By Willow (willowashmaple.xyz)
March 6, 2023
Today (March 6-7, 2023) is the Jewish festival of Purim. It commemorates the events written in the Hebrew Scriptures book of Esther. It is a fun time of celebration. You can (mostly) think of Purim as Mardi Gras and Halloween rolled into one. There are costumes, food, parties, and lots of drinking. But behind all these, Purim celebrates a defeat of a genocidal attempt by a politician who harbored xenophobia and anger.
In the 5th century B.C.E., Persia was a superpower that dominated over 127 provinces stretching from India to Greece to Northern Africa (although, by the time of Xerxes I, it was beginning to decline). Emperor Ahasuerus (historians generally identify him as Xerxes I, who reigned 486-465 B.C.E.) had appointed a man named Haman as his prime minister (or viceroy). During this time, Jews were a conquered people and many of them were taken to Persia.
This Haman apparently viewed Jews with contempt and suspicion. He was not pleased with Mordecai, a Jewish man he encountered near the palace gate, who refused to bow down to him (to the Jews of this time, bowing down implied worship, and therefore idolatry). Having been offended and his massive ego hurt, Haman as the head of government and a member of the emperor’s inner circle, plots a sinister plan to eradicate all Jews living within the borders of the Persian Empire.
When Mordecai found out about Haman’s genocidal plan, he sends a secret message to Esther, and with her courage, wisdom, and strategies, she derailed the plan, lets the emperor know what Haman was up to, and had the emperor execute Haman — and by this, saved Jewish people in Persia from the impending extermination.
Who knows whether you haven't come to the kingdom for such a time as this? — Esther 4:14.
If one man and his anger culminated in a massive genocide campaign, it also took the focused, braved actions of one Esther to stop it and save the lives of thousands ("Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." — Margaret Mead.) Of course, Persia at the time was not a democracy but an absolute monarchy; access to the emperor was extremely restricted (no one could approach the emperor, unless called to by him, under the penalty of death). Only Esther had an access to the seat of power, and even then, it was extremely risky. If she earned the emperor’s displeasure she would be executed and genocide would still go on as planned (since Ahasuerus would not become aware of Haman’s plot). The situation feels hopeless, as though she is screwed if she did, and screwed if she didn’t.
We also live in a seemingly hopeless world today.
In the United States, Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) was held this past week. The event featured speakers who called for a “total eradication of transgenderism” (sic) and a former Immigration and Customs Enforcement chief (who worked under both Barack Obama and Donald Trump) who said he “[does] not give a shit” if children of immigrants and refugees are ripped from their parents.
CPAC 2023 took place against the backdrop of an apparently coordinated multi-state political campaign to legislate trans and nonbinary people out of existence; a disturbing resurgence and mainstreaming of antisemitism in the U.S.; a rise of far-right authoritarianism across America disguised as “Christianity”; and globally, Russia and Communist China’s display of aggressive imperialistic ambitions.
Even in an allegedly democratic society such as the United States, exclusionism and exterminationism raise their ugly heads periodically. Before this iteration of transphobic moral panic (circa 2015-present), there was a wave of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim (due to ignorance of many Americans, Sikhs and Hindus were also sucked into this) political and social sentiments (post 9/11/2001-much of the Trump era). For that matter, anti-gay hate dominated U.S. politics well into the first decade of this century (and now it is seeing its revival).
Even though the social and economic uncertainty during the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 was a source of depression and anxiety, I felt that it also was an optimistic time in a weird way. The pandemic, for a brief period of time, fostered a sentiment of solidarity and mutual aid. People were being innovative in reaching out to their neighbors in need while also being cautious: restaurant owners were sending dinners to first responders and hospital workers; breweries and distilleries switched their production lines to make hand sanitizers to give away; local activists built free fridges and free pantries in neighborhoods. The Black Lives Matter demonstrations that summer, although turning violent and destructive at times, finally seemed to get elected officials to talk about racial justice and equity and even led many localities to take a hard look at police funding, how criminal legal systems operate, prison overcrowding (made critically important due to the cluster transmissions of COVID-19), and larger equity and inclusion issues. BLM and rainbow flags were seen even in a small, typically conservative rural town I used to live at the time. Many felt relief and even hope as Joe Biden and Kamala Harris campaigned that summer and fall and won—normalcy and decency are back, at last!
Yet, three years later, hate, rage, and fascism are back, and their promoters are scheming to divide and conquer the populace so they may establish their white “Christian” nation inspired by despots such as Vladimir Putin, Jair Bolsonaro, and Victor Orban. Moderate and reasoned voices are being pushed away by the loud, obnoxious demagogues helped by social media and right-wing organizing machines.
For women currently capable of pregnancy, as well as for LGBTQ+ people, the situation today feels markedly different from three years ago. The onslaught of toxic rhetoric and anti-LGBTQ+ bills in legislatures across the U.S. have a very negative impact on the mental health of nonbinary and trans people. According to a report by The Independent quoting a recent survey of Trevor Project, 86 percent of those surveyed said: “debates and laws targeting LGBT+ people have negatively impacted their mental health, weighed down by ‘anger, sadness, stress, and fear,’ with fear ‘most intensely felt’ among trans and nonbinary young people.” There are now over 300 anti-LGBTQ+ bills that have been filed, according to James Factora, writing for Them. A quick look at Twitter can tell you how this fear of an impending genocide is real to them. Many of them, and many parents of trans or nonbinary youth, are considering moving to a “safer” state (safer, provided that the 2024 congressional elections won’t result in Republican majorities), or even abroad. If you consider yourself an ally of LGBTQ+ people — or for that matter, a person of faith who values love and decency over doctrinal grandstanding and self-righteousness — please do not downplay or invalidate their fears. Listen to them.
I believe that this is another Esther generation. The world needs those with wisdom, courage, and true faith to speak the truth and fight this new wave of violent hatred against marginalized people who are inconvenient to today’s Hamans. I think we are here for such a time as this. There is nothing Christian about co-opting the machinery of state violence to exterminate people one does not like or understand (indeed, much of this “Christian nationalist” and Dominionist rhetoric originates in a faulty exegesis of the Hebrew Scriptures).
And think for a moment: What if the political tide shifts again? The dangerous precedents created by these toxic bills can and will be used against Christians to restrict their liberties (had they already forgotten 2020?) — How would you feel if politicians started calling Christians “groomers” and “indoctrinators” for merely taking their own kids to church or reading the Bible to them? Or making it a felony to expose minors to religion? It is a timely reminder for all those who profess to be Christians that Jesus taught this: “Therefore, you should treat people in the same way that you want people to treat you; this is the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 7:12, CEB).
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