Sexual Abuse, Power, and the Gospel
The sacred story comes from Genesis 39:1-23. Read the full story here.
How did we get here? What on earth is going on? As Joseph sits in a desperate jail cell, I can only imagine the questions racing through his mind. How did we get here? Just a couple generations ago, Abraham and Sarah were declared the parents of the great family, rooted in a covenant with God. They had to leave their home, struggled to conceive but then used their slave’s sexuality for their needs. Their grandsons, Jacob and Esau, fought each other from the beginning, conspired and betrayed their own family. And now, Jacob’s children have conspired together to kill Joseph, but settled on selling him into human trafficking, only for him to end up the victim of sexual assault and thrown in a foreign jail cell. We don’t do ourselves or the gospel any favors by ignoring these issues, or quickly brushing past them to get to more comfortable things. If we can’t be honest about it as church, where can we be?
I thought being people of the covenant would look different. Promised lands, “being blessed to be a blessing”, God’s chosen and beloved people and all that – I mean, I knew it wouldn’t be easy or perfect, but I thought it would be a little rosier than…THIS. How did we get here? These are questions we may be asking ourselves about our own families, our communities, our own culture.
Joseph was once his father’s favorite, his beloved, with whom Jacob was well pleased. But he was betrayed by those closest to him, and was delivered unto death. Even when Joseph rises within the house of Potiphar, he is betrayed by the powerful and condemned. It’s a pattern that defines us as CHRISTIANS, isn’t it? And yet, in the midst of the trauma, we still wonder…Where is God in all of it? What does God want from us?
What defines the WORLD is power. Power shapes society into what it is, for better or worse. And unfortunately we know plenty of stories in which power is abused and misused. Here, the household of the captain of the guard in the powerful nation of Egypt, uses their power to pressure Joseph, to use him as an object that serves their own desire and power, and then ultimately shame and condemn him, knowing they will never have to suffer the consequences.
In this dynamic, Joseph is powerless. He is an Ethnic minority (which we hear clearly when he is referred to as…THIS Hebrew). He is socially at the bottom of the heap as a slave. He becomes the victim as power is exerted for exploitation, and a position of authority is abused for sexual gain.
It can be tempting to view “power” as something distant from ourselves – as belonging to others, or to distance ourselves by saying that sort of power is so much more or different than what we have. But power isn’t only held in titles and wealth, badges and bureaucrats. Power is also…knowing that your perspective will be believed and valued by others with power. It’s in knowing how the system works or having the resources either mentally, relationally, or financially to navigate that system with safety and benefit. And that kind of power is abused not only when it is intentionally exerted over and against someone else, but also when it’s neglected, when we fail to acknowledge it at all.
That’s hard to wrap our minds around. Maybe we expected power to look different. Maybe we expected it to look like a shiny car, fancy suit, or a big house. Maybe we thought power came in the form of a bunch of followers on social media, when all it really means is access and influence.
Maybe this gets us to thinking power = evil, but power isn’t inherently bad. God is powerful. Jesus wields incredible power, power over the grave itself. Earthly power functions for the sake of itself. God shows us what power does for the sake of the Gospel, in the creation of a new kind of kingdom.
Where is God, the almighty, in Joseph’s story? God, in power, goes and sits with the powerless, aligns itself with the vulnerable. What’s happening to Joseph is unfair. This isn’t right. He is suffering. And yet, the bible tells us over and over - the LORD was with him, the LORD was with Joseph. The scriptures highlight that God is particularly present and active alongside the victimized, the incarcerated, the vulnerable, the ethnic minority, the foreigner.
The question of “if the lord was with him, how could God let this happen?” is never answered. But what God does in the midst of all this is shown as the story continues. Through all of it Gods finds a way to keep promises. Right now, we’re in the middle of the story. As it continues to unfold, Joseph’s life is revealed to have deep meaning and he lives on to help save the people, both the nation that and its powerful that betray him here, and his family that betrayed him before. This does not excuse abuses and harm, but it offers us a different kind of question, a shift in the way we look at these things. When our world is in chaos, where can God take us from here?
Someone is betrayed to the point of death. And yet in that death and betrayal, God doesn’t give up on us. God gets to work to redeem even the betrayer. This is the shape of the cross, right here in Genesis - that when suffering happens, we can expect God to show up. This gospel is tough to hear when we are the one betrayed and hurt. We want justice and we have ideas about what that justice should look like. God’s justice is to disrupt the things that led others to harm another in the first place and to make everyone involved whole in ways that ripple justice into the future.
So if God and the Gospel, the new world order, is mostly clearly present among the powerless, the victims…where are we in all this? As we’ve seen, it’s not that the powerful are over here without God and the powerless are over there. God is power and in this Gospel truth, hope comes to bloom where the powerful and the powerless meet and are joined together, aligned with one another. So if we are those who have been exploited and hurt, how are we holding the powerful accountable? How are we pointing to God’s persistent presence and promise even in our struggle, offering hope when it seems unlikely? And if we are those with access and influence, how is God inviting us to make use of these things in service to the vulnerable so that we all might experience God more fully? So that we all live into our already- accomplished redemption here and now? Thinking of our power in this way takes hard work. I invite you to pray and reflect on this. What do you have access to that you maybe haven’t considered before? This building? Because space is valuable. Schools and knowing how to succeed in them? Because education deserves equity. Civic associations? Because local decisions still impact those who don’t have an advocate. Do you have experience and knowledge in how to start a business, finance a dream? Consider even the power of your voice – speaking up in solidarity with – knowing that your voice will be trusted and believed where others are not.
God is here. God is with you. The Lord is with you, with all God’s power and promises from generation to generation. God has never left you and never will. Nor does God in the cross, leave us where we are, unchanged, but is continually bringing life out of death…for all of us…together. Amen.