What time is this?
This article first appeared in the Spring/Summer 2007 edition of In Touch magazine. For reprint permission contact Lynn Jost.
By Lynn Jost
My appetite for the book of Esther has been whetted by two recent events. One, I’ve noticed an uncanny resemblance to the experience of Mennonites in Paraguay. Two, I was challenged to apply the text to our culture by an invitation to preach at Killarney Park MB Church in Vancouver.
Esther is not only a biblical book but also the event that sparked the celebration of Purim, the Jewish people’s memory of extermination, pogrom, Holocaust and death. The Esther story witnesses against violence, sexism, and the embodiment of unrestrained autocracy.
The story opens with a 180-day kegger in the capital of Persia, a beer bash for all the government people from 127 provinces stretching from Egypt to India. The party is capped with an open bar for all of the men of the empire – seven days with the special instructions for the bartender: “Anything goes!”
The party comes crashing to a halt when King Xerxes invites Queen Vashti to publicly parade her unspeakable beauty wearing her crown (and only her crown?). Her refusal to do the king’s wishes leads to an imperial crisis. What do you do when the queen disobeys the king? Answer: banish the queen from the presence of the king!
A few days later the king recovers from his hangover with the sobering realization that there is no queen! The solution? An empire-wide beauty contest that ends with a one-night stand alone with the king.
A Jewish orphan girl hiding her religious identity seduces the king and wins the contest. Her guardian, an older cousin Mordecai, lurks in the shadows as a minor court official. He stage manages her career and uncovers a plot to assassinate the king. When his rival Haman is promoted to the highest post in the land, he becomes a security risk by refusing to bow to his rival.
Infuriated by Mordecai’s intransigence, Haman casts the purim (the casting of lots) to discover the day on which he’s going to execute the contract that ends not only Mordecai’s life but the existence of his entire people, the Jews of the empire.
To make a longer story much shorter, the plot is uncovered and the Jews are saved. They declare holy war on their enemies. To this day Jews celebrate Purim by exchanging presents, eating cookies baked in the shape of Haman’s ears, and drinking themselves into oblivion – stopping only when they’re so drunk they can no longer distinguish between Haman and Mordecai. A troubling tale!
Trouble in Paraguay
We can find trouble in the Paraguayan Mennonite experience, too. Paraguayan Mennonites arrived in three migrations: Canadians escaping the dangers of public school education, refugees from the Soviet revolution, and later refugees, mostly women and children, escaping Russia after World War II.
In July 2005 a group of us visiting the Paraguayan Mennonites were fascinated to discover that during World War II some Paraguayan Mennonites drilled as Nazis and saluted Hitler. Even more fascinating, when we spoke approvingly of the new president’s anti-corruption campaign, a guide responded that he preferred the country’s former dictator, Stroessner. Stroessner, he said, was a friend of the Mennonites. The problem of “disappeared” people was a small price to pay for order and special privileges. Certainly a troubling tale.
But the last word is not trouble. These people stories are stories of good news! There’s good news in the text, there’s good news behind the text, and there’s good news in front of the text.
First—let’s look in the text of the book of Esther. There we find a story of transformation, of reversal in the person of Esther, the pretty little Jewish girl who suppresses her identity, seduces the evil king, and becomes the heroine.
When Haman’s plot to exterminate the Jews is publicized, there’s no sign initially that Esther is concerned at all. Esther’s cocooned world is punctured by Mordecai’s protest. He shows up at the palace gate with torn clothes, sack cloth, and ashes, wailing at the top of his lungs. Mordecai sends a desperate message—we Jews are about to be exterminated! Esther’s initial response? “I can’t do anything about it. I haven’t been called into the king’s presence for thirty days. By law anybody that approaches uninvited is to be put to death.”
Mordecai sends a second message: “Don’t think that because you are in the king’s house you alone will escape. For if you remain silent, relief and deliverance will come from another quarter. But you and your father’s house will perish. Who knows but that you have come to the royal position for such a time as this?”
In this moment Esther is transformed from the pliant, obedient little girl to a woman who takes risks, gives orders, takes charge. Esther tells Mordecai, “Gather all the Jews in Susa. Fast for three days. I will do the same. At the end of that time I will approach the king. If I perish, I perish.” Mordecai scurries to obey.
A troubling text
The rest is history. Haman is hanged. Mordecai is promoted. Esther is our heroine. Nice and neat. But there is a more complex layer to the story. The Jews themselves become oppressors. Taking matters into their own hands, they slaughter 75,000 human beings. To celebrate this act they eat Haman’s ears and drink themselves into oblivion. Troubling.
Reading behind the text, we discover a resistance story, a story designed to help us laugh at the empire. According to Daniel Smith Christopher in A Biblical Theology of Exile, the book of Esther is an underdog tale. In a situation where compromise is a constant temptation and assimilation is a constant threat, exemplary behavior is the consistent advice.
The book of Esther, like other courage tales, encourages resistance to such enticements as political influence and the accumulation of wealth and power. But reading behind the text, we discover signals that invite the text’s deconstruction. Some points don’t quite add up.
For one, the story never mentions its real hero—God! Consider the luck of the lots, Haman forced to honor Mordecai, and Haman hanged on his own gallows. Is all this due to chance? Does the story teach that this all goes back to King Saul’s failure to exterminate the Amelekites in 1 Samuel 15? Is the moral of the story "Kill all your enemies the first chance you get"? Or is the story telling us to think of more creative ways to resist? Reading behind the story deconstructs reliance on imperial wisdom, military might, and strategies of sleeping one’s way into the corridors of power.
To the front
Let’s move in front of the text. Let’s return to Paraguay where we left the Mennonites supporting dictators. That’s not the end of the story. Last July, Alfred Neufeld arranged for our group to visit the first lady of Paraguay, Maria Gloria Penayo de Duarte. She shared her personal testimony, her conversion and baptism in the Raices Mennonite Brethren Church, her witness through Bible studies. She spoke of her initial resistance to the exposure of being the First Lady, excoriated by the press as the Bible Lady. She told us that God seemed to be saying, “Who knows but that you have come to your position for such a time as this?” Her evangelistic outreach includes a detoxification center for about a hundred street kids. She spoke of supporting her husband’s crusade against the corruption of the land.
Senora Maria Gloria is not alone. Her husband has rejected a huge bribe so as to continue his campaign for honest government. Some of his closest advisors give leadership to Raices church. One Mennonite physician has the unenviable task of cleaning up the huge but corrupt social services department. Despite risks to family safety, these Paraguayan leaders are turning the nation from corruption to credibility.
Paraguayan Mennonites help us to read in front of the story of Esther. Through business, government, social ministries, media, education, evangelism, they claim to have come to Paraguay for such a time as this. Their leadership leads away from imperial business as usual.
Seeing from all sides
Esther’s story can be read from at least three perspectives. From inside the story we receive the call to serve our world with courage. From behind the story comes a call to creativity. This reading of the story indicates that God’s working is less through power and might and more in the way of discovering God’s hand at work. It’s not chance, it’s not empire, but it is the unnamed power of God. From in front of the story we are invited to explore citizenship within the empire. There may be compromises that threaten identity. Yet we continue the struggle for justice.
The words of Mordecai ring true for us. If you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for God’s people will come from another quarter. Perhaps you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows but that you have come to this position for such a time as this. Thanks be to God!