I gave the following as a sermon today for my church’s “Gifts of Women” service, based on the story of Hagar and Ishmael (Genesis 16: 1-15, 21:8 – 21) and this passage from the Sermon on the Mount ( Matthew 5:38-42)
You’re a young teenager – 13, maybe 14. You’re a slave, serving the wife of a wealthy landowner in Canaan, out in the middle of nowhere. You’re a girl (OK men, I realize this one is a bit of a stretch for you, but just bear with me). You’ve just been forced to sleep with your mistress Sarah’s husband who is MUCH older than you, and now you’re pregnant. As you bustle about doing chores for Sarah, you struggle with first trimester morning sickness. Suppressing a particularly strong wave of nausea, you accidentally make an ugly face as Sarah walks by. Next thing you know Sarah is beating you to within an inch of your life, claiming that you ‘looked on her with contempt’.
What would you do under those circumstances?
You’d probably do just what Hagar did, the only thing she could do as a powerless slave girl: run away.
And running away seemed to work out pretty well for Hagar, at least at first. Hagar finds a nice source of water in the wilderness. She’s able to relax. She’s free from abuse. Then what happens? The angel of the Lord comes, and tells her to go back to her abuser – “Return to your mistress, and submit to her”. OK – yes, the angel also tells Hagar she’s going to have a son, and that her offspring will become a great nation. But the angel reports that this son is going to be “a wild ass of a man, with his hand against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him…” Not exactly the best deal around: return to a highly abusive situation just so you can have a kid who will spend the rest of his life getting into fights.
But Hagar obeys God, and her son Ishmael is born. Things seem to be looking up, until Sarah miraculously conceives and gives birth to her own son Isaac. Sarah then decides that Ishmael poses a threat to Isaac’s inheritance. Despite Abraham’s rather weakly expressed concerns, Hagar and Ishmael are now thrown out into the wilderness (with God’s blessing, I should note). This time around, in a different location, Hagar is unable to find water and near death from dehydration, does the one thing she could do in her desperate situation: decides to move away from son so she won’t have to watch her die. But as Hagar attempts to take what little control she can over her own miserable life, God intervenes again– this time, thankfully, to save Ishmael’s, and Hagar’s life.
The story of Hagar, Sarah and Abraham is a story of obedience, of faithfulness to God. In the case of Abraham, God calls on Abraham to be faithful– to believe God and submit to God’s will. In return, God will bless Abraham and establish a covenant with him and his offspring.
But this emphasis on obedience feels a little different when we look at Hagar’s story rather than that of Abraham. In the case of Hagar, obedience means submitting to slavery and abuse. In fact, as feminist theologian Phyllis Trible notes in comparing Hagar’s story to that of the Exodus, in Exodus God is on the side of the slaves, but in the Hagar story “the deity identifies here not with the suffering slave but with her oppressors”.
Not exactly the image of God we want to embrace. In fact, as I discussed the implications of this story with the other women who were working on this sermon with me, we became downright uncomfortable. But we also felt that we had to rise to Phyllis Trible’s challenge: “All we who are heirs of Sarah and Abraham, by flesh and spirit, must answer for the terror in Hagar’s story. To neglect the theological challenge she presents is to falsify faith”.
In searching for ways to grapple with this story, I thought it might be helpful to look forward to the New Testament, to Christ’s words. I hoped His teachings might help me find some source of empowerment for the poor abused Hagar. Surely if Jesus had been with Hagar, He would have told her to stand up for herself, to throw off the bonds of slavery, humiliation and injustice, right?
Well…. as I reread some of Christ’s great teachings such as those we just read from the Gospel of Matthew, I became less sure. So much of Christ’s teachings are about turning the other cheek, giving up your cloak, denying yourself, suffering patiently in God’s name. Christ’s own life bore witness to this message through his sacrifice and suffering on the cross. As Martin Luther put it: “To be a Christian is to have to suffer”. But what do Luther’s words signify for someone who is powerless and abused? What does turning the other cheek mean to a victim of domestic violence? Or as Lutheran theologian Deanna Thompson puts it “How does the theologian’s task change if her lens is refocused not on the perspective of the ‘sinner’, but on the lived reality of those who are gravely sinned against?”
These questions and concerns are frequently raised by marginalized groups – women, minorities, non-western/post-colonial nations – who argue that Christianity’s emphasis on suffering and submission has been used to justify oppression and inequality. Authors such as Marie Fortune address how the language of ‘taking up the cross’ has been used to make victims of domestic abuse feel that they must accept their plight as ‘the cross they must bear’. Feminist theologian Judith Plaskow argues that our society and culture already encourage women to live “self-sacrificially”, and thus the Christian push to be humble and selfless risks leading women to completely negate themselves. And then there’s my personal favorite quote on the subject – by the hip-hop group Arrested Development in their song “Fishin’ 4 Religion”:
The reason I’m fishin’ 4 a new religion
is my church makes me fall asleep
They’re praising a God that watches you weep
and doesn’t want you to do a darn thing about it
When they want change the preacher says “shout it”
Does shouting bring about change ? I doubt it
All shouting does is make you lose your voice
OK, so I’m guessing at this point you are feeling really uncomfortable. Perhaps you’re wondering where all this questioning leads us. Is Jesus telling us that to be faithful, to be Christ’s disciples, we need to be doormats?
Well, the good news is that no, I don’t think that is what Jesus wants of us.
To introduce why I think this, I first want to start with a quote by Mohandas Gandhi (who was profoundly inspired by Jesus):
“Nonviolence….means conscious suffering. It does not mean meek submission to the will of the evildoer, but it means the pitting of one’s whole soul against the will of the tyrant.”
This one sentence contains the three reasons why I believe that Christ’s teachings do not mean we should be doormats:
- First off – when Gandhi speaks of ‘conscious suffering’, what he is speaking of here is suffering that is chosen – a cross that we have decided to bear because we believe it is the right thing to do. It is suffering for a good cause – not suffering just because of bad luck or circumstances beyond our control. Gandhi chose to suffer in his struggle to free India from British imperial rule. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. suffered in his struggle for civil rights. Both men chose their path consciously, for a very good cause. In contrast, the random, pointless suffering of a powerless slave is a whole other matter. Jesus wanted to end this kind of suffering.
- Secondly: when Gandhi says that nonviolence does not mean ‘meek submission’ – he is saying that turning the other cheek does not mean accepting wrongdoing. Rather, turning the other cheek can actually be the most powerful form of resistance. As Martin Luther King Jr. described it: “This is not a method for cowards; it does resist. The nonviolent resister is just as strongly opposed to the evil against which he protests as is the person who uses violence.”
- Thirdly, and finally, when Gandhi speaks of pitting one’s soul against the tyrant, he is highlighting Christ’s own call for all of us to fight for justice. Jesus was focused on bringing about the Kingdom of God – that’s what we pray for in the Lord’s prayer. As theologian Marcus Borg puts it “What is the political meaning of the Kingdom of God? In a sentence: it is what life would be like on earth if God were king and the rulers of this world were not”. Just studying the Beatitudes as we are this year in our Bible study, it is clear that Christ wanted justice for the poor and oppressed. His teachings should never be used to justify an unjust status quo.
So based on this analysis, what do we think about the Hagar story now? I think that if we look more closely, we will find that beneath the surface story of abuse and victimization there is a surprising message of empowerment.
First of all, in an important way Hagar did in fact consciously choose her suffering. Although her initial situation as a slave was beyond her control, after she ran away the first time Hagar was free to choose whether to listen to God’s call. She could have just as easily ignored it. But she didn’t. Perhaps she realized that giving birth alone in the wilderness wasn’t such a good idea. Or maybe she realized that the One who was calling her to return to Sarah was someone special – someone worth listening to.
Which brings me to the second point: if we look at the actual conversation between Hagar and God, we see that the Biblical narrative elevates Hagar in surprising and unique ways. In response to the angel’s call for her to return to Sarah, scripture says “So Hagar named the Lord who spoke to her, ‘You are El-roi’” (which means ‘God of seeing’ ). Now, Hagar doesn’t just pray to or call out to God. She actually names God – gives the Almighty a name. In our modern times it’s hard for us to understand why this is such a big deal, but in ancient Israel, Jews were never allowed to call God by name. God was too great, too powerful and mysterious to be named directly. Ancient Jews used the placeholder of YHWH when referencing God. For the ancient Jewish community at Qumran that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls, naming God was actually a capital offence. Yet, here is a young, pregnant slave girl wielding ‘a power attributed to no one else in all the Bible’, according to Phyllis Trible.
Thirdly, in a crucial way justice is served in Hagar’s story – Hagar’s suffering is redeemed through her role as the matriarch of a great nation. God blesses her, saying “ I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for the multitude”. Again, Hagar is unique in receiving this blessing, for as Phyllis Trible notes “While all the patriarchs of Israel hear such words, Hagar is the only woman ever to receive them”. Not even Sarah gets such a blessing.
Finally, while today most Christians and Jews may not be that familiar with Hagar’s story, the people who claim her as their matriarch – the people of Islam– know it very well. In fact, as we learned recently in the interfaith program run by Jacob Bolton, Hagar’s struggle to find water in the wilderness of Beersheba is the basis of a key ceremony in the Hajj (the annual pilgrimage to Mecca).
Hagar’s story is a tricky one to discuss. It is too easy to look at it and assume that it is legitimizing a status quo of injustice, oppression and suffering. But if we look more carefully we see that God does not want suffering for its own sake. God hears the cries of those who suffer – God is the One Who Hears – or in Hebrew ‘Ish-ma-el’. God hears and cares about those who suffer – and he wants them – he wants all of us – to find peace, justice and harmony. However, there may be times when God calls us to follow a painful path – a path that is for an ultimately good cause. Then it will be up to us to decide whether, when called by the One Who Hears, we will return the favor and listen.