October 7, 2000
A good thing to think about now is silence. For many, silence connotes peacefulness, stillness. Silence is often thought to mean that the one who does not speak is listening intently.

But in the passage on Esther, silence means something very different. Mordecai says that her silence will kill her people: “If you keep silence for 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.” Esther is not used to power. She is a minority, a Jewish woman in a xenophobic society. But she works her way up through the system, beginning at the harem and ending up as the queen. Now with Esther, we can assume she has some amount of privilege. Because she is queen, she could stay silent and probably be safe even as her people are slaughtered. She has access to the king. She has the privilege of great beauty. But at that crucial moment she rises to the occasion, using her privileges to save her people. She uses her voice; for the first time we hear her speak. She puts her life in danger for the good of the whole. She breaks the silence.

God is not silent with Hagar. If God were silent, Hagar and Ishmael would die. When Hagar seeks to liberate herself by fleeing to the desert before Ishmael is born, God tells her to return. Womanist and mujerista theologians theorize that God may have done this because Hagar and the baby would not survive childbirth in the desert, alone. When Abraham sends Hagar and Ishmael away into the desert, God speaks to Hagar as she raises her voice in anguish. God opens her eyes to the well that is their salvation. And Hagar is not silent. She comes face to face with God and she names God, the only person in the Bible to do so. She says, “You are El Roi.” Scholars note that this name for God was taken from Hagar’s own Egyptian tradition, not the Hebrew tradition of the slave owners Sarai and Abram. This naming shows that she is not afraid to use her voice and she holds on to her own traditions in fierce resistance to the oppression she experiences as a slave woman, as a minority woman.

Here, too, we can examine Sarah’s voice. Sarah lives in a time when the worth of women is very much dependent on their ability to bear children. Her barrenness disempowers her and lowers her esteem in the eyes of others. Yet she still possesses privilege. Hagar is her slave, and Abraham defers to her when she tells him to sleep with her. Abraham also allows her power over Hagar’s fate, most likely knowing full well the extent of Sarah’s rage and bitterness. While Sarah was a woman with only one son in a patriarchal culture, she used the privilege she had and raised her voice. Unfortunately, she used her voice to oppress another woman.

Many of us here are from the so-called First World, or Northern World. We, too, possess privilege. Those who are men possess privilege. Those who are white possess privilege. Those of us who speak the majority language of our countries possess privilege. If it is possible to envision privilege as a ladder (and this is greatly oversimplified), white First World upper class Christian heterosexual men are at the top. Such factors as age, race, nationality, religion, class, language, gender, and (although our churches do not agree on this) sexual orientation determine the amount of privilege people have. These layers of privilege can be used to break down the very system that created these privileges. We can break the silence because our particular privileges give us the power of voice. The danger is becoming a Sarah when we use our privilege. Sarah is a part of the system of oppression, and in using our privilege we may also become part of that system.

For example, a white upper class woman of the First World has a great deal of privilege. While gender sets women back, the class and race factors work in the favor of these women. However, so many white upper class First World women use their voices not to protest inequality, but to hire and exploit lower class immigrant women of color who clean their houses, do their laundry, and care for their children while the white women are at work. These women have become a part of the system. How can we avoid doing the same?

Silence is complicity.

Esther even thought of staying silent when her people were threatened with extermination. We sometimes think of staying silent when women around the world continue to be oppressed. How is it that we can be lulled into silence?

Maybe it’s because we think our position in the world is safe, and we are so wrapped up in ourselves that we ignore other pressing concerns. Certainly Sarah was wrapped up in her own sorrows, but rather than understanding this as part of a larger systematic picture of oppression, she used her voice to continue that oppression. Are we Sarahs?

Or maybe we are afraid of our own power, or we don’t recognize the power that we have. Esther does not understand her own power. When Mordecai informs her of the king’s decree to exterminate the Jewish people, she denies her power, saying “All the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know that if any man or woman goes to the king inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law – all alike are to be put to death. Only if the king holds out the golden scepter to someone, may that person live. I myself have not been called to come in to the king for thirty days.” Only after Mordecai warns Esther of her own vulnerability and reminds her of her power, saying “Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this,” does she claim that power.

We also need to recognize that there are those among us who are not silent. Many among us have courageously spoken out against injustice because that is a part of our identities. For those people, what are the silences in between our words? What injustices do we tacitly allow so that we may focus our energies on ending particular oppressions? What are the gaps in our protests?

Yes, silence can be a positive, renewing force. When the rush of the day and the noise pollution in the city streets overwhelm our senses, silence can be a blessed thing. But here our silence allows the oppression we know exists to continue.

God gave us ears with which to hear, eyes with which to see, and a voice with which to shout in pain and anger, a voice with which to make heard our discontent, a voice with which to build relationships with one another, a voice with which to make change.

If we do not use our voices, we are complicit. Our silence makes us a party to oppression. We are called by God to make justice where justice does not exist. For those of us who are from the United States, we can use our voices. We have a great deal of privilege as Americans that we can use for the greater good. Our sisters around the world speak, but are not heard. If we are silent, we are of no use in the struggle for true peace. We are called to bring attention to the voices of our sisters. For those of you who are white, you can use your voices to end oppression. It is an unsafe position to be in, this voiced position in which you make yourself heard, but your voice brings a challenge to white privilege and racism. It serves a greater purpose. For those of you who are men, you can raise your voices against sexism. For those of us who are from the First World, we are called to raise our voices against exploitation of people in other countries and of the world’s resources. For those of us from the upper and middle classes, we can raise our voices against the poverty that so many people face every day.

We here have power. True, our power comes in varying degrees. Some have less than others. But we have power. The spirit of God empowers us to hear and to be heard. The time is at hand to embrace the power we have and use it for the glory of God. Now we break the silence and speak. Esther risked her life by speaking, and ending up saving a people. Hagar refused to suffer in silence. She raised her voice and had incredible interactions with God. She spoke and was saved. They were individual women. We are a community, composed of people coming from other communities. Can you sense the collective power?

Look around the room. See your sisters and brothers. See the potential here. We are all called to be disciples, to witness to our faith through our works. We are called to use our power, to raise our voices, so that all may be heard. We must not keep silence at such a time as this. The kin-dom of God is at hand. So be it. Amen.

(Given at Beyond Beijing: The Struggle for Gender Justice, a Presbyterian United Nations Office seminar)

Laura Mariko Cheifetz lives in Chicago where she is currently a student at McCormick Theological Seminary. Originally from the West Coast of the United States, Laura graduated from Western Washington University in the spring of 2000.