“Was Sarah a Racist?”

~ Selections from Genesis 16 & 21 ~

Photo Credit – Sarah and Hagar by Marc Chagall

Stories in the book of Genesis can be really messy. And the story we just heard is particularly messy and troubling and difficult to understand. Frankly, it shows an embarrassing and shameful side of Abraham and Sarah. It’s a story that appears to make God complicit in the oppression and exploitation of a young woman of color, so much so that many rabbis through the ages have argued that the narrator of the story just got it wrong, that God would never command a victim to return to the scene of their oppression and abuse because God is the God of liberation and healing.

To complicate the messiness all the more, the story is steeped in the patriarchalism of the ancient world, the common marriage practice of polygamy, and the ubiquitous institution of slavery. But it’s all right here: Abraham’s wife, Sarah, gives her young Egyptian slave to her husband as a second wife for the purposes of conceiving a male child to fulfill the promise from God. And Abraham is just fine with that. It almost echoes “A Handmaid’s Tale” doesn’t it?

You might recall that Abraham and Sarah, actually named Abram and Sarai at the time, were already elderly when God called them to a new land and the promised they would be the forefather and foremother of many generations of children; they would outnumber the stars. But they were really old so, rather than wait for God they took matters into their own hands. Or, to be more precise, Sarai decided to act on her own and Abram merely acquiesced. And that’s where the trouble began.

Evidently, they were wealthy enough to afford slaves. Thus, we are introduced to Hagar, Sarai’s young Egyptian slave-girl. The text seems to make a point about her being Egyptian of which biblical anthropologists point out that, by ethnicity and geography, Hagar would have been a dark-skinned woman.

Sarai decides to give this girl to her husband as a second wife, hoping to obtain a child through her. Again, polygamy was quite customary. Likewise, slavery was an acceptable practice. And as typical slave-owners, Abram and Sarai would not think twice about using Hagar for their own purposes. For all intents and purposes, Hagar was forced into giving her body to her master, who impregnated her. And, when it became obvious that Hagar was with child, Sarai treated her with bitterness, disdain and resentful cruelty. It is said that Hagar looked with disdain at Sarai, but it could also be that Sarai assumed disdain.

So, Hagar runs away in shame. We know she has been oppressed. She runs away, pregnant, all alone – no family, no true husband, no friends, completely isolated.  And as she is sitting beside a spring in the wilderness, she has this unprecedented encounter with an angel of God. We think of God as the liberator of the oppressed so we would expect the angel to, oh, maybe lead her back to her people in Africa, to her own personal freedom. But that’s not what the angel says. Instead, he tells her to go back to her mistress, her owner, and submit to her. However, with a promise that her son, to be named Ishmael, who, although will be a “wild ass of a man,” he will be the forefather of many generations.

So, how does Hagar respond? She names God! The only person in all of scripture to give God a name. She calls him El-roi, meaning ‘God sees’ A pregnant African slave-girl, her body beaten and violated, alone in the desert with no hope and no future, has the power to name God. “God sees me. I see God.” She returns to Abram and Sarai, having been seen by God, and asserting that she be seen by her masters. So, Hagar gives Abram a son who was named Ishmael. And Sarah just has to live with it. Not what she intended.

In the course of time many changes occur. The big one, of course, was God establishing an everlasting covenant with Abram. God changes his name to Abraham and Sarai to Sarah. And the practice of circumcision is introduced. So, all of Abraham’s household, including Ishmael, is circumcised to become a new people and God tells Abraham that Sarah will have a son who will be named Isaac. Thus, Sarah, now in her late 90’s, gives birth to a son, Isaac.

Time goes on, the children grow. But one day Sarah sees Ishmael and Isaac playing. She doesn’t like how Ishmael, the older, is treating her son, the younger. Thus, being the one who has all the power, Sarah goes to Abraham and demands, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave shall not inherit along with my son!” The curse of Sarah reverberates through the ages. It reverberates in the assumed superiority of those who regard others as less than. It reverberates in demand that they go back from where they came from. It reverberates on the streets where people of color find themselves in desperate circumstances due to the power structures that oppress and demean.

Was Sarah a racist? There seem to be some tell-tale signs. The assumption that she can just use Hagar for her own purposes. Taking offense at what she perceives to be a look of disdain from Hagar, maybe thinking her slave is acting a bit too uppity now that she’s pregnant. Feeling scorn as she watches the children play, her light-skinned son with the dark-skinned ‘other’. And then a racist diatribe worthy of an iPhone video posted on social media, “Cast out this slave woman!” A woman of power using her position to impose on one deemed less-than for her own gain. Yes, one could reasonable conclude that Sarah was a racist.

Of course, probably the more pathetic and despicable player in all this is that of the old patriarch himself, Abraham. He seems to play the game of being above all the dramatics but it is his system they all live under.

What is in a word? Racist! It’s all over the news and social media. Hackles are raised, defensiveness ensues, accusations abound. Is it just semantics? In these post-George Floyd times, can we get a handle on this explosive word? This morning I would like to explore some of the various ways the word ‘racist’ is used in our culture.

One way that the word ‘racist’ can be understood is the person or persons who quite intentionally adopt a philosophy of racism and racial superiority. These are people who believe that white people are genetically superior to any other races and, therefore, should be in power, in control, calling all the shots. People of color are necessarily, less than fully human because only white people are fully human. Fascists, Nazism, white nationalism are examples of this very intentional racism.

A second understanding of the word ‘racist’ are those people who aren’t overtly racist in behavior or language but assume that being white is just the way things should be. They would adamantly claim they are not racist, but then it emerges in certain situations. The term ‘white privilege’ is often associated with this understanding. These are people who know they are people of privilege and use it when it is to their advantage. An example would be the ‘Central Park lady’ who called the police on an African American bird watcher who dared to ask that she leash her dog. In her call to the police she was quite aware of how to use voice inflection to plead her cause. Or the Pacific Heights lady who called the police on a man for chalking “Black Lives Matter” on his fence because she presumed to know that he did not live there. Or there was the Berkeley man who, just a couple days ago, in a rage, tore down signs put up by a pregnant mom and her two children. The signs invited neighborhood people to chalk slogans, such as ‘Black Lives Matter’, on the sidewalk. The man took great offense at all this and spent several minutes berating this young mother of color for her supposed ignorance. These are people whose contempt for people of color lays just below the surface ready to exhibit itself at a moment’s notice. You might say these are people who are covertly racist.

The third understanding is probably the most difficult to wrap our minds around. This use of the term describes structural racism, which for many of us, most of us, is virtually invisible. But by its very nature, structural racism involves us all because it permeates our culture deeply and historically. And for those of us who are white, we are necessarily complicit in its out workings. For many of us, we might take offense at being called a racist but in this use of the word, structural racism, it is an apt description. For those of us who want to be part of the solution and not the problem, we would be first to declare, ‘not a racist’.

One of the ways that we who want to be sure people know we are not a racist is by being nice. If overtly racist people are intentionally mean, then it follows that nice people are not racists. So for we who want to be helpful, we might be eager to telegraph our niceness to people of color. Niceness is not the same as kindness, however. Kindness is compassionate and results in supportive actions. Niceness, by contrast, can come across as hollow, fleeting and performative. As white people, pretending we have significant relationships with people of color by being nice, can be regarded as a sign of incipient racism, despite our claim “I’m not a racist.”

Dr. Ibram X. Kendi is the founding director of Boston University’s Center for Antiracist Research and an award-winning author for the New York Times and his critically acclaimed book, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. Kendi suggests that we white folk should just not try to claim we are not racists, no matter how helpful we might think we are. Instead, he suggests we become ‘antiracists’. By this, he says, instead of trying to deny are deeply ingrained racism we become active antiracists by engaging in practices that dismantle the structural racism of America. This means addressing economic disparity that is devastating our African American neighborhoods, policing policies that increasing kill our young African American men, redressing drug laws that put hundreds of thousands of black men in prison. In other words, it means being actively engaged in changing the way we do business in America, by the way assumed white supremacy holds sway over the nation, as it has done for hundreds of years.

So, even as liberal, progressive, inclusive people who want to help and not be the problem, let’s stop pretending we aren’t racists, and find ways to be antiracists. As a profound woman of color writer, Ljeoma Oluo, puts it, “The beauty of anti-racism is that you don’t have to pretend to be free of racism to be an anti-racist. Anti-racism is the commitment to fight racism wherever you find it, including in yourself. And it’s the only way forward.”

So, the pathetic Abraham, concedes to his wife’s demands and sends Hagar and Ishmael into the desert. Although he did pack a lunch and fill a canteen, so there is that. But soon the food and water are gone and Hagar puts her son under a bush to die and she goes off a way because she cannot stand to see his agony.

But the story goes on. God hears the cry of the boy. Interesting meaning of the name Ishmael – ‘el’ is the word for God, ‘ishma’ means ‘hear’ – God hears. The angel again speaks to Hagar, urges her to hold her son tight, assuring her that her son will be the father of a great nation. God opens her eyes and sees a well of water. And so both she and her son are saved, Ishmael grows up, learns to be a great hunter. And, oh, his mother finds a wife from him from Egypt. Thus endeth the story of Hagar the Egyptian slave – a story of survival. Amen.




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