In 1802 a heterosexual, white, protestant couple got married – and the church freaked out. You want to know why, I promise. They freaked out because she…wore….a red coat! The couple was Abigail and Daniel Harkness, and Daniel was a part of the Society of Friends. They officially censured him for marrying her, both because she wasn’t a part of the Society of Friends and because of her coat (which they said made her a “worldly woman”). She refused to give up her coat. He refused to apologize for her coat. So they became Methodists.
Thank goodness they did. I sometimes have some feelings of envy for the peace-loving Quakers, but that one action they did all those years ago was really good for Methodists. Abigail and Daniel’s great-granddaughter was fond of telling that story, and made it a part of her story of formation. Their great-granddaughter was Georgia Harkness, the first woman to be a full professor at a theological school in the United States of America, a feat she accomplished as an active Methodist theologian. She was, truth be told, the first RECOGNIZED female theologian, and she was a member of the Troy Annual Conference. She had local ordination, but fought for women’s full ordination rights in the Methodist Church.
I do not have enough time to tell you Georgia Harkness’s full story today (I’m still learning it), but there are a few other details you need to know. She graduated from Cornell in 1912, after which she taught high school in Schyllerville and Scotia for 6 years (yes, OUR Scotia), but she got restless. After reading an advertisement in The Christian Advocate she went to Boston University (also a Methodist school) for her masters degree and then a PhD in the philosophy of religion. She then taught at Elmira College for 15 years. In 1939 she was hired by Garrett, breaking the stained glass ceiling. She was part of the movement toward full ordination rights for women in the Methodist Church, the social gospel, the creation of the World Council of Churches, and was eventually a General Conference delegate from the Troy Annual Conference (although Junice tells me this happened while she was a professor at Pacific School of Religion in CA and not everyone was thrilled about it.)
While she was teaching in Scotia, she was very active in her “local church” teaching Sunday School and working with youth groups. We haven’t yet verified which church was that was. Most likely, Scotia UMC, right? Given our history though, maybe it was us. (We’re looking!) In any case, a Methodist Church in the Albany District and Schenectady County sent Georgia Harkness off to her graduate education and to change the face of Methodism, academia, and the world.
Dr. Georgia Harkness attributed her courage to her great-grandmother, Abigail. When women graduate from Garrett-Evangelical Theological school, a United Methodist Seminary north of Chicago, they wear red shoes. They do it to remind themselves of their place in the world as courageous, outrageous women and to celebrate the rich tradition of female scholarship at Garrett-Evangelical.”1 They do it because of Abigail Harkness.
Abigail Harkness refused to do what was asked of her, and in doing so she inspired great change. Her courage laid the foundation for Georgia’s. I think Abigail Harkness was to Georgia Harkness what Vashti was to Esther. Now, let me be clear. The book of Esther is a work of fiction. It was written down (no oral tradition) as a work of fiction, for the purpose of encouraging Jews living in the Persian empire to have hope and stay faithful. This story did not happen. History knows too much about the era. This is intentional historical fiction! As Sidnie White Crawford (professor of Classics and Religious Studies at University of Nebraka Lincoln) puts it in The New Interpreter’s Bible, “This is also a hopeful message to Jews living in diaspora; the status quo is never such and things can always change.”2
John Dominic Crossan likes to help people understand the Bible by saying, “Emmaus never happened, Emmaus always happens,” by which he means that he doesn’t think that there was an actual embodied living Christ who walked with the disciples to Emmaus and explained the Jesus movement to them and then disappeared as he became known in the breaking of the bread at dinner. Rather, he believes that it is in reflecting on history that we come to understand our present, and it is in the communion table that Christ is known. The literal pales beside the metaphorical. Similarly, the book of Esther didn’t happen, and yet Esther tells truths of humanity that keep happening.
White Crawford says, “The book, which was written for Jews living in exile, consistently lampoons their Gentile overlords. Ahasuerus is less an awe-inspiring ruler than an easily manipulated buffoon.”3 Obviously the Jews living in ancient Persia were the only people in the history of the world who need to make fun of their ruler to feel safe in the world, so we can’t understand it, but we can try ;).
The story starts out describing the excessive opulence of the King’s palace and grounds and his outrageous 6-month party for all of his officials. Granted, travel was harder in those days and he was king over a really big empire so you might want to take advantage of opportunites to be together, but who can really afford to both stop their government for 6 months AND have a ridiculous party at the same time? Clearly, he could! And he thought it was worth it. He was clearly very excited to show off his power and wealth.
Now, the author is very wise and quite intentional. The attention to detail wasn’t an accident. White Crawford says, “Through the description we get a glimpse of the Persian character: ostentatious, showy, unbridled. This is in direct contrast to the usual Jewish values of modesty and self-restraint (see Prov 11:2-4). Although disapproval is never directly voiced, the message is clear: Such opulence, while immediately awe-inspiring, hides an empty and probably corrupt core.”4 So, after this showy 6 month party, the King decides that he needs a new audience to show off to, and he invites everyone in the city to come to a 7 day party.
It is very clearly stated that at this party people were allowed to drink how they wanted, because usually the expectation was that everyone drank when the king drank. “The author is letting the reader now that everything in this court, including drinking, proceeds according to the whim of the king,” including allowing people to drink as much (or as little) as they wished!5
So, 187 days in to a drunken stupor, the king calls for his wife who is throwing a party of her own with the women. This isn’t particularly historical, but it does work for historical fiction! We’re told that, “Historically Persian women and men could eat together, but the women left when the drinking began. It suits the purposes of the author to have the men and women separate when the story begins.”6 It fits the story, because then the king can call for Vashti.
She is told to show up in her crown. She isn’t told what else to wear. Assumptions have long been that she’s not supposed to wear anything but her crown. So, the story sets it up: the king has has been having a six month long drinking party to show off all his wealth, his wife is with her female companions, and he beckons her to come out naked to be shown off before all of the officials of the land and every man in her city.
Now, we don’t know a darn thing about Vashti (mostly because she never existed) but I want to play with this idea a little bit. I have, at times in my life, been in the exclusive company of women. During those times, if a particularly inappropriate “request” were to come to one of those women from a man, a certain amount of shared indignation would erupt. The woman who received the “request,” who might have simply hung her head in shame and complied if she were alone, would be motivated to respond differently in the presence of other women. The atrocity of the “request” would be named. Other options would be raised. An assessment of the risk involved in refusing vs. the risk involved in responding would be done. Perhaps, if there were some, particularly powerful women in the group might offer their own resources as protection.
That is to say, that when oppressors make horrible demands of members of oppressed groups, they’re less likely to have their dictates followed when the demand comes to the individual while the individual is supported by other members of the oppressed group. Um. Duh. But, the king is presented as an idiot. So, he doesn’t know that. And I’m not trying to be subtle here. I’m encouraging all of us to act like the women that Vashti was with – naming injustice when we see it, assessing damage, coming up with alternative plans, using our resources for the vulnerable, and supporting whoever needs the support. I’m reminding us all that there is power in being together, and not in allowing anyone to be isolated. I’m particularly encouraging stand together in the face of unreasonable decrees by unjust rulers.
Vashti says “no.” The story doesn’t REALLY tell us what happens to her. She’s said to be banished. For most of history that’s thought to include being killed. However, I’ve had a hard week and I’m going to claim that some of those women she was with in her banquet took her in and she lived a lovely life of freedom and access to great books in her exile. It IS a work of fiction after all, and this is my fan-fiction addition for the sake of having some darn hope. 😉
However, before she gets banished a few things happen. First of all, her husband who just spent 187 days showing off his power and wealth can’t figure out how to respond her “no” and convenes a war council to try to figure out how to respond. The king’s councilors are also freaked out and horrified that once the story gets out (which it WILL when all the women were present to hear her “no” and all the men were present to see her not show up) all the other women in the empire won’t obey their husbands either. (May. It. Be. So.) The scholar reminds us, “the character’s reactions to events lead the reader to laugh. For example, Vashti’s refusal to obey one order is thought to threaten the stability of the empire and leads to a decree declaring, of all things, that husbands should rule in their own houses and speak their own languages.”7 Which happens. The greatest mail service ever known on the face of the earth to that time was put to the task of telling men to be the masters of their houses – in a society that was already a patriarchy – because the men were so freaked out that one woman would say “no.”
That’s a powerful no.
It also set up Esther to replace Vashti as queen and save her people from genocide. Vashti and Esther didn’t know each other, but we can guess that Esther knew Vashti’s story, and learned from it. She did her subversiveness in different ways, but she learned from the one who came before her. Vashti set up Esther to succeed. Abigail Harkness set up Georgia to succeed. Even the failures of one woman who seeks power can inspire the next woman to succeed.
And, beloved people of God, like Vashti and Abigail, we are not powerless. We have the power to say “no” to things that are wrong, and “yes” to opportunities for justice. Furthermore, we can act like the women at the banquet in counseling each other toward courageous acts and outrageous refusals of unjust demands. We are powerful. God is powerful. We can, and we will continue to move the world toward good. NOTHING and NO ONE, not even a narcissistic power-hungry “king” can stop us. Thanks be to God. Amen
1“Red Shoes” by “preacher mom” http://preacherparents.blogspot.com/2010/05/red-shoes.html, accessed 11/10/2016
2Sidnie White Crawford “The Book of Esther,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Vol. 3 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999): p. 858.
Rev. Sara E. Baron
First United Methodist Church of Schenectady
603 State St. Schenectady, NY 12305
November 13, 2016