People gather in the shadow of the United States Capitol for the Women’s March on Washington, D.C., on January 21, 2017 (Photo credit: Peter M. Graham)

ABHMS executive director: ‘God has called us for such a time as this’

By Dr. Jeffrey Haggray

These are troubled times. The United States of America has entered a period of profound crisis and confusion. As a child of the 1960s, I anticipate the next several years to be the most disturbing period of my lifetime since the ’60s. This season has been triggered by the actions of a new president who boastfully displays a callous disregard for long established values, such as respect for the separation of powers among America’s branches of government; respect for the rule of law; respect for all people regardless of race, gender, creed or social class; and respect for the responsibility of the president to promote confidence and hope in America rather than chaos and distress.

Our Scriptures provide guidance. As Christians, we look to the Holy Bible for life lessons, inspired teachings and historic precedents that provide guidance for contemporary ethical actions when our world appears to be coming apart at the seams. The Old Testament story of Esther offers some eerie parallels to our current historical period; and Esther sets a profound example for all people of faith by both her stunning socio-political awakening in a time of great trial in her nation and by her emergence as a force for change. I invite you to reflect with me on the Esther story, and at each moment recounted below, ask yourself the question: “What might the Holy Spirit be saying to me and to the church of Christ today concerning our actions?”

“What might the Holy Spirit be saying to me and to the church of Christ today concerning our actions?”

History repeats itself. “This happened.” That is how the writer of the Book of Esther (1:1) opened the story of the bizarre developments under King Ahasuerus’ rule, which led to the destabilization of the entire region known as the citadel of Susa. King Ahasuerus’ conduct caused undeserved fears and trauma to countless innocent people in his domain. It all started when Ahasuerus set out to display his great power and prominence in the company of subordinates that he hand-picked to surround himself. He sponsored a huge festival lasting several days to increase his popularity, to woo his subjects and to intoxicate them with a sense of wonderment for his great majesty.

Women have been devalued and mistreated in every era. Ahasuerus perceived women to be no more than objects of desire for his use, or props to be called on by him, to dress up and be placed on display before his guests on a moment’s notice. Queen Vashti, his first wife, refused to be humiliated by Ahasuerus’ demeaning attempt to place her on display all dolled up before his inebriated advisors and guests. Upon her refusal, Ahasuerus threw a temper tantrum. Next, he consulted with his crony advisors on how best to ban Vashti from entering his presence again. Without calling it a “Vashti ban,” his advisors came up with an interpretation of the law that argued that it would be in the nation’s best interest to remove Vashti from service as his wife, so that other women would not follow her example.

Short-sighted rulers surround themselves with advisors even more short-sighted than themselves. Ahasuerus’ advisors lacked the integrity, independent thought and strength needed to challenge the king’s poor judgment. Several of his advisors were themselves corrupt people who were constantly jockeying for more power. They perceived loyalty to the king to mean: “Do whatever he says to do without asking him difficult questions or prompting him to reconsider his rash judgments.” Ahasuerus’ advisors drafted an executive order that, basically, asserted that every man — whether of high or low degree — is to be the master of every woman in his house.

Unexpected consequences catapult Esther to prominence. Later, Ahasuerus issued a separate executive order to gather “all the beautiful young virgins to the harem” (2:3). It was ordered that they be dressed up and brought to him so he could pick the most attractive one to replace Vashti. Following a reality TV-style search process — think “The Bachelor” — a young virgin named Esther was picked as a finalist for assignment in his harem. In time, the king preferred Esther above all the others and made her queen.

All are woven together by a single garment of destiny. Next, we learn that Esther harbored a secret. She belonged to the religious group known as the Jews, whose faith and heritage were despised by Ahasuerus. Not knowing that his own wife, Esther, was Jewish, Ahasuerus and his inner circle decided that Jews living in all the provinces of his kingdom should no longer be tolerated because they held beliefs about ultimate reality that caused them to not fear Ahasuerus’ rule. Therefore, Ahasuerus issued yet another executive order to not simply ban Jews, but “to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate all Jews, young and old, women and children…and to plunder their goods” (3:13). Without external consultation or review, Ahasuerus’ advisors hurriedly implemented the devastating orders and, as a result, “the city of Susa was thrown into confusion” (3:15).

We need spiritual direction to become our best selves and to discover our destiny. Outside the king’s palace, Esther’s cousin Mordecai paced back and forth, praying and wailing for relief, and managed to get word to Esther through one of her eunuchs, Hathach, that King Ahasuerus posed a clear and present danger to the Jewish people. Although he may appear to Esther to be a smooth operator, Ahasuerus was a vile man whose dangerous policies needed to be challenged from someone within his inner circle. Mordecai prevailed upon Esther to act on behalf of justice and righteousness. Take a stand on the inside, Esther, which will make a difference on the outside. Functioning as a spiritual director, Mordecai prompted Esther to confront the urgent crisis facing her people, and to use her influence with King Ahasuerus to overcome the evil facing her nation.

Resist isolation and disengagement. At first, Esther was tempted to choose isolation and disengagement within the palace’s ivy towers over courageous action. But the dreadful circumstances of her day required her to take a radical stance for justice, although she had never sought to be a conscientious objector or a revolutionary. After much back and forth with Mordecai on the outside, and Esther fretting about needing to stay in her place without ruffling feathers or rocking the boat, Mordecai posed to her this historic challenge, “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at 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. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity [this place you’re now in] for just such a time as this” (4:13–14).

Prayer changes us, so that we might change our world. Esther called for a prayer movement and surrounded herself with praying women, as she petitioned God for guidance and courage. At the conclusion of her spiritual preparation, Esther acknowledged that, indeed, God had positioned her in the palace for such a time as this. She must act now, although she may perish later as a consequence of speaking truth to power.

When God calls, we should answer. Eventually, Esther proceeded with faith and courage to petition Ahasuerus for justice, righteousness, mercy and an end to the devastation and destruction that were imposed on her people. In the end, Esther heard God’s call, summoned holy boldness and led a movement that resulted in peace and security for the Jews and the good and welfare of the nation.

We must summon God for the courage and holy boldness to confront self-centered leaders who demonstrate no regard for the poorest, weakest and most vulnerable citizens among us.

God is still speaking today. Thousands of years later, Esther’s life and witness still speak to our generation. As followers of Jesus taught us to pray, “deliver us from evil,” we must summon God for the courage and holy boldness to confront self-centered leaders who demonstrate no regard for the poorest, weakest and most vulnerable citizens among us. God still uses ordinary people like Esther — and like you and me — to change the course of history. None of us should entertain the folly that we can escape the vile threats of our time by remaining silent or staying in some remote place chosen for us by others. Never fear confrontation with unjust public policies and unfair practices. All God’s children are called and empowered to advocate for justice, righteousness and peace. Now more than ever, we must affirm — individually and collectively — that God has called and positioned us for such a time as this.

Dr. Jeffrey Haggray is executive director and CEO of American Baptist Home Mission Societies and Judson Press.

The views expressed are those of the author or authors alone, and not those of the American Baptist Home Mission Societies.