At our church’s adult forum this past Sunday, we talked about the Genesis passage where Joseph is sold into slavery by his brothers. We discussed how this calamity in Joseph’s life ultimately turned out for the best for him and his entire family. This flowed into a conversation about how we cannot discern God’s overall design, and that situations we perceive as disasters may be part of a greater, more redemptive plan.
This got me wondering. Should we see God’s hand in the calamity itself, as well as in its redemption? The Bible and history are full of examples of how God can redeem terrible situations and heal people after almost unimaginable horrors. But when people survive or thrive after enduring horrific situations, I think it is dangerous to assume that the calamity itself was ordained by God.
This is not just theological nitpicking. If we believe that God ordains the calamities that befall people, then we can easily let ourselves off the hook for those tragedies that we cause, aggravate, or fail to ameliorate. Joseph’s own brothers were the ones who sold him into slavery when he was seventeen. They had convinced themselves that he deserved death or exile because of his behavior and dreams of ruling over them. They no longer treated him as a brother.
We usually don’t imagine ourselves as Joseph’s brothers in this story, yet it’s worth reflecting on how easily we can bring — or fail to prevent — disaster upon our brothers and sisters.
These days, I am mindful of two groups of children who are in the midst of calamities. First, the tens of thousands of young refugees who are fleeing violence in Central America. They have been in the news, and Bishop Mariann wrote about them in her July 10th blog. Second, the tens of thousands of children who are incarcerated in the United States, and who are also often refugees and survivors of violence. They are not in the news much, but Nell Bernstein writes about them eloquently in her recent book, Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison.
I’m reading the book slowly because the searing testimonies of abuse and the torture of solitary confinement can only be digested in small chunks. In one extreme example of the commonplace practice of isolation, Eliza, a teen on the brink of enrolling in college, was placed naked in a “cold cell,” with just tiled walls and a drain in the floor. Cold cells have been condemned as a form of torture when used on terrorism suspects, and they are intended to break the human will. In Eliza’s case, it caused a devastating regression from which she has not recovered.
Like Joseph’s brothers, we can sometimes find ways to rationalize our treatment of refugee children and incarcerated children. Instead, I pray that we will remember that they are still our young brothers and sisters, and speak up for them, and — with God’s help — redeem the calamities they have endured.
Liane Rozzell is the senior warden at St. Stephen and the Incarnation.