We are getting ready for Purim at our house. Someone or other once pointed out that pretty much all Jewish festivals can be described as "They tried to destroy the Jewish people, they were foiled, let's eat." And so it is - Purim celebrates the story of Esther in the Torah, and the preservation of the Jewish people.
Esther didn't particularly want to be a heroine. She was pleased to get to be queen, and there is no real indication in the story that she is at all displeased to have assimilated into non-Jewish culture. She conceals that she is a Jew because her uncle fears that king will not take her as a wife, but she doesn't seem much troubled by it. Esther is first and foremost the story of acceptance by and of the dominant culture, of not making too many waves. But what seperates Esther is her refusal (and Mordechai's) to allow her commitment to and investment in the dominant culture to shape her moral thinking.
When Haman calls for the people of Ahsauerus's realm to murder all the Jews within it and plunder their goods, Mordechai calls upon Esther to plead with the king. Esther is understandably frightened both to reveal herself as a Jew and also to go before the king without his summoning her, since the penalty for that is death. She tells Mordechai if he tries to speak to the king, she will die. And Mordechai's answer is decidedly un-avuncular. It is this:
"Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will excape with your life by being in the king's palace. On the contrary, if yo ukeep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter, while you and your father's house will perish. And who knows, perhaps you have attained to your position for just such a crisis."
Mordechai has raised Esther as a daughter, but he does not fail to speak harshly to her of her duty. And so she risks death twice, first by going to the king, and then by asking that he spare his queen and her people. And, of course (or we would not be celebrating) he does. Esther ends up right at the end, of course, but she does so by recognizing that if she came to power in the dominant culture, it does not absolve her of moral responsibility, but heightens her obligation.
Peter Parker said it too, "With great power comes great responsibility." The thing is, I think most of us have no idea how powerful we are, and thus, how responsible we are. Virtually all Americans command power and wealth unimaginable to most of the people in the world. We have, as James Kunstler has pointed out, the equivalent of 200 slaves working for us - but instead of human slaves, we have energy slaves that wash our clothes, wash our dishes, make the clothes, carry us about. Virtually all Americans are wealthier than 90% of the world's population. Most of us have more education - even if we graduated only from highschool - than a majority of the world's population. It doesn't feel that way, when you are in debt and struggling economically, but most middle-class Americans are richer and more priveleged than Kings in most of history.
Because we do not see ourselves as powerful and rich - we view ourselves mostly in comparison to our neighbors who are similarly powerful and rich, and we are all caught up (me too) in our struggles, we do not tend to think that *we* are the people who have great responsibility in the world. Other people are powerful, not us. Other people can change things, not us. We are merely getting along, we do not have time, we do not have energy, we do not have money enough to spare.
But if we do not, who on earth has the time and the money, the energy and the power to change the world? Who will you ask to do it for you? Someone poorer and weaker and less priveleged? Someone who has had less good fortune? In many cases they *are* doing that work - all over the world, the poor have spoken up about climate change and world trade, land reform and sustainability. I have read analyses of global warming and the WTO written by 12 year olds from Nicaraugua and India that put the writing of professional adults to shame. The world is full of people who work harder than you and I, who have harder lives, fewer electronic slaves, and whose very lives are set at stake by the changes in our world, and who still have time to stand up and speak out. I have written this elsewhere, but I repeat it, and will keep repeating it as long as necessary: almost all that is good in human history over the last three centuries is that oppressed and frightened, impoverished and angry people have stood up to those that did them harm, that mortgaged their future and endangered their lives and said "No More." Overwhelmingly, they succeeded in winning, despite lack of things you and I have plentifully - power, money, education, comfort. Our own national history includes, along with its dark side, a remarkable and courageous tradition of not counting the cost to do what is right. And every single person who has ever stood up in resistance has been less well educated, less wealthy, less priveleged, less safe, less comfortable than you and I are today. How is it that we keep finding reasons to do less than they. If we do so, that is our shame.
Most of us are not living up to our moral responsibilities, or using our privelege and wealth to create justice. We, like Esther, are afraid, although our stakes aren't as high as hers. We are afraid we will lose our comfort, some of our wealth and our privelege. The thought that we might have to give up all the things we are accustomed to and change to something entirely new is frightening. So mostly, we are a silent.
But Mordechai's words "Perhaps you have attained your position for just such a crisis," should speak to us all. Whether you believe in G-d or good fortune, the randomness of everything or some sort of intentionality, perhaps if we are very lucky, it is because we are supposed to, or perhaps simply morally obligated to, use what power we have transformatively. Perhaps we are meant to lead, no matter how little we like the work, how frightened we are of the consequences, or how comfortable we are ensconced in the dominant culture.
We are like Esther. We are afraid of what it would mean to reveal ourselves, to stand forth from the culture and demand that it change. We are comfortable in our palaces, and happy with our embroidered robes. And we, like Esther, are tempted only to act if we can forsee happy consequences for ourselves. But as Mordechai rightly points out, sometimes what happens to us isn't really the point - sometimes what matters is that we, in our power, have done, as they say, the right thing, without counting the cost to ourselves. It takes courage. And that is not in over-great supply. But I suspect there is more of it out there than we like to admit, even to ourselves.