My Imperial Imagination

GENESIS 45:16-28

16When the report was heard in Pharaoh’s house, “Joseph’s brothers have come,” Pharaoh and his servants were pleased. 17Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Say to your brothers, ‘Do this: load your animals and go back to the land of Canaan. 18Take your father and your households and come to me, so that I may give you the best of the land of Egypt, and you may enjoy the fat of the land.’ 19You are further charged to say, ‘Do this: take wagons from the land of Egypt for your little ones and for your wives, and bring your father, and come. 20Give no thought to your possessions, for the best of all the land of Egypt is yours.'”

21The sons of Israel did so. Joseph gave them wagons according to the instruction of Pharaoh, and he gave them provisions for the journey. 22To each one of them he gave a set of garments; but to Benjamin he gave three hundred pieces of silver and five sets of garments. 23To his father he sent the following: ten donkeys loaded with the good things of Egypt, and ten female donkeys loaded with grain, bread, and provision for his father on the journey. 24Then he sent his brothers on their way, and as they were leaving he said to them, “Do not quarrel along the way.”

25So they went up out of Egypt and came to their father Jacob in the land of Canaan. 26And they told him, “Joseph is still alive! He is even ruler over all the land of Egypt.” He was stunned; he could not believe them.27But when they told him all the words of Joseph that he had said to them, and when he saw the wagons that Joseph had sent to carry him, the spirit of their father Jacob revived. 28Israel said, “Enough! My son Joseph is still alive. I must go and see him before I die.”

“Oh, come on, Derrick! You can’t possibly have a negative spin on this story! This is the happy ending! This is where we’re getting to the good part! This is where things are finally starting to be made right”.

Dear Loyal Blog Reader,

I wish it were so. I wish we could say that this is the beginning of all good things. I wish we could say that this is solely a story of redemption and that there is nothing that even the most cynical of us could find as cautionary in this particular story. Oh that it were so.

Pharaoh tells Joseph’s brothers “don’t worry about your crappy Canaanite crap! I’m gonna give you some of my fine Egyptian bling!” That’s a fairly loose translation, but you get the point. And while this ends up being a nice redemptive piece for the Joseph and his family, this is also the beginning of the people of Israel being folded into the Egyptian Empire.

This is how empire works: it gives you a taste of what wealth and glory might look like and then it dangles those things in front of your face to force your submission and obedience. This has been the pattern for oppressed people throughout the centuries, to fall in love with the lure of empire, to want the stuff of the conquerors and to sacrifice your own personhood for sake of attaining that stuff.

My late church history Professor James Noel told a story once in class about missionaries using cargo planes to bring supplies to indigenous groups in Africa in order to evangelize. The native groups became so enamored with the cargo that they were willing to accept the Gospel for the sake of basking in the riches of their colonizers. This story always ends the same.

For my end, I confess to being seduced by the trappings of empire. Titles, wealth, fame, prestige, renown, power… all these things that are easily manipulated by the domination system have appeal for me. The more I study scripture the less I understand how we’ve allowed ourselves to see that Jesus’ message was firmly against the machinations of the domination system (to borrow John Dominic Crossan’s phrase). Most modalities of spirituality, in their purest forms, call us away from the trappings of imperial norms and call us to value those things that are lasting and of substance. May I continue to find in myself the strength to resist the appeal of empire.

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