by Rachel Sensenig, pastor of Circle of Hope in South Philly
The book of Esther – like so many others in the Bible – demonstrates resistance and solidarity against the evil powers of empire, patriarchy, and ethnic nationalism. She and her uncle and the queen before her show that standing up and speaking out make a difference toward a better world! I believe the invitation is that we can, too.
The courage begins with Esther’s predecessor, Vashti. She is summoned to be objectified before a drunken crowd of nobles after a 6-month-long lavish party, and she says no. Her refusal is seen not just as a snub to the king’s ego, but as a potential excuse for every woman in the empire to disobey their husbands. Vashti is stripped of her crown and a law is made to protect and uphold male dominance.
Marx wrote about how ideologies are most powerful if they can function as natural. Once they are identified and named, though, their existence is threatened and the system is weakened. Even though the backlash law was costly, Vashti’s owning of her agency and dignity exposed the unnaturalness of patriarchy and made it harder to uphold.
Vashti made way for Esther, a very unlikely candidate for queen of the Persian Empire. Esther was a Jewish orphan, and she wins the contest for the crown without revealing her status as a Jew.
That was smart because there were some antisemitic feelings lurking around the Empire and even the palace. The king’s right-hand guy Haman was a descendant of Amalekites who hated the Jews, and Haman was keeping that bad blood alive. When Esther’s uncle Mordecai refuses to bow down to him, Haman appeals to the king to make an order that all the Jews in the kingdom be killed. He was soothing his personal offense, by projecting it into the political realm with his position. How often has that happened throughout history, that the wounded ego of a person in power means punishment for others? He appeals to the king in the language of empire, offering big bucks to the king for permission to carry out his vengeance.
As the Jews started to grieve their impending death, Mordecai compels Esther to speak up. He offers that maybe God put her in this position for this very moment. She knows she’d be risking her own life to come before the king without an invitation, and so she makes the most powerful decision in the whole story; she decides to pray and commands others to do it with her:
Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my attendants will fast as you do. When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.”
I wonder if this is the invitation for our church right now: to pause and seek wisdom from a higher power. We need creative answers to the problems we face. We are seeking to build a whole new church together, not on tradition or whiteness or heteropatriarchy, but on the liberating power of God.
God gives Esther a strategic and creative plan. Haman’s plan is exposed and thwarted, and Esther’s people are saved. I believe there may be a few takeaways from this story for us today:
- Your resistance to evil makes a difference; just do your part. Esther’s story reveals that when someone resists evil, it’s never just a solitary action. It inspires and makes way for others. When you resist evil, you impact others with hope in ways you may never realize. And here’s the other part of this good news: you don’t have to fix the whole problem of evil, despite what Marvel movies might inspire in us. None of us can save the world on our own. All we’re called to do is our part, and trust God for the rest. Vashti couldn’t end the patriarchy, but she could speak for her dignity. Mordecai couldn’t end ethnic nationalism and antisemitism, but he could refuse to bow down to it with his own body. And their resistance made way for Esther to save all of the Jews, and planted seeds of possibility in countless others that God hears the prayers of the desperate. All we have to do is the part that is given to us; discerning and owning that part will make all the difference in the whole. Because:
- Our liberation is bound up together. In actively caring about the whole, we get free too. In fact, that’s probably the only way we get free. We’re talking about two sides of the same coin: ourselves in connection to God and others. Mordecai makes that clear to Esther: if you don’t speak up on behalf of your people, your own life might not be spared! This reminds me of how white people cannot become antiracist out of altruism. We need to see the harmful effects of white supremacy culture in our lives too: how individualism, perfectionism, paternalism, and defensiveness cause psychological disconnection! Our liberation is bound up together. Like Civil Rights activist Fanny Lou Hamer famously said, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”
The New York Times recently covered a story of a Japanese American family who sold their farm to the indigenous Yakama Nation for a fraction of the price they could have gotten from a corporate buyer. The reason? The tribe had been kind to them over the years, especially in response to discriminatory laws against immigrants and anti-Asian sentiment around WWII. It was during these difficult times that members of the tribe shared their land so the Inaba family could build and rebuild their farm. Now the farm could help improve the quality of life in the tribe by making healthy food more accessible.
This is an Esther story: not forgetting the people who helped you get where you are today, but instead making choices to advocate for mutuality. It’s about not just protecting our own safety and security; it’s about the health of the whole.
- Finally, remember that God sustains the movement. The idea of liberation didn’t start with us. It’s about God being committed to our wholeness and creating us for it. Even though we may have unique moments like Esther, on the whole, this partnership with God is not an opportunity that we can miss. God is present and alive. If there is something that God wants you to be or do, God will make it known. You may feel like you’ve missed your chance in life, but according to my friends who listen to God deeply: that’s impossible. God doesn’t fail. Your whole story – every part of your beautiful humanity – is part of God’s story of life and liberation. May we be encouraged that simply doing our best to keep choosing life threatens and weakens the powers of death and despair. May we be reminded that we are not alone; that we can draw from the inspiration of others because we are intrinsically connected.