I’ve been reading/pondering the story of Joseph lately, and as is the norm when I venture into those passages at the close of Genesis, I’m really struck by the ups and downs in the narrative and all the accompanying emotions I feel on behalf of Joseph. I get sympathetic when he shares haughty remarks with his brothers, angry at injustice, sad that he’s missed out on his youth, vindictive when he reunites with his siblings, and shocked (yet relieved) with admiration when he forgives his betrayers.
Here’s what I’ve learned about myself through the passage in recent days: I hate being a victim, and I’m sure others hate it too (hence the vindictiveness).
I recently finished a mesmerizing book book by TJ English called The Savage City: Race, Murder, and a Generation on the Edge, and it’s a sobering tale about NYC from 1963-1973, some of the darkest times in the city’s history when it comes to racial violence and corruption in the NYPD. Now, keep in mind that these dreadful years followed the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King Jr.’s Memorable “I Have a Dream” speech.
English’s book was revelatory for me in that it shed new light on the recent history of race in NYC in particular, especially how the NYPD related to Blacks (and vice versa, as the Black Panther and other movements grew) during that time. Quite frankly, Blacks were victims to an inordinate amount of unjust convictions, accusations, and police violence (this is not to mention other forms of systemic racism that is not discussed in the book but commonly understood when one reads about the history of some neighborhoods and the building of public infrastructures led by Robert Moses).
Sidenote: This is not to say that there weren’t (or aren’t) good cops in the NYPD and public enforcement officials in NY. I know many honorable and respectful police officers and law enforcement types. It only takes a few acts and motives of corruption to spoil the entire system.
As someone who had lived and witnessed the LA Riots in 1992 as a response to the events of the Rodney King beating and trial, I experienced a window into the outrage over injustice by the Black community to some degree (All sorts of racial subplots emerged in the riots too, as Korean American store owners in South Central felt the effects of the looting and violence in LA). I was just a kid back then, but I remember talking to many of my classmates (mostly Black and Hispanic) who were downright furious – well, as furious as any 13 year-olds can be when thinking about systemic injustice. As any friend and classmate would do in that situation, I became furious too!
However, reading English’s book gave me a sense of the unique history of NYC, replete with the narratives of Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, the NYPD, the judicial system and the overwhelming racial profiling and unfair trials, and the rise of the Black Panthers and other Revolutionary Movements as a response.
I then talked to Jackie Snape and Linda Johnson, both of whom remember those years and the after effects, and I was deeply moved that people I personally knew had lived through those times of significant racial discord within our city.
For some reason, I knew about racial tension in the city, but I didn’t really know about the gravity of strife that many people I know had lived through.
Maybe I was listening, but I wasn’t really listening.
Growing up, I despised some of the assumptions made about me. Some assumptions were completely understandable, as painful as they may have been when I first heard them.
For example, I soon discovered that when people asked, “Can you see anything with your small eyes?”, this was an honest, legitimate question, and that yes, it was because I have unusually small eyes (in Asia I get the same question, in fact, perhaps even more so here).
Nonetheless, I hated being judged, labeled, or treated unfairly because of stereotypes or misguided interpretations.
And I’m not only talking about race – I’m talking about all sorts of ways I could have been “victimized”.
Having a mischievous and clever twin brother certainly didn’t help. If you know Peter and his hilariously strategic talking, you know what I mean.
But while we’re on the topic of race, here are some ways that I’d be a victim because of my race:
– Our neighborhood bullies (and their parents), would consistently yell racial epithets at us as we rode our bike down the street. Our childhood house has been egged, tp’d (toilet papered if you aren’t aware of what that means), mooned, and had bikes stolen.
One neighborhood bully would pick fights with us and beat us up – that is, until Stephen my oldest brother triumphantly knocked him out that one summer day on behalf of us all.
– Getting racial epithets in sports, even from my own teammates! One time, as a runner on our 4x 100 meter race and as the only Asian guy on the four man team, I’d hear, “It’s because of that f****** Chinese kid that we lost.” It was hard enough trying to get picked on the team, get some playing time from coaches, and prove myself to opponents – it was another thing altogether being the lone Asian guy (aside from my brothers) on any team.
– The normal Asian American stereotypes, too many to list here… karate, good at math, model minority, never experienced injustice, etc, etc.
Yep, I hate being a victim.
Ultimately, being a victim is often like being an underdog. If you’ve ever felt slighted or counted out or unfairly judged or misunderstood – you know the feeling of being a victim.
In some ways, that’s why we root for the underdogs – we’ve all been there before. Yes, even champions like Michael Jordan has been there too.
As a personal confession, sometimes I wish I had the raw talent of Jordan to stick it to detractors like he did. Anyhow, i digress.
We often associate the “poor” with the word “marginalized”, because those who are poor and have suffered know exactly what it feels like to be “victims” with a ceiling that is often much harder to break through.
If one throws in some of the racial/social/political factors involved, the poor and the oppressed certainly know the feeling of being the ultimate underdogs and the consummate “victim”.
One of my favorite books is a biography of a fellow named Paul Farmer, an infectious disease doctor and professor who teaches and co-founded an organization called Partners in Health. The book is called Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure the World, and it’s written masterfully by Tracey Kidder. Farmer is a brilliant fellow who has worked tirelessly on behalf of the poor in countries like Haiti and throughout the continent of Africa.
There’s a chapter in Mountains Beyond Mountains that begins with a discussion of what religious beliefs Farmer holds. Farmer remarks that he is a Christian.
In not so exact words (forgive me because I don’t have the book with me – these are rough paraphrases), he’s asked, “Why are you a Christian?”
In not so exact words, he responds by saying, “Because the poor believe in Jesus.”
This accomplished doctor and academic believes in Jesus – not because of intellectual arguments or even a profound experience – but because he’s convinced that the poor, the suffering, the victims in many respects – have a perspective on truth that is actually quite compelling.
It’s not a surprise to me that the fingerprints of Christianity are all over movements and countries that have experienced great pain and suffering. From abolitionists to women’s suffrage to oppressed nations, there’s a startling draw of the Christian message to those who have been victims.
I’ve been considering my own heritage as a Korean-American, and it’s amazing how Christianity has boomed in South Korea, a small nation often occupied and invaded by larger outside countries throughout its history. The same could be said of ancient Israel. The same could be said for African American slavery, and for women who have been disparaged and undermined throughout history.
Underdogs and victims of oppression relate well to the Christian narrative.
Now, this is not to say that the Christian message misses the personal responsibility that some of us carry that has led to our plights, because I can assure you that the Bible has enough to say about our own sinfulness.
Instead, the Christian message has much more depth than that, and it depicts a world that is broken because of personal sin and systemic injustice and even a tainted ecology.
Nonetheless, one thing is clear – though we are all fallen human beings who have sinned, those who have been victims of injustice and those who have experienced the underside of life are somehow drawn in large numbers to the message of Christian faith.
Or, I should say, the person of Christian faith.
A man who came, who lived, who laughed and wept, who suffered and fell victim, and who died an alienating, painful death.
And then he forgave.
And then he rose again.
And that’s why we believe.
Perhaps the story of Joseph is really the story of Jesus.
And that’s why victims can rise again.