These words: power and privilege, have been part of numerous conversations lately. Some of those conversations have considered both from the perspective of not having either. Others have considered what it means to acknowledge both the words and their reality in our own lives and be aware of the “other” more intentionally. In all of them, the words seem to be tricky, hard to pin down, misunderstood,
confusing, and hard to stay focused on or do anything about.
Toward that end, I’ve been thinking about the story of Hagar – and Sarah – as example of power and privilege gone bad…on a number of levels.
Sarah is clearly the person in this relationship with power and privilege. Not as much as her husband, obviously, but still more than her maidservant, Hagar. When tension rises, Sarah uses her power/privilege card to get her way and Hagar is sent into the desert – twice! The
first time alone and pregnant and the second time with her young son.
This story disturbs me, in part because the conflict is between two women. Power and privilege belong to one and are used against the other, seemingly without any consideration of how that might be harmful, unfair, etc. I would hope for better. And, it still happens. So sad.
It also disturbs me because Sarah’s behavior has no element of self-reflection. It seems second-nature for Sarah to get her way – a mark of privilege’s familiarity for those who have such AND a lack of how such can be so profoundly damaging to those without.
I’m also disturbed by this story because historically as it’s been exegeted, we’ve focused on Hagar’s “insolence” and then implicitly assumed that she deserved to be cast away. After all, Sarah was the chosen one – the wife of Abraham, the bearer of God’s covenant. We’ve excused her behavior more often than not and have nearly ignored the plight of this powerless woman who is banished into distant lands, never to be heard from again. This common textual emphasis in itself, speaks loudly to our own comfort with power and privilege as predominantly white, middle-class Americans.
There’s enough to struggle with just in these realities but I think there’s more:
When we look more closely at Hagar’s story we come to see that she has a powerful and privileged encounter with God…unlike Sarah. She, the marginalized, powerless, unprivileged one is seen by God and sees God. She, the outcast, is the first theophany in all of Scripture. She, the one we’ve too often ignored, is the one who knows God in far more profound ways than Sarah, certainly, and frankly most of us.
What are we to learn from this? For me, it makes me wonder what I “miss” of God as long as I hold on to my own power and privilege. Power and privilege are woven into everything; they are not all or nothing “qualities.” I have them both – and both are used in ways that harm me and those around me.
These are hard conversations and they seem to me to be at the core of much, if not all, of the struggles of which I’m so acutely aware: issues of gender, race, inclusion, diversity, social justice, politics, theology…Is there anything untouched by these two words?
May I be a woman who is aware of her power and her privilege – its benefits and its potential to harm. May I be a woman who is not afraid of naming the misuse of power and privilege as it harms me – and those around me.
A quickly typed post. Lots more thoughts spinning in my head and heart. Undoubtedly, more to follow.