I Used To Know Her…
“A Black man I go to church with voted for him too.” And just like that, I knew our friendship may never be the same.
This response came from my friend and a fellow believer after I expressed hurt about her 2016 U.S presidential choice. At the time, I thought I was the only person who’d experienced this dismay and betrayal. Yet, we know the 2016 elections caused a rippling effect throughout communities.
As we quickly approach the upcoming election, we can almost tangibly see the multifaceted tensions that exist. Black, brown, and poverty-stricken folks wait with bated breath to see the outcome. Many who identify as marginalized are especially concerned about the continuation of the toxicity and precariousness of the status quo. Simultaneously, the most empowered in our society await to see if the current trends and policies will continue to hold.
Deep Compassionate Listening
2016 taught us that electoral choices are deeply tied to values and beliefs that impact our most intimate relationships. As we process the days ahead, we need to be conscious of the ways we communicate around political issues. More specifically, we need critical listening skills to navigate this political landscape.
Upon reflection, I realize my friend gaslit and tokenized me. This had the greatest negative impact on our relationship. It was the lack of her ability to fully listen to my fears and anxieties as a marginalized Black woman that penned the epitaph confirming my desire to bury a friendship spanning longer than a decade. If we are to maintain strong relationships during this time, it’s imperative we learn how to engage in what Thich Nhat Hanh called, deep compassionate listening.
We cannot effectively engage in empathetic listening without having a substantial understanding of how power impacts our perspectives. How often do we see listening as an easy skill requiring little, if any, critical thought? Our listening is largely dependent upon the ways speakers and listeners hold power in our society.
Unfortunately, our bank account balances, the colors of our skin, the functionality of our bodies, etc. all significantly shape how and if we are listened to. The story of Hagar and Sarai cement this conclusion. Anyone who spent their youthful summers at vacation bible school has heard the story of our forefather Abraham and his formidable journal to fatherhood. Depending on who’s telling the story, little is shared about Hagar, the Egyptian slave-girl and the mother of Ishmael.
Genesis 16 lays out the timeless tale of the reproductively challenged couple seeking parenthood. Sarai decided Hagar could be a suitable surrogate and directed Abram to sleep with Hagar. This level of biblical ratchetness often gets left on the threshing floor!
Yet, when someone is brave enough to feature this story, we often see Sarai framed as the protagonist and Hagar as the easy villain. Why wouldn’t she be? Afterall, Sarai is “wifey,” and Hagar is simply the woman who got “knocked up” by somebody else’s husband. Upon achieving a successful pregnancy, Hagar begins to “despise her mistress” (verse 5). Some translations use the phrase contempt. Either way, after Hagar conceives, Sarai isn’t pleased.
Our contemporary framing of this story often centers Sarai. Hagar gets rhetorically situated as a wayward servant who didn’t know her “place.” Therefore, the entire narrative centers Sarai’s disenfranchisement and positions her as the oppressed victim of the Egyptian slave’s alleged sexual misconduct.
Since Ishmael’s conception, Sarai decided she could no longer tolerate Hagar’s presence and mistreated her. As humans, we often trivialize the pain of others when our own anguish and fears are so pronounced. Sarai was so well-versed in her own humiliation, it limited her capacity to emphasize with Hagar despite previously having been in a similar situation (Gen. 12:14-16). Despondent due to her poor treatment, Hagar flees to a nearby desert.
Single-issue Power Trips
The lesson easily learned here is “bad girls get dealt bad consequences.” However, if you listen to Sarai’s version of events without a strong awareness of power structures, you only see one dimension of this event. Why does power matter to our contemporary listening and this story? Just reexamine these figures and use power to guide your listening experience.
When we begin to investigate who had the most established cultural and personal power in this story, we can see an entirely different narrative. Hagar was a slave and there is no textual or cultural proof that provides her with any power of consent.
Additionally, as a woman living in a patriarchal culture, the likelihood of her being able to deny Sarai, let alone Abram, seems entirely impossible. Let’s reexamine the misery and contempt Hagar expressed to Sarai. Well, she was a pregnant woman living as a slave in a desert involved in a non-consensual sexual relationship. In what universe could Hagar avoid having feelings of contempt toward Sarai!?
As always, our God intervenes. Gen 16:11 has recorded the Father’s response upon seeing Hagar in the desert, “for the Lord has heard of your misery.” This statement shows God’s character and why we must consider power in our own listening. If you read this story absent from power, you miss Sarai’s role as both the oppressor and oppressed. Sarai is disempowered in a society that’s quantified her value based on childbirth.
Yet, Sarai is also someone who has significant economic and cultural capital due to her marital status. Sarai’s self-serving pursuit of her single interest left her incapable of seeing the power she had to impact those around her. Likewise, we often see our fellow believers who identify as “single-issue” voters fail to see the inherent privilege in being that.
My friend’s decision was largely based on one perspective, her own. She was laser-focused on one electoral goal much like Sarai was. The goal itself was not a bad one. However, Sarai’s attention to this goal calloused her heart and diminished her capacity to empathize with the pain and discomfort of those around her. Like many people of faith whose voting choices are harnessed to a single voting issue, this is the tension my friend couldn’t see past.
She was able to vote without thinking about the multiplicity of societal harms. She didn’t have multiple types of systemic violent systems to navigate as she analyzed what issues needed to be addressed within the newly created administration. Whereas, the “Hagars” in our societies simply don’t have this luxury. The fact remains Hagar doesn’t have the power to act on her accord, but Sarai did.
The truth is on November 4th, we will all wake up with a different perspective of our society. Some will wake up feeling hopeful and looking forward to a renewed commitment to our democracy, while others may experience anxieties about where their stories and values fit in the larger society. When we are fixated on our issues or diminished agency, we have a hard time assessing how much or little power we may have.
Yet, as people of faith with a shared vision of humanity, we must attend to how we “tune” our ears. If only my friend had engaged in compassionate listening. If only she’d fully taken into consideration that I experienced life differently than her as a Black woman. Perhaps, I’d still feel safe calling her my friend.