The theme of sibling rivalry runs through the book of Genesis—Cain versus Abel, Jacob versus Esau, Rebecca versus Leah, Joseph versus his older brothers—and on and on through human history. Whether you grew up with siblings or not, you have experienced some version of sibling rivalry. God forgive us, it is hard for us to learn to love ourselves and others without worrying that someone else might be loved more.[i]
Our daughter, an only child, was a toddler when our family first befriended a young single mother raising her infant daughter in the worst “housing project” in Nashville. Brittany’s mother had no money for extras, and Brittany had no safe place to play outside, so when Georgia and Brittany grew a bit older, I would drive across town to bring Brittany and her mom to our house for play dates. On Brittany’s third birthday, we threw her a birthday party and invited a couple of other women from our church who wanted to bring gifts. By then our daughter was almost 4. She had seemed excited as we planned the party, decorated the house, baked the cake, and wrapped the presents. It did occur to me early in the preparations that Georgia might need some token gift to open for herself. It might be confusing for her to see this other child receiving all the presents while Georgia, the only other child at the party, watched. It was impossible for Georgia at that age to understand how society had already privileged her lighter skin and her middle class parents over Brittany’s darker skin and her “welfare mother.” It was impossible for her to know that when we seemed to be favoring Brittany that one day, we were really just adding one grain of sand on Brittany’s side of the scale of justice that was already weighted far more heavily in Georgia’s favor. Cheapo that I am, I bought Georgia a big colorful bouncy ball –for all of 99 cents—which I figured would suffice as the token gift for my child.
True to form, Georgia quietly watched as Brittany delighted in all the attention and opened gift box after gift box of new clothes and toys and a doll. When a wistful expression crossed Georgia’s face, I pulled out her package. She looked a bit disappointed when her large box held nothing but a ball, but she said nothing. Until that night. After birthday girl Brittany and her adoring fans had left our house, after all signs of the party were cleared away and as I was tucking Georgia into bed, she sent a little dagger straight into my heart. Sounding neither petulant nor angry, she spoke as the steely voice of prophetic justice: “Mommy, at MY birthday party, YOU will get the ball.”
Oh my. How hard it is for us to know how to be fair when life is not. The Qur’an’s version of Joseph’s story says he was favored not only because he was the first son of Jacob’s favorite wife and the son of Jacob’s old age, but also because Joseph was stunningly handsome.[ii] Even our physical appearances, over which we have little control, are evaluated so as to favor some over others. It’s said that a good parent is one whose every child secretly believes that he or she is the favorite. But maybe good parenting actually produces children who do not measure their self-worth against another, who do treat everyone equally and stand beside those who might not have enough.
Maybe the spiritually mature stop asking: “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest . . . smartest . . .richest . . . strongest . . . of them all?” Maybe the spiritually mature turn the mirror into a window and use it to gaze with compassion out onto the world.
We can smile at a child’s need to be Daddy’s favorite. But the truth is, when we seek favoritism or resent it in others, we want far more than to be loved. We want to be loved above all others. And so we turn a relationship into a competition. Before we can really love others, we have to be willing to stop competing. Only when we are grounded in a mature relatedness to a Divinely Selfless Love can we escape the temptation to buy or sell favors. Only when we give up the quest for privilege can we accept the love that is already ours.
Of course, I’ve been describing the privileging one individual gives to another individual. But there’s a concerted, system-wide privileging of one group of people over others. The storytellers who produced Genesis could recognize how Jacob the Patriarch played favorites with his wives and his sons. But they were utterly blind to systemic unfairness—in the slavery system they took for granted, for instance, and in the oppression of women that was simply part of the air they breathed and the desert sands upon which they pitched their tents.
But you and I can spot it. As one writer says of the women of Genesis, they “play an increasingly diminished role as the book moves along. In the beginning, man and woman got equal billing, both created in the image and likeness of their creator. From that point onward, women seemed to get a shorter and shorter end of the stick.”[iii] Hidden within the Jacob saga, you see, is a daughter. Jacob (later known as Israel) had 12 sons who generated the 12 tribes of Israel. But Jacob also had a daughter. Who knew? We should have. Dinah’s story is told 3 chapters earlier. But it is rarely taught or preached.[iv]
And even if you were to stumble upon this story in Genesis 34, a dramatic, very adult story of her rape and the ruthless vengeance her brothers enacted upon the entire city of Shechem (slaughtering all the men, enslaving all the women and children, and plundering all their goods)—even if you were to read this bloody tale—you would never hear Dinah’s voice or know what she felt or know for sure if indeed she had been raped and wanted her honor defended or if instead she had given herself to the prince of Shechem but her tribe stole her back like a sack of loot. Dinah never speaks a word in the biblical story. She was a pawn in a political scheme. A piece of property. She didn’t matter as much as some others.
Despite our avowed commitments to equal opportunities for all, there are some children in our culture who just don’t matter as much as others. Children in certain parts of town, in certain schools, in certain circumstances—lack the advantages of other children. We play favorites—mostly, I believe, unwittingly, but quite systematically. In my first year of teaching, a veteran teacher told me the only way to “control” my tenth grade class of “basic” students was to keep them constantly busy doing “worksheets”. “Don’t try any of that creative stuff you use with your college-bound classes,” she warned. In subtle ways that Jean Anyon documented in a seminal article in 1980 and which I’ll greatly oversimplify here, schools in poorer communities tend to inculcate values and skills that prepare students for more menial jobs for lower pay. For instance, students in poor communities are more likely to be rewarded for following directions and discouraged from thinking outside the box. In contrast, schools in more affluent neighborhoods tend to prepare their students for leadership and professional roles through a pedagogy that fosters creativity, questioning of authority, collaboration, and problem-solving. The research suggests there are different ways students and teachers communicate, depending on the prevailing economic environment of the school’s community. The article doesn’t argue that an organized conspiracy exists to educate children who were born into a social class to stay in that social class. It does suggest there is an invisible if unintended curriculum in the educational system that reinforces classism and favors some students over others.[v]
We have collected school supplies today that will be distributed later to children whose parents, like Brittany’s mother, have trouble making ends meet. It is a small thing for us to do. A few pencils and notebooks will hardly level the playing field. But it is something. A bigger thing to do, of course, is an offering of time and compassion and energy through, for instance, the Reading Buddy program in which Rosemarie and Mary participated. Another bigger thing to do is to advocate for a quality education for all children. In God’s economy, when we shine our favors upon one previously unfavored child, we do not have to diminish the prospects of another. There are enough in the village to raise all our children as favored ones in the beloved community.
This talk of favoritism can be problematic, of course. Since some biblical characters play favorites, we might also wonder, does God? Certainly many biblical and contemporary voices CLAIM they are favored by God who has awarded them an exclusive pipeline to truth or power or blessing. Certainly people today, as in biblical times, CLAIM that God favors their side in military battles and culture wars.
But notice whom God favors. It is not the mighty. The most favored one introduced early in Luke’s Gospel is a nobody. A woman. A girl, actually. An unwed mother. A first century welfare mom. Yet strangers lavished her child with birthday presents because God’s favor found its way to a stinking stable. God will elevate the lowly. So Mary sang about a God who was mindful of her humble state. She rejoiced because God scatters the proud and brings down rulers and sends the rich away empty but lifts up the humble.
Yes. The Bible speaks of chosenness—but God chooses the unchosen, favors the unfavored, privileges the unprivileged. When the powerful and the complacent don the biblical mantel of chosenness, then they are misconstruing one of the Bible’s central themes.
More children this school year need to feel “chosen”—for a kickball game and for life. I understand why the downtrodden need to speak of being chosen. I understand why Jesse Jackson taught children the mantra, “I am somebody.” But for people in power to assert their chosenness and lay claim to God’s favor is a misunderstanding of the Gospel that has love enough for all.
Wendell Berry alludes to an earlier part of the Jacob story in a poem appropriately wary of claiming chosenness. Imagine a child at Florence Howard Elementary School or a troubled teen at Strickland Youth Center or you yourself speaking these words:
If there are a “chosen few”
then I am not one of them,
if an “elect,” well then
I have not been elected.
I am one who is knocking
at the door. I am one whose foot
is on the bottom rung.
But I know that Heaven’s
bottom rung is Heaven
though the ladder is standing
on the earth where I work
by day and at night sleep
with my head upon a stone.
[i] Parents might consult this site to help their children deal with sibling rivalry: http://www.med.umich.edu/yourchild/topics/sibriv.htm
[ii] p. 149. Seyyed Hossein Nasr. “Divine Beauty: The Quar’anic Story of Jospeh and Zulaykha” in Talking about Genesis. New York: Double Day, 1996.
[iii] P. 193. Burton L. Visotzky. The Genesis of Ethics: How the Tormented Family of Genesis Leads Us to Moral Development. New York: Three Rivers Press, 1996.
[iv] Anita Diamont’s novel The Red Tent tries to fill this void by imagining Dinah’s story and the world of the women we can barely glimpse in the biblical narrative.
[v] Jean Anyon. “Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work.” Journal of Education, Vol. 162, no. 1, Fall 1980.
PRAYER: Thank you for our brothers and sisters, O God–our siblings by birth and our siblings through our humanity. Thank you for the lessons they have taught us. Allow us to say difficult words like: “I’m sorry” or “I love you.” Equip us to do difficult work like treating all your children with dignity and justice. Amen.