As the trauma of 2020 overshadows the dawning of 2021, increasingly I am convinced that the Old Testament book of Genesis can assist us with transitioning into the New Year. It gifts us with secrets about resilience, as found in relationships. This is because narratives of trauma and people’s responses to trauma saturate Genesis.
Genesis is the first book in the Bible. If read through a trauma-informed lens, we note that the pain of unhealthy relationships thickens Genesis – for example, Adam and Eve’s pain of living with the knowledge that their son Cain killed his brother Abel; Noah and wife witnessing the obliteration of life through flood; Isaac, Rebekah, Esau and Jacob’s destructive rivalry over an inheritance; Jacob’s complex relationship with a scheming father-in-law; and Joseph, who is human-trafficked by his brothers.
During 2020, I reflected a few times on the Joseph in Genesis and how he faced trauma. Who is this Joseph? Genesis tells us that Joseph was born to Jacob and Rachel and is the 11th of 12 children in his family. At 17, he was sold by his brothers to slave traders and then on to Potiphar. He was sexually harassed by Potiphar’s wife, who persecuted him, and he was jailed. At 28, he interprets a dream for fellow prisoners, who promise to help him – but forget him. At 30, he interprets a prediction for Pharaoh. He becomes the most senior public servant in Egypt, and manages Egypt’s seven years of economic expansion. There was a drought and the boom busts. In his late thirties, whilst managing Egypt’s economic downturn and implementing their food-security project, Joseph faces his traffickers – his brothers – who request emergency food assistance. Joseph is understandably distressed but warily decides to help his birth family. Genesis 50:20 records Joseph as saying, ‘You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives’.
Now it is true that Christians are not the only group reading Genesis. For example, the scholar, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks – who recently passed away – in his book Covenant and Conversation: Genesis The Book of Beginnings v.1 presents an analysis of human-to-human relationships and the human-to-God relationship. Buber, a philosopher, understood the importance of relationships highlighting them in his book I and Thou.
Why does Genesis attract readers? Genesis’ power is its honesty – presenting stories of humanity, narrations of human struggle. Genesis reminds us that life is dynamic, not static, and not defined by trouble. Similarly, the multiple traumas of 2020 do not have to define us in Australia. Yes, I believe that the traumas of 2020 will affect 2021. However, a faith perspective challenges me to engage an alternative and authentic narrative which recognises trauma as a part of life. In 2021, I have the opportunity to continue to be defined by Jesus and my relationship with Him.
As we turn the pages of our own life stories from 2020 to 2021, we have a unique chance to review the past 12 months and contemplate what has happened to us and those we love. Many in Canberra and surrounds are marvellous front-line public servants or know someone who is an essential worker. The Australian Bureau of Statistics in their Employment and Earnings, Public Sector, Australia July 2019-June 2020 website reports that the public service alone employed 2,041,200 people. I thank our politicians and the many public servants and other essential workers for all you did in 2020 to help Australia navigate the disasters.
Further, much of what happened in 2020 felt unfair, and the complexities of 2020 are already spilling into 2021. As we Aussies individually faced the complexities of life – drought, fires and smoke, hail, flood, coronavirus, injustice, and mental health challenges – and as we scream out, ‘When will it stop?’, we can rest in the knowledge that this scream is an ancient anguish.
Additionally, the Joseph story in Genesis tells us that the contraries of existence parented Joseph. For example, Joseph experienced family life and aloneness; freedom and slavery; exclusion and social inclusion; injustice and power; trauma and reconciliation; and abundance and famine. Regardless of what happened, Joseph was resilient because of his relationship with God; God knew life was unfair for Joseph. This Joseph-God relationship, the I-Thou relationship where God is the ultimate Thou, defined Joseph as a public servant, family member and individual. Yes, Joseph had his own personal dark thoughts, yes, he had to deal with his family-related trauma, and yes, he faced injustice and the stress of spending time in jail due to a trumped-up charge. However, his relationship with God defined Joseph, and this informed his actions.
Can we engage with the Joseph story today? Joseph’s experiences are a timely reminder that God remembers us and knows our situation. When times are hard during COVID-19, we can reach out to others for professional and personal help. Additionally, we can engage the option of praying and remembering the greatness of Jesus. What is this greatness? The Apostle’s Creed describes Jesus this way: Jesus is God’s ‘only son, our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into the dead; the third day He rose again. He ascended into heaven, He is seated at the right hand of the Father, and He will come to judge the living and the dead.’
As we continue to deal with the disaster, COVID-19, and as 2020 ceases and 2021 starts tick-tocking, we have the option of leaning into Jesus and letting Jesus journey with us through our trauma. How do we know we have this option? Buber posits that people can bear witness regarding their experience of God. I met Josephine (details anonymised as per ethics approval) through a research project that has been published: ‘Three rural Anglican Churches engaging with people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.’ This project was a partnership between Charles Sturt University, Bush Church Aid and The Anglican Diocese of Bendigo. Josephine was an overseas student. On arrival to Australia, Josephine was alone and lonely. She suffered the traumas of culture shock and being isolated from all dear to her. Josephine also felt she was at risk of failing her course. Josephine stopped eating and began losing weight fast. Around this time, she started thinking about Jesus and attending an Anglican church. A person at the church encouraged her and cooked food for her. Josephine explained to me that she very much appreciates her faith in God through Jesus, belonging to an Anglican church, and the resilience that Jesus and her church community gives her.
So what does all this mean? Genesis, the Joseph narrative and Josephine’s story all testify: God is with us. In 2021, faith will still matter. The Bible explains that God sent Jesus and that because of who Jesus is, complexity, difference, and trauma do not have to define us. The Bible also explains that Jesus and his enabling make us resilient. People have the option to remember and celebrate Jesus’ birth and to role model Jesus’ actions of blessing others.
Recently, I shared with friends connected with CBM Australia Luke 14 Program and also with a group at a church with the Anglican Diocese of Canberra and Goulburn these thoughts: ‘As 2020 ends and 2021 starts, I am aiming to remember, that we have a yesterday that makes us resilient; a today to engage with Jesus and bless others; and a tomorrow for which we can plan to do good things for our neighbours.’
At this most unusual time in history, my prayer is that you and I will not be defined by trouble, and that we will not journey the next stage of the pandemic alone. We have the option of nestling into Jesus, connecting with a church community and knowing the resilience that faith and healthy relationships can bring.
by Monica Short
Affiliation: Lecturer and Social Science researcher at Charles Sturt University. Proud member of the Anglican Church of Australia. Please visit https://researchoutput.csu.edu. au/en/persons/mshort07csueduau for a list of publications.