Do we believe women when they tell stories that men would rather not hear? Do we dare speak or preach about this? Do we dare not?
It’s in our scriptures, after all. In multiple places.
If we read the story of Esther, we find several points of connection with our current realities.
(Note – I’m not vouching for the historical accuracy of the book of Esther. I’m commenting on the story as it is presented.)
Esther became queen because her predecessor wouldn’t do what she was told by the king. He was drunk at a never-ending party, and decided he wanted her to parade around in front of allies wearing her crown (and nothing else?) so he could show off how pretty she was (and therefore, of course, how much of a man he must have been). She wouldn’t play the game, so she was killed.
After this, men were decreed to be master of their own houses (to keep women from getting any ideas).
Next, pretty virgins were sought out to join the king’s harem, and they went through an extensive, year-long process of beautification in order to be presentable to the king. Esther, a Jew, is brought into the harem, and eventually becomes queen.
Haman becomes chief advisor to the king. Mordecai (Esther’s uncle and adoptive father) refuses to tell Haman how great he was (a demonstration of how insecure power people often are), so Haman puts together a scheme to kill off all the Jews in the kingdom. Esther hears of the plot, and approaches the king to tell the him of the danger to her people.
But (and this is important for our day) she loses her nerve at the last minute. Will she be believed? Or will she be thrown out like her predecessor? After all, she is taking on the two most powerful men in the kingdom; one of them capricious and unpredictable, the other scheming and self-serving. Faced with that reality, she can’t bring herself to tell her story.
She approaches the king a second time, but again loses her nerve, and this in spite of the fact that the king offers a perfunctory promise that he will indeed listen to her. Will he? Or will he change his mind, and call his past promise Fake News? This is scary stuff, because the risks of acting are as dangerous as the risks of not acting. But she does manage to ask one more favour.
The third time she screws up her courage and manages to tell her story. On this occasion, a near miracle occurs: she is believed.
But things aren’t made instantly better. Haman is removed, but his scheme still moves forward, because he’s not the only one with designs on the Jews (there are 75,000 of them out there). Can you say, “enablers”? Sure you can.
In fact, things aren’t really made better until Mordecai (a man) is put in Haman’s place, becomes the royal advisor, and get’s his own laws passed so the Jews can defend themselves.
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We need to be aware of the assumptions we bring to our reading of this story. It’s not just a story of a couple of plucky people taking advantage of a lucky break or two (being pretty, becoming queen, becoming chief advisor, etc.). This is a story of inherently unjust power structures (men over women, citizens over foreigners, power people over ordinary people, insiders over outsiders, etc.). And the rot goes deep, because in some cases the law stands as it was written (anything which might impact the perception of the king in the public’s eyes), and in some cases the law is subject to interpretation, revision or revocation (anything which impacts anyone else).
Ultimately, there is no rule of law. There is no justice. There is no fairness. There is only rule by royal whim (or whim of those who are close to the royal presence).
Esther’s story first names, and then challenges these unjust, unfair structures; and it also identifies the incredible risks that such challenge entails.
Yes, there is a “happy ending.” But the relief we feel at the end is so strong because we know that there was no guarantee of a happy ending, there or any place, then or any time. We all know there have been (and are!) too many times when the ending is anything but happy, and the machine goes merrily on.
I think we need to preach, teach and speak about this stuff, friends. This is not the time to fall back on moralisms (don’t do naughty things, if your hand causes you to sin, the life of faith is only about personal responsibility, it’s all about individual decisions, etc.). This is a time to talk about what is really going on, structurally, communally, economically, politically, religiously, internationally.
It’s risky. It’s dangerous. It will probably result in push-back. But the risk of not speaking to this is just as great, and if we succumb to that temptation and say nothing, nothing at all will change.