In Genesis 37 we read how Jacob’s favored son Joseph was sold by his jealous brothers into slavery — first to descendants of Ishmael (co-descendants of the brothers’ great-grandfather Abraham), and then, in turn, to the captain of the Egyptian palace guard.
Genesis 45:1-15 takes us to a time when Joseph, notwithstanding his enslavement, has prospered by God’s grace and is in a position to forgive — to save his brothers and aged father from a devastating famine.
Joseph does forgive and saves the very individuals — his brothers — who earlier enslaved him. This all unfolds in a scene of classic cathartic drama, replete with copious tears and seemingly a model of Freudian healing.
For me, this biblical scene came to mind in the aftermath of current events in Charlottesville, Va., and as I pondered the fresh news of what appears to have been a devastating terrorist assault in Barcelona. Hate engendered in racism was on display in the one, and made all the more poignant in the killing of Heather Heyer, and in the other in a mix of ancient animosity and current-day intense claims of unjust treatment, manifested in hate, put on display, in the killing of at least 14 and wounding of more than 100.
I wondered how it all might end, what balm might heal the pain, psychic and otherwise, of the victimized as well of the victimizers.
This past week, I thought about, especially, the catharsis in the ancient Egyptian palace in Genesis chapter 45, where open and obvious forgiveness seems to restore some degree of wholeness on all sides — not as a universal panacea, but nonetheless curing some significant dysfunction.
I also thought about the well-publicized example of the salutary effect, on public and private psyches, when family members of the victims of the Bible study class massacre at Mother Bethel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., openly forgave the killer in June of 2015.
On a more personal level, I remembered a cathartic experience that I had along these lines 15 to 20 years ago when I had to rise from my big, comfortable chair in the library of a private club in Washington, D.C., and seek cover behind a stately pillar, to weep out of sight almost violently, like Joseph, through the release of being asked for and extending forgiveness for painful wrongs experienced in my case almost 35 to 40 years earlier.
Briefly, I spent four years at and graduated with honors from a highly regarded private boarding school in New England. At my school, however, I was one of only two or three African American students in the middle of the 20th century. My four years there strengthened me in many ways — academically, spiritually, and socially (working through slights … bearing up). But in part, those four years also burdened me with some seemingly unshakable sadness and personal distaste (on reflection, the latter being perhaps a sort of “benign hate”) directed at boys from the South who marginalized me, derided me, and behind my back routinely ridiculed me by word and deed, and daily worked at driving away from me almost any who dared befriend me, branding them with the all too familiar term of the day of maximum opprobrium: “n--- — lovers.”
After “prep school,” I had in contrast a distinctly happy and fulfilled eight years of undergraduate and graduate education in Cambridge, Mass., and continued to achieve all the various facets, by God’s grace, of a successful life. Still, that residual sadness and benign “proto-hate” left over from my high school years persisted, undermining me to some degree — robbing me of an the ability to be appropriately spontaneous and to trust others outside my family and circle of friends.
Then one day — literally out of the blue, I thought — my office assistant informed me that one of my contemporaries from high school nearly 40 years earlier had telephoned and wished to talk to me at the school’s alumni reception in Washington the following week.
I was already leery of attending the reception, lest I encounter one or more of my old southern tormentors and be tempted to unburden myself, perhaps rudely, of my long-held feelings. Then when I learned that I was being summoned by one of my chief tormentors, I was convinced that I should simply not attend.
On the other hand, I thought: Why should I be leery? After all, our high school years were long ago. Besides, people change. And in any event, I am a reasonably longtime member in good standing of the club where the alumni affair is being held. And none of them is. I have every reason to be comfortable in a place where he or they are not!” I did not want to have anything to do with my teenage tormentors. But I attended anyhow.
When I arrived at the club, I quickly encountered the contemporary who had telephoned me. He insisted that we “huddle” right then and there, but out of the reach of others’ listening ears. So we retired to the club library, further down the hall, a good distance away from the area where the reception was taking place. Once seated, he dispensed with routine niceties. His conversation instead proceeded along these lines:
“I can imagine what you must be thinking. I know full well that I and the others in the southern contingent at (name of school) treated you horribly, during the three years that we overlapped. You weren’t imagining things; and what you heard about what we said and did behind your back wasn’t just the conflated reality of schoolboy gossip. We were terrible, really evil in our comportment. And I think it is time for me to apologize — for myself, and for the other guys in our group as well.”
The knot in my stomach grew tighter; and tears — his and mine — were about to flow. He continued:
“I also want you to know that what happened, what you had to put up with, was not in vain. I, and the couple of others who went to the same college I attended, started really thinking for ourselves as undergraduates, putting aside the ways of our home towns down south, and taking a good, hard look at the Civil Rights Movement which was already under way, at fever pitch, all around us.
“We realized that we had been part of the problem at the boarding school, and had done you great harm.” (I wanted to interject, but withheld, “What you did, God, family, friends, and Harvard un-did — nearly.”) “So to make amends,” he continued, “we joined in, as active members of the Civil Rights support group in college, and we continued that support — time and treasure — wherever we went thereafter, again, always thinking back and wanting to make amends for how we treated you.
“Not long after college, I got married and ran for public office in my little town in the Deep South. By siding with the black citizens (who were a majority of the adult population of the town, although of course less than a majority of the voting population), and taking up the cause of getting utilities service to the white and black folks who lived on the ‘other side of the tracks’ (literally and figuratively), I got myself elected mayor of my little town and diligently worked away at following up on my campaign promises.
“Well, to make a long story short, pretty soon, the Ku Klux Klan bombed my home. So I gathered up my wife and two little children and moved to Washington, D.C., where I worked in a low-level administrative job in the federal government while attending law school at night. You, Wes, in fact were an adjunct professor at my law school at the time. Well, believe you me, I scrupulously avoided your classes, lest you spot me and seek some kind of revenge, in the classroom or otherwise.
“Then again, thinking of you and what I had done that was so terribly wrong back in prep school — as a licensed lawyer I began working at making a career in the Justice Department, in the field of legal ethics and integrity. In fact, early on, I played a significant role in crafting the draft bill of indictment against President Nixon, for the forthcoming impeachment hearings in the House of Representatives. You know the rest of the story.”
At that point, really and truly, my mind raced back to Joseph in Genesis chapter 45. Like him, I was no longer able to control my feelings. I had to step behind one of the great, tall pillars near the entrance to the club library, where no one would see me, and weep uncontrollably. My friend — for by now the relationship had indeed changed, just that quickly, to friendship — beckoned me back. The cathartic moment was not just mine, but indeed mine and his. And as you might imagine, we both swore never to let racial prejudice get in the way of all that we had in common.
Not realizing the hackneyed nature of what he was saying, my friend recounted all of the African American acquaintances whom he and his wife had made since moving to Washington, and we pledged to “get together for lunch” soon. But this last was not to be. Through a lawyer in my firm whose children played in the same soccer league as the children of my “new old friend,” I learned that my heretofore prep-school nemesis was dying of pancreatic cancer. And in the obituary pages of the Washington Post just a few weeks later, I learned that he had died.
This last, the death, is not part of the lesson for us per se. Rather, the lessons here (in the plural) are:
• People can and some do change over time.
• Even embracing repentance even while some do not.
• Just maybe, after a time of discovery — arighting our skewed American history — there can be, and will be, healing.
• Real, deep, cathartic healing doubtless must be founded on the victim’s genuine forgiveness — real pardon
• At the end of the day, such pardon can be as much a gift to the giver as it is to the recipient.
May my prep-school contemporary rest in peace. Amen.
— The Rev. Dr. Wesley S. Williams Jr., K.St.J., is Bishop’s Sub-Dean for St. Thomas and St. John and Vicar of Nazareth by the Sea Episcopal Church in the Diocese of the Virgin Islands (U.S. and U.K.) and chairman of SRMC All Faiths Hospital Chaplaincy