Sexuality is difficult to talk about. Whether about orientation or sex or reproductive health, these conversations get at the core of what it means to be human, to have an identity, and to be in intimate relationship with other humans. Conversations about reproductive justice usher us onto the threshhold of our beliefs about life and death and onto the precipice of our dreams about what it means to be fully alive. They are such deeply personal matters, and yet, we have to address them communally because pregnancy and birth and death are never entirely personal affairs.
The story of Hagar and Sarah is fraught with these seminal questions. It is a story about babies, and it is also about race and class, slavery and freedom. It is a story about how fertility and infertility come to define women and reflect their worth in a society, about how the personhood of women, especially some women, gets lost in the pursuit of an heir. Ultimately, it is also a story about how powerful men deprive women of self-determination, but God sets them free to thrive.
What we know about Sarah is that she is old, childless, and postmenopausal in a culture where bearing children is central to a woman’s identity. What we know about Hagar is that she is younger, fertile, and a slave. It was not uncommon in a variety of ancient near eastern societies for barren women to encourage their husbands to take a mistress for the purpose of having a child. According to the prevailing power structures, this would have reflected well on Sarah, at least theoretically, because in a round about way she would have provided Abraham with an heir. It was a way to give women a modicum of control by helping them prevent their husbands from simply taking on a second wife.
At first it seemed like things were going well. Hagar conceived, and Sarah’s plan was coming together. But instead of filling Sarah’s void, Hagar’s pregnancy only proved to enlarge it. The firm hierachy between husband, wife, and lowly slave girl was upended when the slave became the mistress and then the mother of Abraham’s only child. Sarah’s first strategy is to mistreat Hagar to the point that she runs away into the wilderness. But Hagar doesn’t stay away, and so Sarah must finally have her, and her son Ishmael, banished for good.
At Sarah’s pleading, Abraham sends Hagar and Ishmael back into the desert, with minimal provisions and a leap of faith that God will protect them. The Common English Bible subtitles this portion of the text as the “eviction” of Hagar and Ishmael. We also might call it a deportation.
What is really interesting is what happens in the wilderness, both when Hagar runs away and when she is sent away. The God who sees and the God who hears is the one who meets her there. The Hebrew name Ishmael means something like “God hears” or “God will listen.” And Hagar herself names God “Elroi,” the one who sees.
This language of seeing also points to the reason Sarah sends Hagar away; she simply cannot bear to look at her. Rather than solving the problem of her infertility, Hagar seems to remind her of it. Ishmael will never really be her son. And perhaps there is something even more devastating going on here—that Sarah has become what she despised. Earlier in Genesis we are told of the time that Abraham and Sarah spent in Egypt, where Sarah herself was practically a slave in Pharoah’s household, until God set her free. The text reminds us repeatedly that Hagar is an Egyptian slave. In essence Sarah has gone from being the oppressed in Egypt to becoming the oppress-or of an Egyptian, all for the sake of proving her worth as a woman. To be sure, Sarah deserves our compassion; any woman who has ever deeply desired a child and found herself unable to conceive could find in Sarah a shared suffering. Where Sarah goes wrong is in trying to relieve her own emptyness and grief by controlling another woman’s reproductive life.
This is what patriarchal systems do to women and men; they convince us that we must betray one another in order to retain our place and our identity. They cause us to force others into doing things we might never do ourselves. We saw this play out in last November’s elections, when over 50% of white women voted for Donald Trump. Many of those who supported Trump were single issue voters who hoped that he would appoint conservative Supreme Court justices to overturn Roe V. Wade and make abortion illegal. On the other hand, over 90% of women of color voted for Clinton, knowing that the erosion of reproductive rights will inevitably affect poor women and women of color disproportionately more than white women.
Like the saga of Hagar and Sarah, our own American history is fraught with oppressive relationships between women of privilege and women of color. Like the patriarchs of our faith, the patriarchs of our country have attempted to control the reproductive lives of women, and in the process, they have pitted the wellbeing of some women against the wellbeing of others. But just as Sarah and Hagar’s destinies will forever be entwined—both enslaved and then set free, both the mothers of a long line of descendents—just as their two stories are uncomfortably similar, so is it with the wellbeing of all women under any system of oppression.
Consider SB8, the law just passed this spring in the Texas legislature. From The Chronicle, June 23, 2017: “Insidiously, SB 8 also outlaws dilation and evacuation (D&E) abortion, even in cases of rape or incest. D&E is the most commonly used procedure in the second trimester, which begins at 12-14 weeks. [In fact, 95% percent of second trimester abortions are performed through D&E, but only 11% of all abortions happen after the first trimester. Those that do are more likely to be done in cases where the life of the mother or unborn child are threatened.]
“The state is banning the method we know is safest for patients,” charged Dr. Bhavik Kumar, medical director at Whole Woman’s Health clinics, including its Austin flagship center. He predicts low-income women, minors, and women of color will be disproportionately affected and pushed later into pregnancy.”
We saw white women in the Texas legislature leading the push for this bill, arguing for the protection of the unborn, but not taking into account the life-threatening risks to actual living, breathing full grown women. Thankfully, a stay has been put on this bill…
In El Salvador this summer, a young woman was sentenced to 30 years in prison for allegedly killing her newborn child. According to the defense, the young woman was a victim of rape and had not known she was pregnant until she miscarried. Just as Sarah sent away Hagar, the Salvadorian system will lock this young woman away so they do not have to see their own transgressions.
It should be noted that this case is not an anomaly. El Salvador has some of, if not the, most restrictive reproductive laws in the world. From The Independent (UK):
“Prior to 1998, abortion was permitted in cases of rape, incest, where a foetus was injured or if the mother’s life was in danger….That year, under pressure from the church and right wing politicians, the law was changed to remove any exceptions whatsoever. Some estimates have suggested that between between 1998 and 2013, more than 600 women have been jailed after being accused of having had an abortion.” I can hardly imagine that the US could ever regress to a situation like that in El Salvador, but if the extreme right wing gets its way, it is not unfathomable.
White evangelical women and men are so often at the forefront of anti-choice movements. To be sure, these movements are embraced by many people whose motivations are pure and intentions are good. But devotion to a very narrow definition of life keeps them from seeing the devastation that their movements are inflicting on access to women’s healthcare, including not just abortion care, but regular exams, affordable birth control, diagnostic testing, and the ability for women to control their reproductive lives so that they might live full, healthy, and free.
But God sees. God sees the women who are forced to bear children because men and women of privilege gave them no other choice. God sees the women who are forced to give birth but are then evicted from their homes, banished to food deserts, and blamed for being poor. God noticed several years ago when HB2 caused dozens of women’s health clinics to close in Texas, and the most devastated part of the state was in the Rio Grande Valley, where women depended on these clinics for basic care.
We know from World Health Organization data that women who have access to comprehensive reproductive healthcare are more likely to overcome cycles of poverty. We know from history that when abortion is outlawed, it doesn’t go away, it only becomes unsafe or accessible only to the wealthy and connected. Dr. King taught us that fighting for access to healthcare is the most important of the justice movements because without it, citizens will not posess the wellbeing to fight against all the other social ills. It may shock you to learn that when the Roe V. Wade decision came down, W.A. Criswell, a Southern Baptist who is known as one of the fathers of fundamentalism in America, actually supported the decision, because even he knew that the ability to control one’s reproductive life is essential to transcending poverty. My what a difference a few decades can make.
The legacy of this country is that women of color, from African slaves to Mexican immigrants, have cleaned white women’s houses and nannied our children into adulthood, often sacrificing valuable time with their own children. The wellbeing of our families can be traced back to them. The Spirit compels us not to abandon them in this moment when the stakes are so high. May we begin by naming Hagar, naming the patriarchal system that confined her, naming Sarah’s betrayal of her, naming our own struggle for reconciliation.
From Steve Garnaas-Holmes, re: Hagar—
How do we take her back?
Where do we find that land
big enough for us both?
How are we healed of our own cruelty,
sending her, of our own heart,
away, always away?
Where do we find those open arms
that await us,
that teach us to open our arms?