I grew up in a church with regular Sabbaths devoted to religious liberty. On these mornings, a presenter would stand with their shiny navy-blue suit, white shirt, and bright red tie with an American flag pinned to their lapel. He would click through images on a projection screen of families in other parts of the world paralyzed under oppressive governments and passionately urge listeners to be grateful to live in this country. We would spend time in prayer interceding for the faithful people who were simply trying to live for God in foreign lands. It wasn’t until much later in life that it began to dawn on me how religious liberty is so often closely tied to social, economic, and political freedom. Missing from those presentations was a consideration of how our hopes and prayers for safer conditions worldwide related to the present role and afterlife of the globalization of Western imperialism.
The lesson for this week asks us to try to imagine living as people of God in a foreign land who cannot speak about their faith without risking their lives. If I am honest, spending time this week with this lesson felt a lot like those religious liberty presentations—well-intentioned, sobering, but void of a larger context.
While there is plenty more to say, I want to note at least how the comparisons this lesson asks us to imagine between U.S. religious freedom and oppression elsewhere need better to account for the Christian nationalism that is wielded strategically both at home and abroad. Living as a Christian in the U.S. is complicated, to be sure. The lesson’s focus on the stories of Esther and Mordecai provide fertile ground for more nuanced conversation about Christian mission, identity, and witness for our context.
Is distinctness required?
One of the main themes of the lesson is the question of acculturation—to what extent should we as Christians allow ourselves to adapt to the cultural norms of the society surrounding us? Esther stands in stark contrast to a character like Daniel. In Daniel we see someone who remains distinct, refuses to conform, and sticks out like a sore-thumb. It is for this very reason that Daniel gets highlighted as the model for witnessing. Esther’s relationship with her identity is more nuanced. We have no record of her refusing her foreign lifestyle, eating, or dressing. She says nothing about her Jewish roots; she remains a mystery until a big party reveal. After give years, and at the height of the story (in chapter 4), we as readers are left wondering whether Esther has lost sight of her identity after living in the palace. Has her identity been crafted by those around her now that she is at the center of the empire? Esther will later prove she isn’t as passive as she initially appears, but her identity will forever remain layered and complex. She is a leader, a heroine, a vessel of transformation by virtue of her acculturation.
Straddling the line
Mordecai, on the other hand, presents a carefully constructed hybrid option between Daniel and Esther. Commentators have noted how Mordecai spends his time hanging out “at the gate” which could very well represent the liminal space that he inhabits.1 He has one foot in the palace courtyard and another outside the gates—negotiating his position strategically. He is loyal to empire at times and yet subversive when he is ready to defend those who are being targeted by the empire. Loyalty to the empire, for Mordecai, is a position that must constantly be scrutinized. Mordecai never loses sight of who he is and what he stands for. His identity may not always be on display but his values never waiver. He is comfortable wearing his Persian garb, but when the occasion calls for it, he is ready to don sackcloth and ashes to display his solidarity with the oppressed minority. Mordecai is ever ready to shift his affiliations when the time requires it.
For Such a Time as This
For Daniel, Esther, and Mordecai, their relationship with empire was perhaps clearer. Empire was foreign to them and so obviously different than them. We, on the other hand, have perhaps been convinced or blinded by the image of America as a shining city on hill in so much political rhetoric—confusing our Christian identities with the empire in which we reside.2 Living into and navigating a Christian identity takes discernment. As part of that process, our relationship to empire must be considered and questioned—our faithful witness requires it.3
As I read the lesson this week, I found myself resonating more and more with Esther. I’ve been feeling like a privileged person at home in the heart of an empire that is growing increasingly hostile to people I care about. Hostile to people across lands and seas with whom I can identify. The challenge I see for people of faith today is whether our Christian identities allow us to stand like Esther and Mordecai in opposition to empire when human lives are at stake. Will we set aside our preoccupations with distinctness (read exclusivity) and open our eyes to the realities surrounding us? Must we have a clear, integrated identity to act in transformative, mission-oriented ways?4 The lesson this week highlights one of the most important passages in this story for our time,
“Don’t think for a moment that because you’re in the palace you will escape when all other Jews are killed. If you keep quiet at a time like this, deliverance and relief for the Jews will arise from some other place, but you and your relatives will die. Who knows if perhaps you were made queen for just such a time as this?” (Esther 4:13-14).
The story of Esther punctuates God’s involvement with a question mark. God’s action remains ambiguous as an invitation for us to faithfully tune our hearts and minds to follow in the echo of God’s love. Amidst all the restlessness of this season, may we find time to reflect on the examples of Esther and Mordecai. May we, in this season, as the children of God face horrifying destruction, displacement, and death, realize that our mission is to stand in opposition to a death-dealing empire. As the Advent season celebrates God-with-us, may we be emboldened to stand for and with the children of God. May this be our witness—the lasting sign of God-with-us.
Check out these wonderful books for more on the story of Esther:
Timothy K. Beal, The Book of Hiding: Gender, Ethnicity, Annihilation, and Esther (1997, link)
Aaron Koller, Esther in Ancient Jewish Thought (2014, link)
Pablo J. Diaz has served as a pastor and educator in Southern California.
- Aaron Koller, Esther in Ancient Jewish Thought (Cambridge University Press, 2014), 69. ↩︎
- See John Winthrop’s famous sermon “A Model of Christian Charity” to see how the United States eventually ↩︎
- If hearing United States and empire in the same sentence seems strange or uncomfortable there are many good resources on this. I’ve found Daniel Immerwahr’s , How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States, to be a good starting exploration. ↩︎
- Timothy K. Beal, The Book of Hiding: Gender, Ethnicity, Annihilation, and Esther, 1st edition (Routledge, 2002), 49. ↩︎