Has Anybody Seen Hagar?

September 12, 2004



Have You Seen Hagar? (9/12/04)

Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas

University Congregational Church

The gospel is an amazing thing. The notion that God has covered all of our mistakes—the knowledge that God loves us so much, all of our sins, all of our shortcomings, all of our selfishness has been washed away—forgotten by our Creator. In the words of the 103rd Psalm, “As far as the east is from the west, so far God removes our transgressions from us.”

That is good new indeed! God liberates us from evil—the evils within that we bring into this world, and the evils outside that seek to harm us—to oppress us. In our Christian tradition, we seem most often concerned with those evils within—the evils we inflict upon the world. It is our traditional Christian theology to think of the gospel in a fairly narrow way—something like this: As a human being I stand before God’s judgment, and fall short. Therefore, I confess my sins, I repent, and I accept God’s loving forgiveness as I find it freely given through Jesus Christ.

That is our tradition, and it is an important tradition. But does it speak to everybody? Is that the totality of the gospel? If I, as a preacher of the gospel, go to a Central American country and discover a 15 year old girl who has spent most of her life hungry, and who has been beaten and sexually abused by her father, do I say to her, “Confess your sins to God! Repent of your evil ways! Accept God’s forgiveness for all the evil you have brought into the world!”

That is an extreme example, so let’s bring things back down to earth—or more specifically, back to Wichita, Kansas. If I deliver a sermon to this congregation about our need to leave our egos behind and become selfless in our service to others, most would agree that message is central to the gospel. And a lot of us need to hear it. But what about the woman who, after years of physical and psychological abuse at the hands of her husband, is searching for the courage to leave him, to go back to school and try to make a new life for herself? She will hear this message differently than most. She will hear me saying that it would be unchristian for her to seek out these new possibilities for her life. She will hear me saying that it is her duty to keep her family together—to serve her husband and children without thinking about herself.
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Is that the purpose of the gospel? Is the Christian message, “Never think of yourself. Always humble yourself, even in the face of oppression.” What about empowerment? Is there any part of the gospel message that empowers rather than humbles?

Consider Hagar. We all know this story. Abraham is married to Sarah, and they are both very old. They have never had children, so Sarah tells Abraham to impregnate Hagar—Sarah’s slave. Abraham does so, and she bears a son—Ishmael. Soon, the story gets a major twist. God promises Abraham that he and Sarah will have a child of their own, even though Sarah is 90 years old and Abraham even older. And God tells Abraham that through Sarah’s child a great nation will arise.

Sarah gives birth to Isaac, and it is through Isaac’s offspring that the nation of Israel arises. But what about Hagar? Well, once Sarah gives birth to Isaac, she convinces Abraham to send Hagar and her child, Ishmael, off to the wilderness to die. Abraham isn’t too thrilled with that idea—Ishmael is his son, after all—but after Abraham prays to God, God tells him to do as Sarah asks. God tells Abraham that a second great nation will arise through Ishmael. (And as an aside, even today, both the Arabs and the Jews consider Abraham the father of their faiths, with the Jews claiming to have descended from Isaac, and the Arabs claiming to have descended through Ishmael. But that’s another story!)

Obeying his wife and his God, Abraham gives Hagar some bread and a skin of water, and sends her off into the wilderness with Ishmael. He’s probably thinking to himself, “She’ll make it somehow. She’ll be just fine.” But he surely knows in his heart that she won’t last a week.

And as one would expect, the day soon comes when Hagar realizes she and Ishmael are about to die in the wilderness. She places Ishmael beneath a bush, and walks off a little ways, because she can’t bear to watch her child die. And then, Hagar lifts up her voice and weeps. God then calls to Hagar from heaven and says, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” God leads Hagar to water, mother and son survive, and the Arab nation arises though Ishmael’s offspring.

Hagar, wandering in the wilderness, her small supply of water and food gone; Hagar, her child dying before her eyes; Hagar, knowing she has done nothing other than exactly what her family and her society demanded of her—I don’t think she needs to hear the gospel message of confess your sins and repent. She doesn’t need any lessons in being submissive. She’s done nothing but submit to everybody’s will, never thinking of herself. “What’s that Sarah? You want me to let your husband get me pregnant? Okay.” “What’s that Abraham, you want me to give birth to your son? Okay” What’s that Abraham? God told you to send me and my son out into the desert to die? Okay.”

If there was ever a woman who needed some assertiveness training, it was Hagar! Is there a gospel message for her? When Hagar lifts her voice to heaven and weeps, do we really think she was saying, “Forgive me Lord for being such a sinner. I repent of all the wrongs I’ve done to other people. Come into my life so that I may become the humble servant of others.”

She doesn’t need a gospel of humility. She needs a gospel of empowerment. She doesn’t need to fall to her knees and with her face in the sand cry out, “Forgive me, a sinner!” She needs to find the strength to get up off her knees, to stand upright and face the heavens and cry out, “Where is justice?” She doesn‘t need to ask God for the humility to be a servant. She needs to ask God for the strength and courage to take control of her life, to take her son in her arms and find food and water, and maybe, just maybe, survive—no, thrive—even if her society makes her live in the wilderness.

Are there any Hagars in our world today? Why would any woman in 21st Century America allow herself to be a Hagar? I’m not going to take the easy way out, which would be to point to the ghettoized parts of our nation, where Hagars abound. I spent parts of the last three summers in Chicago, and there are neighborhoods in South Chicago that offer women and children less hope, and more struggles, than the wilderness encountered by Hagar and Ishmael in the Bible. And the only thing more difficult than surviving that urban wilderness is finding a way out of it.

But I’m not going to do that. I’m not going to point to the obvious Hagars in our society. Do we find Hagars only in the poorest and most oppressed parts of our culture? As I wrestled with this question, I talked with many women, and I discovered something surprising. Not only do those women know lots of Hagars, they live in a society that often expects them to be Hagars!

One friend of mine teaches at the college level. She is intelligent, and confident, and capable. And every semester, when she walks into the classroom for the first time, she senses something in many of the students—something resembling disappointment, or disapproval. Why? Because she doesn’t look the way the college professor of their dreams looks. She does not have distinguished gray hair, and she would look ridiculous smoking a pipe. She is not the stereotypical professor. And she is at a disadvantage from the very beginning. She must prove herself, every day. It’s not something overt. Nobody says, “Because you’re a woman, we’ll believe you can teach at the college level once you prove it to us.” But in her own subtle way, she has to claw her way out of the wilderness with each new class.

Another friend decided to pursue her dream of becoming a firefighter. There were 58 women who started the training process, which holds women to the exact same standards as men. Two of those 58 women made it through. The physical demands are extremely challenging, especially for women, who tend not to have the muscle mass of men. For example, my friend had to carry a 220-pound man in full gear, which means he weighed around 280 pounds, down the full length of a ladder.

She graduated in the top 15% of her class, and became only the sixth woman in a department of 360 firefighters. She lasted four months. It wasn’t that she couldn’t do the job. And fire department officials supported her. But she had entered a world where women were not welcome. She was told by other women in both the law-enforcement and firefighting professions that she would have to prove herself every single day. There was no effort to make her feel like one of the guys. She spent her 24 hours shifts alone. There was no overt hazing, although in various drills she was put in positions that would make her look bad. During one drill somebody had sabotaged her helmet so she could not get it fastened, and one of her superiors came up and rudely knocked the helmet off her head, asking her if she was aware of the importance of having your helmet properly secured. After four months, she returned to her life as a very busy homemaker, having survived a very difficult wilderness experience.

And what about homemaking? As far as I’m concerned, that is the most difficult and important job a person can do, be they male or female. And not only is it important work, it is very hard work. There are times when a homemaker has to be away, perhaps due to illness—either her own or that of a family member living in a distant town. I have yet to meet the man who, when forced for whatever reason to spend a week or two taking full responsibility for the family’s home life, didn’t say that it was the most difficult, trying time of his life. And there is nothing I find more disgusting than hearing somebody ask a woman, “Do you work?” The question should be, “Do you work for pay outside the home?”

But homemakers are often made to feel worthless, especially by women who have jobs outside the home. And this is a shift in our thinking about the Hagar story. Up until now, we have concentrated on Abraham—the patriarchal male—and his role in creating Hagars when women attempt to enter professions dominated by men. But let’s not let Sarah off the hook!

Sarah. Almost every woman I talked with about this Hagar story told me that in the workplace, women are women’s worst enemies. In the Bible story, Hagar does what she is expected—even required—to do, and Sarah resents her for it. Sarah punishes her for it. And in the modern workplace, if a woman is good at business, she is often resented—by other women. And does she succeed on her own merit? Well, frequently, not to hear women tell the story. If she dresses conservatively in business suits, people have all sorts of words for her, claiming she is not quite a real woman. And if she dresses in any manner that could be considered feminine, she is simply some sort of bimbo, using sex to get ahead. It is a no-win situation!

One woman told me that when she hears the story of Hagar, she resents Sarah. This particular woman is quite successful in her workplace, and is the subject of fabricated stories by the many Sarahs who resent her, and continually try to sabotage her efforts. As she puts it, “Where I work, women view men as important, and women as a threat.”

And what has happened as a result of this attitude? Well, between the men—the Abrahams—who like power distributed the way it is now, and the women—the Sarahs and Hagars—who fail to acquire power because they are separating themselves into the Sarahs and the Hagars; the workplace has become a sort of prison for women.

In 19th Century England a new style of prison was designed, called the panopticon. The idea was to have the prisoners think they were being watched at all times. Pan—always; Optic—watched. Always watched—panoptican. The perfect panoptican would have a tall guard tower in the center, and all the walls of the prison would be made of glass. You wouldn’t necessarily be seen at all times by the guards, but you could be seen by the other prisoners. Some modern thinkers believe women in the workplace are living in a panoptican of their own making. There are always Sarah’s around who are willing to make a sacrifice of any Hagar who appears to be gaining the favor of the Abrahams in charge.

Abraham, Sarah, Hagar. They are all around us. We are them, although it’s difficult to see the truth of a story when you are living it. In the end, doesn’t it all come down to roles? Shakespeare said, “All the world’s a stage, and all men and women merely players.” Does that mean we have roles we must play?

And the question such a large part of our society seems to argue over is a woman’s role in all this. What is a woman’s role in our society? When we hear all the talk about family values, it usually comes from men who want to define a woman’s role as reproducer. Women should have babies and stay home and take care of them. But we shouldn’t let those people with their narrow thinking affect our own thinking on the subject. Homemaking is probably the most important and difficult job in the world. We should never belittle it. Is that a woman’s role?

Or is it a woman’s role to be a wage earner—to get out in the workplace and provide resources for her family? Or is it a woman’s role to become a professional person—to get an advanced education and make a contribution in some field such as law, or medicine? Or is it a woman’s role to be a political activist and volunteer—to loudly and proudly use her voice to change the world?

But really, aren’t we asking the wrong question? When we ask what a woman’s role should be in our society, isn’t that the wrong question? Should women be homemakers? Should women be wage-earners? Should women be professionals? Should women be political activists?

What is the role of women in society? That is the wrong question. The right question is this; who should decide the role of a woman in society? The role of women is not the issue. Who determines a woman’s role is the issue. And I hope we agree on the answer to that question. Who determines a woman’s role in society? Not men. There are too many Abrahams for men to have that power. Not women. No! Not women as a whole, as a group. There are too many Sarahs for women, collectively, to have that power. A woman’s role should be determined by Hagar—by the individual woman, taking stock of her individual situation. A woman’s role in our society should be between her and God—her loving creator, who hears her cries in the wilderness, who gives her the strength and courage to stand even when she has been beaten down, and who empowers her to take control of her life.