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Sunday 20 August 2023

How to be Steadfast When Hope is Fading

Text: Genesis 50.15—Exodus 1.7

Today’s homily begins by recounting the bad behaviour of Joseph’s brothers. Back in chapter 37 of Genesis, Joseph had attracted the hatred of his older brothers because he was clearly their father’s favourite and because he was inclined to call out their shortcomings before their father. He also shared with them two of his dreams, which implied that one day they will all bow before him. Joseph was, in other words, your typical younger brother. He was annoying and knew how to play his doting father like a violin. The response of the older brothers, however, was completely out of proportion to this. For their sense of irritation at the young fella festers and grows until it is has become a hatred. A white, burning, hatred. So much so, that when the opportunity arises, the older brothers conspire to sell Joseph into slavery. They then concoct a lie to account for his disappearance: Joseph, they said, had being killed by a wild animal.

Fast forward, then, to today’s sacred reading when the brothers indeed prostrate themselves before Joseph, because he is the viceroy of Egypt. Much has happened to them all in the meantime, which I will not recount, but suffice it to say that much change has come over the brothers. Joseph’s trials and tribulations have made him wiser and more circumspect in dealing with those who have power over him.  His brothers, too, having experienced the sorrow that took hold of their father Jacob at Joseph’s ‘disappearance’, come to repent of their wrongdoing. When they come to Egypt in time of famine and find that they are being tested by Joseph (without at this point knowing who he really is) the eldest even offers himself as a slave in order to spare their father the further sorrow of losing Rachael’s other son, Joseph’s brother, Benjamin. 

All of which is to say that the brothers are now ready to say sorry and ask Joseph for forgiveness.  Which they do, first, by confessing the truth of what they have done, including an admission that what they did was criminal and did great harm to both Joseph and their father. They then beg his forgiveness. Indeed, they do so by adopting the most humble pose their bodies can make. Prostrate before him, with tears, the brothers beg to be forgiven. Then they offer to make amends for what they did by themselves becoming slaves for Joseph, so offering themselves up to the very fate that they had woven for Joseph all those years before.  

Joseph would have been completely in his rights, of course, to accept and require that offering. To make them slaves, as he had been enslaved, would have only been fair.  Yet, he doesn’t. Also with tears, he forgives them. He cancels their debt, declaring that he is not God and would not, therefore, assume power over them. Indeed, he goes on to theologise just a bit. ‘What you intended for evil,’ he says, ‘God intended for good, in order to preserve our people during this time of great famine’. As a consequence, the whole family is brought to Egypt and settled in the region of Goshen, where they become very numerous and strong.

Upon reading this text I wondered, as is my habit, how it might have been read by the Wurundjeri who experienced the invasion of their lands by the British? From 1835, there was indeed a famine in Kulin lands, a famine brought on by the importation of millions of sheep. The sheep compacted the soil making it impossible for Kulin food crops, which depended upon a loose soil structure, to survive. The sheep were accompanied by wave upon wave of real estate speculators who were either granted Kulin land by the crown or simply took it through force of arms. ‘Clearing the land’ became a euphemism for not only converting bush and grassland to pasture for sheep, but removing both its native animal species and its rightful human custodians through murder or forced relocation.  

We know that Simon Wonga, a Ngurungaeta or headman of the Wurundjeri nation, witnessed all this. He presided over the very last full initiation ceremony of the Wurundjeri at Ngannelong/Hanging Rock in 1851 and the very last gathering of the Kulin clans for sacred business at Warrandyte in 1852. After that, all the survivors of the frontier conflict were rounded up and incarcerated in various missions, most of them run by the Church of England. Wonga, and his cousin William Barak, proceeded to advocate for a protected homeland for surviving Kulin, eventually securing 2300 acres at modern-day Healesville for a reserve which, from 1863 would become known as Coranderrk. 

Wonga, who had learned bible stories from a Presbyterian missionary named John Green, referred to his plans for Coranderrk as a ‘Goshen’ within the empire of the British where his people might not only survive but thrive. He apparently presented himself to Barkly, the British governor in Victoria at the time, as something of a Joseph figure who, having seen the decimation of his people, wanted to create a homeland within the colony where his people might live unmolested.  And this was indeed made possible for thirty years or so, as Coranderrk grew into a thriving farming venture in which my own kinspeople, John and Louisa Briggs, also participated.

I’m not sure what Wonga would have made of the fact that it was Joseph’s own family who sold him into slavery. The only possible analogue I can think of is the Victorian Native Police, which was populated with Aboriginal men (mostly, it must be noted, from outside Victoria) and, from 1853, charged with rounding up freedom fighters. In fact, however, the Native Police often led their white superiors on a merry dance to ensure that suspects evaded capture.

And what of the forgiveness of Joseph towards those who did the enslaving? What are we to make of that? Should Wurundjeri people forgive the British? Did Wonga or his legendary father, Billibellari? Did William Barak? Apparently they did, but it was forgiveness with a strategic and pragmatic purpose. Just as Joseph forgave his brothers in order to preserve their children, and their children’s children, and their children’s children’s children, within the Empire of the Pharaohs, so Wonga and Barak forgave the British in order to preserve their people in Coranderrk. Had they continued to fight the British on an eye-for-an-eye, life-for-a-life, basis, their people would most certainly have been annihilated. This they could see. And so they turned conciliators, just as my own ancestor, Mannalargenna of the trawloolway, had done thirty years before in lutruwita/Tasmania.

Where was God, then, in all of this? Where was God in the enslavement of Joseph? Where was God in the dispossession and enslavement of the Kulin peoples? According to the editors of Genesis, God took the evil that Joseph’s brothers intended and turned it into the good of an eventually powerful brother who was able to preserve their people under the rule of the Pharaohs.  Could it be that God was also at work in colonisation? Well, it depends a lot on whether your theology relies upon the arrival of justice or not. Colonisation was a great evil, and remains a great evil, of that I have no doubt. I am also sure that the good wrought by Wonga and Barak at Coranderrk cannot be seen, in any sense, as a proportionally just recompense for that evil. God was certainly their partner and companion as they sought to preserve their people, but this God—the God we meet in the Genesis stories—is certainly no guarantor that an appropriate measure of justice will ever arrive.

Consider the facts as they are presented in both the story of Coranderrk and the story of Goshen in Genesis. The refuge that was Coranderrk lasted only three decades because white farmers became jealous of its success and petitioned the colonial authorities for its closure. It was, in fact, effectively closed down in 1886 with the passing of the Aborigines Protection Act, after which most of the remaining inhabitants were taken to the considerably crueller mission at Lake Tyers.  And the haven that Joseph made at Goshen quickly became, after his death, the main source of indentured labour for the Pharaohs as they embarked on their new building programme. So, having offered to become slaves, that is what the sons and daughters of Jacob in fact became.  Slaves for the Egyptian empire.

You’ll no doubt be wondering what the good news is, here. Well, the good news is far from world-altering, I’m afraid. The texts before us can only deliver a very modest helping of good news. The good news is that the divine Spirit is most definitely on the side of those who want to do good, who are willing to put aside their own wounds and traumas to work for justice and refuge for their wounded and traumatised neighbours.  Sadly, however, there may never be justice for the victims of unscrupulous people, not a proportional justice, anyway: a justice where the injured receive appropriate recompense for all their years of suffering. The most we might reasonably hope for, those of us who have been enslaved or dispossessed, is a modicum of justice; if not justice itself, something that occasionally resembles justice. 

In the meantime, we can take some comfort in knowing that the divine Spirit is both the friend and partner of every victim. In every steadfast refusal of the temptation to give up, in every act of advocacy for our broken neighbours, in every act of care or of love, and, most radically of all, in every act of mercy or forgiveness we may feel moved to offer to the guilty, the Spirit is with us. For in each of these acts of defiance, whether great in the eyes of the world or so small as to beneath the notice of most, the divine Spirit is indeed our help, our refuge, and our support. As the choir sang from the appointed Psalm for this evening:

For though the Lord be high, yet hath he respect unto the lowly:
as for the proud, he beholdeth them from afar off.

                                                                 Psalm 138.6

Garry Deverell

Evening Prayer,
St Paul’s Cathedral, Naarm/Melbourne
Proper 15