Here’s something that I noticed in this text:
Hagar never speaks.
Abram and Sarai talk about her.
Abram and Sarai talk about what to do with her.
But Hagar never says a word.
Hagar doesn’t have a voice.
And Hagar doesn’t have a choice.
Her story, as Delores Williams, author of Sisters in the Wilderness puts it,
“is...shaped by the problems and desires of her owners.”
Hagar doesn’t have a voice, or a choice,
and she doesn’t have control over her body
which quite literally belongs to her mistress Sarai
and can be “given” to Abraham,
who rapes her.
So that Sarai can take her child.
These are the stories we didn’t hear in Sunday School.
And just like family stories we might be inclined not to repeat
to our children and our children’s children,
the story of Hagar is not often heard.
For at least 100 years, black communities,
in particular, black women,
have found an analogue for their expereince in Hagar's story.*
But in white communities, Hagar has often been villainized.
This week in Theology Circle
I asked the group what their perceptions were of Hagar --
if they had ever heard of her.
And one participant mentioned that growing up,
Hagar had been portrayed kind of like the bad guy,
like she had done something wrong.
It seems difficult to pin blame on Hagar in this story --
she a slave who is subjected to rape,
forced to carry a child that will most likely be taken from her,
then abused at the hands of her mistress during her pregnancy
and later sent into the wilderness to die.
But somehow our culture finds a way
to blame her for her trials at the hands of others.
The story of Hagar takes place in a culture and time that seems far removed from ours.
Slavery was the norm during this time in history, upheld by law and custom in the Ancient Near East.
In fact, rape was the norm.
Any of the slave women owned by Abram would have been sexually accessible to him.
Hagar, however, was Sarai’s handmaid, and therefore owned only by Sarai.
As such, she would have been one of the only women in the household
with some amount of control over her own body.
That is, until Sarai gave her to Abram as a surrogate.
The law stated that, if a women was unable to conceive
the child born of her handmaid would be considered her own child.
And so Sarai’s proposal to Abram was completely in keeping with the custom of the time.
But I want to stress that, just because the custom was normative
doesn’t make it acceptable.
Just because Abram and Sarai are the ancestors of our faith,
doesn’t mean we have to defend their actions.
This past Winter and Spring,
I found that I was feeling angry
almost all of the time.
It seemed that, one after another,
a story would surface in the news
about the rape of a woman.
New data was emerging about a rise in the incidence of rape in the military,
along with deeply distressing allegations being made by women who served in the military.
The court case of two football players in Steubenville, Ohio who posted pictures and video of their rape of a 16 classmate online was in progress,
and to top it off, I was reading Nora Okja Keller’s book, Comfort Women,
which offers more detail than I could take in about the lives of women and girls
held captive during World War II for the use of Japanese soldiers.
“This body does not belong to you!”
That’s what I wanted to yell out.
But I didn’t know who I was supposed to yell at, or how to find them.
Like Hagar before me,
I felt like I had no voice.
But I had plenty of anger.
How is it, I wondered, that I live in a country
where a Senator could use the term "legitimate rape"
as if some rapes are not legitimate?
Where parents and football coaches continued to labor under the notion
or that a passed out drunk 16 year old girl had “asked for it?”
What water has our country been drinking,
that we would collectively continue to cast victims as wanting something
they were never even given a chance to say no to?
Who never had a chance to say no to anything.
Statistics suggest that at least 1 in 5 women
and 1 in 33 men
has been the victim of a sexualized assault.
Lately, I’ve been cultivating a practice of remembering this statistic
whenever I find myself in a room with a group of people.
Remembering that at least one of the five people I'm speaking with
may have been victimized changes the way I think about the language I use,
the way I interact with others, the way I relate to others’ bodies.
If statistics hold, it is likely that several of us, here in this room,
have had an experience of having control of our bodies taken away
by someone who thought they were entitled to.
As a preacher, my job is to speak the truth in love.
So allow me tell you, with all the love in the world,
what happened to you was wrong.
Your body is sacred
and it should not be violated.
No one can take away your wholeness.
Here is another truth that I have to share with you tonight:
The story of Hagar
is both our ancestry to reckon with
and our legacy to dissolve.
Hagar’s story is one of many examples
of what happens
when we begin to think that we have rights over someone else’s body.
The people around Hagar overlooked a sacred truth:
that as one of God’s creatures,
her body belonged to no one but herself.
And she had a right to a voice, to choice,
and to control what happened to her body.
The people who lived around Hagar
lived in a system that endorsed using her body as a empty container,
so that she might incubate another woman’s child.
I’m sorry to say that the systemic use of other’s bodies,
especially bodies of women,
has only changed shape through the centuries.
Black women in this country were used as containers
to produce more slaves;
used as containers
for the sexual urges of white men.
Women and children around the world
continue to be bought and sold as sex slaves:
seen as containers for the impulses of others
who use and discard them.
Within our culture, women and children continue to be used
as containers by their abusers:
those who reassert their power and dominance by dominating someone else.
I hear Abram’s words in this passage,
“Do what you will with her,”
unfolding through centuries of violence.
This is the ancestry we have to reckon with
and the legacy we must dissolve.
As Christians, I see three ways in which we are called
to begin to heal and prevent these violations.
First, we recover what has been lost.
We recover biblical stories of those whose stories have been lost.
Like Hagar, whose story is so often forgotten.
Like Jephthah’s daughter, who is offered by her father as a burnt offering.
And the unnamed woman in Judges 19 who is offered by her father
as a diversion to an angry mob.
These are uncomfortable pages to turn to in our family history,
but we must turn to them, and tell them,
so that what has lost might be reclaimed.
Second, we bring voice to those who are silent.
Rape and sexualized violence
are shrouded in a web of silence, fear, and shame.
Hagar has no voice in her story, and yet she deserves one.
I felt in my recent anger over these violations
that my voice was empty of weight or power.
Just last week I was eating dinner with a women who told a story
about someone who had made a joke about he and the men he was with raping her.
“I used to not tell this part of the story,”
“but then I thought, why am I protecting him?”
How do we give a voice to the voiceless?
How do we give a voice to Hagar?
Third, we practice giving our bodies
and receiving those of others in ways that honor
the divine spark in each of us.
No one is an empty container.
No one is a receptacle for your needs.
Not your partner
or your child
or the person who swipes your credit card at the grocery store.
Not even the driver who cuts you off
or the person who elbows you on the subway.
This is a city where it is easy to dehumanize others.
Where we are faced with so great a crush of humanity that it can be hard to remember
that each of the millions of people who inhabits this place
is a reflection of God.
I know that I have to practice remembering.
And so I come here and look at one of you in the eye,
tear a piece of bread from the loaf and say,
“this is my body.”
It is a piece of myself, given and received,
that nourishes another soul.
“This is my body.”
I hope that this can be a place
where we can practice giving ourselves to one another
in ways that nourish, and never violate.
We give to one another, but never take from one another.
We share with one another, but never devour or destroy one another.
I cannot promise that this community will be safe,
but I can promise that together, we can do all in our power to make it so.
I wish, that Hagar had more than she was given.
I wish that she had a voice, a choice,
the ability to choose to give her body
rather than having it taken from her.
I wish that I could give her,
and all those like her,
some of the opportunities I have had,
to give my body and myself willingly, with trust,
and see the holiness that resides in the flesh of another.
The best thing about beginning to tell this story
is the knowledge that it is not over.
Liberated from captivity,
Hagar will step forward into the wilderness
with resourcefulness and cunning
and strength and power.
She will not remain voiceless.
For, though we have not heard her speak,
when she does, it will be to speak directly to God,
to meet God face to face,
and to call God by name.
Hagar has a voice.
And plenty to say.
And we will listen.
*Williams, Delores, Sisters in the Wilderness (New York: Orbis Books, 1993), 3-4.