Last Wednesday was International Women’s Day; a day to remember women’s contribution to the advancement of humanity. It was declared by the United Nations in 1975.
It may surprise some to know that such a day has actually been around for more than 100 years. The first women’s day was celebrated in the United States in 1909. The celebration honoured female garment workers who had protested against their poor working conditions.
Three years later there was a textile strike, also in the United States, and also protesting women’s working conditions. During that strike, a speaker coined the phrase bread and roses. She was appealing for both fair wages and dignified conditions – justice and dignity. The phrase inspired a poem which has since been put to music. The song is called Bread and Roses.
Justice and dignity are the first two of ten values identified by the International Women’s Day movement.
The others are:
It would easy to think that International Women’s Day celebrates a situation where all the battles have been won, where justice and dignity have been achieved.
We have female astronauts and prime ministers, women in boardrooms and at universities. Women can work and have a family. Women have real choices … in some cultures.
But, women are still not paid equally to that of their male counterparts, women still are not present in equal numbers in business or politics. And this really only describes what is happening in a society of privilege.
Beyond our borders and within our borders women suffer physical violence, domestic abuse, sexual assault, poverty, female genital mutilation, honour killings, forced marriages, human slave trafficking, exclusion from education … and so go on the abuses of the basic human rights of women.
Even within religion, the plight of women is so often ignored. The selection of scripture readings in liturgies and the telling of the stories so often ignores the women. Traditional interpretations of our bible stories serve a patriarchal society. Women become invisible. Their parts in the stories are ignored.
Recently there was a media article about a 13-year-old life saver who rescued a swimmer. It was the boy’s second ever patrol as a surf life saver. He was certainly a hero.
The boy’s father wrote a follow up comment on Facebook. He mentioned the surfboard rider who initially kept the swimmer above water, the boy’s sister, also a life saver, who raced down the beach with a rescue tube, the coaches who spent t two years training the young life savers, the radio operators who organized an ambulance and the other life savers who treated the patient on the beach. The father mentioned all these people to emphasize how many had to be involved, some risking their own lives, because someone chose to swim outside the safe, flagged area. His point was to emphasize the importance of swimming in the patrolled area. His aim was to keep swimmers safe.
The aim of the first media story was to tell of a young hero in order to sell a newspaper.
Both stories were based on the same event. The media’s interpretation of the events left out a lot of detail to meet its own needs.
We see the same thing in the interpreting of our bible stories. Some aspects of the stories are selected and some aspects ignored. Those aspects that are selected tend to reinforce the patriarchal society where men are heroes and women are inconsequential. Sadly, some women have internalized that inferior and submissive status.
The feminist scripture scholars challenge that situation. They challenge the trivializing and the invisibility of women in the teaching of Bible stories. They look again at the stories and see the actual role of the female characters. And they see them as characters of genuine interest.
Today I want to refer to the work of Phyllis Trible, an Old Testament feminist scripture scholar. In her book, Texts of Terror, she examines Bible stories to expose female characters who have long been invisible. Today, I want to talk about her investigation of Hagar.
As I read that chapter in Trible’s book, I asked around to see what people knew about Hagar. I couldn’t find anyone who knew anything about her. I drew two conclusions from that. Firstly, I can say whatever I like today. No one will be in a position to challenge me.
Secondly, Trible is right. Hagar is a female character who has been ignored in our story telling and in our Old Testament interpretations. She is one of the females who have become invisible.
Hagar is found in the book of Genesis. She’s the Egyptian slave-girl of Sarah, the wife of Abraham. (Of course, everyone has heard of Abraham.) Yahweh has promised Abraham that he will have many descendants. When Sarah fails to produce any of them, she gives Hagar, the slave-girl, to Abraham. When Hagar falls pregnant to Abraham, she feels superior to Sarah. Sarah doesn’t like this and treats her badly. Hagar runs away to the desert where an angel tells her to return to Sarah and submit to her. The angel also tells Hagar to name her son Ishmael. After Ishmael is born, Yahweh tells Abraham that he will be the father of a great nation and that Yahweh will give his nation land of its own. In return, Abraham’s people must be loyal and obedient to Yahweh. Thus, a covenant is formed between Yahweh and his chosen people. Yahweh promises Abraham a son with Sarah and instructs that the son must be called Isaac. Yahweh’s covenant will also be with Isaac and his descendants, not with Abraham’s other son, Ishmael. After Isaac is born, Sarah banishes Hagar and Ishmael into the desert, with only meagre supplies of bread and water. When the supplies run out and Ishmael is in danger of dying, Yahweh appears to them and provides water for them.
For the Jewish people, this story contains two key elements in their story – the land and the covenant. Judaism teaches that Yahweh singled out the Jewish people to live according to Yahweh’s laws; to be the model society for the world – the Chosen People. And Yahweh gave the Jewish people the land now usually known as Israel/Palestine – the Promised Land.
For Christians, the story of Abraham also tells of the power and authority of God. God enabled Abraham to produce children when he was 86 and 99 years old. Sarah gave birth after being barren for 90 years. With God, nothing is impossible.
Christians understand that God can work despite human failings, such as Sarah’s meddling to ensure Abraham a son and her mistreatment of Hagar. Yet, in the end, God blessed all of them. God’s mercy is great and God’s will prevails.
And so, there have always been religious truths to be gleaned from the story – justice, mercy, loyalty. All very worthy. All good. Just as the heroics of the 13-year-old lifesaver were good and inspiring. But his father saw so much more in the event – the preservation of human life by promoting safe swimming.
So, too, do the feminist scripture scholars see so much more in Hagar’s story.
In traditional interpretations, the story is about Abraham and Isaac and the founding of a great nation. Hagar is incidental in the story, a prop. She enables Ishmael to also be the father of a nation. Some believe that to be the Arab nations.
But the feminist scripture scholars find Hagar far from incidental.
Firstly, all sorts of rejected women find their stories in Hagar.
She is the faithful maid exploited, the black woman used by the male and abused by the female of the ruling class, the surrogate mother, the resident alien without legal recourse, the other woman, the runaway youth, the religious fleeing from affliction, the pregnant young woman alone, the expelled wife, the divorced mother with child, the shopping bag lady carrying bread and water, the homeless woman, the indigent relying upon handouts from the power structures, the welfare mother and the self-effacing female whose own identity shrinks in service to others. (page 28) She symbolizes all sorts of people, not just women, in contemporary society.
Secondly, Trible also sees Hagar as a pivotal figure in Bible theology. She is the first person in scripture visited by a divine messenger, the only person who dares to name the deity, the first woman to hear an annunciation, the only woman to receive a divine promise of descendants, the first to weep for her dying child. She is the prototype. The special things that happen to her, also happen to other special women in Israel’s history. To ignore her is to overlook the important role of mothers in the Jewish religion.
Using Hagar as our example today, we can understand the point of the feminist scripture scholars; that women are significant characters in the narrative. They have been ignored because traditional interpretations have served the ideological ends of the ruling class. (Editors forward page x) The ruling class has traditionally been male.
Hagar’s story is one example of abuse, rejection and powerlessness. Just as our traditional interpretations have ignored the plight of Hagar as inconsequential, our culture has for too long ignored the plight of the abused and the powerless, often to protect the powerful, the ruling class.
Trible wants us to be outraged on behalf of the female victims. (p 3) She does not want the victims of abuse to be invisible, as Hagar has been invisible. We, too must remain outraged about abuse, be it in a domestic situation, an institution or a culture. The victims must not be invisible. We must continue to be alert to responses that serve the ideologies of the ruling class.
The feminist scripture scholars see today’s Gospel reading as Jesus being outraged; outraged because his people were enslaved and persecuted by the powerful; outraged to the point of tipping up the tables and causing destruction in the temple. In that story, he was not the gentle Jesus, meek and mild, of our childhoods. The feminist scripture scholars suggest that it may be time to turn over more than just a few tables in those temples of power which enable and foster abuse. (https://pastordawn.com/2016/03/08/i-am-woman-angry-on-this-international-womens-day/#more-9274)
To do less than would be to ignore what we are called to do as Christians.
In our second reading today, Hilary Clinton, as First Lady, said
As long as discrimination and inequities remain so commonplace, … the potential of the human family to create a peaceful, prosperous world will not be realized.
In sharing the outrage about abuse and inequality that undermine the creation of a peaceful and prosperous world, we can be inspired by values of International Women’s Day.
And most of all the first two values of International Women’s Day:
justice and dignity for all,
bread and roses.
Homily 11/12 March, 2017 (Liz Little)