Sunday, July 18, 2010

A King Who Did not Know Joseph

Abraham and Sarah left all that was familiar and dear to them to follow the promise of a better future. If asked for evidence of the promise, they could have provided no proof other than their faith—they were “undocumented.” This, the Scripture tells us, “the Lord reckoned [to them] as righteousness” (Gen 15:6).

Whether following the “pull” of a promised future or the “push” of conflict, economic distress, or famine, Abraham and Sarah’s descendants also lived lives shaped by migration. Their grandson Joseph was sold by his brothers along the trade lines that went to Egypt, only to be rejoined by his family years later because of a famine. In turn, their own descendants would be forced to escape from slavery in Egypt, embarking on a journey whose powerful imagery remains central to many faith traditions today.

These sacred stories have staying power because they mirror the complexity of our own lives and speak truth to our lack of permanence.

“My brothers sold me,” said Juventino during a discussion on the biblical story of Joseph. An undocumented immigrant from Guatemala, Juventino was one of the 389 people detained in the May 12, 2008, immigration raid in Postville, Iowa. “They didn’t literally sell me,” Juventino continued, responding to the puzzled look on other Bible study participants, “but because most of the land and wealth in my country is controlled by relatively few people, the rest of us who live in dire poverty are practically sold to the traders—the coyotes, the smugglers—who takes us north along the well-worn trade-routes followed by our coffee, bananas, and roses.” On the day of the Postville raid and the criminal prosecution that followed, Juventino further identified with Joseph’s story by sharing in the confusion and grief of going from being a trusted worker—praised for his hard work—to being viewed as a criminal and landing in jail in a foreign land.

Joseph’s story ends with success in his new land and a difficult but powerful reconciliation with his brothers. These basic details are recounted briefly at the beginning of the book of Exodus, which continues the narrative. Within a few verses, however, the narrative takes a sinister turn: “Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph” (Exodus 1:8). Following a troubling dream about seven fat cows and seven lean cows, an earlier Pharaoh recognized that he needed Joseph (an immigrant lingering in his jail) to help him both interpret his dream and address the pending national crises it revealed. By contrast, the new Pharaoh (who did not know Joseph) fails to see the immigrants as assets and rather sees them as a threat. Juventino’s identification with the Joseph story makes me wonder whether, in our current public perception and media portrayal of immigrants, we remember their contributions as much as the challenges they may pose to our communities. The increased global nature of our economy has resulted in a much more connected world; a world where, for example, a large portion of the food we eat every day originates in other countries or has been picked, processed, or milked by immigrant laborers in our own country. Further, an immigration system out of touch with this reality means that the vast majority of those doing this work do so without proper documentation. Do our elected officials, our “Pharaohs,” know these immigrants, these José’s who contribute to our economic well-being? Do we “know” José?