Why Distance and Difference Cause Prejudice - Hope 103.2

Why Distance and Difference Cause Prejudice

Keep people at a distance and you only see them in blurry outlines. It’s then easy to perpetuate myths about them, writes Brian Harris.

By Brian HarrisFriday 6 Oct 2023Christian LivingReading Time: 4 minutes

In his profoundly insightful book Not in God’s Name, Jonathan Sacks asks how it was that Joseph’s brothers planned to kill him.

Fratricide is a pretty extreme response that we read about in Genesis 37:18-20.

Even if Joseph was a tad irritating, his brothers’ reaction is desperately over the top.

So, how had it got so badly out of hand?

Reflecting on this disturbing family affair in Genesis, Sacks notes that the brothers’ murderous conversation starts when they see Joseph at a distance.

They quickly dismissed him as an arrogant dreamer, someone very different to them.

Goodness, his colourful coat emphasised that.

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What a pretentious prat, wearing that cloak wherever he went to emphasise he was daddy’s favourite.

Sacks sums it up this way: Due to Joseph’s distance and difference, murderous thoughts took hold of his brothers’ hearts.

Distance and difference – the two D formula for stereotypes, prejudice and disaster.

Keep people at a distance and you only see them in the blurriest of outlines.

It’s then easy to perpetuate myths about them.

“Have you heard about them? They are…”

It’s so different when you let people get close. Then you discover that when they are cut, they bleed.

You might notice their silly sense of humour or their disarming humility.

You spot their wildest hopes, and become aware of their deepest sorrows.

Like you, they have unfounded fears and awkward lapses.

Like you, they can be hurt, and like you, they might sometimes behave badly – and show astonishing kindness, at other times.

When we allow people to get close, well, they get close, and we see things very differently.

How distance escalates division

But Joseph is not close when his brothers plan to kill him.

He is there in the distance as an annoying object.

They can speak about him, but he is too far away for them to speak with him.

That is always a formula for disaster – speaking about people but not with them.

Perhaps his brothers thought they already knew Joseph.

After all, it is not as though they had never spoken.

Oh my – they certainly remembered his bragging recollection of his strange dream.

So fanciful, predicting a day when they would be bowing down to him.

And talk about disrespectful.

How dare he think he was better than them.

Here they are doing the real work for their father – tending his flock – while Joseph is being mollycoddled at home.

Their anger escalates as they spur each other on.

Murder is soon on the agenda.

Distance puts you at great risk.

So does difference.

Joseph simply was different.

If you were his parents, Jacob and Rachel, you loved that about him.

I’m sure he was quirky and funny and loved dressing up – which is probably why Jacob gave him that disastrous gift of a coat of many colours.

Jacob meant no harm by giving Joseph that special garment but the damage it caused.

So much jealousy…

Joseph was clearly seen as the favoured one, and that can place you in a dangerous spot.

Much wiser to blend in, to be a little blah, another little vanilla photocopy of everyone else.

Joseph: Distant and Different

And so because Joseph is in the distance and different, murder finds its way on to the menu.

In the end they settle for selling him as a slave.

When he got closer and they saw his actual terror and how frail and vulnerable this teenager really was, perhaps they felt a stab of compassion.

When they could see him up close, was he really that bad?

Better to let him pass his days as a slave than in the grave.

That would certainly stop him from being different.

After all, no one more anonymous than a slave.

There are many ways to understand the tragic but eventually triumphant story of Joseph.

So much hatred.

So many wasted years.

So many regrets.

And the thread running through – distance and difference.

In the end, though, every barrier is broken down. As Joseph notes in Genesis 50:20, what his brothers had intended for evil, God had worked for good.

Such a remarkable story – and pertinent today.

What would happen if we allowed those who are distant to come close, and those who are different to widen our horizons?


Article supplied with thanks to Brian Harris.

About the Author: Brian is a speaker, teacher, leader, writer, author and respected theologian who is founding director of the AVENIR Leadership Institute, fostering leaders who will make a positive impact on the world.

Feature image: Photo by Bonnie Kittle on Unsplash