Courage for Community

Courage for Community

The Jewish people lived as dispossessed and discriminated against exiles for over twenty-five hundred years. Given all of the persecution Jews have suffered over the centuries including the Holocaust that sought to exterminate them as a people, it is a miracle Jews have survived as a people and a religion. The Book of Esther is a reminder of the long history of anti-Semitism.

Esther is also a story about courage and speaking up rather than remaining silent. When Esther’s uncle Mordecai finds out about the evil Haman’s plot to kill all of the Jews, he goes to the King’s harem and sends a message to his niece Esther. But Esther is reluctant to undertake the responsibility to talk with the King, for any man or woman who approached the king in the inner court without being summoned by the king by law they would be put to death unless the king extended the gold scepter to them and spared their lives.

But Mordecai reminded Esther that it was for just such a time as the mortal danger of her people that God had elevated her to the status of Queen. “And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” So Esther took courage and went to the King, and sure enough the King smitten by her beauty spares her life, and so Esther’s plan to save her people unfolded.

This part of the story reminds me of the famous quotation from the German Pastor and theologian Martin Niemoller about the inaction of the German church in resisting the Nazis: “First they came for the socialists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.” For such a time as this God has given each of us a voice to speak out against injustice, racism, sexism, and war.

Remaining silent, however, is so much easier. We don’t want to call attention to ourselves. We are afraid of the conflict or hostility taking a stand might arouse. Edmund Burke the 18th  century political philosopher summarized the problem: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good people do nothing.”

Esther was moved to action, and she runs circles around the King who only seems interested in satisfying his appetites and the Prime Minister Haman, who arrogantly believes he is the smartest person in the room, and so is outwitted and by the beautiful and clever Queen. She bids the King and Haman come to her private apartments, where she serves them a lovely feast complete with the finest wine, and her best most exotic recipes. I understand she even served grapefruit cake. As Linda Roebuck would say, “she wasn’t just a pretty face.” And then when the King was completely smitten and schnockered he makes a rash offer: “What is your petition, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled.”

Esther knows the game is in her control but she doesn’t overplay her hand, but rather she makes a humble request: “If I have found favor in your sight, O king, and if it please the king, let my life be given me at my petition, and my people at my request, for we are sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be slain, and to be annihilated. If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace; for our affliction is not to be compared with the loss to the king.”

Poor Haman didn’t even see it coming. For when the King demands to know how it is his Queen’s life is in danger, Esther utters the damning words: “A foe and enemy! This wicked Haman!”

The King leaves the room in a rage, and Haman tries to plead with Esther for his life. When the King comes back moments later Esther has tripped Haman so he falls on the couch with the Queen and it looks like he is trying to physically assault Esther in front of the King – clearly a compromising position that will cost Haman his life.

Haman and his ten sons are hanged on a forty foot high gallows Haman had constructed to execute Mordecai, and the Jews were given permission to kill all of Haman’s family and all of the anti-Semites in the Kingdom.

The story of Esther raises several issues we might consider. The first issue the story raises for us is whether or not we are being called to take a stand against some injustice or wickedness. Opposing evil while laudable can be inconvenient, unpleasant, sometimes dangerous. Most people shy away from open conflict, and that is why gossip is so popular. But when we decide to openly confront injustice we need to be prepared for the possibility of consequences. At the very least we are likely to become the target of hostility. Like Esther we may be called upon to show fortitude. Now personally I have always been rather cowardly. I don’t like conflict or confrontation, and most of my life I have walked away to live to fight again another day. The older I become, however, I realize there aren’t as many other days left to stand up and be counted. And I think the best answer to my own lack of courage is in a quotation from Marianne Williamson in her book, A Return to Love.

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light not our darkness that frightens us. We ask ourselves ‘who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous?’

Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.

It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

Speaking of courage I ran across a story. A psychology professor at the University of Miami knew his  students expected a terrifyingly long final exam. But the professor only put ONE question on the final exam. He watched the reactions of the students as they all opened the exams and saw the one question. Initially they all looked relieved, but as the difficulty of the question began to sink in, those relieved faces sagged to confusion and consternation.

All, that is, except for one student. He read the question, tapped his pencil into his palm a few times, and then jotted something down on the test paper. He walked up to the professor, handed him the final, and walked out. The professor blinked in surprise, looked at what the student wrote, and smiled. The professor wrote “100%” on the top of that student’s test.

The question: What is courage?

The student’s answer: This is.

A second issue I identify in our story is the question should Esther have been content with stopping Haman’s plot to destroy her people but not pursue the death of the Prime Minister and all of his sons and all of their sympathizers? What about turning the other cheek, rather than annihilating all of the opposition? What about love, and forgiveness, and the way of Jesus?

As the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, likes to say, “Israel lives in a tough neighborhood.” The tradition of blood revenge goes back centuries indeed millennia in the Middle East. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth in the Hebrew Scriptures grew out of that culture. Jesus tried to change the culture: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist one who is evil. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. . .” Neither Islam or Judaism claim the way of Jesus. Muslims have never forgiven the Church for launching the Crusades in the name of Jesus. And Jews are quick to point out that for centuries they were persecuted and executed by the Inquisition all in the name of Jesus. Most people who call themselves Christian don’t follow the way of Jesus, and so we find ourselves caught in Mahatma Gandhi’s conundrum: “an eye for an eye only leaves the whole world blind.”

The blindness of the whole world leads me to the last issue I find being raised by the story of Esther today and that is Iran and nuclear weapons. The history of anti-Semitism has told the Jewish people that if someone threatens to annihilate you, take it seriously. Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf told the world he intended to exterminate the Jews, and he tried, damn near succeeded. The State of Israel was founded three years after the close of the Holocaust to be sure that it would never happen again. So when Mahmoud Ahmadinejadthreatens to wipe Israel off the map, Jews all over the world take that as a serious threat – not just propaganda. I sympathize with the Israelis. We need to understand their very real fears, and I also believe the United States needs to avoid being pressured into taking action. Our nation needs to pre-emptively attack another Islamic nation like we need a hole in the head. Our goal is not for every nation to love us, but we can only fight so many wars at once. Restraint rather than bluster or military action is the better part of wisdom.

Esther is a wonderful story. May we all have the courage and faith for such a time as this.

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