ChristianityToday released an article this week entitled, “The #MeToo Movement Has Educated Pastors. And Left Them With More Questions.” It’s an interesting read into the problems of the church today, particularly in a time and place where many accusations have come up out of abuses within the church.
While the trends from LifeWay research show that many churches and pastors still are not facing the issues related to sexual assault or domestic violence, the importance of it has never been clearer. To be certain, it is not a new issue. But thanks to the #MeToo movement, it is now a mainline issue. Having worked with women and children in situations of abuse for over a decade now, I can unfortunately say that such issues are not going away…they permeate every area of public and church life.
Depending on how your congregation selects texts for preaching, it is fairly easy to draw on a breadth of stories from scripture that highlight issues of violence against women. Spend some time looking at the women of the Bible and praying through what God may be speaking to your context through that specific narrative: the woman at the well, the woman “caught in the act,” Dinah, Rahab, Ruth, Esther, Sarai, Mary, Hagar.
You don’t need to preach a feminist sermon series to confront the issues of violence against women. You simply need to not avoid preaching the passages that give voice to the cries of the oppressed.
For women (or men) who have struggled with sexual abuse or domestic violence, the story of Hagar may be quite helpful (found in Genesis 16 and 21). It’s also quite a helpful story for any congregation that needs to gain an awareness of a prevalent and timeless human right’s issue. When churches read Genesis, we traditionally read it through the lens of the Abrahamic lineage and the covenant promises. But we shouldn’t gloss over the rights abuses lifted up in canonized Scripture. One of the significant claims of this text is deliverance.
Though by human opinion Hagar is merely a “slave girl,” and by human action she is cast out into the wilderness with her son; she nonetheless is heard, and called by name by the angel of the Lord. In Texts of Terror, Phyllis Trible explores Hagar’s narrative, “As one of the first females in scripture to experience use, abuse, and rejection, Hagar the Egyptian slave claims our attention.” Even when people experience devaluing oppression, they have value to God. In some sense this passage illustrates God’s continual love and care for the individual suffering under oppression.
Trible points out that, “This Egyptian maid is the first person in scripture whom such a messenger [angel] visits.” And furthermore, the angel dignifies Hagar by calling her by name, giving her personhood, identity, where she had before been only “Sarah’s slave.” Identifying the unique and individual personhood of a victim of violence can be the first step toward healing.
God delivers Hagar out of domestic violence and into the wilderness. And when she thinks all is lost, God reveals a spring of water. While it doesn’t seem that Hagar gets a “happily ever after,” she is not ignored by God. She is given identity and provision. What an incredible passage of hope for those who have been in a place like Hagar’s before!
The hurt and neglected are not alone in their experiences, but find their stories reverberated in the Bible.
Trible concludes, “As a symbol of the oppressed, Hagar becomes many things to many people. Most especially, all sorts of rejected women find their stories in her. She is the faithful maid exploited, the black woman used by the male and abused by the female of the ruling class, the surrogate mother, the resident alien without legal recourse, the other woman, the runaway youth, the religious fleeing from affliction, the pregnant woman alone…and the self-effacing female whose identity shrinks in service to others.”
The story of Hagar, like so many others in scripture, highlights the needs of the oppressed and the God who acts on behalf of the oppressed to deliver and provide. Katharine Sakenfeld, Professor of Old Testament Studies at Princeton Seminary, navigates the nuances of the Hagar narrative, saying, “We learn of a God who does not always liberate the oppressed as they would like, but who hears and responds to the cry of the desperate.”
The Bible brims with stories of people struggling in this world who are deeply loved by their creator and redeemer. What better way of engaging in a movement of hope, than to preach the hope found by the oppressed?!
As pastors, as writers, as Christians, and as humans let us not forget the cry of the persecuted; but let us give voice to the voiceless, and reflect hope to the hopeless of this world!