I have been thinking a lot about legacy these days. I have been wondering how American historians will write about this chapter of our nation’s history. We are living through one of the most contentious and bitterly divisive times in recent and historical memory. I wonder if this is a dark chapter in civic discourse or the birth pangs of a new era.
No institution is immune from this upheaval, but we see contentious national debates about race, economics, immigration and how we treat women. Ironically, in this world deluged with social media, it still seems hard to imagine how to make much of an impact on this national conversation. For many of us it is hard to know how to speak, when to speak or whether to speak up at all.
The thing I love about the Bible is that there are lots of stories to turn to when you wonder about life’s big questions. One of my favorite stories takes place in the days of the Persian Empire.
It tells of a Jewish woman born at a time when Israel was under Persian rule. The Persians were such a military and political juggernaut in those days that they captured the entire Middle East for 200 years from 550-330 B.C. Persia’s Empire stretched from Greece to India to Egypt, from the Caspian Sea to the Persian Gulf, a huge swath of land by any standard. The extent of the empire was important to illustrate the power of the king, and the courage of one woman in his harem to speak before him.
The king had a huge harem chosen from all the realm of conquered peoples. Among them was Esther, a young woman who had kept her Jewish ancestry to herself. In those days, one vindictive politician advocated for killing the Jews in Persia and was willing to pay handsomely if the King Xerxes called for this ancient holocaust. Esther thought she could avoid the swirl of political intrigue if she kept silent among the palace women, but she was mistaken. Her uncle reminded her that no Jews would be safe if the policy went forward. Though she had very little power and few opportunities to be heard in this patriarchal world, Esther found a way to advocate for her people and eventually stopped the violence and saved her people. Esther’s story resonates for us, coming down the halls of history. Her story offers a lesson we cannot learn enough.
I suspect that Esther was even surprised at the outcome when the king listened to her. Though she was shrewd in making her plea for her people, I bet she did not know how it would end.
But this story is 2400 years old, and it is sad to me that its description of how women find a way to be heard – carefully and taking their life in their hands - has not changed nearly enough. Women who challenge those in power still face great odds and then pray that they seem credible in the courts of power and public opinion. While it has always been possible to become like Esther, the odds are stacked against most people, so running this gauntlet is just too overwhelming.
I find I have two reactions to Esther. I love that she was such a stunning profile in courage, and I applaud other women and men who have turned the tide of history at great cost. But I alternate between admiration for Esther and frustration with the glacial pace of justice and women’s rights, in particular.
To start with, what a waste of a smart, savvy, articulate person like Esther that she was confined to a harem. What a loss of brain power and creative energy that down through history so many women had their ideas stifled and their voices muffled. I have to believe that we can do better. I know for sure that it is time to reconsider the way we listen to women and the respect we show them. If recent history has taught us anything, surely it has taught us that.
The Rev. Dr. Susan Cartmell is pastor of Pilgrim Church in Harwich Port.