Scenario 3: Sojourning in a Strange Land
The third scenario tells the heartbreaking story of Hagar (Genesis 21.9-21). Hagar is Sarah’s Egyptian maidservant. African American women have long identified with Hagar because she is both a servant and a surrogate mother as many black women have been in our U.S. history. When Sarah cannot bear the child God promises, she insists Abraham have a child with Hagar. But after Sarah has her own son and watches Hagar’s son Ishmael flourish, she grows jealous and insists that Abraham put Hagar out of their tent and out into the desert with her child. God does not get the message; God does not abandon Hagar and her child.
This casting out is a woman against woman act, Sarah exercising her privileged position against Hagar. Similarly some of the 20% of the sisters in the U.S. that are in the more traditional religious communities have urged the Vatican investigations of the 80%, Sisters against Sisters.
Hagar runs away in Genesis 16 when Sarah deals harshly with her. Hagar sits near a spring where God sees her and promises her many descendents, the same promise God makes to Abraham and Sarah. The angel urges Hagar to go back and she does. “Have I seen God and remained alive?” Hagar asks and names the spring for El Roi, God who sees.
In Genesis 21, Sarah puts Hagar out into the wilderness. When the skin of water she carries runs out, Hagar sits apart from her child because she cannot stand to watch him die. God hears the child cry, and a spring appears. In the Quran, the sacred text of Islam, Hagar is the pioneer foremother whose sojourn in the desert begins the holy history of Muslim faith. Pilgrims on the hajj imitate her search for water in the desert. Hagar’s story is the original Arab Spring.
God sustains Hagar outside the tent of Abraham and Sarah. God’s tent has no outside.
The bishops investigating the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) charge us with sojourning in a strange land. They want to supervise our meetings and choices of speakers. They cannot imagine the Holy Spirit animating their would-be maidservants and helping us find sustaining grace in our contemporary wilderness.
This is not the scenario with which most sisters at the annual conference identified as we talked at tables. Sisters have indeed moved beyond pre-Vatican II boundaries but not outside the Church as the People of God, who stand in solidarity with the afflicted in our global world, not outside the gospel message or sacramental worship. Perhaps the bishops regard forging ecumenical or interfaith bonds as sojourning in a strange land. Or perhaps immersing ourselves in how evolutionary cosmology and quantum physics affect our theology of God is dangerous, or our commitment to sustain our planet, or our advocacy for people who are poor, or our commitment to speaking out for the common good. Still it is the Church that has called us to the prophetic ministries we pursue.
What tensions can communion among the people of God hold without breaking?
How might equality for women renew the Church and its mission to the world?
What is so threatening about sisters and about women in the Church?