When their father Jacob dies, the brothers are afraid: what is there now to hold Joseph back from exercising his right to revenge? He has the means, he has the cause, and they have guilt in their hearts. ‘Now he will hate us’, they think as they prostrate themselves and beg for his pardon. But Joseph responds quite differently from how they had imagined: ‘You thought to do me harm’, he says, ‘But God intended it for good’. (Bereshit 50:20)
Last Tuesday, in an extraordinary speech to honour an extraordinarily great man’s life, President Obama spoke of Nelson Mandela, like Joseph a man who came out of jail to save the country which had imprisoned him, in terms of an equal, or even deeper, generosity of spirit:
we remember the gestures, large and small – introducing his jailers as honored guests at his inauguration; taking the pitch in a springbok uniform; turning his family’s heartbreak into a call to confront HIV/AIDS – that revealed the depth of his empathy and understanding… It took a man like Madiba to free not just the prisoner, but the jailer as well; to show that you must trust others so that they may trust you; to teach that reconciliation is not a matter of ignoring a cruel past, but a means of confronting it with inclusion, generosity and truth.
It is not just the good and great who are called upon to develop the qualities of understanding and forgiveness, but all of us. For we interact with one another, not as perfect people, not as the ideal human beings we may dream of becoming, but with our faults and weaknesses and the wounds we bear, known or unbeknown to ourselves, as the result of our personal histories and the histories of our families. Maybe it is precisely in this truth that one of the secrets of understanding lies.
It should be said that forgiveness and generosity of spirit do not and must not render the strictures of justice insignificant. They don’t turn right into wrong, or make cruelty acceptable. They don’t alleviate the conscience of the need for inner accounting. We are known, whether we consider the repository of that knowledge to be God who ‘sees to the heart’; or to be the sum of all the memories of us in all the hearts we have touched either for blessing or for hurt; or whether, in the words of Stephen Duncan, it is in some mysterious way the world itself which knows us:
Because even the breeze is your companion
And the sun sees every hand that moves wrongly…
Yet there is an attitude which transcends and transforms the desire to hit back, to see the person who has hurt us hurt in turn.
Partly, that attitude is rooted in empathy and imagination, the capacity to see the other person not as our antagonist but in the wholeness of his or her life, as one who has also been fashioned by circumstances not of their choosing, by suffering as well as love, and by the angers and acts of unfairness, alongside the blessings, which have impacted upon their spirit.
Partly that attitude is rooted in humility and the capacity for self-retraction. If it is really me with whom the other person is angry, then I need to search myself, consider if I am in the wrong, partly or completely, and make good. But maybe it is not mainly about me. If so, then the anger is itself a symptom of deeper hurt. Do I then respond in kind, angry and hurtful in turn? Or is it possible to seek to understand and endeavor to bring healing?
Partly that attitude is rooted in a greater vision: you and I, can we see each other not as antagonists, but as participants and beneficiaries together in life’s struggles and life’s blessings?
‘God intended it for good’; the issue is how we can make our lives a part of that intention.