Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Esther, Victims, and a Reformed View of Depravity

There has been a lot of discussion of Esther lately in the blogosphere. Before that, there had also been lots of discussion of sexual abuse in religious organizations of various backgrounds. I have thought a lot on the two subjects, Esther and sexual abuse. I stare off in space in thought, talk to myself in my car, stare off in space some more, think through the Scripture I know, look up other Scripture online, and so forth. The title of this blog is Practical Theology. It's my core mission statement – what I believe about God (theology) and what He teaches us through Scripture (doctrine) is practical. No matter how one practically responds to the issues of sexual abuse and victimization, it is inevitably tied to our underlying belief system. In light of that, I've been reflecting on what belief system could cause a believer to label Esther a sinner as opposed to a victim in the particular details of her story.

I think the doctrinal issue at play is a view of total depravity that is not supported by Scripture. I love tulips. But I think that our term total depravity may slightly misrepresent the issue. Pervasive depravity may be a better term for it, though PULIP just doesn't have the same ring. I was first exposed to the terminology pervasive depravity through Covenant Seminary in St. Louis. I'm doubtful anyone would label them as reformed lightweights. Sometimes teachers claim reformed language without fully understanding the totality of a reformed perspective on an issue. I do that at times, and I found my own recent education on the issue of depravity through a well trained reformed pastor enlightening compared to my less than accurate previous understanding.

Here's the issue with depravity. Scripture clearly presents that all have sinned and fall short of God's glory. This does NOT mean, however, that every person is as bad as they possibly could be. It does not mean that every person always makes the wrong decision. It does not mean that no person is able to help or be good to another. No, our depravity is better expressed as pervasive than total. Pervasive means it affects all aspects of ourselves. It is spread throughout, and we are unable to reverse it. But it does not mean that every response every time in every situation is 100% or totally wrong. I hear this wrong view of depravity discussed as Jesus wears the only white hat, and everyone else has black hats. Or Jesus is the only hero, and everyone else is the bad guy.   There's a sense in which that is pervasively true, but it is not totally true.  *Note that such subtleties matter a great deal when discussing something as sensitive as sexual subjugation.*

This difference is crucial for understanding Esther's situation. If you think that all people make bad decisions all the time, well, first that is really depressing, and second it's just not true. In Esther's case, you then likely interpret the fact that she ends up in the king's harem and eventually as his wife due to her own poor choices, because, well, that's the nature of man (or woman) in your belief system. That paradigm has no category for the honest to goodness VICTIM. If you are totally bad all the time, then of course you made only bad choices along the way that led to your victimization.

But the Bible does have a category called the oppressed. And when Scripture refers to the oppressed, it does not address them as moral agents responsible for their own oppression.
Psalm 10:17-18 O Lord, you hear the desire of the afflicted; you will strengthen their heart; you will incline your ear to do justice to the fatherless and the oppressed, so that man who is of the earth may strike terror no more.
Other Scripture indicates that all of us are responsible for our own sin, but not necessarily for our own oppression. There are true victims in Scripture, put in situations due to circumstances (and other people) outside of their control. Esther, like Ruth, is in this category. Sinners? Yes. But not in the circumstances out of their control that are recounted in the books by their names.

It's very easy for someone with power who is not threatened to surmise what they would do if they had NO power and were threatened. In contrast, anyone who has been threatened sexually and feared for their life or the life of their family will likely give a very different perspective when reading Esther than the one that she contributed sinfully to her own situation. My hope is that sexual assault or abuse victims will not walk away from the recent discussion on various sites about Esther with added shame that you didn't do enough to prevent your abuse. Understand that while you are a sinner (as am I), you also very likely are simply a victim in that circumstance.

There is a reason that Scripture gives us NO indication of what went on that first night between Esther and the king.  There is a reason that Scripture gives no moral judgement against any of Esther's conduct ANYWHERE in Scripture. We can imply that she manipulated the king with her beauty and sexual appeal. But such implication is irresponsible. We can imply whatever we want on most any Scripture that doesn't say something clearly itself. But that doesn't make it right. The Bible only states the barest of facts about Esther's first interaction with the king , and I believe that is part of God's purposes in writing Esther. Apparently to our sovereign God who preserved His word for us through generations, what went on in that room was irrelevant to the point that God planned to communicate -- His sovereign hand in circumstances that seem empty of His presence.

The bottom line of Esther has gotten lost in all of this, which is tragic. Many Scriptures teach us of the God who saves us from our own personal sin, the depravity within us. But Esther is very much about the God who also rescues us from the depravity without us. There have been many victims through the ages like Abel, who despite his own depravity was not responsible for his victimization by his brother, and their blood cries out for justice. The God of Esther sees and hears it, promising to work through circumstances and situations where His name is never mentioned to rescue His children.

*Here's an article from last year on false humility and worm theology that may be helpful on this subject.*

18 comments:

  1. Wow. I'm guessing from your post that some other bloggers are blaming Esther for her situation. I am very happy that I have never come across such a blog. How anyone could draw that conclusion is mind-boggling.

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  2. Saw "One NIght with the KIng" back in 2006 and thought it was a beautiful depiction as I recall. Esther has always been a hero to me. She saved her people because of her bravery. Believers are called "Saints" and we may sin but we are not slaves to sin. I grew up in a Presbyterian church and always felt loved. When I have been abused (verbally)in any way I knew that God was my defender. I prayed for the person, like Job did for his friends, and worked on techniques to set boundaries, and to return evil with good. It is never the VICTIM'S fault.

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  3. Wendy, I'm right there with you on the "Total Depravity" part.
    Yes, I believe that we are lost and fallen, cannot save ourselves, and need a Savior.
    But Total Depravity?
    I can't even get started on understanding TULIP because, as I have said in the past, they lose me at the "T".

    Anonymous, I guess you can count yourself blessed that you are not in anyway involved in the discussion concerning Bachelorette Esther. It is disturbing the lengths some will go to try to make the Bible conform to their own low opinion of women.

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  4. This is great, Wendy, thanks so much. I've always bristled a bit at the T, but pervasive depravity, this makes sense. Seems more biblically sound.

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  5. As I just shared on my Facebook page, thank you Wendy for a bit of truth and sanity regarding the conversation about Esther in the blogosphere lately.

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  6. I hadn't seen the discussions online Wendy - sounds like it's been pretty damaging. :(

    I think you're right about the Bible not passing judgement on Esther - let scripture interpret itself!

    Although, in one way, even if Esther was sexually promiscuous and to blame (and I'm not saying she is or could be), our good God chooses to use very fallen people. Whether victimised or victimiser, no one is beyond God's grace.

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  7. I understand your points but doesn’t God say both - we are totally depraved and oppressed. Would we condemn Him to justify ourselves (Job 40:8). We can do nothing apart from Jesus; only faith, the gift of God, is credited to us as righteousness; faith expressing itself, the only thing that counts. We are all oppressed and the Lord hates oppression –“because of the devastation of the afflicted, because of the groaning of the needy, now I will arise,” says the LORD. Jesus proclaimed: My Father has sent me to set free those who are oppressed.

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  8. I've added a link to the end of the post for an article from last year on false humility and worm theology that I think is helpful to this discussion.

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  9. Wendy, somehow I have missed all the buzz about Esther. But I have a question: what are some theological blogs you would recommend? I really enjoy your writings and if you think someone writes well, I would like to find more good blogs to read! Thank you!

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  10. A very gracious, eloquent, and balanced response to these latest discussions on the interpretation of Esther.

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  11. Click on your tulips link above and it describes total depravity as sin affecting every part of a person, not that every person is as evil as possible"

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    1. Right. That's why pervasive is a better word for it.

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  12. Totally agree. Just as the perseverance of the saints is actually more often the perseverance of the Savior! That Tulip thing is not something that can never be revised. ;)

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    1. Perseverance of the Savior. I like that!

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  13. Thanks, Wendy. I've often wondered, "Are we as bad as Satan?" I haven't brought it up in a theological conversation yet because I'd probably get funny looks.

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  14. "This does NOT mean, however, that every person is as bad as they possibly could be. It does not mean that every person always makes the wrong decision. It does not mean that no person is able to help or be good to another."

    Thank you for this. I heard a sermon this past Sunday that basically said Christians are okay through God's grace, but everyone else is going to go shoot up an elementary school. It was very upsetting to me because in my experience, not everyone who is not Christian is going to commit evil acts. In fact, a lot of evil acts are committed by people claiming to be Christians.

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