This article is a part of the blog series “Becoming New,” in light of CBE’s 2015 Conference, “Becoming New: Man and Woman Together In Christ.” Articles will either introduce conference topics or feature stories of hope, faith, and personal transformation. We invite you to join us this month as we seek to become new together as a community.
I am so excited to participate in CBE’s conference, “Becoming New: Man and Woman Together in Christ” on July 24-26, 2015 in Los Angeles. My first encounter with CBE dates back to the mid-1980s when Catherine Kroeger visited Fuller Theological Seminary frequently, igniting women seminarians, me among them, to dream about gender equality in the church.
My conference workshop is based on my chapter, “Subversive Banquets of Vashti and Esther” in the book, Mirrored Reflections: Reframing Biblical Characters, which recounts the AAWOL (Asian American Women On Leadership) leadership journey in light of biblical characters. As the founder of AAWOL, I was a part of the core leadership team that produced the book.
The workshop will examine power brokering, one of the silent, but salient issues in both seminaries and churches. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a power broker refers to “a person who has a lot of influence and control in a particular activity.” Both men and women can act as power brokers and the effect can be either positive or negative depending on how power is used. Churches and seminaries are often loaded with patriarchal, unhealthy power structures that place men on top and women on bottom, meaning that those acting as power brokers (men) are wielding their power negatively. Often, these all-boy networks use their power to exclude women from the decision-making table altogether, creating what is called the “bamboo ceiling” for Asian Americans. Biblical women also faced the challenge of navigating unhealthy power structures. The workshop will explore the stories of three power brokers in the book of Esther, who leveraged their influence effectively in a patriarchal context.
In the book of Esther, two extraordinary women leaders, Queen Vashti and her successor, Esther, confronted the patriarchal palace system, eventually acting as power brokers on behalf of themselves and others. Both women broke through a patriarchal power system in creative ways, relinquishing their lives and expectations to rebel against a male-centric culture. Each woman carried an “if I perish, I perish” attitude and both used a banquet to reverse their fortunes.
Queen Vashti boldly refused to be objectified when King Xerxes demanded that she display her beauty in front of all the nobles during the peak of their drink consumption. Vashti not only said "no" to the King’s order, but she also organized the first ever feminist women’s banquet in the palace, entirely separate from the King’s. Vashti’s disobedience to the King’s demand and her initiative in organizing an alternative women’s banquet triggered an unintended consequence—a threat to patriarchy. King Xerxes and his officials called emergency meetings with all of the experts in town—lawyers, astrologists, translators, etc. They perceived that the queen’s action could have a ripple effect, posing a serious threat to the system of patriarchy in the kingdom. Temporarily, that system was on the defense—all due to Vashti’s courage.
Though the stories of Vashti and Esther are similar, they differ in the way the women confronted the power system as well as the nature of their missions. As a trailblazing power broker, Vashti bucked the system for herself and other palace women who “belonged” to the King. In Queen Esther, who succeeded the deposed Queen Vashti, I see a gentle savviness that worked within a system to execute a mission that spared her people from a genocide scheme. Her power brokering on behalf of her people, and not herself is rare in today’s culture. Esther’s story differs from Vashti’s, in that she chose to operate within the existent system to advocate for her people when they were endangered by Haman’s plot.
In her early days as queen, Esther needed a power broker, her cousin Mordecai, to help her grasp her purpose and mission as a leader. Initially, Mordecai acted as that power broker, guiding her step-by-step until she owned her mission as queen and power broker for her people. Mordecai’s actions illustrate a powerful practice that still has relevance today—men can respectfully act as allies, allowing for women to ultimately embrace their own purpose as power brokers for themselves and others.
These woman leaders have much to teach us today. By honoring both Queen Vashti and Esther, women leaders can learn to dismantle our own internalized sexism, seeing one another in solidarity, and not in competition. Further, we can acknowledge that a role reversal—men on top replaced by women on top, will not necessarily accompany true transformation of gender hierarchy. Only a change in the power structures of patriarchy will allow for real and lasting cultural change.
In my workshop on “Power Brokers,” four key characters will be addressed: Queen Vashti, King Xerxes, Queen Esther, and Mordecai. The following questions will be discussed:
- With which of the two women leaders, Vashti or Esther, do you identify with more and why?
- When have you risked saying "no" to authority and what were the consequences of that decision? How did you handle the consequences?
- Have you had a power broker like Mordecai in your leadership journey? How has that person helped to shape the person you have become and spared you from negative consequences?
Additional themes to be discussed are:
- Women’s internalized sexism—as is the case with racism, women often see other women leaders competitively, either intentionally or unconsciously, focusing on self-interest rather than collective, collaborative interests.
- Power dynamics.
- Various ways of handling systems of power in both academia and church.
After choosing to exit an endowed chair position in a theological “palace” in 2002, I now see myself as a theological/missional broker at ISAAC/AAWOL, and thus resonate deeply with both Vashti and Esther. Like Vashti, I bucked the system when it sapped my life-giving energy. I find her choice to be in solidarity with the palace women, “objects” of the King, invigorating and deeply challenging. In choosing to uphold the dignity of the oppressed and in standing with them at the margins, both Vashti and Esther endangered their lives. Here, I find Jesus’ paradoxical truth, “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:35). Daring to say "no" to abusive power, and to organize people on the margins is a real threat to the status quo. These brave women serve as a reminder that there are times in life when one is called to make courageous and risky decisions simply to remain soulful.
I look forward to becoming new together in full collaboration in the future—both men and women faith leaders working for God’s beloved world still plagued by the iniquities of exclusionary systems of power.