Sunday Meditations: Time to turn up the heat

It’s Martin Luther King weekend and there are a number of celebrations of his life and legacy happening around the country. My hope this weekend is that we let the truth in his words teach us, even when they condemn us.

There was a time when the church was very powerful–in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.”‘ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are.

Austin Channing wrote powerfully this week about what she learned from Selma about the ways in which black women, in particular, are silenced. She encourages us to recognize the influence of evil when it comes against us and gives us wise ways to resist:

Ava let me watch MLK resist taking on responsibility for the deaths of civilians and hand it back to a government who refused to demand police protection over police brutality. Ava let me watch MLK remind the white power structure that the subject of the conversation was not the noise of the demonstrations but the lack of action on their part. Ava let me watch MLK strategically reframe every “legitimate” reason to stop. Ava let me watch MLK remain resistant not just in the big ways- huge demonstrations and soaring speeches. She let me see him on the phone, in meetings, in small rooms, in one-on-one conversations. She let me see him where I live my life, where I love the Church.

As you participate in holy resistance, I hope you, too, will be invigorated by these small but signifcant scenes. I hope you will see your role as quite political. I hope you will see yourself as capable of strategizing and reframing. I hope that you will own your power to see clearly. I hope that you will speak truth to power, fully embodied in who you are and what you have been called to do. I hope you let your little light shine.

It’s been a cold, hard winter so far for a lot of folks. And some of us are still sitting idly by, settling for passivity instead of intentional, active engagement.

I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.

-Revelation 3:15-16

Let’s do the work of a thermostat and turn up the heat this week by working for justice. Go here to learn more about the work and demands of organizers and how you can help, join, and support them.

Clergy on Twitter are showing solidarity tweeting pictures of themselves with the hashtag #usemeinstead in response to this story about Florida cops using images of incarcerated black men as target practice.

My friend Caris put together some images of MLK quotes you can use on social media, too. Check them out.

Thanks, Caris!

Thanks, Caris!

White lies: they won’t kill you if you’re peaceful

A lot of people I talk to about police brutality ask me, “Why don’t black folks just submit to cops and cooperate?” It’s a seemingly reasonable question, but it makes a couple of important assumptions: 1) black folks aren’t cooperative with or appropriately respectful of police in the first place, and 2) brutality and harassment are in some way the responsibility of the victim, and not the perpetrator. The idea that black folks can perform for their own humanity is downright offensive.

This concept is called “respectability politics.” A quick primer from Gradient Lair:

The politics of respectability originated as cultural, sexual, domestic, employment and artistic “guidelines” or “rules” for racially marginalized groups to follow in the effort to be viewed as “human” in a White supremacist society and by individual Whites. Some of the most noticeable manifestations of the politics of respectability occurs among Black people because of the history dehumanization because of slavery.

The politics of respectability implies that recognition of Black humanity has to be “earned” by Black people by engaging in puritanical behavior as approved by White supremacy…behaviors that Whites themselves don’t have to engage in to “prove” humanity because of White privilege; they’re always viewed as “the default human.”

During the post-Civil War era and early-mid 20th century, the politics of respectability was viewed as a source of power or galvanization of Black middle class society, and a way to combat White supremacist myths of automatic Black inferiority associated with poverty and degradation. (There are arguments to be made that this helped the women’s club movement among Black women’s anti-racism, womanist work in the early 20th century). However, what it ended up doing in many cases was fragmenting the Black working class/poor from the Black middle class, who despite performing respectability to spec, were often still alienated from the Whites they sought approval from. (Where do you think “uppity Negro” comes from? This.) And Black people regardless of class were (and still are) targets of racism.

Today, the politics of respectability is forcefully injected into any conversation about race by both Black and White people. Bill Cosby and Don Lemon are examples. And anytime they shame and scold fellow Black people (as the President has done sometimes too) Whites applaud because once again, they have ZERO accountability for racism.

This myth that White-approved performance (versus actually living) will eradicate racism because Whites will finally “like” Black people is ludicrous and is pushed by those who engage in victim blaming, since it’s easier than admitting the truth about racism.

Black people are human and shouldn’t have to “audition” for humanity based on clothing, speech style, neighborhood lived in, educational level etc. These rules are meant to dehumanize and justify oppression. And if the President of the United States was asked “papers please?” then obviously resume, grooming, education, and even power is irrelevant in a Black body; obviously the politics of respectability won’t save.

When we white folks argue that black folks should just cooperate with dehumanization, we are ignoring the fact that black parents have been giving de-escalation advice to their children for centuries. Giving children counsel on how to show deference to dangerous white folks is such a common conversation that it has come to be known as “The Talk.”

In a country where respected black men like LeVar Burton can be pulled over without cause or men like professor Henry Louis Gates can be arrested for “breaking into” their own homes, attempts at de-escalation by black folks is certainly not guaranteed to be effective.

During the prosecution of Jordan Davis’ killer, Davis’ mother, Lucia McBath, talked with writer Ta-Nehisi Coates about the uncertainty that the killer, who had been let off by a hung jury in his first trial, would see justice:

I am disheartened that as far as we’ve come it doesn’t matter that we have a black president. It doesn’t matter how educated we’ve become. It doesn’t matter because there still is an issue of race in this country. No, we have not really arrived. If something like this can happen, we have not arrived.

Jordan Davis, like so many of his peers, was raised in a loving home, by parents that taught him to respect authority and be above reproach under scrutiny, even though they knew it might not be able to save his life. Respectability doesn’t consistently win the day. Davis’ family finally saw a conviction of his killer, but for many others, their deaths go unpunished. Coates writes elsewhere, speaking of white parents who discover the dangers their black children face:

This scenario is almost indistinguishable from any black parent forced to confront the future of their child in this country. The heart of the problem is that the mother’s child has been kicked out the dome and thrown into the wiles where—like all of us—her child stands a not-insignificant chance of becoming Jordan Davis.

And [2014] was the summer of Jordan Davises, the summer of bodies when every day, a black parent could log on to the Internet and see the bodies of black people choked into oblivion, beaten on the side of the road, stalked and raped, tased for straying too long, pistol-whipped for running too fast, shot down for mental illness, shot down for cos-play, shot down for allegedly ignoring orders, shot down for too quickly obeying orders.

Respectability is not the answer. Respectability interrogates the wrong actor and puts the responsibility for not-being-killed on the victim rather than the person who is abusing power or perpetrating the crime. We casually tell young black people that if they just cooperate with abusive systems, they will be fine. They might get arrested, but they won’t be killed. They can get a lawyer and live to fight another day.

But that advice ignores the disparities that we have in the racialized justice system. Racist policing might be one of the first threats, but it’s certainly not the only one. It often gets worse after the arrest. Jonathan Rapping writes:

We have accepted a criminal-justice narrative that lumps the world into categories of villains and heroes. Police and prosecutors are good guys in white hats. The communities they police—particularly poor and minority communities—are presumed dangerous. It is this dehumanization that lulls us into complacency, suppressing our outrage over the fact that 2.2 million, almost exclusively poor people are warehoused in conditions so deplorable that some would rather die than live in them (consider the sixty-day hunger strike last year at Pelican Bay State Prison protesting inhumane living conditions). It allows us to remain blind to the fact that the vast majority of people in the criminal-justice system are processed from arrest to conviction with only an overwhelmed and under resourced public defender to try to get them justice. It enables us to accept a system which disproportionately punishes people based on race. It enables us to become completely detached from the people and families destroyed by our indifference, and to accept “tough on crime” policies that destroy America’s most vulnerable communities.

The battle for equal justice will only be won when we demand equal treatment in every aspect of our justice system. We must muster outrage over the routine dehumanization that happens in our criminal-justice system, rather than reserve it for the most extraordinary instances of injustice, if we are to maintain a movement for change.

As Christians, it’s even more imperative that we reject respectability politics. We have to start asking ourselves, why do we only value human life when it is respectable? Is that attitude consistent with the gospel of human life that we preach? Did Christ die for the respectable? When He walked the earth, did Christ live among the respectable? Was He Himself “respectable“?

Jesus challenged evil in the authorities and principalities of his day. Does He still not challenge the evil in ours? We should join Him there and stand in solidarity with the marginalized instead of blaming them for their oppression. After all, He is the prince of peace, and they killed Him, too.

FullSizeRender

Don’t buy the lies of white supremacy. Black lives matter.

Deflection

A dramatization of ‭Matthew‬ ‭23, inspired by conversations I’m having about Ferguson‬:‭

Then Jesus said, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.”

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.”

And a man nearby responded, “Not all Pharisees.”

IMG_4560.JPG

Creative destruction: Ferguson, White Responses, and the Gospel

I’ve been thinking a lot this last week about the world Jesus was born into: a world where some Jewish people were exiled, others living under Roman occupation. The Jews in Israel were ruled by one of their own, a royal governor, whose allegiance to his people was never as strong as his allegiance to the Roman state, the source of his power. It is into this system our God comes in the flesh to dwell among humankind. His birth is immediately met with sweeping violence, the loss of a generation of young boys and babies because the mere existence of a Jewish Messiah was too great a risk for the governor to take. For this Emmanuel threatened to completely expose the king’s misplaced loyalty. Christ questioned the legitimacy of the king’s power simply through the defiant act of growing up, of surviving.

Our Emmanuel still comes to us in these times when young people lose their lives to powers that were supposedly installed to protect and serve justice.

KilledByCops_Infographic8Our Emmanuel still comes and flips over tables in our temples, asking us to consider what could possibly be more valuable than the human beings that bear His image? Surely not our places of commerce. Surely not the well-established disorder we absentmindedly worship. I think about the heat and rage in this image of Jesus chasing money changers out of the temple. I can’t imagine a more upsetting scene than a previously patient and peaceful teacher, a devout Jewish man, thrashing about and destroying property His people thought was sacred, devoted to God’s work.

141126065626-03-ferguson-1126-horizontal-gallery

The Jews were so used to this system. It’s just how it worked. This is how God wants it, right? It was painful to the most vulnerable, yet so familiar and entrenched it demanded cooperation. But Jesus wanted them to see it for what it was: a yoke of oppression. In Luke, He says, “The Spirit of the Lord has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free.” He delivered on that promise, but whether it was in the temple courts or on the cross where Jesus died, surely from the outside, it all looked like destruction.

Austin Channing wrote this week:

I serve a demonstrating Christ. Surely Christ could have stood on the steps of the temple, at the entrance and waved his arm toward the commotion. Surely he could have declared to anyone who would stop long enough to listen, “Do you see what is happening in there?” “Don’t you think someone should stop this?” Surely he could have taken his twelve from stall to stall and quietly pointed out each atrocity before his eyes. Calmly explaining his rationale to each seller, he could have ministered to each one persuading them to do what it right. Surely he could have been patient and kind asking each one to please leave the temple. Surely he could have used humor to catch people off guard. Or perhaps he could have waited- waited until the day was done, until Passover was done, until the Temple was done. Surely he could have… could have done anything other than demonstrate.

But I serve a Christ who disrupts.

In the past week, we’ve seen much agitation in our country. There have been intense and deliberate attempts to discredit the work and motives of the righteously indignant people of Ferguson. For months, for years, even lifetimes for some of them, these folks have been working for a new order that addresses historic and systemic injustices. Scripture says the enemy of God prowls like a lion. It warns us to be sober and alert. Twitter activists keep reminding all of us to #staywoke. I imagine the Enemy’s pace is quickening even now as we collectively and individually consider the possibility that this system we take for granted and call “order,” is in fact, white supremacy: an evil that must be uprooted in our hearts, our churches, and every human institution.

We are told in Scripture to get mentally and spiritually destructive about this:

For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, (‭2 Corinthians‬ ‭10‬:‭3-5‬ ESV)

Yet, I’m still seeing white Christians post this malarkey unchallenged by their white friends:

Image links to Organize Missouri's donation page for Ferguson protestors' bail fund

Image links to Organize Missouri’s donation page for Ferguson protestors’ bail fund

So when we see conversations about Ferguson take the ugliest of turns, we must respond with truth that affirms the humanity of all involved. We cannot congratulate any person on the taking of human life. Nor can we sit idly by while people are called or treated as “animals.”

Lord, be merciful, for we are quick to condemn that which we are slow to understand. I thought momentarily about prefacing this whole post with “I don’t condone rioting,” but I’m not going to dismiss what’s been happening that easily. The situation requires inquiry and empathy not qualification or pat denouncements. Such condemnations attempt to keep the pain and anger of this community at a distance, and it reinforces a respectability standard that is unjust and impossible for black people to maintain. Roxane Gay wrote this week:

If we were talking about the murder of my child, I would not be dignified. I would be naked and hideous with my grief. I would rage. If I were murdered in such a manner, I would want people to rage on my behalf. I would want to be remembered loudly, with fire. Such visible outrage could be its own kind of grace.

Don’t misunderstand those words. Violence is not the answer but neither is peace.

White supremacy has been pressing down hard for centuries. Sometimes, folks are going to push back hard, especially when little attention or recourse has been given for their pain.

I believe it’s going to take a lot more agitation before we see progress. The frustration may get worse before it gets better. I do not know if those of us new to the fight have the stamina for it. We are untested and unreliable. We have to be willing to push forward anyway. We have role models among us. Let’s get behind them and learn.

I have hope that things are changing because I know God stands with the oppressed. He kneels to wash their feet and bind their wounds. He does not condemn them even if, in the weakness of their humanity, they falter. He says, when you see them, you see me. What you do to them, you do to me. What you do for them and with them, you do for and with me.

But He doesn’t stop there because He offers hope and conciliation for repentant oppressors, like Paul and Zacchaeus too. He gives second chances and a new calling to those who, in their ignorance or despair, did not recognize Him even as He walked and talked with them for miles.

God’s justice is not [color]blind justice. The only scales in His hands are those He has lovingly removed from our eyes so that we can see our brothers and sisters, and fully commit ourselves to them. If things feel out of balance right now, ask yourself why. Could it be that God has come and is righteously wrecking the former things, so that He can show us once again, “behold, I make all things new.” Sometimes it’s good to be unbalanced.

Perhaps like Isaiah, when we recognize the image of God resting on our black brothers and sisters, we will rightly respond with Isaiah’s confession when he saw the glory of God: “Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” It’s possible when we do that, He will invite us to join Him in the work He’s already doing.

May all of us who have been missing what God is up to in our day be made new in this generation to stand for justice alongside the oppressed.

**If you’re not already reading Ta-Nehisi Coates, start now.

Recognizing Systems of Racial Oppression

All week I have been thinking about our recent national election. We saw a shift in power from Democrats to Republicans, but today I’m more interested in looking at a shift we did not see. The Washington Post worked up some interactive graphics on the make-up of the new Senate, and it’s worth a hop to go play around and learn. Not counting a few pending race results, we still have only 20 women holding Senate seats. It doesn’t take a math genius to realize that 1 in 5 seats in a body that holds 100 is not an accurate representation of male to female ratio in America, but I digress on the gender questions (for now). What I want to look at here is this: “About 62 percent of Americans are white, but today more than 90 percent of senators are white. Only 27 racial and ethnic minorities have ever served in the Senate. All of the new senators elected in 2014 are white.”

We could attempt to draw conclusions about which party benefits from the whitening of the Senate, but the truth is, the Senate has long been pretty white, regardless of which party had a majority. So we see that in the halls of power in America, white people hold most of the positions. But let’s put a pin in that for a moment and look at the least powerful people in our society for a moment: the incarcerated.

incarc rate by race & gender - webLooking at this data, we see that the least powerful people in our societythose who have been stripped of their vote, their freedom to walk about and raise their familiesthe incarcerated, are overwhelmingly and disproportionately people of color (and more specifically, black or latin@).

But these disparities are not limited to these spheres, we find them in education, health care, income, housing (including renting), to name a few. All of this is what racial justice advocates call “systemic” injustice. Systemic injustices produce consistently unjust outcomes for people of color in and through institutions (authoritative bodies: churches, government, corporations, etc.) and structures (social systems: criminal justice, education, social welfare).

In the U.S., our conversations about race tend to be about the individualized racism that occurs among individuals or small groups of people (this is one of the reasons we white people are all so terrified to admit we have biases). We are reluctant to zoom out and see the big picture forces at play. But in ignoring systemic racism, we dupe ourselves into thinking we’ve isolated racism and its effects to a few rogue individuals.

And like that systemic racism is gone

And like that systemic racism is gone.

The Rev. Dr. Randy Woodley says this about our hyper-focus on individualized racism:

Given the choice, I prefer a racist (prejudiced person) over a racist system 7 days a week! I can eventually find commonality with a racist on a human level and maybe even cause them to like or admire something about me. A racist system though, prevents equal opportunities on a grand scale for generations to come and it leaves the historic wrongs of the past undone. A racist system makes it seem normal to dehumanize the other. Once that happens, you can think or do anything to that person or group and justify it.

 Allen Mitsuo Wakabayashi argues in his book, Kingdom Come, that American Christians, in particular, have fallen prey to the idol of individualism:

As a boy, I was once told to insert my name in John 3:16 in the place of the word world. So John 3:16 says to me, ‘For God so loved Allen that he gave his only Son, so that if Allen believes in him Allen may not perish but have eternal life.’ While this wonderfully expresses God’s love for me, it distorts the true focus of the verse. God didn’t send Jesus to save just me. He sent Jesus to save the whole world…[The] tradition of the Western church, steeped in this individualism, has stamped its approval on narrow conceptions of the gospel that leave us living in ways that do little to change the society around us. Like my childhood rendition of John 3:16, our conceptions of the gospel have been infected by individualism.
When we see the Gospel as a purely individualized interaction, we see the problem of the sin of racism the same way. Michael Emerson and Christian Smith describe this in their book, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America:
White evangelicals, without any necessary intent, help to buttress the racialized society. Like their forebears during the Jim Crow segregation, who prescribed kindness toward people of other races and getting to know people across races, but did not challenge the Jim Crow system, present-day white evangelicals attempt to solve the race problem without shaking the foundations on which racialization is built. As long as they do not see or acknowledge the structures of racialization, the inadvertently contribute to them.

As Christians, we have a responsibility to address both the individual sin of racism as well as the collective, systemic injustices in which we live. Not only is this denial harmful to brothers and sisters of color, it prevents white people from living out and experiencing the fullness of the Gospel. Christena Cleveland writes:

[Many] of us who identify with privileged groups exclusively process information about Jesus in relation to our privileged self, our privileged experiences and our privileged social location. It’s no wonder that many privileged Christians wrongly believe that our understanding of Jesus needn’t heavily rely on oppressed people’s understanding of Jesus.  We’ve think we’ve pretty much got Jesus all figured out.

Further, we place a premium on voices that offer information about Jesus that we can easily process as self-relevant and that is easily integrated into our pre-existing knowledge of the world. And we naturally silence the voices offer perspectives on Jesus that challenge our worldview. We like going to conferences, schools and churches that cater to privileged folks. Privileged folks don’t like it when oppressed people get up front and make prophetic statements that threaten our privileged status.  Like the Pharisees in [John 9], the privileged are often blinded by a commitment to an unequal social order and unable to hear from the voices that are needed most.

So how do we move forward as Christians in pursuit of a holistic vision of the justice Jesus commanded in the Gospels? Drew Hart, writing at the Christian Century, shares a re-imagining of church and cultural life:

[It] is pretty evident that Jesus’ kingdom can be known by the manifestation of a community where the poor, lame, sick, and outcasts of society are centralized as honored guests. That is usually the meaning of Jesus’ frequent talk about the banquet table. James understood this as well, arguing that God chose the poor of the world to be heirs of the kingdom (James 2:5). So even when the kingdom of God is found and identified among a particular people gathered around Jesus, we know it is truly so when the last of society are now first. This means that Christian communities in the United States that always privilege white male, wealthy, or educated people hegemonically and hierarchically from the top-down, then they reflect communities in which the reign of God is being rejected for something more akin to the current oppressive social order. The eruption of the kingdom of God concretely in society is clearly tied to the socially marginalized being restored and honored at the center of the community, if we are to take Jesus seriously. Repentance is walking away from participating in the old social order and voluntarily embodying the life of Jesus and participating in the kingdom of God. That requires being in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ and reconfiguring our social relationships according to his life and teachings, a radical vision of a reconfigured social arrangement.

This is tough work for people who have, heretofore, preserved systems of inequality through their denial, inaction, or outright complicity. But the hope of Christ can transform us and give us new direction. Christena Cleveland again:

But those of us who check our egocentric (and privileged) bias at the door and look closely at Scripture will see that oppressed folks have an epistemological advantage. We’ll see that the so-called “theologies of the oppressed” that are often relegated to the margins should actually be front and center in our conversations about Jesus. We’ll conclude that the people in our society with the most power are perhaps the least qualified to talk about Jesus. We’ll see that if we truly want to participate in this new, equitable reality that Jesus is creating, we need to allow Jesus to disrupt our inequitable systems that value privileged voices and ignore oppressed voices.

If we’re going to see God’s kingdom manifested in these ways, we first have to commit ourselves to seeing the fullness of the need by recognizing structures of oppression, and then bringing the fullness of the Gospel to bear in all aspects of our communities. It’s my prayer that those of us who are “colorblind” (and those of us who think God is colorblind) will have our sight restored by the power of Christ.

Thirty Seconds or Less

That’s all it takes to make a statement about justice:

It doesn’t take much more time than that to offer a prayer for Marissa Alexander, a survivor of domestic violence currently facing an extensive sentence for non-lethal self-defense. It doesn’t take much longer than thirty seconds to give to her legal defense fund.

December 8th, Marissa's retrial

December 8th, Marissa’s retrial

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free. -Luke 4:18

Privilege in Feminism, Part 1: Lessons from Scripture

I’ve been straying from course in our Social Justice Bootcamp on Feminism to talk about topics as they present themselves, but I finally have an opportunity to do both! So this week, we’re going to dive back into what I planned when I started this series, and I’m going to mix in a few recent things as well.

Many of us are familiar with the term, “privilege,” as it describes the social, economic, or political advantages of a particular group of people. We’re used to hearing terms like, “male privilege” or “white privilege.” But today I want to dive into the idea of relative privilege and how it affects feminist activism. Most people think of feminism and they think of this:

Iconic, right?

Iconic, right?

We love Rosie. She’s as tough as any dudebro, though she’s still made-up and small-waisted, and she’s looking us right in the eye showing us that women mean business. But who are we leaving out with this image? What women are omitted when this icon becomes the singular story? As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said in her famous TED talk:

The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.

rosie2

Photo by Alfred T. Palmer, U.S. Office of War Information

rosie

Robert Valadez, “Rosita Adelita” (image links to artist’s site, posters available for purchase)

So let’s start with two stories (better than one, yes?) from the Old Testament. The first, found in Genesis 16, begins with two women: Sarai and Hagar. Sarai is a well-off older woman, and has been unable to bear children with her husband Abram. Despite God’s promise that the couple would have a child and become parents to many nations, they have been unable to conceive. Living in a patriarchal culture that primarily values women because they can carry children, Sarai becomes desperate and takes the matter into her own hands. In the society of her day, it was lawful for a barren woman to have her servant bear children as her proxy. Sarai avails herself of this option and employs her handmaiden, Hagar, for the task.

Scripture does not tell us if Hagar consented to the arrangement. It’s likely that in that day and culture, Hagar’s vocalized consent would not have been needed. Hagar conceives, and as the years wear on, Sarai becomes jealous of Hagar’s child and Hagar’s new found social position as the mother of Abram’s only son. Sarai demands her husband cast both Hagar and her son Ishmael out of the household, and Abram complies, abandoning his own child to appease his wife.

What we see in this passage, beyond a display of desperation, human selfishness, or faithlessness, is patriarchy at work. Sarai is keenly aware of her [albeit limited] power in this culture, and she is frustrated when her power as a wife is jeopardized by her childlessness. Her power is relative, of course, to her husband’s, and she enjoys a measure of privilege precisely because she is 1) married, and 2) married to a wealthy man. As a woman, her privilege still does not match that of her husband, but she wields enough power to compel Hagar to bear Abram’s child, while maintaining her status as a wife. Hagar enjoys a measure of privilege herself, as the mother of Abram’s child, but her privilege isn’t enough to protect her in the situation, and ultimately, she is abandoned by both her mistress and her child’s father. As women, Sarai and Hagar are both at a cultural disadvantage, but to different degrees because of the relative privileges that patriarchy assigns to them.

Our second story is that of Queen Esther, found in the book of the same name. The book begins with the removal of Queen Vashti, who, in a moment of forbidden autonomy, refuses to come at the King’s command. Esther’s story begins here, in the context of a king who rules with absolute authority, who is surrounded by advisers who are plotting a genocide against the Jewish people. Esther herself is a Jew, but this fact goes undetected by the king’s court as Esther moves through the beauty pageant that is the audition for the next queen. King Xerxes admires her beauty and Esther is made queen. The conflict of the book hinges upon Esther’s undisclosed ethnicity and the impending danger of adviser Haman’s plot to destroy the Jews.

Once again we see patriarchy at work, but this time, at a point in history when ethnicity is a governing factor as well as gender. Esther has immense privilege as Queen, but all that is predicated upon the understanding that she is a Gentile. In the culminating apex of the story, Esther goes in to the king to defend her people, knowing full-well that in defying the patriarchal law against approaching the king without being summoned, her royal privilege will not be enough to save her: “When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.

And you thought Elsa was a badass.

And you thought Queen Elsa was a badass.

Both of these stories illustrate the challenges women face navigating a patriarchal order. In both cases, women had to make choices about how/when to use their relative privilege. Sarai chose to use her to preserve her own power. Esther chose to put hers on the line for her people. We have two models here of how the moral evil of privilege can be leveraged within patriarchy: for self-promotion (essentially codifying both relative privilege and the patriarchy-at-large) or for the promotion of marginalized people (undermining both the privilege and the patriarchy).

In our day we face the same choices: women can play by the patriarchy’s rules and happily advance as far as the patriarchy allows, or they can actively work against the patriarchy by promoting the voices of the marginalized and sharing risk in solidarity with those groups. When women choose the former over the latter, they are buying into the myth that an oppressive system is selling: competition is fierce and there are only so many seats to be had at the table. Feminism seeks to make the table bigger, and invite marginalized voices to take their place there. Jesus does the same in Luke 14:

When he noticed how the guests picked the places of honor at the table, he told them this parable: “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this person your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all the other guests. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

Hierarchy creates privilege. Christian feminism works to disarm those powers.

Esther’s story shows how much more complicated all this gets when there are other factors at work besides gender. We see these same forces at work in our society today when it comes to feminism and race. In the next post, we’ll take a brief look at how these two issues have tangled in our American history.