Sunday, September 7, 2008

God’s Playbook for Palin: The Book of Esther

One of Sarah Palin’s first acts as governor was to seek advice from the spiritual guide of her youth, Pastor Paul E. Riley, on how to model her new leadership role on the Bible. As The New York Times reported on September 5, “She asked for a biblical example of people who were great leaders and what was the secret of their leadership,” Mr. Riley said. He suggested Esther: “‘when Esther is called to serve, God grants her a strength she never knew she had.’ Mr. Riley said he thought Ms. Palin had lived out the advice as governor, and would now do so again as the Republican Party’s vice-presidential nominee.”

In that case, we all owe it to ourselves to consult the Word of God without further delay on what He has in store for us through His self-designated servant, Sarah Palin.

The Book of Esther tells the story of the first beauty queen, who is coached to cover up her background, cover her face with cosmetics, and learn how to appeal to powerful men, all as part of a deliberate political plot to replace an uppity, threateningly powerful woman who has just been convicted of a Perceived Whine. Once Esther has thus come from nowhere to gain sudden influence over the male ruler of the world’s greatest empire literally by winning a beauty contest, her elder male adviser continues to coach her on how to use that influence over her new sugar daddy to massacre the perceived enemies of Israel throughout all the nations lying between India and Ethiopia.

Anyone who hasn’t actually read the Book of Esther recently might think I’ve got to be making this stuff up. If you don’t believe me, read it and weep—or have a festival, depending on your feelings about massacres—which is what the book concludes by ordering “the Jews…their descendants, and all who should join them, to do” (Esther 9:27, New English Bible). The decreed celebration is of course the festival of Purim, ordained in remembrance of the Jews’ having escaped a planned Persian Holocaust by getting a royal permit for a pre-emptive strike “to destroy, slay, and exterminate the whole strength of any people or province which might attack them, women and children too,” (8:11), and then actually “killing seventy-five thousand of those who hated them” (9:16).

Purim is indeed still kept in remembrance of this escape from persecution, but probably not sufficiently anymore in remembrance of the massacre that was perpetrated. The Book of Esther is all about the importance of writing things down so that they can be remembered accurately. We are told repeatedly exactly how and by whom everything that is done or said in the story was written down and transmitted. The order for the perennial festival is written down and sent through all the provinces in a letter by Mordecai, Esther’s cousin/adoptive father/beauty pageant coach/political advisor/spiritual guide. The Great King of Persia, having been told directly by his wife Esther that Mordecai is responsible for saving his life from a palace coup, and having even personally witnessed the recording of this loyal act in the royal chronicle (2:22-23), can only remember that Mordecai served him so faithfully when this chronicle is later read to him during a sleepless night (6:1). Even as this book ordains the remembrance of deliverance through a festival, then, it also emphasizes the likelihood of forgetting some of the most important facts of history unless one returns to its written record. In fact, one web site calling itself “Judaism 101” states that “the primary commandment related to Purim is to hear the reading of the book of Esther,” yet in summarizing the story it completely whites out any reference to the killing of anyone except the single individual responsible for the foiled plot to exterminate the Jews. []

So, lest we should all fail to learn from the history offered by the Book of Esther by repeating it instead of reading it, and lest we should fail to understand what Sarah Palin and her father figures/beauty pageant coaches/political advisers/spiritual guides are about by failing to study their playbook, let’s look a little more closely at a few of the key elements she has already repeated—and then at those she apparently hopes to repeat.

Noticing the extent to which Sarah Palin has already deliberately modeled herself on Esther can help us understand the apparently paradoxical or cynical choice of a woman for a position of such prominence by precisely those who seemed, during Hillary Clinton’s campaign, to dread more than anything the idea of a woman in the White House. Many have wondered whether Republican strategists might be thinking that all those disaffected Hillary voters will be attracted to another female politician who affects to relate to workers—but how could even they believe that many Hillary supporters could be wooed by Palin's anti-choice, anti-environmental, anti-social welfare discourse? No, they’re not appealing to disaffected Clinton voters—they’re offering an alternate model of the proper relationship of femininity to political power.

Palin is to Clinton as Esther is to Vashti, the dangerously powerful woman Esther rises from obscurity to replace. Esther’s story begins when Vashti, married to the most powerful man in the capital, has become too big for her britches—or rather seems to want to wear his. Vashti refuses to respond to a summons issued by her husband at the end of a week-long bender to come and display her beautiful body to his drinking buddies (1:10-12). Her defiance leads these guys to fear the effects of such a disobedient example among their oppressed womenfolk throughout the empire: “Every woman will come to know what the queen has done, and this will make them treat their husbands with contempt” (1:17)….and there will be endless disrespect and insolence!” (1:18). So they decide to hold a beauty pageant to replace Vashti, “in order that each man might be master in his own house” (1:22).

Esther, a poor orphaned nobody, wins this beauty contest not just because of her youth and good looks, but specifically, the book emphasizes, because of her pliancy—her ability to be a quick study, in the hands of powerful males, on how to win over even more powerful males. First she has to win the “special favor” of the chief eunuch in charge of the king’s harem, who “readily provide[s] her with her cosmetics” and personally coaches her on how to please the king when her turn comes. And in her dealings with both king and eunuch, she carefully follows Mordecai’s advice not to reveal much about her background, lest it be seen as a disqualification (2:9-15).

Once Esther has successfully replaced Vashti in her close connection to the most powerful man in the land, the nature of the opposition between the two women is made clear in a telling symmetry: where Vashti refused to appear before the king when summoned, Esther hesitates to appear before him without having been summoned. She is prevailed on to act as an advocate for her persecuted people, but she doesn’t know how to do so when her husband hasn’t called for her in a month (we begin to understand why, unlike Palin, she is childless), and approaching the Great King without summons is punishable by death. Her exquisitely feminine management of her delicate situation in the balance of power—coached all along by her male mentor, of course—is the pinnacle of her achievement. In the more detailed Greek version (“The Rest of the Chapters of the Book of Esther Which Are Found Neither in the Hebrew Nor in the Syriac”) the becomingly feminine modesty with which she manages this boldfaced violation of the king’s law is rendered vividly enough to make it plausible that the same king who struck down his last beautiful wife for one refusal to obey a frivolous drunken command now grants Esther her every wish in response to her deliberate defiance of his written law.

The wish thus granted—again, a wish for which Esther literally takes dictation from her male mentor—is the aforementioned triumph celebrated at Purim. As the Priest of the Israelites sings in Händel’s oratorio, Esther (1718):

Methinks I hear the fathers’ groans;
Our babes are dashed against the stones.
I hear the infant’s shriller screams,
Stabbed at the mother’s breast.
Blood stains the murderer’s vest,
And through the city flows in streams.

These verses (possibly written by Alexander Pope) are meant to describe the fears of the Israelites when they hear the edict against them—the escape from which is remembered at Purim—for in the story the horrors they describe do not actually happen to the Israelites, but rather to 75,000 of the people they feared might potentially have done it to them, including their “women and children too.” Another thing we can learn from reading the Book of Esther is that the memory and the fear of victimization have always led too easily to the creation of yet more innocent victims through vengeance. Even when there has been real and dire victimization feeding such fears, from the Babylonian Captivity to the Holocaust to 9/11, surely after all these millennia the human race could learn a better way than just the endless perpetuation of fear and violence.

In our own time and in our own great empire, our own leaders have issued an edict that has again made those bloody-minded, fearful verses a reality, right now, in more than one of the nations lying between India and Ethiopia. As in the Book of Esther, Palin and her male handlers believe, or in any case want us to believe, that such brutality is a fulfillment of God’s will. No—actually I just misspoke, or miswrote—betraying even my own susceptibility to the discourse of Christians who, like Palin and her advisers, claim to "believe in a literal translation of the Bible" (NYT 9/5/2008). Emphasis on "translation"—it would be more accurate to say that they want everyone to believe that their translation or interpretation of the Bible is "literal." In this case, Palin and her handlers, but NOT the Book of Esther—at least when interpreted literally—want us to believe that such brutality is a fulfillment of God's will. "Judaism 101" mentions that "the book of Esther is unusual in that it is the only book of the Bible that does not contain the name of G-d." Literally, then, nothing that happens in it is attributed to His plan. "Purim" means "lots," as in "drawing lots," which was how the date of the massacre was determined; but that time the Jewish people had luck on their side.

Looking more literally at what Sarah Palin herself has said about slaughter and God's plan, it also becomes less clear how firmly even she believes in any connection between the two. Referring to the imminent deployment of her eldest son among the troops being sent to Iraq, she declared in her address to the Wasilla Assembly of God Church: “Our national leaders are sending them out on a task that is from God.” This fragment has been often quoted already, but in fact she didn’t stop there. The sentence continues: “that’s what we have to make sure that we’re praying for, that there is a plan, and that that plan is God’s plan.” Palin the loyal partisan started off her remark by calling the Bush administration’s mission in Iraq “a task that is from God,” but I wonder if the Governor even realized that the mother in her seemed to have hijacked that statement before it reached its conclusion. It’s hard to parse Palin’s speech grammatically, but what she actually said in that sentence, whether she meant to or not, is that it’s not obvious that there is any plan at all behind our invasion of Iraq, so we can only pray that there is actually a plan, and we must pray also “that that plan is God’s plan.” Hmmm. Is Palin implying that there might be some inscrutable superhuman plan behind this apparently senseless bloodbath, but that even so the possibility remains that it’s one that isn’t God’s plan? Could she be referring obliquely to That Other Man with a Plan—you know, the one who’s supposed to be always plotting to ruin God’s plans? Me—whenever methinks I see blood flowing through any city in streams, and hear fathers’ groans and infants’ screams—I tend to worry that if such mayhem could reveal any plan at all, it couldn’t be God’s, anyway.

Whoever’s plan it may be—if there is a plan—surely we’ve already been following it too docilely for plenty long enough by now.