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Truth & Reconciliation

Genesis 43:1-11, 15    Psalm 37:1-11. 39-40 1 Corinthians 15:3, 5-38, 42-50                      Luke 6:27-38

I’ve been reading Tutu: The Authorised Portrait, by Allister Sparks and Mpho A. Tutu. With a foreword from Bono, and an introduction form his holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama, the reader immediately senses that this biography will be like no other.

When Desmond Tutu returned to South Africa in 1975 as dean of St Mary’s cathedral, it was at the time of student-led conflict in the Black townships over the discriminatory policies of apartheid.  It was a time when Nelson Mandela was still in prison, and with the passion of a prophet, Tutu felt he must speak out.  

His early life had not been without difficulty; and whilst his biography records that, his family was not poor by South African standards, life was a struggle as his parents tried to make ends meet.  Tutu contracted polio as a child, and tuberculosis as a teenager – it is a wonder that he survived, let alone lived such a demanding life.  Part of the amazing contribution to the welfare of all people, and with a deep sense of his own humility and God’s grace, Tutu worked tirelessly on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, set up as apartheid ended. 

The story of Joseph

We discover similar themes of reconciliation after several great traumas in the story of Joseph.  If you have time to read Genesis chapters 37-47, containing the Joseph cycle, you will discover all the ingredients a good journalist would delight in: avarice, greed, jealousy and sibling rivalry; sex and politics and intrigue.  But it is also a story revealing how this man dealt with bitter disappointment in his life.  By chapter 42, some years have passed since Joseph’s brothers left him in a pit before selling him into slavery to Midianite traders; all the while allowing their father to grieve his son’s ‘accidental death’, allegedly torn to shreds by wild animals.

In a time of famine, they had visited Egypt where the Governor accused them of being spies and yet when they return home they find silver among the grain.  The second visit proved even more bizarre when along with silver, a precious goblet in the sack of the youngest brother.  When Benjamin is arrested, the brothers stand together and Judah offers to take his brother’s place.  What a change of attitude from when Joseph had last seen them!  Perhaps this change of heart broke down Joseph’s defences and he began to weep; Joseph and his brothers are about to be reconciled – and at what emotional cost for Joseph.

But their surprise at his tears was nothing compared to hearing in Hebrew three short words, ‘I am Joseph!’   Now it was the turn of his brothers to feel a whole raft of emotions as their past wickedness surfaced once more! 

Betrayal had broken family bonds and this was a man in a place of power, who with one word, could avenge wrongs done to him in the past by his brothers. And yet he doesn’t.  Instead, we witness a triumph pf grace over judgment; words of forgiveness instead of curses, and the beginning of reconciliation.  This time when Joseph speaks, he added one simple word ‘brother’ – ‘I am your brother’, Joseph’.

Joseph was in a position of power, but under God rule, and he was able to demonstrate his profound understanding of God’s providence and turned wickedness to good.  His position enabled him to save many lives which would have otherwise been lost to famine.

Instead of rejecting or punishing them he forgave them.  Greeting Benjamin first, he embraced all his family and tears fell freely. Such is the wonder of forgiveness, of mercy and of grace. Healing and restoration had come after all these years. 

And this is God’s work to bring good out of evil; and to turn a curse into a blessing.  Yet how easy is it to identify God’s grace and redemption in many human experiences?

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission

At the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa in 1993, it was recognised that there was a great deal of work required to move from the past of a deeply divided society characterized by strife, conflict, untold suffering and injustice, to a future founded on the recognition of human rights, democracy and peaceful co-existence for all South Africans, irrespective of colour, race, class, belief or sex.  So, the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was set up by the Government of National Unity in 1995, to help deal with what happened under apartheid. 

‘… a commission is a necessary exercise to enable South Africans to come to terms with their past on a morally accepted basis and to advance the cause of reconciliation.’  Mr Dullah Omar, former Minister of Justice.

We have become more used to commissions of truth and reconciliation in many parts of the world following conflict and division, yet they should be no surprise for Christians, for at the heart of the Good News about Jesus is embedded the Golden Rule.  It is a key to interpreting ethics which is theologically grounded in the love of God as kind and merciful.

Imitatio Dei  – holiness and compassion

And as far back as the writings in Leviticus, are these words:

Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.       Leviticus 19:2  

We are called to imitate the holiness of God, but we are also called to imitate that other great quality of the divine, which is compassion.

The story of Joseph reconciling with his brothers is a story of compassion; the story of the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa is a story of mercy.

Throughout Scripture one of the clear messages concerns the compassion, love or mercy of God, and in case you may be tempted to think of God in the OT as a God of wrath, take a look at look to these well-known words: Lamentations 3:22f, Joel 2:13, Micah 6:6-8, Amos 5:21-24 (there are plenty more!)

In Christ

Jesus gathers up these beautiful strands revealing the holiness and loving kindness of God and invites those who follow him to model their lives on such characteristics. In summary, it is about love, which is revealed in doing good, bringing blessing to others, and praying for the enemy. Love, according to this pattern is tough indeed.

Ideally, those who live in the kingdom do not retaliate – it gets you nowhere; neither do they play the victim.  Instead, God’s children seek to bring healing and forgiveness because God has first loved us. 

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