Gustav Dore, 1865.
As we prepare ourselves to hear the Word today, our prayers of preparation and confession, for ourselves and for our broken world, are shaped by the story of Hagar.
Alone as an exiled slave woman, cast out in the wilderness with her son near death, Hagar cries to God in despair and discovers a well of life giving water. In response she becomes the first theologian, the first person in the scriptures to name God. She calls him ‘El-roi’, which means ‘God who sees.’ She names her son ‘Ishmael’, which means, ‘God will hear me.’
Gustave Dore, 1865
In Popular culture, throughout history, from Shakespeare to “The West Wing” the story of Hagar’s expulsion to the desert has acquired political connotations. We confess that her name has been used negatively as a term for illegitimacy and otherness, such as a basis for the expulsion of Jews in medieval Christian Kingdoms.
In modern Israel and in the culture wars surrounding the War on Terror, Hagar has been taken up by artists, activists and writers as a symbol of those who experience exlie, particularly the Palestinian Nakba.
Politicians and leaders of the different faiths have fought as to which interpretation of her story should be taught as curriculum in Middle Eastern schools.
The Israeli Women in Black movement has unofficially renamed Jerusalem’s Paris Square, where the movement has been holding anti-occupation vigils every Friday since 1988, as “Hagar Square”, commemorating the late Hagar Roublev, a prominent Israeli feminist and peace activist, who was among the founders of these Friday vigils.
Black American feminists have written about Hagar as though her story was comparable to that of slaves in American history.
Delores S. Williams says:
“The African-American community has taken Hagar’s story unto itself. Hagar has ‘spoken’ to generation after generation of black women because her story has been validated as true (by their) suffering. She and Ishmael together, as family, model many black American families in which a lone woman/mother struggles to hold the family together in spite of the poverty to which ruling class economics consign it. Hagar, like many black women, goes into the wide world to make a living for herself and her child, with only God by her side.The story of Hagar demonstrates that survival is possible even under harshest conditions.”
As we prepared this confession we were mindful of attack this week of the Israeli armed forces upon the ‘Freedom Flotilla’ convoy of 6 ships and 380 people which had set out to deliver humanitarian aid and challenge the long standing Israeli blockade of the war ravaged Gaza strip. The fallout of violence and the propaganda from both sides has escalated and polarised the deep tensions in one of the worlds most entrenched conflicts and furthers our thoughts to the story and struggle of Hagar.
On the streets of the cities of both Melbourne and Christchurch and around the world, Palestinians were out in protest, anger and anguish.
On Tuesday afternoon we held our weekly staff prayers at the inner city ministry in Melbourne where we work. Knowing and hearing the protest we decided to take our prayers for peace and reconciliation to the street, amidst the trams and the police trying to prevent a blockade, the mega phones and the chanting. We stood in silence. How do we see and hear and mourn in the wilderness of protest anger and grief? How do we come to an understanding and confession of our own brokenness in the midst of this mess.
Standing silently, holding a large Christian cross at a noisy Palestinian protest rally was for us a small experience of feeling “other.” Some offered us disturbed looks or nervous laughter, for some the cross was an incongruence, requiring clarification. For others there was pleasant surprise, with people even taking photos to show their friends. “There were Christians at our protest.”
Cecco Bravo 1780 The Angel comforts Hagar
In our response time you will have opportunity to make you confession at the well of Hagar. Have a look at your reflection in the water. Sometimes we think God only cares about people who are like us. You might like to wash your hands in the water, as a confession. This will probably disturb your reflected image.
Let us take a moment. To be silent. Hear the song of exile from Job.
Mourn with those who experience of exile, who know no reconciliation, who rail in anger or depression at the pain of being un-reconciled. Think of the Hagar in your own church, neighbourhood, or story.
Confess the times when you have failed to see or hear or have excluded the God who comes to us in the ‘other’, in the cry of those exiled.
Watcher Of Men :
Why did I not die at birth?
Expire as I came from the womb?
Why were there knees to receive me?
Or breasts to feed me?
Why was I not like babies
Who never saw the light?
Who lie with kings and counsellors
Who rebuild ruins for themselves
And where rest
Those whose strength is spent
where small and great are alike
and the slave is free of his master
Oh watcher of men
Do U have eyes of flesh?
Is your vision like man?
Are your years the years of man?
U know that I’m not guilty
And that none can deliver from your hand.
Also u know that u have deeply wronged me oh
And u have fenced me in
You made it so nobody knows me
And I’m an outsider to them
When I accused U, U wouldn’t speak
I said U tore up my hope like a tree
But I spoke without understanding
Of things beyond me which I did not know
And now I’ve heard U with my ears
And I’ve seen U with my eyes
Therefore I recant and relent
Being but dust and ashes
Sinead O Connor, Theology, 2007
How might the words in the last verse offer you a sense of reconciliation? How might this ‘well’ be life giving for you?
You may wish to mark you forehead or hand with the sign of the cross as a mark of your reconciled identity in Christ whose ‘way’ was to suffer for our world as the ‘other.’