I am Sarah

A Sermon on Genesis 21:9-19 for Prophetic Preaching class

When I left Alabama at age 18, to begin my undergraduate career in Massachusetts, I was ready to cast of the chains of patriarchy. I was determined to denounce my sexist southern society. I was empowered to live into the woman that God was calling me to be. No longer would my voice be silenced. No longer would my vocation be ignored. No longer would my future be determined by my gender.

At Mount Holyoke College — the first women’s college in the country and my own college of choice — I was evolving into an ardent feminist. And to seal the deal, to continue in the transformation that had already begun, I chose my first class in my religion major, entitled: “Sarah, Hagar, and their Muslim, Christian and Jewish descendants.” After years of feeling silenced as a woman in religion class at both Southern Baptist and Roman Catholic schools, we were finally talking about women! And when paper-writing time came around, we students were encouraged by our Professor — Jane Crosthwaite — to identify with one of the female characters in this tragic narrative of two opposing women revolving around three men.[1]

It didn’t take me more than a split second to decide with whom I would identify — Sarah — my namesake. A woman who was deemed less in her society’s eyes, just because she could not bear a son. A woman who was deemed less in her husband’s eyes, to the point that he denied his relationship with her and basically handed her over to the Pharaoh of Egypt. A woman who was deemed less in the Biblical author’s eyes, for God’s only words to Sarah in the whole Genesis narrative are ones of reprimanding her laughter. Yes, I could identify with Sarah: a woman who had been oppressed by the patriarchal system of the ancient Near East, or perhaps 21st century America. Yes, I could identify with Sarah.

But why did I not identify with Hagar? Perhaps, it is because as a white woman with a dual identity of both the oppressed and the oppressor, I am Sarah. I am a woman whose white privilege destroys the opportunities of my sisters’, who are women of color. I am Sarah. And now, as I reexamine this Biblical text over seven years later, I am almost ashamed to identify with my namesake. For Sarah, a child of God, the matriarch of two faith traditions, is not a heroine in the Genesis account.

Instead of Sarah recognizing that she and Hagar have both been victimized due to their gender, she provokes the tension in this Biblical narrative. Sarah re-victimizes Hagar due to her race and social class. Hagar, a woman of color who has experienced use and abuse by her oppressors, is now rejected by the very person in the narrative who should understand how it feels to be used and abused herself. Sarah achieves this lack of empathy by dehumanizing Hagar. She refers to Hagar not by name, and not even as her maid, but as a slave woman.[2] And throughout the entirety of the scene, Sarah never once speaks directly to Hagar. Instead the absence of dialogue further separates the two women.[3] There is an unspoken divide. For Sarah, Hagar was solely an instrument, raped by Abraham to build Sarah up.[4] For Sarah, Hagar was never a woman, never a human. For Sarah, Hagar was a means to an end, someone who could be tossed a side once the power was back in Sarah’s hands after bearing her own son to Abraham.

White women today should be aware that we indeed are Sarah in this narrative. Although we have been oppressed by the system, we are also oppressors in the system. When the tables are turned, and the power for once is in our hands, we throw women of color out into the desert to fend for themselves. We are blind to the privilege afforded us by being born white, while focusing solely on our disadvantage by being born women.

Yet in this I am not saying the fight for women’s equality is over! Women still make 77 cents to every dollar a man makes.[5] Women still only hold 18% of the seats in the United States Congress.[6] And 1 in 6 women are victims of sexual violence[7] — just like Sarah and Hagar.

Yet women of color are even more greatly affected. Women of color make up 36.3% of the nation’s female population and approximately 18% of the entire U.S. population.[8]  Yet black women and Latina women only make 70 cents and 61 cents, respectively, to every dollar that a man makes.[9]  Of the approximately 90 women currently serving in the U.S. Congress, only 27% are women of color.  And they are completely absent in the Senate altogether.[10]  In regards to sexual violence, Black women, Latina women, and Native American women are all more likely to experience sexual assault than their white female counterparts.[11] The experiences of white women in this country do not represent the lives of all women in the U.S.

In reality, many women of color are simply trying to survive in a society that has staked both race and gender against them. For example, Black and Latina women see an unemployment rate of 13.3% and 11.4% respectively, compared to a national average of 7.3%.[12] Women of color also make up 53.2% of uninsured women, with Latinas having the highest uninsured rate of all other racial and ethnic groups.[13] And also, due to disparities in reproductive health, women of color are more likely to experience unintended pregnancy — Latina women at double the rate of white women, and black women at three times the rate of white women. Because of unequal pay and high unemployment rates among women of color, many of these women are unable to pay the high costs of contraception. [14]

Like Hagar, many women of color are exiles in our U.S. American society. They have been thrown out into the desert, carrying the weight of their families on their shoulders, with little to no resources for survival. And yet, God hears her cry. Although God has seemed to side with Sarah and Abraham for the majority of the narrative, God brings salvation to Hagar in the desert. God calls Hagar by name and opens her eyes to the resources that will save both herself and her son. God’s saving grace is not confined to God’s supposed chosen people.[15] Instead God’s grace is beyond benefiting solely Sarah and is extended to benefiting Hagar as well. Both women will be mothers of nations.

And yet, although God promises these women much, in reality both women are isolated in the desert setting of Genesis. They are both in the hands of the power structures that be. And in our own contemporary society, both white women and women of color have been victims of injustice, have seen oppression first hand.

Therefore, It is our call as women and as disciples of Christ to learn from this Biblical witness and to fight for the equality of all women — not just white women. It is time that we realize as women, “that the enrichment of one does not require the impoverishment of another; the uplifting of one does not require the degradation of another;” that in order to survive we must finally recognize our shared sisterhood.[16] And we must realize that liberation does not only come from God but from human initiative as well. White women and women of color must fight together in the struggle to end gender inequality in this country — by petitioning state legislation that has made it more difficult for women to gain access to sexual health care, specifically contraception; by volunteering at women and children’s shelters that provide support for victims of violence; by educating ourselves, speaking out, and debunking the myth that women of color are welfare queens taking advantage of government support.

Instead of being each other’s own worst enemy, it is time for women to stop hurting other women. It is time for us to realize our shared sisterhood, our commonality in being women.[17] It is time for us to recognize that we have all been exiled into the desert by our American system. And it is time for us to all learn to identify with Hagar. For somewhere in our lives, her story speaks to ours. For Hagar is: “the faithful maid exploited, the black woman used by the male and abused by the female of the ruling class, the surrogate mother, the resident alien without legal recourse, the other woman, the runaway youth, the religious fleeing from affliction, the pregnant woman alone, the expelled wife, the divorced mother with child, the shopping bag lady carrying bread and water, the homeless women, the indigent relying upon handouts from the power structures, the welfare mother, and the self-effacing female whose own identity shrinks in service of others.”[18]

Hagar’s story is unfortunately the story of so many women in this country. And it is now our call as women, as sisters in Christ, to tell her story and to not let her cry go unheard.

 

AMEN

 

 

[1] Trible, Phyllis, Texts of terror: Literary-feminist readings of biblical narratives, Vol. 13, (Fortress Press:Philadephia, 1984), 27-28.

[2] Ibid, 21.

[3] Ibid, 11.

[4] Ibid, 11.

[5] http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/10/why-are-women-paid-less/263776/#

[6] http://money.cnn.com/2013/10/24/news/economy/gender-equality/

[7] http://www.sarsonline.org/resources-stats/reports-laws-statics

[8] http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/race/report/2012/07/17/11923/the-state-of-women-of-color-in-the-united-states/

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] http://endsexualviolence.org/where-we-stand/racism-and-rape

[12] http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/race/report/2012/07/17/11923/the-state-of-women-of-color-in-the-united-states/[13]

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Fretheim, Terence E, “The book of Genesis,” The New Interpreter’s Bible 1 (Abingdon Press: Nashville, 1994).

[16] Hayes, Diana L., Hagar’s daughters: Womanist ways of being in the world, (Paulist Press: New York, 1995), 49.

[17] Ibid, 8.

[18] Trible, Texts of Terror, 28.

 

5 thoughts on “I am Sarah

Add yours

    1. fresh from her PhD, Trible came to Wake Forest University to teach (for a time) in the Religion department. By the time our graduating class 1966, she was encouraging many to go to Union, New York City — so we did. Also helped to get Wake Forest Divinity school, later, to get started and she was one who came to teach there, as I recall.

      1. I would have loved to take a class with Phyllis Trible. But thankfully Jane Crosthwaite introduced her to me and changed my educational and spiritual life. And I almost applied to Wake Forest because of Trible’s influence on the Divinity school and the fact that she is a Professor Emeritus there.

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