Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Hagar: Our Sister

Hagar’s story is one of the most difficult stories in the Bible. It seems like something that happened long ago and far, far away. It comes from another time and another place. Hagar is Sarai’s slave, Abram’s second wife and the mother of his child, Ishmael. She is a faithful servant who is exploited and abused by her owner—Sarai—divorced by her husband Abram and driven into exile. She becomes a homeless refugee, a resident alien who has no place to go, no future on which she can pin her hopes, no legal grounds on which to stand.

What can she have in common with us? And yet, now, perhaps three or four thousand years later, she stands before us as the patron saint of refugees and homeless children. 

How fitting that her story comes to us today as we think about the 47,000 children who have crossed the southern border of the U.S. so far in 2014. Experts anticipate that there will be another 40,000 or 45,000 children coming before the end of the year. There are predictions that next year there may be as many as 140,000 children. President Obama calls it a “humanitarian crisis.” I think of it as a modern children’s crusade against war. Today, as we gather in our peaceful settings, Honduras is the murder capital not just of the Americas but of the world—yet we hear nothing about this in the news. We hear nothing about the intolerable violence from which these children are fleeing. We hear nothing about our own complicity in contributing to this situation. It is as if we are being asked to believe they just decided to show up. I suggest that Hagar, our sister, can help us understand this situation. 

Her story is a simple, but not simplistic one that can help us understand the social, political, economic and religious dynamics of what the President Obama calls “a humanitarian crisis.” Hagar’s story does not offer a solution. And the parallels between her story and ours are not exact. But it is my belief that the Bible is a book written by people of faith, for people of faith, who are determined to leave a heritage of hope and a legacy of love to future generations, and the story of Hagar is one of the many stories we should know, not because it is easy reading but because it is so real.

I suggest that we take the liberty of thinking of Sarai and Hagar as archetypes. Both women are driven by their concern about the future, a concern embodied in their desire to have children. This is what they have in common. But this is all they have in common. Sarai is rich, married, powerful, privileged, knows herself to be blessed, but she is also old and unable to bear children. Still she believes that she is in control of her situation and that by taking action she can secure her future, so she commands her husband to sleep with her slave—the first surrogate mother in the Bible. 

In contrast, Hagar is poor, single, powerless, young, an immigrant with not legal status or recourse, and a slave to Sarai, her mistress. A point that is often overlooked by commentators is the disparity between Sarai’s power and Hagar’s powerlessness. Sarah owns Hagar. She has complete control over her body and her life. When Sarai tells her husband Abram to lie with Hagar, Hagar has no right to resist. When Sarai tells Abram to banish Hagar and send her into exile, she has not grounds on which to protest.
The story takes a tragic turn which is reported in Genesis chapter 21:10-16. Sarah says to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman and her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac. . . . So Abraham rose early in the morning and took some bread and a skin of water and gave it to Hagar and she departed, and wandered in the wilderness. And when the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under a bush. Then she went, and sat down over against him, a good way off. . . for she said, ‘Let me not look upon the death of the child.”

It would be nice if we could say at this point that God comes and rescues the mother and child, and they all live happily ever after, but that is not what happens. God comes to Hagar and tells her to take the child and go back to Sarah and be obedient to her and accept whatever abuse Sarah heaps upon her. In effect it is a divine deportation policy. Hagar and Ishmael are sent back into the very situation from which they fled. Rather than leading Hagar to some promised land, God sends her back into to a place of peril. 

I have never read a commentary that offers any reasonable explanation of this text, so I have come up with my own. I submit that Hagar must return because within the scope of divine love there is no room for permanent divisions based on religion, race, economic class, nationhood, age, or gender.  As Paul writes in his letter to Galatians, “In Christ we are no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female” because God’s love makes all things new. But Hagar tells us that we can create neither a theology of life nor an economy in the service of life simply by wishing the humanitarian crisis away, or deporting it and driving it into exile.

The story of Hagar is a cautionary tale. There are no easy answers. The reasons for oppression and the forms of domination are many. A careful reading of the story of Hagar helps us uncover some of the ways that race, nationality, class, religion, sex, economics and our concern for the future divide the human community. There is no single principle or strategy for social transformation that can address the complex problems and challenges of our time. At the same time, there can be no denial that the status quo is unacceptable. In his last book Dr. King asked the question, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?  The question is still before us, and his book is worth reading for his insights are profound.

The Bible does not tell us what happened when Hagar and Ishmael showed up on the doorstep of Sarah and Abraham. We can only speculate. My hope is that they simply looked each other in the face and said, “Good morning. Welcome human being.”

Rev. David Hanson
Painting by Luigi Alois Gillarduzzi

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