The Invisible Woman
Sermon by Dr. Jodie Lyon
As Lisa said in her introduction, I teach Christian theology at UGA. But before that, in my undergraduate days, I was an English major. A lousy English major.
When I say I was a lousy English major, I don’t mean that I skipped class a lot or that I didn’t read the assigned texts, or that I didn’t come to class prepared to participate in class discussion. I was indeed lousy in all those regards—I frequently skipped class, I often wrote papers and essays on texts I hadn’t read, and I never, ever participated in a class discussion unless my life depended on it. But that’s not what I mean when I say I was a lousy English major.
When I say I was a lousy English major, I mean that when I read novels and short stories and plays and poems, I rarely got out of them what a good English major was supposed to get out of them. I read for enjoyment, for plot. I can’t wait to find out what happens next, so I read very fast. I get bored with the descriptive parts of books, so I tend to skip over them. “West of the road were flint hills, grey and rugged, with tall watchtowers on their stony summits………” Blah, blah, blah. Quit describing the scenery, and get back to the story! And I forget details as soon as I read them, because really, how could it matter if the main character’s shirt was brown or gray?
My reading style is great if you’re reading a book on the beach, but not so great if you’re supposed to be reading a text to analyze it for symbolism, allusions, foreshadowing, and recurring leitmotifs. Reading as a good English major required me to slow down and ask questions of the text–to search for the deeper meaning of the story, to investigate the smallest descriptive detail, to pay attention to the characters and places that seemed irrelevant to me. It was too just too hard for someone who wants to simply find out what happens at the end of the book. So I was lousy.
Since I’m always looking to blame my shortcomings on someone else, I’ve decided in recent years to credit my poor English major skills to the church. After all, that I was how I was taught to read the Bible, more or less. Bible stories are stories with a simple moral, and we don’t need to overanalyze them. Most of the details aren’t important. Don’t ask too many questions of the text. Just go with the simple moral, and move on.
I don’t think we mean to do this in the church; it’s just sort of a natural outcome of trying to teach a text full of stories to people of all ages. We start teaching Bible stories in the church to children, and when teaching to children, we need to simplify the story, to break it down to the bare basics, to make it a story with a simple lesson that we can impart to our kids. So we take the vast, sprawling story of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael, and Isaac that spans 12 chapters of Genesis and reduce it down to something we can teach quite easily in a 15 minute Sunday School lesson on a flannel-graph board. This is a story about faith, and how you should trust God to follow through on God’s promises to you. Here’s the short, and to the point version: Abraham and his wife Sarah were promised a son, but they doubted God. Abraham and Sarah tried to take matters into their own hands, and Abraham had a son Ishmael with his wife’s servant, Hagar. But God eventually fulfilled the promise and gave Sarah a son, Isaac. Then Abraham proved he had faith in God by his willingness to sacrifice his son, his faith was rewarded, and his son was saved. So the moral of the story, boys and girls, is have faith in God and everything will turn out alright in the end.
Given the tendency we have to do this to Bible stories, perhaps I shouldn’t be as surprised as I often am, teaching undergraduates who largely come from a Christian background, that some of my students don’t even know who Hagar is. If they do know that she’s the mom of Ishmael, they might not know how she came to be the mother of Abraham’s first son, that she was an Egyptian slave woman who was given to Abraham by his wife Sarah.
I’m probably surprised by students’ lack of basic biblical knowledge because I grew up in a church tradition that expected me to know more than the simple moral of the story. I came out of the Church of Christ, the granddaughter of two preachers, and it was expected in the Church of Christ that you know your Bible stories. And that you know all the details of those stories since we were taught that the Bible was the inspired Word of God and thus worth paying attention to in all its minutia. But even then, though she was a part of the details of the Abraham story, Hagar wasn’t an important character in my childhood church. There was no need to focus any time or attention on her. She was not the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham, which was what the story was all about, after all. Abraham was the hero of the story, the guy who made the Faith Hall of Fame in Hebrews 11, and Hagar, well, if she was worth talking about at all, she was one of the villains of the story—a distraction for Abraham and Sarah, a speed bump on the road to Abraham having a real son and heir. Israel was not descended from Hagar and Ishmael, but from Sarah and Isaac. Acknowledge that Hagar and her son exists, yes, but then move on quickly to the real story.
So I’d never given Hagar much thought. Until this last semester. I’ve found that one of the things that frequently happens when you’re a teacher is that you end up learning more yourself than probably any of your students ever do. I was teaching a course on Feminist Theology this past spring at UGA, and I assigned a book by Womanist theologian Delores Williams entitled, Sisters in the Wilderness. If you’re not familiar with the term Womanist, it’s a term that is used by many black feminists to describe themselves. The term Womanist itself comes from Alice Walker, the woman most famously known for writing the novel, The Color Purple. [Lousy English major that I was, I did manage to read that one in college. And if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it.] Many black women choose to use the term Womanist to describe themselves rather than the term Feminist not only because of the influence of Alice Walker on their way of looking at God & the world, but also because they insist that as women of color, they have unique challenges and experiences that separate them from white feminists. While both white and black women battle sexism, women of color have also had to fight racism and classism. And often times the discrimination black women have faced has come from white feminists themselves, as we white women have often been slow to recognize that our own fight for gender equality has often been a fight for white gender equality, not gender equality for all people.
Delores Williams’ book, Sisters in the Wilderness, is classic of womanist theology, but for some reason I had never read it before assigning it to my Feminist Theology class this past semester. [Probably because I’m a lousy academic.] In this book Williams compares the story of Hagar to the story of black women in the United States. Williams challenges her readers to view the Genesis story not through from the perspective of Abraham or Sarah, as we are used to doing, but through the eyes of Hagar.
When we look at the story from Hagar’s perspective, Williams says we should see that Hagar’s life involved slavery, poverty, sexual and economic exploitation, rape, forced surrogacy, domestic violence, abandonment, homelessness, and single parenthood. Have you ever noticed all of that in the story before? On one level, I had noticed those things before—as I said before, I grew up in a church that made sure I knew all of the details of the stories of the Bible—but on the other hand, I was completely oblivious to those things. For I never saw Hagar’s story for what it really was. I never named the crimes committed against her—rape, exploitation, slavery, violence. They don’t teach you that stuff in Sunday School. And most Christians would be reticent anyway to accuse the great Abraham and Sarah, patriarch and matriarch of Israel, with such terrible actions.
After reading Williams’ book, I felt guilty. Guilty that I had never noticed Hagar in the story before. I realized, reading this book, that despite my knowledge of the details of the Genesis story, Hagar had always been invisible to me. I never really saw her and I never really heard her.
I never stopped to imagine things from her perspective. How did it feel to be taken from her family and friends in Egypt to live in another land? What did she go through when she was told by Sarah that she was going to be given, sexually, to Abraham? What was going through her mind as she fled from Sarah’s mistreatment and then was forced to return? How did she handle the fear and grief that must have accompanied her as she sat in the desert, believing her son was going to die?
I’d never asked any of these questions when I’d read the text before because, well, honestly, I didn’t want to. Asking hard questions means that you end up with hard answers, answers you probably would rather not hear. It’s much easier to avoid asking them, so you don’t have to deal with the answers. It’s much easier to let the invisible people in the text, like Hagar, remain invisible, so you don’t have to wrestle with the tough issues that they bring up.
If you let Hagar speak to you, you realize that this story we all love so much, about how God blessed Abraham with many descendants and made him into a great nation, this story has a dark side. The dark side is that on their journey to the fulfillment of this divine promise, both Abraham and Sarah abused another human being. In order to get what they both so desperately wanted, a child, Abraham and Sarah used their power to exploit Hagar. They took her from her homeland as a slave, they took control of her body and impregnated her, they resented her, they abused her, and they abandoned her. I’d rather not see Abraham and Sarah in this way. I’d rather see them as flannel-graph heroes, wouldn’t you?
Perhaps we don’t see the story for what it really is because we’re so focused on the theme of faith. It’s not that we don’t notice Abraham and Sarah’s shortcomings in Genesis—we do. We talk about how Sarah laughed when Abraham was told she was going to have a son. We talk about how Abraham tried to pass off his wife as his sister, not once, but TWICE, because he was so concerned that harm would come to him. We talk about how instead of trusting God to provide a descendant, Abraham and Sarah took matters into their own hands and had a child by alternate means. We recognize that all this sin—let’s name it for what it is—takes place in the story, but when we read this story purely through the lens of whether or not Abraham and Sarah had faith in God or not, we read all these events as sins against God, not sins against others. They’re failures to trust God, failures to have adequate faith in God.
And that’s not a wrong reading. That is what is going on in Genesis. Abraham and Sarah don’t trust God for most of the story, and their failure to have faith in God’s promises results in many wrong turns on the path to God’s blessing. But this lack of faith results not only in sin against God, but sin against other human beings, and we can’t ignore this. It’s not just that Abraham and Sarah sinned against God, they sinned against Hagar. They abused her, exploited her, raped her.
We spent an entire day of class in one of my theology courses this last semester debating whether sin should primarily be defined as an offense against God or an offense against other human beings. The author we were reading wanted Christians to redefine sin as the harm of creation, rather than the creator, arguing that traditional definitions of sin ignore the real victims of human wrongdoing. I can see the author’s point—if I punch my husband in the face, who have I really sinned against? God, or him? Traditionally, Christianity has said I’ve sinned against God. My husband’s face is essentially collateral damage. But I would imagine that my husband would think that he is the real victim of my sin, and would rather I spend my time apologizing to him, not to God, as HE was the one punched in the face.
But while I think the author has a point, I don’t honestly care how we define sin. [Please don’t tell my students that, because it’s my job to pretend to care deeply about such things.] What I do care about is whether we recognize sin’s effects. Whether sin is primarily an action against God or creation is less important than admitting that sin profoundly harms other human beings, not just God. Abraham and Sarah’s sin harmed another human being, Hagar, and we ought to care not only about their lack of faith in God, but about their mistreatment of another person.
But let’s not miss the larger point of this story. The moral, if you will. Reading the Genesis story through Hagar’s eyes isn’t about criticizing Abraham and Sarah. If our reading of Scripture leads to the accusation and condemnation of other people, 99% of the time we’ve missed the point. The stories are about us, and the actions that are portrayed are our own. When people refer to the stories of the Bible as myths, they don’t mean that these stories are lies, falsehoods. They mean that these stories are meant to communicate to us profound truths about human and divine nature. We should pay attention to these stories because they tell us something not just about God, and people who lived a long time ago, but also about ourselves. In her book, Delores Williams asks us to see Hagar’s story for what it really is not so that we can throw stones at Abraham and Sarah, but in order to get us to see that this is not some terrible story that happened 1000s of years ago in the Ancient Near East. This story is part of our recent history and part of our present.
Williams uses the Hagar story to highlight the mistreatment of black women by white men and women in this country. The similarities between Hagar’s story and the story of black women in the U.S. are striking. Like Hagar, black women were torn from their families and friends and shipped off to foreign lands as slaves. Like Hagar, they had no control over their own bodies; they were used sexually by their masters and resented for it by their mistresses. They bore children that they had no legal right to, children that could be claimed by others or taken and sold at their masters’ whims. They were abused and mistreated by their mistresses out of jealousy and anger and pride. They often ran away only to be sent back to their owners to suffer more abuse at their hands. Like Hagar, they were often single mothers, worried about the very survival of their children, wondering if they would live or die, whether they would have to watch them die. And even today, Williams reminds us, black women are more likely to be the victims of poverty and single motherhood. They are more likely to be the victims of sexual abuse and economic exploitation. Black women may not be literally enslaved in our country anymore, but we are far from a state of true racial justice and equality. We need to see Hagar’s mistreatment in this story so that we can see the mistreatment of people today.
If we refuse to allow Hagar to be invisible, we also have to recognize ourselves in the story. It’s not enough to see Hagar and her abuse and recognize that there are many like her today. We have to see ourselves in the story, and our responsibility for injustice. Most of us in this room are not Hagar, we are Abraham and Sarah. We are the ones with power, with wealth, with privilege, who have to worry that our lack of faith in God may result in our exploitation of others. That along the path to getting the things we want and desire so badly in life, we may completely overlook the suffering of other people. That we may cause, directly or indirectly, the suffering of other people. We can’t let the Hagars of the world remain invisible to us because if we do, our own sin remains invisible to us. We have to see the Hagars of the world, their suffering, and our role in that suffering, and we have to repent of our blindness.
I told my Feminist Theology students at the beginning of the semester that learning about feminism is often an eye-opening experience. You learn to see pain, suffering, sin, and oppression where once you thought everything was fine. It’s a difficult experience, having your eyes opened to the problems of the world. Most of us would rather stay in our comfortable places and assume that life is good and fair and just. But it’s not. Many of my students began the feminist theology class believing that sexism was a thing of the past, something we’d solved before they were born. I challenged them to see the world as it really is, rather than as we’d like it to be, and to recognize our part in the perpetuation of gender inequality. But, when I warned my students that taking a feminist theology class might be lead to a new way of seeing the world, I forgot to heed my own warning. I didn’t realize that a simple story from Genesis that I’d read 100 times before would make me recognize my own sin in a new way. I didn’t realize that my whole life I’d been overlooking Hagar because it made the story simpler and easier to digest. And a whole lot less convicting. But I’m thankful that when I teach, I usually learn something too.
O God of Abraham, Sarah, AND Hagar, please help us to see the invisible people in our lives. Jar us from our complacency and our fixation on ourselves so that we can see others and their needs, and not merely ourselves and our needs. AMEN.