric of our rich mosaic in every age to help live up to the values we first just dreamed of embracing. We aren’t what we will be, but we can be proud of how far we have come in our journey.
Can we ever get beyond the racial sins of our past and present? I take heart in the Biblical story in Genesis about Joseph, the son of Jacob. Like many who were forced into slavery in America’s early history, Joseph was sold into slavery by his jealous older brothers. In spite of a tragic series of events, Joseph never lost his strong belief in the God of Jacob.
After being sold into slavery in Egypt, he was wrongly accused of rape and placed in prison. Realizing his gift of being able to interpret dreams, Joseph finds favor with Pharaoh. Through his service, this previously insignificant Hebrew slave becomes second in power throughout Egypt.
In the midst of a famine that Joseph predicted, he was given the opportunity for revenge. When his brothers who sold him into slavery came to Egypt to secure grain, instead of punishing them, he helped them, eventually shared his identity, and was reunited with his father. The story takes many twists and turns, but nothing is more striking in light of our current racial tensions than a conversation with his brothers after the death of their father Jacob.
In Genesis Chapter 50, his brothers, now fearing that they may be punished after their father’s death, come to Joseph and begged for his mercy. They offered to be his slaves and shared a message suggested by their father, “’This is what you are to say to Joseph: I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.' Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father."
After hearing their plea, Joseph wept and said to his brothers, "Don't be afraid. Am I in the place of God?” Joseph stayed in Egypt, along with all his father's family….”
Joseph left judgment to God and embraced his brothers who had sold him into slavery. There was no call for reparations, no forced apology, no punishment.
Years ago on a plane from Atlanta to LA, I met Brother Clarence. He was 99 years old and the black son of a former slave. His father had been a young man when the Emancipation Proclamation gave him freedom. Clarence was his last child born near the turn of the century.
Asking what his father said about slavery, Clarence smiled, paused, and said with a certainty I wish more could have seen, “My dad refused to talk about it. He said there’s no point in talking about it because you are free!” What a gift his father gave Brother Clarence as he left Texas and made his way to Los Angeles.
His father, who had actually experienced slavery, wasn’t focused on the past. He cared enough to set his son’s sight on a future with freedom. Clarence was a man of faith, a man of joy with a smile that would fill a room. Even more inspiring, he lived the freedom his father so treasured.
On our money, we read the statement “In God We Trust.” Do we? Maybe we need to. It was not added at our founding but later as a reflection of the cultural importance of faith in God’s providence in America’s story. At the heart of that faith is the power of forgiveness.
Instead of trying to determine fault and reparations for events years in our rearview mirror, is it not more important for us to find a way to keep moving forward? Can we not invest the time wasted in playing this fruitless blame game into working together to make more progress living up to our values of equal rights?
America’s story is still being written. May God feed the better angels of our nature. Like Joseph, may we embrace the power of forgiveness and faith in our future. May we each trust God to empower us to write that future story together in a way that helps further heal our racial divide.
Terry Paulson is a PhD psychologist, author, and professional speaker on Earned Optimism, Making Change Work, Claiming Your American Dream, and Becoming a Conservative Values Voter. To have him speak to your group, visit www.terrypaulson.comor contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.