On this Election Day, I am deeply concerned by the archaic and misinformed rhetoric coming across the airwaves surrounding women's issues and women's rights, such as the need to justify or define rape or explain to one's employer the need for a health remedy recommended by one's doctor. It seems that many who seek political office want to turn back the clock and erase many hard-fought victories and return us to a time when women were considered the "weaker sex" who required protection or, alternatively, were merely sources of sexual temptation and danger.
What is happening in the political realm is mirrored in the theological realm. A prominent preacher and dynamic leader recently addressed one of my favorite books in the Bible, Esther. But I found myself taken aback when I read his description of Esther's "sexual sin" and "godless behavior," and was almost hurt when the pastor described her as "painfully normal."
What does Esther have to do with the current political climate? A lot. In fact, I find Esther's story so compelling that it is the focus of my next book. Esther's story may be "painfully normal," but it is her normalcy that makes her so extraordinary and her story so compelling: a "normal" girl can save a nation.
We all know that Esther was forced by King Xerxes to enter the beauty contest, and was required to undergo a year of preparation before being brought before the King. We know her uncle instructed her to hide her Jewish heritage in order to be successful. But do we know Esther's back story?
Have you ever wondered why Esther was raised by her uncle? What happened to her parents? Where were her female family members, who were much more likely in that time to care for an orphaned child? I believe there must have been some significant tragedy that is never spoken of in Scripture, maybe because it was unspeakable. While we do not know what occurred to Esther and her family, we do know that something happened.
How many of us have had "something happen" in our lives—something unspeakable, something so horrific and unimaginable that we dare not utter it out loud? So it was for Esther. And, like many of us, someone stepped in, filled the void, and closed the gap so that she would not be lost. For Esther, that person was her uncle. Mordecai, who had to give her to the soldiers who were gathering the most beautiful girls in the kingdom. Mordecai, who instructed her to "assimilate into the dominant culture" in order to make her life easier in the palace. Mordecai, who eventually pleaded for the lives of his people, and who ultimately put before Esther the question that calls forth her destiny and divine purpose: "And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?" (Esther 4:14).
From Mordecai, we learn that Esther is cross-cultural. She is an educated young woman who can speak more than one language, who can adapt to an environment that's different from her home culture. Esther is smart. We also know that Esther is pretty, so pretty, in fact, that she wins the beauty contest to become Queen. Esther's beauty (and God's favor) uniquely positioned her to have the ear of a despotic King, which was essential to save the Jews.
Finally, we come to understand that Esther is spiritually sensitive. When Mordecai stands outside her window in sackcloth and ashes, at first she tries to cover both him and the problem up. But when he persists, something deep within her rises up, and she agrees to risk her life to try to save her people. Esther is a hero and an example of courageous, culturally competent leadership that is particularly relevant today. She is hardly "painfully normal."
My interpretation of Esther and the lens through which I perceive the Holy Spirit speaking through Scripture is informed by my gender. In fact, I would like to suggest that it is precisely because I am a woman that I love Esther.
I love that Esther presents a living example of a woman who overcame hardship to ascend to the highest position in the land. I love that Esther can both habla espanol and parlez-vous francais, performing the delicate dance between two cultures. I love that Esther was a reluctant leader, who maybe did not fancy herself to be anything more than "a pretty face," but when her God-ordained moment for leadership arrived, she presented her body as a living sacrifice after fasting and changed the course of history for herself and her people forever.
So I pray that women from all different walks of life will rise up, like Esther, and take their rightful place of leadership as people made in God's image. We can begin today, Election Day by making our voices heard by voting. Let me be clear: I am not advocating for any particular candidate or party. I am imploring women to get or stay engaged, involved, and informed in this process. Our collective and individual futures as women, mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, aunts, grandmothers, and friends depend on it. Every woman, whether red, blue, or independent, can challenge the stereotypes and misperceptions that some preachers and politicians have about women. Esther was more than just a beautiful woman, who allowed "men to tend to her needs and make her decisions," as the preacher put it. She was a leader who discovered her God-given destiny in the face of social and political opposition. And so can we. Who knows? Perhaps we have come to the kingdom for such a time as this.
Rev. Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil, president and founder of Salter McNeil and Associates, is an author, speaker and thought-leader with over 25 years of ministry experience in the field of racial, ethnic and gender reconciliation. She is Associate Professor of Reconciliation Studies in the School of Theology at Seattle Pacific University.