Making Things Right
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I preached this sermon this morning at the chapel service for the United Church of Zambia University College, TEEZ's neighbor within MEF. The students were all my direct neighbors at my old flat, and we still enjoy much together in community. There was recently a community issue that involved me and disproportionately impacted the women of the community. It became very apparent to me that this was so because of the realities of persistent colonialism and colonized minds.
Sermon: UCZUC Morning Chapel 29 April 2016
THEME: MAKING THINGS RIGHT
“From there Abraham journeyed toward the region of the Negeb, and settled between Kadesh and Shur. While residing in Gerar as an immigrant, Abraham said of his wife Sarah, “She is my sister.” And King Abimelech of Gerar sent and took Sarah. But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night, and said to him, “You are about to die because of the woman whom you have taken; for she is a married woman.” Now Abimelech had not approached her; so he said, “Lord, will you destroy an innocent people? Did he not himself say to me, ‘She is my sister’? And she herself said, ‘He is my brother.’ I did this in the integrity of my heart and the innocence of my hands.” Then God said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know that you did this in the integrity of your heart; furthermore it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her. Now then, return the man’s wife; for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you shall live.”
What we have before us is essentially the beginning of the colonial project in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. Abraham, this powerful prophet, journeyed toward the Negeb and settled in Gerar, part of what we know as Canaan—home of the king Abimelech. This would be the home of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob, Leah, and Rachel. Canaan was the land of return, the end goal of the exodus from Egypt, THE PROMISED LAND. The Israelites would return and slaughter hundreds of thousands in order to establish dominion. I have read Native American theologians, saying that they cannot see the idea of the Promised Land as an idea of liberation because it is the story of outsiders coming in and destroying life and culture. It is a story of colonialism, just as they were colonized by Europeans. Just as Africa was colonized by Europeans. Colonialism is a long, complicated story. It involves people with military power seeing something they want and then claiming some God-given right to have it. The idea of the “Promised Land” drove Europeans to perpetrate genocide against Native Americans, to colonize much of the African continent, to rip communities and lives apart through chattel slavery, and to rape the land for mineral extraction. Just like the ancient Israelites, modern colonizers would say, “This is our land!”—— willfully forgetting the complex and rich history of the place. God ultimately allowed the Israelites to take over Canaan by force because God’s love for God’s people allows absolute freedom of choice, even when we choose horribly. Saying that God allows humans the freedom of choice, though, does NOT mean that God approves of our choices or eliminates the consequences of our choices. THERE IS NO GOD-GIVEN RIGHT, THERE IS NO RIGHT PERIOD, TO COLONIZE, EXPLOIT, AND COMMIT GENOCIDE. For, God’s vision was and continues to be that of people coming together, sharing their strengths, and growing into each other’s lives and communities. In the beginning of it all God’s desire was for Abraham and his descendants to live in communal interdependence with Abimelech and the Canaanites.
Let us look at some of the history behind this passage to make things clearer. I am sure that you have all studied the documentary hypothesis, the idea that Genesis was written by the Yahwhist, Elohist, and Priestly Writer (or maybe you know them as J, E, and P). This passage marks the beginning of the work of the Elohist, the author who calls God by the great name “Elohim….Elohim…Elohim.” Another way we can recognize that this passage is from the Elohist is that Elohim’s revelation comes through a dream, the centerpiece of this passage. The reason I bring up these details about the author is that the Elohist is unique amongst the three authors in that he is lacking a creation story. The Priestly Writer gives the great cosmic account of God creating the heavens and the earth, bringing order from chaos. The Yawhist tells of the very personal YHWH forming humans from the earth, breathing life into them. For the Elohist, though, this is the beginning of the narrative. This often overlooked and forgotten passage about the meeting between Abraham and Abimelech and the taking of Sarah. Seems like an unlikely creation story, right?
As we take a closer look at just who the Elohist was, it will make more sense. He was writing during the time of Jeroboam I, the first king of the independent Northern Kingdom of Israel. He was a member of the prophetic company that was trying to hold the king accountable to the covenant with Elohim. Now, Jeroboam I is known for some infamously bad things. He led the movement to militarily divide the Israelites, he commissioned the casting of two golden calves as idols, and he built sanctuaries to other gods. In the eyes of the prophets he had broken up the people of God and was making new enemies with the neighboring Philistines. It was in this environment that the prophet Elohist wrote.
He thus had a keen interest in connecting to the roots of Israel—the people and the land. Abraham was the person chosen by God to journey into Canaan. It was from this calling and journey that the line of Israel would arise. The Elohist saw it as his duty to remind the king and the people of where they came from. And so this seemingly minor passage becomes a very important one. Indeed, it is the Elohist’s creation story. For, it describes how Abraham came to call Canaan home, the PROMISED LAND.
So, the author had a strong interest in lifting up the role of Abraham. He even calls Abraham a prophet, the only author to do so. And yet, he makes it very clear that it is Abimelech, the Canaanite king, who is visited by Elohim in a dream. It is Abimelech on whose behalf Elohim intercedes, saving him and his people from certain destruction. It is Abimelech who then acts on behalf of Elohim and makes things right with Abraham. Eventually, after this passage, Abimelech welcomes Abraham with gifts, including land, and even gives him the rights to a well for water.
Abraham, on the other hand, enters Abimelech’s land with an agenda of settling. It is Abraham who distrusts his host. It is Abraham who lies. It is Abraham who offers up his wife as a sacrifice to be raped. It is Abraham who initiates a process that would destroy Abimelech and all of his people if brought to completion.
It is as though the Elohist is saying to the northern Kingdom of Israel: “Abraham was our forefather, our greatest ancestor, our prophet. Elohim was with him, and he was with Elohim. And yet, he actedthe fool. Instead of entering a new place with humility, honesty, and openness, he entered with pride, privilege, and deception. He knew that his actions would bring about the destruction of the people and that he could then take over. He was blind to the possibilities of community and interdependence in a different context. This legacy later drove Joshua and his militaries to fight, destroy, and colonize. As we start this new kingdom in the North, let us do it differently! Let us remember what God was really calling Abraham to, what God was really calling us to!”
You see, the Elohist realized that Israel would be renegotiating their relationships with neighboring peoples, with their own kinsfolk in Judah, and even with God. Their identity had fundamentally changed with their civil war and separation. Looking to the neighboring Canaanites, he realized that they must make things RIGHT…that they must come to terms with their own colonial history…that they must make amends and seek reconciliation…that they must forge their relationship anew. In order to do this they would have to recognize the error in Abraham’s ways and the righteousness of Abimelech the Canaanite.
This is something that we Christians in the West must also do. We must admit the fact that we carried weapons with our Bibles and even used our Bibles as weapons of control. We must acknowledge that we entered places with pride, privilege, and deception. We must make reparations for the generations of people we took captive and killed, the resources we stole, the lands we destroyed. This must happen before there can be true reconciliation, a RIGHTING of relationships. This means that I, a white Christian pastor, must do this. I AM sorry for my people’s history of colonialism and genocide. I WILL DO what I can to make reparations, to make things right.
All of us, though, must also do something. We must realize that colonialism is not simply a thing of the past. The idea of the “Promised Land” continues to drive capitalist neocolonialism, unjust distribution of power and resources across the globe, and the reality of debt-based control TODAY. And because of these present realities and the persistence of history, we all have mindsets and ways of living that repeat the patterns of colonialism, leading to further colonizing. And the biggest and most destructive expression of our colonized mindsets?
Patriarchy is the colonization of women’s bodies, voices, and agencies. Men all over the world seek to control women individually, and systems all over the world seek to control women collectively. Patriarchy involves the silencing of women, the using of women, the ignoring of women, the shaming of women, the objectification of women, the humiliation of women, the submission of women, the abuse of women, the dehumanization of women, and the killing of women.
It is no coincidence that we did not hear Sarah’s voice in this morning’s passage. Even the Elohist with his opposition to colonialism is a practitioner of patriarchy. Abraham claims that Sarah is his sister with the full knowledge that doing so would lead to her being taken and raped by Abimelech. And Abimelech sees Abraham’s words as an invitation to take and rape Sarah, regardless of what Sarah thinks or wants. They were using her body to make a transaction. And I think we all know who would have carried the shame and the blame if these men had gotten their way.
And before we forget, let us recall that Abraham knew that if Abimelech raped Sarah, the people would be destroyed and Abraham could take over. The reality is that men use women as part of the broader colonial project and that women are the most negatively impacted by colonialism.
This was true when Abraham gave Sarah over to Abimelech. This was true when the Israelites took Canaanite women as spoils of war and raped them. This was true when European and White American men separated African and Native American families and took girls and young women against their will for the men’s pleasure. This has been true throughout every invasion, war, and colonization.
And at a much subtler level it is true in our daily lives with our colonized mindsets. We send messages that men need to have power and control over women. We declare that women should be ashamed of their bodies and of their sexuality. We blame women when men assault and rape them. In the Church we say that women are the cause of sin. We denied women the right to lead churches until very recently in church history. Many men still feel threatened by the leadership of women and try to tear them down at every opportunity.
And then when we add broader colonial factors to the mix, everything gets worse. Womanist Theology is a field of theology created by Black women in my country. These theologians realized that feminist theology was only addressing the experiences of white women and that liberation theology was only addressing the experiences of men. They said, “We need to develop a theology that addresses the double oppression forced upon Black women.”
This double oppression is rampant. In the United States we see it in legal policies that disproportionately force Black women into low-wage labor and into raising families on their own. We also see it in widespread domestic violence and in State violence that leads to police killing Black women. In Zambia we see it in the harmful practice of skin bleaching because we have created a standard of beauty that says WHITE MAKES BEAUTIFUL AND WHITE MAKES ATTRACTIVE AND WHITE MAKES RIGHT, right?
We even see this double oppression in this very compound of MEF. Recently there was a case in which women students were publicly shamed for visiting and spending time with a white man. As a result they were called beggars, and their moral character was questioned.
Let me be very clear. THIS WAS A RESULT OF COLONIALISM AND COLONIZED MINDSETS. There is a historically justified assumption that abasungus (whites) do not want to be in authentic community with Zambians. Many whites in Zambia have worked long and hard to build walls and hide behind them. Further, in a bizarre turn of the colonial process, we have convinced the world that WE are the ones who need to be protected…the ones who have entered with pride, privilege, and deception; the ones who enslaved and killed people, stole resources, and destroyed lands…are somehow the ones who need to be protected. And specifically we need to be protected from those who have been most oppressed and most dispossessed—the women. The complexity of this colonial project is crazy, isn’t it? IT IS NOT RIGHT.
So, even though these women were the ones who welcomed me back in September and made me feel at home when I was struggling to adjust…even though these women became my dear friends and sisters—baking with me, celebrating with me, singing with me…even though these women taught me about Zambian culture, the state of education, and African theologies…even though these women were invited by me to my home with their husbands and family members…even though these women gave me a picture of God’s original plan for community and interdependence, THEY WERE SMACKED DOWN AND SHAMED for the sake of PROTECTING a white man.
This is because I have been all too silent and all too complicit in the continued colonial project. I have not done enough to speak out against the colonial history and the colonial present. I have not done enough to speak across the table in mutual dialogue with colleagues in ministry here. I have not done enough to speak up on behalf of my dear sisters. I have not done enough to create space so that they themselves can speak.
So, I must say, “I am sorry.” I am sorry for this situation and the many similar situations that happen daily because of colonialism, patriarchy, and colonized mindsets. I can do better. I will do better. I must do better. We can do better. We will do better. We must do better. We must remember the Elohist’s creation story. We must remember God’s original, RIGHT plan for people of different contexts living in full community and full communion with each other.
For, Elohim spoke to Abimelech in a dream and saved him from the destruction of the colonial project. Elohim stopped Abraham’s plan to bring about this destruction and in so doing stopped him from doing something that would forever taint him and his people. And, most importantly, Elohim protected Sarah from this awful transaction of rape for colonial gain.
ELOHIM WAS LOOKING OUT FOR SARAH’S LIFE IN SPITE OF ABRAHAM AND ABIMELECH. This is a truth we can see shining through the text, overcoming the text, even in spite of the author’s own colonized mindset.
God will continue to side with the oppressed and dispossessed. God will continue to inspire us to create justice and defeat colonialism and patriarchy. We saw the clearest example in Jesus Christ, God among us, who chose to be with the poor, with the outcast, with the woman. He counted women amongst his closest friends and family. He shared meals with sex workers. He was anointed as Messiah by a woman. And when a mob of men came to him with a woman, saying, “She is an adulteress, let us stone her to death,” Jesus bent down and wrote something so powerful in the sand and spoke words of such wisdom that the accusing men went away. HE MADE THINGS RIGHT! He worked to subvert and overturn the colonial system of the Roman Empire up until the point that they killed him for it.
Delores Williams, one of the founders of Womanist theology wrote:
“Rape is defilement, and defilement means wanton desecration. Worse, deeper and more wounding than alienation, the sin of defilement is the one of which today’s technological world is most guilty. Nature (the land, the seas, the animals in the sea) are every day defiled by humans. Cultures and peoples (Native Americans, Africans, Jews) have been defiled and destroyed by the onslaught of Western, Christian, patriarchal imperialism in some of its ugliest forms…The cross is a reminder of how humans have tried throughout history to destroy visions of righting relationships that involve transformation of tradition and transformation of social relations and arrangements sanctioned by the status quo.”
Let us listen to and live into the wisdom of Delores Williams! Let us stop the destruction of visions of righting relationships! Let us be partners in the transformation of tradition and social relations and the status quo! Let us overturn these systems of evil even to the point of being dragged to the cross. Let us live into the original vision Elohim had for Elohim’s people—authentic community, interdependence, what I have learned here in Zambia as ubuntu, where I am because you are and you are because I am. And let us wake up to the truth that we all ARE because of the great I AM, Elohim.