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I was in middle school health class the first time a boy grabbed my chest without permission. This, and 100 other small moments, taught me that my body is not my own. Or, that my body is going to be viewed as a sexual object, independent of my mind and soul, and that was either to be desired and stove for, or something I should be ashamed of–as if it were my fault.
I think the worst things that we, as a society, think and say about female-bodied people: about what makes a woman valuable, worthy of time or energy, what ought to cover a woman’s body, and how that body–complete with mind and soul and thoughts–ought to be allowed to move, speak, and function in the world, have been the same for millennia.
There is no scholar that thinks the Book of Esther is fact, but it sounds true. We know so little about Vashti but we know she was beautiful. Tradition says she was a princess in the courts of Babylon until they were conquered by Persians and married off to the new King.
She would have known her purpose was to be absorbed into the Persian court, to show how Babylon’s empire would be absorbed into Persia’s empire. Her purpose was to produce an heir, sons to fight in battles and rule. Daughters would be traded for favors, owned by their father, then their husbands. Vasti knew her life, her being, her body was not her own.
And yet, she knew the king! She knew he had a lot of power and ego and it all balanced on a razor’s edge. He had thrown a party for 6 months for the leaders of all his territories to show off how great he was.
Then a week long party for all the men from the city, the merchants and the rif-raf, men from all sides of every track. 6 months and 1 week into his bender, the king runs out of things to show off, and calls for the queen, to leave her party, to show up in all her royal trappings, to prove he could secure a pretty wife.
And she said, “No.”
Now, mob mentality is real and alcohol can make even the worst ideas seem perfectly reasonable; and I don’t think there is anything much more terrifying than a group of men with a little bit of power and a lot of alcohol. A group that believes they can own someone else’s body, can make claim to it and do what they want to it. A group whose authority has been undermined. I can imagine the things that might have happened to Vashti if she had walked into that party–at best it would be humiliating and make her simply an object in this court, at worst it would be the things Law and Order SVU are written about.
But this was also a group that believe their place in creation is the natural order and how it will always be.
Until she said no.
She said you don’t own my body, you can’t commend me, you can’t display me like your fancy curtains. No.
And the world beneath the men at that party shifted, just a little. They could see how that small shift would start an earthquake, women, wives, daughters everywhere saying no when men made commands. The structures of power that they stood upon would shake, they would fall and topple, the world would be in chaos! if women could say No.
So laws were passed making it punishable for women, wives, daughters to say no, and Vashti was destroyed to prove they could.
Honestly, the connections between this story and the world we are living in seem… heavy-handed to even mention. Imagine: Men in positions of power whose egos are so thin they have to show off to prove their greatness? or sexually violate women and destroy their careers or lives if they refuse? Imagine that those in power feel the earth shake beneath their feet as the people they have, for generations, seen and treated as less than, expendable, to be owned, have found their voice, have said no more, and have, despite the powerful’s best efforts, risen to places of leadership?
Imagine if, like these leaders in Persia, the leaders of today would write laws that deny the full humanity, dignity, and autonomy of a group of people to make choices over their bodies, their lives, because the powerful fear the world changing around them and they have to scrape to every vestige of power they left, clinging to their pedestals of power while they are tipping over?
In Judaism, there is a tradition of playing with the scripture stories and filling in the gaps, expanding, turning it over, called Midrash. When the ancient rabbis looked at this story, they wondered about Vashti and their conclusion was that she was a loose woman, uncontrollable and therefore villainized. I wonder if they, too, read this story and said, “if our women hear they can say no…”
And I wish the world had changed more. But we saw in the midst of #metoo the things the women who named their abuse and abusers were called. The allegations thrown at transgender people, the violence inflicted upon people of color when they say no, no more, no longer, no.
While we are in Memphis last week, we went to the Civil Rights Museum dedicated to those who, in the face of racial injustice, at the cost of their wellbeing and sometimes their lives, stood up and said, “no,” and shifted the world and the power structures shifted.
And in Memphis is a monument to suffragettes, the women, and men, who in the face of injustice and overwhelming oppositional forces, said, “no,” we will no longer allow our value to be attached to who we marry.
And we at the end of June, we remember the Stonewall Riot, when queer people said, “No,” we are not illegal and we will not hide.
From Civil Rights to Climate change, from pipelines on indigenous lands to internment camps, from disability rights to Transgender rights, there has been a holy and sacred “no.”
No, we will not be seen as less.
No, we will not be pushed aside,
No, we will not be used.
No, we will not be owned.
The Book of Esther is unusual that it is the only one that doesn’t mention God. But it seems to me that the Spirit of God is moving in the story and in our world today whenever someone finds the courage, the strength to see themselves and their neighbor as made in God’s image and worthy of love, kindness, and justice. They say that holy no. There are modern Midrash that tell stories of the women at Vashti’s party, how they gathered around her, wept with her, gave her courage, and told her story again and again, the one who said no.
It can be a scary thing to stand before a force, be it a whole system or one person, and say that holy “no.”
Church, we are called to be people of the holy no, no to injustice. We are called to stand up with those who are facing injustice, to gather around, to hold their hands, to give them courage, to help raise their voices, to shout with them “no” and shake the world, shift the power. The institutions of power, the empire that inscribe injustice in law as they desperately rebuild the Jenga tower of their crumbling unquestioned power without noticing who the bricks hit as they fall. And worse! throwing them at people on the edges and margins of society who are asking for the chance to be seen as whole and beloved.
Nashville pastor, Stan Mitchell said: “If you call yourself an ally to a group of people and you aren’t getting hit by the stones being thrown at them, then you aren’t standing close enough.” In the face of injustice, are we, the church, willing to be hit with some rocks, too? To put ourselves in the path? to clear a way for those that follow? to stand with Vashti and proclaim the holy and sacred no.