by Phil Morice Brubaker
Womanist theologians have pointed to the story of Hagar as a central text in creating a theology that takes account of the experience of Black women and others who are oppressed. While Hagar’s experience of being cast out rightly leads to reflection on those oppressed by injustice, Sarah’s and Abraham’s side of this story is also worthy of Lenten reflection, highlighting those who act out of power and privilege.
Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg writes about the impulse to justify the harsh actions of Sarah and Abraham, the parents of the Jewish people, toward Hagar and Ishmael:
“I’m not sure it’s appropriate of us to justify the ways in which a woman with geographic and ethnic privilege and a higher class status disenfranchises a woman who is, literally, a stranger without resources because the woman with power doesn’t want to share her son’s inheritance with the son she had, earlier, encouraged her husband to sire.” (from “Why We Read Sarah and Hagar at Rosh Hashana: On the Abuse of Power”)
I may believe that I personally haven’t actively mistreated those who are oppressed. I don’t identify very much with Sarai’s clearly despicable actions. But, how many times have I, like Abraham, gone along with injustice, and with my social power as a straight, white man enabled or refused to stop active mistreatments of others?
Rabbi Ruttenberg continues with words that are as applicable to Christians during Lent as they are to Jews during Rosh Hashanah,
“This story reminds us to scrutinize our actions, to think of the ways in which we have been blind to the power we have abused, unthinking in the ways in which our privilege has caused us to bring suffering to others, to people we don’t fully see. This Torah reading is meant to be an uncomfortable mirror, a call to empathy and accountability.”
Holy One, Hagar and Ishmael continue to suffer today. Teach us to repent and to empathize. May our repentance lead to just actions, born out of love for all people.
Phil Morice Brubaker is coordinator and trainer with Roots of Justice.