For Such a Time As This
…he sent back this answer: “Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape. 14 For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?”Esther 4:13-14
That phrase, “for such a time as this,” gets used a lot by those at least somewhat familiar with this story from the Bible. I’m one of those who will do so when it comes to mind and seems appropriate for whatever I’m talking about. I was surprised, though, when I was invited to revisit Esther’s story by this recent entry in Circle of Hope’s Daily Prayer. As the Daily Prayer writer reminds us:
In the story of Esther, a Jewish woman becomes Queen for the intimidating King Xerxes. One of the king’s men, Haman, hated the Jews and was plotting to destroy them. She was in a unique position of power to prevent the annihilation of her people.
What struck me about Esther’s story when I initially revisited it was what came in the next couple of verses from chapter 4 after the famous “for such a time as this” line:
15 Then Esther sent this reply to Mordecai: 16 “Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my attendants will fast as you do. When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.”
I think it’s common among Christians, myself included, to pick out parts of the Bible that are resonant, but ambiguous or otherwise easy. We remember that Jesus’ yoke is easy, and his burden is light, and we’re tempted to think that our lot as his followers should be easy and light too. The use of “for such a time as this” is a case in point. We often want to talk about it generally as a call to do something meaningful when the time seems right to do it. “For such a time as this” devolves then to mean little more than “strike while the iron is hot.” So when I began to read Esther’s story again, verses 15 and 16 were eye opening. When Mordecai, her cousin, implored her to use her royal position to save her people, she feared for her life, and rightly so. To approach the king unbidden was to risk death. So the this in “for such a time as this” had to do with facing death for the sake of others. Esther eventually agreed to do this, adding, “if I perish, I perish.”
Esther Is a Hero; Am I?
What immediately intrigued me about Esther’s willingness to use her position of privilege and power to lift up her people, even risking death to do so, was how resonant it seemed with the work of antiracism. Isn’t that what “white” people are called to do, after all, to use our unearned power and ill-gotten gain to undo the systems that lift us up by putting BIPOC down? So as I sought to find my place in Esther’s story, I wanted to occupy the position of hero, to see myself in Esther’s shoes, heroically using whatever power I have as a “white” person within a world of white supremacy to fight for those who are oppressed by it. Of course, this is a very white thing to do, to see myself at the center of every story, always the hero, always virtuous, never wrong.
Thanks be to God, I kept reading Esther’s story, and wound up reading the whole book. It’s not that long, just 10 chapters in total. Not surprisingly in the end, Esther’s story is complex. She was afforded the power and privilege she had as queen in a foreign empire only after the former queen, Vashti, was deposed for not performing her duties as a trophy of the king. She literally refused to be paraded around as a sex object. In an even more patriarchal society than our own, she had agency, and she used it. Now I know we do the Biblical text a disservice when we read it anachronistically, bringing the ideas we encounter in the text into the present and subjecting them to modern scrutiny as if they belong in our time. Be that as it may, I also do the text a disservice if I think I can somehow read it with any sort of objectivity, for objectivity is a function of whiteness too. I do not read from some enlightened plane from which I have mastery over the text. All reading is interpretation, after all. So while words like patriarchy or sexism might have been foreign to the participants in Esther’s story, the worlds that those words evoke were not. Just like today, men treated women as objects and exercised mastery over them whenever possible. And just like today, when women refused to play along there were consequences, sometimes severe.
Vashti refused to play along and was deposed. Esther, the hero of our story, did play along, and found herself in a powerful position as a result. If you read Esther’s whole story, you’ll again find the tale to be very complex. Esther was able to save her people, and this is worthy of celebration. It’s also worth looking at why the Jews were threatened with annihilation in the first place. In the text we read that Haman, a noble in the king’s court, became angry with Mordecai, Esther’s Jewish cousin, because Mordecai would not prostate himself before Haman as the king had decreed. Mordecai refused to debase himself before another man, and Haman was enraged. He vowed to punish Mordecai with the genocide of all his people throughout the land. Haman vindictively enlisted the king’s support for his homicidal revenge, and was successful in securing a decree that all Jews would be killed on a certain day, thus setting the stage for Esther’s heroics. Later, when the king intends to honor Mordecai for the part he played in foiling an attempt on the king’s life, the king asks Haman what should be done for “the man the king delights to honor.” Haman, who flew into a genocidal rage when Mordecai would not debase himself before him, is unable to do anything other than center himself when he answers the king, assuming that it is he, Haman, who would be so honored. Haman gives an elaborate answer, thinking that what he prescribes will be given to him, and is shocked to discover that he has designed an elaborate reward not for himself, but for Mordecai.
Esther Saved Her People from Violence…Through Violence
So again as I imagine myself in this story, I want to assume Esther’s place, thinking her to be the hero who wields power for good. It is humbling then to realize that this role does not fit me. Esther came from an oppressed people and rose to power by participating in her own subjugation as a sex object. And the end of Esther’s story is notable too. She saves her people from annihilation, yes, but does not stop there. She acts to secure Mordecai’s place in a position of power at the king’s side, and Mordecai works not only to reverse the decree that would have killed all the Jews, but to empower them to “defend” themselves and get relief from their enemies. At the appointed time, the Jews act retributively against those that would have done them harm, and the text records that 75,000 people died at their hands.
As a Jesus-follower called to the way of peace, I do not celebrate this violence. There is a case to be made, I think, for using power against itself, but from where I sit that case collapses when it comes to violence. Violence is a self-propagating power. “Violence begets violence.” To use it is to perpetuate it. Jesus defeats the power of violence and death finally not by participating in violence, but by succumbing to it. When Peter pulls his sword to violently defend Jesus, Jesus heals the guard Peter attacks and tells Peter- and all Jesus followers from that point forward- to put away his sword. All that said, where I sit matters. I sit securely in a position of affluence that has come through violence and is maintained by it. So I can not very well judge when victims of violence respond violently, and I must admit that any instinct I have to call those oppressed by violence to repudiate it, is a very self-interested appeal.
My Entry Into Esther’s Story Is Unfortunately Through Haman
What then am I to do? Where do I fit in Esther’s story, if I do at all? If I am brutally honest, I must admit that I am most like Haman in the story of Esther. I receive the benefits of an extractive economy that favors me, and my affluence is protected by state violence. And it is often true that even though this is the case, I am tempted to want more. In a hierarchical system, I am tempted to envy those above my station and despise those below. And it can be tempting to erupt with violent impulses when I do not deem myself to be sufficiently honored for my status by those who are subjugated in order to maintain it. So if I were to be given lines like Esther’s in her story, it would be far more likely for me to say, “If I kill, I kill,” rather than “If I die, I die.” I do kill, actually, but am so far removed from it that it can escape my notice, if I let it. As I write, violence is occurring all around me. Shootings are occurring in Minneapolis just to the southwest of me. In Afghanistan, the Taliban advances to rapidly reclaim territory lost during the U.S. occupation for the past twenty years or so. The Taliban is claiming this territory violently, just as the U.S. did.
Yet I sit in comfort, insulated from all this harm. This violence, both near and far, is directly related to my safety and comfort. I may not have genocidal thoughts, but I am complicit in it. I occupy land that was forcefully wrested away from its original inhabitants through genocide, and am afforded a lifestyle procured through centuries of enslavement. So even if I do nothing, I do something. Simply by going about my life in a way that largely comports with the expectations of whiteness and capitalism, I do harm. I may not want to mean it, but it is nevertheless true then that if I kill, I kill.
I want to end this post on a hopeful note. I want to talk about the healing that Jesus brings, the unity that can be found through the Spirit. I want to sing the praise of the alternative economy that my church, Circle of Hope, is trying to live into and the ever so small steps we’re taking toward reparations to Black folks for the harm caused by “white” folks. I want to talk about how God will make a way when there seems to be no way, and I believe that God will in fact do so. But I dare not reach for hope with one hand while continuing to clutch the levers of power with the other. White guilt does no good for anyone, and I dare not indulge it here. That said, white repentance cannot be avoided. Together with my European-American siblings in the faith, I must at first follow the example not of Esther, but of Vashti. I must refuse to participate in the systems of oppression that favor me, and I must be willing to endure the inevitable loss of power that will result. Perhaps there is a progression here as I continue to look for my place in Esther’s story. I begin like Haman, oblivious to my self-centeredness, willing to resort to violence on a whim. Like Vashti, Lord willing I eventually find my agency and voice as I refuse to be exploited, even if my exploitation benefits me. And there may come a time when I am called to risk my life for my people like Esther, especially if I widen my gaze to see that all people are my people.
For now though, I want to discipline myself to do the work of repentance. I too often eschew this work. I am so grateful that I have the chance to actively work at antiracism both at my job and as a part of Circle of Hope, and I am committed to this work for the long haul. I know I have a part to play in it. I don’t think it’s wholly true that the best I can do as a European-American is to cause as little harm as possible. I am a part of the new humanity. Beloved community is for me too, and I’m invited to help build it. But I cannot have it both ways. In order to fully participate in beloved community, I must bring my whole self, all of my humanity. So I dare not bring whiteness into that space, for whiteness obliterates humanity. As I keep saying, I am not “white,” after all. My ancestors are Jewish, English, and German. I have roots in Irish soil. So I must continue to take off whiteness, and put on Christ, and I must likewise repent of the notion that my progress toward beloved community will be linear. Every day, I must choose this path of repentance and reconciliation, for every day the powers will continue to draw me in the other direction. Thank God that her steadfast love never ceases, and that her mercies are new every morning, for each day certainly has enough trouble of its own.