Imagining a new way forward – a starting point

Peace, like war, must be waged*

The world over, people are recognising that with the crisis that COVID-19 has created, along with the extreme inequalities it has revealed**, has come an opportunity for building a new world: one that treats each human life as precious and wherein  the earth on which we live and depend is treated with far more respect and awe than before. 

Many of us are also aware that this new way of being won’t just miraculously emerge, and that there won’t come a time when the crisis is suddenly over and we can then begin rebuilding. Inherently we realise that what we do and how we do it within a time of crisis, will sow the seeds for what will emerge afterwards. 

I believe that we can sow into two very different scenarios with vastly divergent outcomes as we emerge from this immediate crisis. 

The stories of Joseph and the famine in Egypt (Genesis) and the Greek-speaking widows (Acts) are two well-known stories within the Christian tradition, as well as in communities who believe that following Jesus naturally includes changes in actions, lifestyles and the policies and reforms for which we advocate. I don’t think I had put them together before a few weeks ago. 

I went to bed with a heavy heart after having yelled a heart-broken, “Nooooo!!!” at the TV as our president mentioned that we would be approaching the World Bank and IMF for loans to help us through this time. I  woke up the next morning with the two stories suddenly so obviously juxtaposed in my mind – not woven together in an intricate web of wisdom, but standing side-by-side as forks in the road, leading to two very different destinations. 

I do want to acknowledge that for many people who have read the story of Joseph and the famine in Egypt and taken his actions as a prescribed or preferred way of navigating a crisis, the way I see this (in fact, the way studying this story with others in my community has helped me to see this) may be hard to hear. And so, rather than paraphrase the story and risk people feeling like I have purposefully misinterpreted it or used it to back up my own theories of the world, let us look at it as the Bible tells it. 

The only difference is that, in the full version of the biblical narrative, the story of Joseph’s reconciliation with his brothers and father is interwoven into the story of the land of Egypt (and surrounds), the famine and Joseph’s actions. I have  taken out the personal/familial story so that the narrative thread and the trajectory of Joseph’s actions and their effects on the socio-political-economic landscape are more clearly recognised and traceable. I have used  The Message translation/paraphrase as it is told in the most accessible language. 

For those who aren’t familiar with the story, I am beginning in Genesis 41:39 (just after Joseph is given the interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream by God), so have a quick read from chapter 37 if you want to get some more background.

Then Pharaoh said to his officials, “Isn’t this the man we need? Are we going to find anyone else who has God’s spirit in him like this?” So Pharaoh said to Joseph, “You’re the man for us. God has given you the inside story – no one is as qualified as you in experience and wisdom. From now on, you’re in charge of my affairs; all my people will report to you. Only as king will I be over you.”

So Pharaoh commissioned Joseph: “I’m putting you in charge of the entire country of Egypt.” Then Pharaoh removed his signet ring from his finger and slipped it on Joseph’s hand. He outfitted him in robes of the best linen and put a gold chain around his neck. He put the second-in-command chariot at his disposal, and as he rode people shouted, “Bravo!” 

Joseph was in charge of the entire country of Egypt. 

Pharaoh told Joseph, “I am Pharaoh, but no one in Egypt will make a single move without your stamp of approval.”

Then Pharaoh gave Joseph an Egyptian name, Zaphenath-Paneah (God Speaks and He Lives). He also gave him an Egyptian wife, Asenath, the daughter of Potiphera, the priest of On (Heliopolis). 

And Joseph took up his duties over the land of Egypt. 

During the next seven years of plenty the land produced bumper crops. Joseph gathered up the food of the seven good years in Egypt and stored the food in cities. In each city he stockpiled surplus from the surrounding fields. Joseph collected so much grain – it was like the sand in the ocean! – that he finally quit keeping track”

When the famine spread throughout Egypt, the people called out in distress to Pharaoh, calling for bread. He told the Egyptians, ‘Go to Joseph. Do what he tells you.’ As the famine got worse all over the country, Joseph opened the store-houses and sold emergency supplies to the Egyptians. The famine was very bad. Soon the whole world was coming to buy supplies from Joseph. The famine was bad all over…

The time eventually came when there was no food anywhere. The famine was very bad. Egypt and Canaan alike were devastated by the famine. Joseph collected all the money that was to be found in Egypt and Canaan to pay for the distribution of food. He banked the money in Pharaoh’s palace. 

When the money from Egypt and Canaan had run out, the Egyptians came to Joseph. “Food! Give us food! Are you going to watch us die right in front of you? The money is all gone.”

Joseph said, “Bring your livestock. I’ll trade you food for livestock since your money’s run out.” So they brought Joseph their livestock. He traded them food for their horses, sheep, cattle, and donkeys. He got them through that year in exchange for all their livestock. 

When that year was over, the next year rolled around and they were back, saying, “Master, it’s no secret to you that we’re broke: our money’s gone and we’ve traded you all our livestock. We’ve nothing left to barter with but our bodies and our farms. What use are our bodies and our land if we stand here and starve to death right in front of you? Trade us food for our bodies and our land. We’ll be slaves to Pharaoh and give up our land – all we ask is seed for survival, just enough to live on and keep the farms alive.”

So Joseph bought up all the farms in Egypt for Pharaoh. Every Egyptian sold his land – the famine was that bad. That’s how Pharaoh ended up owning all the land and the people up slaves; Joseph reduced the people to slavery from one end of Egypt to the other. 

Joseph made an exception for [Pharaoh’s] priests. He didn’t buy their land because they received a fixed salary from Pharaoh and were able to live off of that salary. So they didn’t need to sell their land. 

Joseph then announced to the people: “Here’s how things stand: I’ve bought you and your land for Pharaoh. In exchange I’m giving you seed so you can plant the ground. When the crops are harvested, you must give a fifth to Pharaoh and keep four-fifths for yourselves, for seed for yourselves and your families – you’re going to be able to feed your children!”

They said, “You’ve saved our lives! Master, we’re grateful and glad to be slaves to Pharaoh.”  

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Do you see it? 

Do you see that the one path we could take during this time would save lives, yes, but also entrench slavery, build empires and create the conditions for generations of oppression to come? Without going into a debate of whether this action was correct/God-inspired or not, we can see that Joseph used the gift that God had given him and the opportunity and authority that Pharaoh gave him as a result of that, to establish and strengthen a system by which Pharaoh’s empire was built (along with priests who eventually convinced everyone that Pharaoh was a god). And  a whole nation was enslaved. 

It is this system, the empire that Joseph helped build and empower, which eventually saw the nation of Israel enslaved: a system of socio-economic oppression with a religious system convincing people that this was how the gods had ordained it, and a military system ensuring that this is how it would always remain. This picture from the book “Manna and Mercy”*** is a helpful one, showing how the land of Egypt was organised by the time Shiprah, Puah, Miriam, Aaron and Moses came onto the scene.

“That’s how Pharaoh ended up owning all the land and the people ended up slaves; Joseph reduced the people to slavery from one end of Egypt to the other.” (Gen 47:21)

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Surely this is not the kind of world we want to  see on “the other side” of the COVID-19 pandemic. I believe we can do better than our past, and I think the Bible provides us with at least one story to give us wiser guidance during this time. Turn with me to Acts 6 – to another food crisis; one not as drastic, but equally important.  

The story of the early Church in Acts is an inspiring one. The Bible describes this community in ways we long to see lived out today. Here is just one snippet from Acts 4: 32 – 35:

The whole congregation of believers was united as one – one heart, one mind! They didn’t even claim ownership of their own possessions. No one said, “That’s mine; you can’t have it.” They shared everything. The apostles gave powerful witness to the resurrection of the Master Jesus, and grace was on all of them. 

And so it turned out that not a person among them was needy. Those who owned fields or houses sold them and brought the price of the sale to the apostles and made an offering of it. The apostles then distributed it according to each person’s need.

But we know that Christians, although constantly looking to be transformed by the Holy Spirit, often still get it wrong, and so an issue arose within the community. In Acts 6, we read that the Greek-speaking Jews complained that the Greek-speaking widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. 

The Message version of the story reads as follows, “So the twelve called a meeting of the disciples. They said, “It wouldn’t be right for us to abandon our responsibilities for preaching and teaching the Word of God to help with the care of the poor. So, friends, choose seven men from among you whom everyone trusts, men full of the Holy Spirit and good sense [wisdom -NIV], and we’ll assign them this task. Meanwhile, we’ll stick to our assigned tasks of prayer and speaking God’s Word.” 

I want to pause here and note a sense of dis-ease, as well as a few key aspects of the story before I get to the part that I think is the most important for this piece. I am aware that my dis-ease comes from how so many people have interpreted, and then taught, the apostles’ response in this chapter. Many people have taken their response to mean that the true work of the Kingdom is in preaching and praying, and that they couldn’t and shouldn’t be bothered with the “secondary” work of whether people get fed or not, unless they are specifically ‘called’ to it.

I don’t think this “ordinal” way of looking at ministry or gifting is correct or biblical. I believe that what we see here is an emergence of a new way of leading and of using everyone’s gifts and callings wisely. I love it that the bible doesn’t give us a footnote or a parenthetical passage to explain why it was that the widows were even being cared for and provided for within the beloved community. I love it that we don’t get a footnote to say this was an odd thing to bring to the attention of the Apostles. 

I  think that the twelve recognised the severity of the problem (this was not how the Gospel of the Kingdom was lived out), but also understood that the beloved community in which this was possible, was being formed through their commitment to a life of prayer and of helping people connect the dots between Scripture, the life, ministry, death and resurrection work of Jesus and the ways they could re-order their lives around this very Good News. This prayer and teaching was what underpinned and enabled the beautiful Way which the early Church was discovering. 

I love that the twelve didn’t take it on themselves to form a sub-committee that would report back to them. They called all the believers (it was that important an issue), suggested a wise way of identifying people gifted and able to carry out the task, left it to the group of believers to identify these individuals, and then released the people chosen fully into the ministry. This is a glimpse into how new ways of understanding discernment and leadership were emerging among the followers of the Servant-King.

All of this is important, but the two main aspects I really wanted to highlight are two which were brought to our community’s attention by Alexia Salvatierra during a learning session on Faith-Rooted Organising over three years ago. I think most of us had, up until that point, noticed one of the two aspects she highlighted, but I think for all of us, the combination of them brought a fresh wave of revelation that has guided our thinking richly since then. 

The first was highlighted when we looked at the names of the seven people whom the whole group of disciples chose to devise a more equitable system and to heal the breach in relationship that was brewing. All seven individuals chosen to address the inequity by devising a new system were  Greek-speaking Jews…those who were closer to the widows who had borne the brunt of the injustice, who could speak their language and could listen to the stories of the women to understand their experiences. 

The understanding of the problem (and therefore the solution to it) came from those who were oppressed or close to the oppressed. Those who enjoy the benefit of injustices, whether purposefully or by default, are rarely fully aware of the system that perpetuates it, nor the extent to which it affects others. 

The second aspect which was highlighted for us was that the group of seven were chosen to create a new system of equitable distribution for all the widows. They were not given a mandate to make sure the Greek-speaking widows were represented while others continued with the previous distribution system. Through communal discernment and selection, the beloved community chose these people – known to be full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom – and gave them full authority to create an entirely new system, which would ensure equitable distribution for all.

Can you imagine what could happen if we took this as our blueprint or bedrock of wisdom in imagining and moving forward with creating a new economy? Imagine if this was the manner in which we developed a new way for the resources of our land and the products of our people to be equitably distributed. 

Imagine if we put all our trust in the wisdom of people filled with the Holy Spirit and the wisdom of those who are bearing the brunt of inequality, or are closest to those bearing the brunt, to create new systems by which we could all flourish. Imagine we no longer looked to people who already benefit from the injustice of the system to somehow “fix” or “save” our economy – the same economy which before COVID-19 served so few while the majority of our people struggled to put bread on the table. 

How do we go about doing this? Who are the ‘widows’ in our context, and how do we centre their voices and experiences as we think about solutions? What, in our context, is at risk of being commodified? Who is getting wealthier, and who is being put in a position where they are forced to sell their bodies so that their families can eat? Who can see more clearly a way for all to flourish because they have borne the brunt of inequality for so long? How could we, as a Body, submit to their wisdom in providing a new way not just for those who are most marginalised and vulnerable, but for all of us? Where do those opportunities exist right now? What is the step we can take today to pursue them? 

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Epilogue

As my colleagues read this piece to give wisdom and feedback, so many more questions than answers still emerge: what role do we think the dreams Joseph had as a child and the way he chose to interpret them played in how he later responded to Pharoah’s vision? Why were there only men selected from the disciples to oversee the equitable distribution of food? In what way were the widows themselves given agency and in what way were they disempowered through the injustice and the means sought to remedy it? This, I think, is why even what is proposed in this piece as a better way of approaching solutions should never be reduced to a checklist or a “best” or “only” way, and why we should always read, analyse and interpret the text and context with a diverse group of people and in the company of the Holy Spirit! I hope this piece will be a conversation starter and an action-sparker as opposed to being received as a “statement” or guide!

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Footnotes:

* The quote is attributed to George Clooney

** This has only been a revelation to those who were not already bearing the brunt of those inequalities. Of course, for those who live on the brunt side of the inequalities, these were already more than clear

*** Manna and Mercy – A Brief History of God’s Unfolding Promise to Mend the Entire Universe is a book by Daniel Erlander as well as a training workshop run in South Africa by Central Methodist Mission, which also has sole reproduction and distribution rights of the book in South Africa. You can contact them on mannaandmercy.capetown@gmail.com

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