Last month I was asked to preach at Chicago Theological Seminary. It was a huge honor to preach just one week after Rev. Neichelle Guidry. To prepare I attended the womanist service where she preached, as well as peeped her youtube video more than a few times. I highly recommend that you give it a watch and/or listen.
The text for my sermon came from Genesis 16:1-16. I have included a written excerpt below. It can be heard in full by clicking the youtube link. The title of the sermon was “The Fear of Freedom: Sarah wasn’t ready, are you?”
March 1st marks the beginning of Women’s History month, a month set aside to celebrate and commemorate the countless contributions women and female-identified folk have made throughout history.
What started off as a single day of remembrance—March 8, International Women’s Day—eventually became a month long celebration, thanks to the National Women’s History Project’s petitioning of congress in 1987.
The National Women’s History Project is a non-profit organization that has been “writing women back into history” since 1980. They believe that, “Each time a girl opens a book and reads a womanless history, she learns she is worth less.”
This made me wonder—so what does this book we call the Bible teach us about women’s worth? What kind of women do we find in its history? Let us return to our scripture for today: the story of Sarah and Hagar.
To quickly recap, Sarah has not yet given birth to a child and this is a problem. As a barren woman she is unable to provide her husband, a wealthy herdsman with an heir; that is, she is incapable of literally giving life to God’s promise that Abram will have “many descendants.”
This puts Sarah’s position of power and privilege at risk. It makes her disposable. expendable. No longer worthy enough to be Abram’s wife. So, what does she do? She finds her own replacement, a slave-girl named Hagar. “…go in to my slave-girl,” she says to Abram, “and perhaps I will obtain children through her…”
Yup, you heard right, Sarah exercises what little power she has in this patriarchal society by forcing Hagar into surrogacy. In this moment, the “illusion of power and authority” that SOME women have, belongs to Sarah, while powerlessness seems to plague Hagar.
And thus begins this historical phenomenon of women oppressing other women. It is important to note here that Sarah is Hebrew (but presumably white), married, rich and “free,” but old and barren; while Hagar is Egyptian (i.e.: BLACK or brown), single, poor, and enslaved, now burdened by her youthfulness and fertility.
In this story, she is the ‘suffering servant,’ the Crucified One.
…Apparently, Sarah had never heard the words of Assata Shakur, that is, words chanted at almost every Black Lives Matter protest and rally:
Why didn’t Sarah love and support Hagar? Why didn’t she protect her or at the very least, get in the way of her oppression?
My first thought is because Hagar was a slave. As such, Sarah sees her as less worthy than she. Sarah probably believes that Hagar is even less of a human than she is (because of racism, among other things).
But my second thought is that it goes deeper than that. When Hagar becomes pregnant, Sarah is pissed because now this ‘inferior human’ can do the very thing that she can’t –bare Abram a child.
In this patriarchal system, Sarah believes that she herself is also inferior – in this society and world (which continues even today) where women are told that their primary source of value and WORTH is in their ability to procreate, to bare and birth children. It’s why Republicans keep trying to deny us the right to choose and wish to limit women’s access to birth control…
Hagar was Sarah’s upward mobility, her passageway into motherhood and financial security; her way out of being unworthy.
Paulo Freire talks about this in his book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire writes, “almost always, during the initial stage of the struggle, the oppressed, instead of striving for liberation, tend themselves to become oppressors, or ‘sub-oppressors.”
Freire asserts that such a transition comes from the oppressed persons “fear of freedom,” but also, a concept of freedom that is purely individualistic. Moreover, he writes, “they [the oppressed] have no consciousness of themselves as persons or as members of an oppressed class,” instead they identify with the oppressor.
So, I suppose the question here is: Is Sarah even aware of her oppression? Does she identify as the oppressor or the oppressed? Or better yet, is she afraid of freedom?
I asked my friend a similar question recently, but also wanted to know WHY – why do women oppress one another. Why, when a woman finds out that her husband or partner is sleeping with another woman, does she attack her? Why do transwomen in the community shade and read one another – often outing them as trans or calling them “clockable”, thereby setting them up to get clocked by a man? And she responded:
If nothing existed outside of our womanhood, we wouldn’t oppress each other. [But alas] Women are alienated from each other and [experience] each other through the competitive discourses of capitalism, patriarchy, heteropatriarchy and other dominant systems…
In other words, women, and other oppressed peoples for that matter, will often manifest the violence of their own oppression. And even though we are each created with this incredible capacity for sisterhood and solidarity, we live in a capitalist society where we are forever busy competing with one another. And in order to merely survive in this vicious cycle, we concede our power to resist and transform ourselves, and this society, by becoming divided.
Sarah does not see a sister in Hagar.
Instead, she sees a vessel, the means to end her own suffering; then, once pregnant, Hagar becomes THE object of her anger.
What if Sarah had recognized herself in Hagar after she had handed her over to Abram? Or when Hagar fled from her affliction? or when their children were caught playing together? Or or or…
Why did Sarah not SEE Hagar like God did in the wilderness?
Because in order to SEE Hagar, Sarah would need to recognize Hagar as a human being; and in SEEing her, Sarah would need to recognize her’s and her husband’s violence against her sister. But alas, she banishes her instead.
Sarah was afraid of freedom. Hagar ran towards it.
Are you Sarah or are you Hagar?
Are you afraid of freedom or are you running towards it?