Dear Hagar: Letter from a white woman

The stories of Sarah and Hagar have been appropriated by white colonial peoples to devastating effect. Here is one white woman’s acknowledgement and response. (Listen.)

Dear Hagar: Today I read the stories about you, and Sarah, and Abraham. All my life, I’ve been taught that Sarah is the matriarch and great-grandmother of my faith; but I pretty much ignored her story. And yours. But today I read them, and this is what I saw: Sarah never once used your name; you’re just ‘the maidservant’ or ‘that slave.’ She forced you to sleep with her husband because she needed a son. But when you got pregnant, she was so threatened that she accused you of being ‘uppity’ and she abused you.

And so you fled from her into the wilderness; but then you went back. Maybe you had no choice. Your boy grew up in the household: yet she never loved him or used his name. All she could see was a rival. And so when Ishmael laughed with his younger brother, she went berserk. She screamed at the old man to send ‘that slave woman and her son’ into exile; and, despite his grief, and despite the law which said that a slave who bore a surrogate son would not be cast out, Abraham sent you into the wilderness with your son, and a sack of food, and a water bottle.

Sarah’s the matriarch: and so I want to excuse her. I want to say, Yes, she did all that, but she was a victim of the patriarchy. Pimped out by her husband to Pharaoh, then Abimelech, she was a victim, too. Having a son was her only form of protection and worth; and anyway, God blessed Ishmael, so it was really okay to send you both into the desert.

But it was not.

Sarah was a victim: but she still had choices. And she chose not to call you by name. She chose to use you, and abuse you, and throw you away; she chose to see you as an object and a threat. And so you were thrown out, then overlooked or slandered by generations of theologians and preachers, while Sarah retained her comfortable position as the mother of our faith.

And comfortable it is. Hagar, I live in a postcolonial context where Sarah has been raised up and you have been pushed down. White Christians appropriated God’s promise to Abraham and claimed this country as their own, and by this they justified genocide. They organised blackbirding and chain gangs and forced domestic service, because you and others were slaves. They forced black women into surrogate motherhood, then took their paler children. They told Indigenous women to submit to their mistresses, because that is what you were seen to do. Like Sarah, they refused to learn people’s names, instead using nicknames and labels. They justified Sarah’s abuse of you, because to question it would be to question white violence.

They rarely observed that God spoke with you by name; that your son, too, was promised land and descendants; and that God was with you both in the wilderness and beyond: for that would have been inconvenient.

Hagar, I confess I am a white woman whose ancestors have lived in this land for nearly two hundred years. My people have been pillars of the white community at times and in places where Indigenous people have been exiled or killed. One great-great-grandfather was a town councillor in Burra at a time when all Aboriginal residents moved on or ‘disappeared.’ Another was in Katanning during a narrowly averted massacre. The local protector persuaded the townsfolk not to kill the blackfellas but instead to confine them to a small block of land well outside the town boundary, condemning them, of course, to poverty, sickness, and great suffering.

Still others of my people were in Victoria during the gold rush, when there was one white woman for every eight white men, and so sexual violence or coercion may be well part of my family story. In other words, my family participated in dispossession and genocide, and I have inherited the comfort, the privilege, and the benefits of that, and of being called a daughter of Sarah.

Hagar, I am sorry.

I am sorry for your suffering, and I am sorry for my silence. I am sorry for your oppression, and I am sorry for my white privilege. I am sorry for the violence in which my family participated; I am sorry for the diseases which my family helped spread.

I am sorry that I live on land which is stolen; and that my family could help us buy a house, when land and wage theft prevented your family from building an asset pool. I am sorry that I have money in my pocket, when your income is shared with families of prisoners who cannot earn a wage. I am sorry that my children expect to go to university, while yours are threatened with removal and the highest incarceration rate of any peoples on the earth. I am sorry that I am expected to live many years longer than you.

I am sorry that these truths are so rarely named by white women, and I acknowledge that even having this platform in which to name them is a privilege.

But most of all, I am sorry that white Christians have so rarely realised the gospel. We have claimed Sarah as our own, and rejected you and your children. Like Sarah, we felt threatened by you; like Sarah, we tried to obscure the fact that your children are Abraham’s children; out of fear, we have denied that Christ makes us all heirs according to the promise. Not just whitefellas, but black women, men, children and young people, whether in custody or free.*

Hagar, as Sarah’s daughter I have been taught to see you as a rival and a threat; an object to be used, abused and eventually discarded; an entity I do not know and must not call by name.

But, like Sarah, I have a choice. I can continue to use white power to dominate and my tears to manipulate; or I can let Christ truly set us both free. For in Christ, there is no rivalry. In Christ, you are my sister and your suffering hurts me. In Christ, I am called to really see you, to learn your name, to hear your truth, to take responsibility for my own history, and to seek the justice which will lead us both towards the Spirit’s freedom.

Hagar, my sister, this is what I am called to do; yet I confess that I have miles to go, and I do not always know the way. But I am stumbling through the wilderness towards you. Wait for me, my dear sister. Please wait for me. I am coming. Ω

*Alluding, of course, to Galatians 3:28-39. Ironically, it is in this very same letter that Paul counsels the Galatians to reject Hagar’s children (4:21-31). In brief, Hagar is depicted as Jewish law, and Sarah as the new covenant in Christ: and Paul is counselling that Hagar’s children, that is, those who demand Christian converts adhere to Jewish law, should be expelled from the church. At the risk of thunderbolts, let me just say that this strikes me as an incredibly bad allegory on Paul’s part. On the one hand, Sarah, not Hagar, has always been recognised as the foremother of the Jewish people; and on the other, by counselling the rejection of Judaizers through linking them with a distinct people group, Paul risks undermining his radical claim that, in Christ, people are no longer separated by ethnic or other boundaries. Anyhoo …

That was one white woman’s perspective. For a different perspective, I highly recommend three excellent podcasts featuring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women:

  • Brooke Prentis: Reading the Bible Through Aboriginal Eyes: Found at The Bible for Normal People Episode #129 here.
  • Rachel Perkins: Boyer Lectures: The End of Silence: Sets out the Uluru Statement from the Heart in clear, vivid, personal terms. Find it on ABC podcasts or here.
  • Birds Eye View: A podcast made by women in Darwin prison, including many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women: Find it here. Content warning: This podcast contains strong language and stories of trauma and its aftermath. Not for children; but one of the best podcasts I have ever heard.

A reflection on Genesis 21:8-21 given to Sanctuary on 21 June 2020 (Year A Proper 7) © Alison Sampson, 2020. Image found here.

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