Preacher: Scott Sprunger
Text: Esther 4:1-14
I am feeling blessed to be worshipping with you this afternoon and I’m grateful to Pastor Jason for inviting me to add my voice to the conversation you’ve already been having about Black Liberation Theology and Womanist Theology.
Black Liberation Theology and Womanist Theology are always relevant but they take on a special kind of importance right now and a special kind of urgency in our society. It is February, which means it’s Black History Month. But this year also marks the 400th anniversary of when the first Africans were kidnapped from their homes and enslaved by European settlers here, in what became the United States of America.
And although slavery was officially abolished its 1865, its legacies continue to follow us today. Some of you know firsthand what it’s like to be Black or Brown in a racist society. But for the rest of us, I have some statistics that help to paint the picture clearly.
- Black people in this country are incarcerated at a rate 5 times greater than white people. There are more Black people incarcerated today than ever were enslaved, even at the height of American slavery.
- 90% of this nation’s wealth is controlled by white people, while Black people own only 2.3%
- Black children are three times more likely to be suspended from school than white children for the exact same infractions.
- Black women make 61 cents for every dollar paid to white men.
- 38 percent of Black transgender people who interacted with police reported harassment; 14 percent reported physical assault from police and 6 percent reported sexual assault.
- Black women are four times more likely to die during pregnancy than white women, due in large part to the discrimination they face in the American healthcare system.
- Schools are more racially segregated today than they were when Brown vs The Board of Education went before the Supreme Court.
All the while, a wealthy white man who ran a campaign on racism and xenophobia was elected president of the country and white-nationalist groups are growing bolder and more audacious with their public displays of hatred and violence. Some of us might be tempted to think that that our society has been growing worse lately. But truthfully racism has always been a part of the fabric of American life. Sometimes it hides itself beneath a thin veneer of progress, but it has always been there, just beneath the surface.
But now white-supremacy is out in the open, which is, of course a dangerous and often lethal thing. But it’s also an opportunity. Because we can’t begin to solve any problem until it has been exposed to the light. In the words of author and activist James Baldwin, “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
And so clearly, we need Black Liberation Theology and Womanist Theology now more than ever. And that means all of us. Because if our society is ever to heal, it will require an honest and ongoing transformation of every single community and every single individual.
Some of you may be familiar with Dr. James Cone. I was a student of his in the final years of his life. He is sometimes called the founder of Black Liberation Theology. That’s not quite true. Black Liberation Theology has existed ever since African people were enslaved by Europeans and forcibly converted to Christianity, but saw something in it that the slaveholders never could. They encountered stories of a God who hears the cries of enslaved people and who rescues them from oppression.
But Dr. Cone is undeniably the most important figure in shaping and articulating Black Liberation Theology today. 50 years ago, at a time not unlike our own, in which Black people resisted the brutality with which they were treated and targeted by the government, Dr. Cone noticed that no white theologian of any notoriety, was speaking out consistently against racism. And to be silent in the face of racism is to be complicit in it. So Dr. Cone wrote down his own theological perspective, showing definitively that white-supremacy and Christianity are fundamental opposites, or at least they should be if we follow the teachings of Jesus.
Injustice, while always urgent, is never new. It was present in the biblical times and it is present in today’s scripture. Before the passage that was read today, the King of the Persian Empire had been looking for a new wife. So he ordered his guards to round up beautiful women throughout the kingdom. One of those women was Esther.
Esther was an orphan who was raised by her uncle Mordecai. Now Esther and Mordecai were Jewish and Jewish people were a persecuted community in the Persian empire, so they both hid their identity. When the women were brought before the King, he found Esther to be so beautiful that he made her the new Queen.
Now let’s just stop here for a second to say that the King has a real entitlement problem. Like many men today, he treats women as objects that he can easily acquire and discard at will. But suddenly Esther has become, by sheer happenstance, one of the most powerful people in the empire. It is a precarious position to be sure. If it’s discovered that she is Jewish, she risks losing everything, and possibly losing her own life. But as Queen she has access to wealth and power like she could never have imagined.
Now the king appoints a minister named Haman to his royal court. And Haman demands that every royal subject must bow to him. But Esther’s uncle Mordecai refuses to bow down to Haman. So Haman spies on Mordecai and discovers that he’s Jewish, and that he will bow to no one but YHWH. Mordecai is like the Colin Kaepernick of the Bible.
So Haman hatches a plan to have every Jewish person in the empire killed, including Mordecai himself. He convinces the King of his plan and pays him ten thousand talents of silver to carry it out. That is where we enter into today’s scripture. Mordecai has discovered Haman’s secret plan and he launches a public protest. He tears his clothes and puts on a sackcloth and covers himself with ashes. He marches through the streets, crying out for justice. When Jews around the empire hear of Haman’s plan, they join the protest too, weeping and lamenting and fasting.
You see this is the first step in any movement for justice. You take the issues hiding just beneath the surface and you expose them publicly. You make visible the problems everyone would prefer to remain invisible. This is always treated as an unwelcome disruption of the status quo. Every major and important protest in history has been met with scorn. Because protests are a disruption. They’re a disruption in the way we think about ourselves. In the story we tell ourselves about our society. But truth be told, it’s not actually the protests that are disruptive but the status quo itself that disrupts lives.
When discrimination and racism and poverty and war-mongering are part of the status quo, then the status quo needs to be disrupted. This is what movements like Black Lives Matter and the Poor People’s Campaign are doing today. In the spirit of the original Civil Rights and Black Power movements, they are boldly telling the truth about white-supremacy.
And just as it was with Mordecai, it’s a truth that most people don’t want to hear. So they ignore it. Nobody likes to think of themselves or their society as discriminatory. “We’re not racist,” they might say, “we’re just color-blind” or “we live in a post-racial world.” This is the story that many of us white people tell ourselves to preserve our sense of innocence because it is easier than taking an honest look at our communities and then working to change them. The natural enemy of white-supremacy is truth-telling. Because white-supremacy is built on and maintained by lies.
The road to justice begins when the Mordecais of the world stand up and tell the truth about what they’ve experienced. But it does not end there. Because a revolution in consciousness must happen at every level of society. The structures of power and domination must be rewritten. So Mordecai calls out to Esther.
Now Esther has been the Queen of Persia for a while now and she may have forgotten what her life was like before she was Queen. So when Mordecai marches to the gate of the King’s palace, the first thing Esther does is send him some new clothes so that he can take off the sackcloth he was wearing in protest.
And isn’t that how so many of us respond when we hear that someone is hurting? We try to smooth things over without addressing the injustice. We want to fix the symptom instead of the disease. If Mordecai is silent, then we can go back to business as usual. But Mordecai refuses business as usual and he refuses the clothes that Esther sends him.
So the first thing that Esther must do, the first thing any of us must do, is to resist the temptation to think we have all the answers and instead listen when somebody tells us something is wrong.
So Esther sends a messenger to Mordecai to ask what he’s protesting about and Mordecai tells the messenger about Haman’s plot to massacre the Jews. Not only that, but Mordecai calls Esther into solidarity with him.
Now solidarity is a major theme in Black Liberation Theology and solidarity is where many of us who are not Black must enter into the story of Black Liberation Theology. When Dr. James Cone famously said that God is Black, he did not mean that God is a literal person with literal dark skin. Though, to be sure, if we hopped in a time machine and travelled to Palestine 2000 years ago, the real Jesus would have look like the furthest thing from the popular blond haired, blue eyed version we’ve produced today. No, what Dr. Cone meant is that in every age and every society, God stands with those caught under the foot of oppression.
In fact, what is Jesus if not God’s great act of solidarity with humanity? When God chose to enter into the world as a human baby, God could have chosen to be the next Caesar. Jesus could have been a governor. Or a Roman general. Or a wealthy merchant. Or a high priest. But he wasn’t. And the fact that Jesus, the Messiah was a poor, Jewish, 1st century palestinian, from the backwater town of Nazareth tells us a whole lot about what God is like.
God’s power is not imposed from the top but built from the bottom. God’s way is not about building wealth, but building communities. Not about fighting wars but making peace. And whenever there is injustice, God stands with those who are hurting. And so today, in the American empire, where is God standing but with Black people, who continue to face the legacies of slavery and segregation? This is what Dr. Cone meant when he said that God is Black.
And in the same way that Mordecai calls Esther into solidarity with the Jewish people. Those of us who are not Black, but particularly those of us who are white, are being called into solidarity with the struggle for justice.
But Esther knows that for her to enter into solidarity with Mordecai will mean risking her wealth and her position and possibly even her own life. Mordecai asks Esther to use her privilige to persuade the king not to follow Haman’s genocidal plot. But in the Persian court, nobody is allowed to approach the King without the his prior approval, not even the Queen. And the consequence for disobeying this one rule is death. Esther knows this. And so does Mordecai. So he tells her this:
“Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”
For just such a time as this.
History is peppered with these kinds of moments. With ‘a time such as this’ kind of moments. Right now is one of those moments. We must decide who we are by taking action or our inaction will decide for us.
Those of us with white privilege at a time such as this must wield it against the machine of white supremacy. To undo a history of racial terrorism and exploitation carried out on our behalf. The irony, of course, is that if we do it right, we will lose out on the pretense of safety that privilege affords us. But we cannot stay silent. Not at a time such as this.
Because this is what solidarity really means. That we are fundamentally connected to each other and accountable to each other and we cannot change the world without one another. There is no such thing as an injustice happening ‘over there.’ The border crisis doesn’t end at the U.S./Mexico border. If it did, ICE agents wouldn’t be prowling the streets of New York. The Israeli occupation of Palestine doesn’t end in Palestine. Otherwise, millions of US tax dollars wouldn’t be flowing into Israeli weapon programs every single day. Forced child labor doesn’t end in places like Bangladesh or Thailand or China. Otherwise American companies wouldn’t be profiting from their stolen labor by driving production costs down.
There is no such thing as an injustice ‘over there.’ What is happening ‘over there’ is happening right here. What is happening over there is happening inside me. What affects one, affects all. And we can no longer afford to believe that we’re not all in the same boat.
White supremacy continues to exist precisely because those of us who are white refuse to believe that we are connected to this human family. We refuse to believe that white supremacy is bad for us too. Because while Black and Brown people lose their lives, we lose our souls.
Nothing less than solidarity can fix the issues facing our planet. Because the problems we’re facing are too big for us to face alone. We need to build alliances across all lines of difference, which is, of course, difficult and messy work. But it is the only path to healing our planet.
The great irony of Dr. Cone’s life is that he so astutely critiqued the unholy alliance between white Christians and white-supremacy. But when Black women started to read his books, they pointed out the ways in which his own theology was shaped by unexamined misogyny. That was how Womanist theology and Black Feminist theology was born. Because Black women found that their experience of racism could not be disconnected from their experience of sexism.
People who face multiple forms of oppressions are often the ones calling the rest of us into a deeper solidarity. Because they tend to have a much more keen understanding that all injustice is connected. We cannot solve this one problem over here without addressing all the problems over there. So Dr. Cone had to figure out how to be an ally to Black women. Because otherwise, his own theology of Black liberation would lose its integrity.
Solidarity is something that we all need to figure out. Together. To be sure, in a society that is racist, colorist, sexist, capitalist, homophobic, transphobic, xenophobic, and ableist, some of us have more social power than others. But nearly all of us are somewhere between the top and bottom rungs of the social ladder. And we need to start doing the work of sticking up for one another, even when it seems like the injustice seems like it’s a few rungs down.
Because ultimately that’s where God is. Black Liberation Theology and Womanist Theology remind us all that whenever one group of people is mistreated or cast out of society, God is standing right there with them. Dr. Cone often encouraged his students to ask, not ‘What Would Jesus Do’, but What Is Jesus Doing? When we act in solidarity, we aren’t just remembering our fundamental connection to other people, we are remembering our connection to God.
Esther did confront the King. And she did reveal her ethnic and religious identity at the risk of losing her life. And in so doing she saved her people. She understood that the palace would not protect her from the genocide that was coming to her community. Because nobody is actually safe in a society that has murder and exploitation at its center. There is no such thing as injustice that doesn’t affect me. God calls every one of us to stand together against oppression.
I’ll leave you with a quote from the Martyr’s Mirror. Anna Jansz of Rotterdam was arrested and scheduled to be executed for being an Anabaptist. Her final act was to write a letter to her infant son, Isaiah, about what it means to be faithful. This is what she told him:
“God lives with such people who are mocked by the world. Keep company with them. They will show you the true way… In all the work you may do, do not resist God. Share your bread with the hungry. Leave no person in need who professes Christ. Also clothe the naked. Have pity on the sick. Do not distance yourself from them. If you cannot always be with them, show your good will. Comfort the imprisoned. Welcome guests cheerfully into your home, and don’t let anyone drive them out… Both your hands should be ready to do the works of mercy, to give twofold offerings; this is spiritual and worldly work: to set the prisoners free and to strengthen the weak. Then you will truly live.”
My prayer for you is that this is the kind of faith that will find in your own life. That others will extend their solidarity to you when you need it and that you will act in solidarity for them. Because we are on a journey together. The road may have many different origins. But it will have only one destination.