Fellow Passengers: This week’s Promise Passage* (Genesis 16) transports me to Queen’s Theatre in London’s West End, circa 1993, when I saw my first production of what would instantly become my favorite play, Les Misérables. Kim had been in London for a semester of study, and had seen around 25 plays. When I went for a week’s visit she wanted me to see her favorites, and Les Mis was at the top of the list. The story of Valjean, Javert, Fantine, Cossette, Marius, the Thernardiers and the cast of revolutionaries and misfits is so compelling and timeless; every generation has to confront its own barricades to freedom and work through its conflicts between law and grace, from Victor Hugo’s 19th century France to today’s revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. I was completely taken in, right from the beginning notes of the overture as the deep bass voices of the chain gang rang out in time to the picks striking against the rocks – look down, look down, don’t look ‘em in the eye. Look down, look down, you’re here until you die. . . I’ve done no wrong, sweet Jesus hear my prayer. Look down, look down, sweet Jesus doesn’t care. . . Look down, look down, you’ll always be a slave, look down, look down, you’re standing in your grave.
While the Genesis scene in today’s passage is not a forced labor camp, it does include a Fantine-like Egyptian sex slave named Hagar as its central character. When Hagar found herself pregnant with 86-year-old Master Abram’s child, we read in the Message translation that she looked down on Sarah, her mistress. In other translations, Sarah was despised in her sight. This look of contempt had horrible consequences for Hagar. Father Abraham abandoned any responsibility and told Sarah, do whatever seems right in your eyes. Hagar then had to flee the harsh treatment of Sarah and escape into the desert wilderness, where she must have felt she was standing in her grave. There, the story surprises us, for God looked down on this helpless and hopeless slave, providing the pagan woman a promise reminiscent of Abram’s covenant promise: You will be the mother of countless descendents. And Hagar, in her encounter with God, has the distinction of becoming the only person in the Bible to actually name the divine, calling God Elroi – the God Who Sees.
We hardly ever look at Hagar’s tragic story in our faith communities, and we seldom open our eyes to see her children— those countless descendants born into roles of child labor and trafficked into sex slavery, who rarely have any good reason to look up. Check out the International Justice Ministry to learn more about the desperate plight of contemporary Hagars – girls from around the world as young as five who are captured and consigned to a life of misery, many of them in cities like Atlanta and Oakland. I think back to Victor Hugo’s story and wonder what happens to all these “miserables.” Les Mis challenges us to have a hand in shaping their future. The final scene shows the tragic figures of Fantine and Eponine coming back from the grave and singing with the dying Valjean: Remember the truth that once was spoken: To love another person is to see the face of God. I believe that is especially true when we open the eyes of our heart and love the hopeless Hagars of our world, those deprived of dignity, those who labor and toil under the cruelest conditions, whose bodies become commodities, who become like Isaiah’s suffering servant – like one from whom people hide their faces. Those of us in the chosen world of privilege and blessing have choices – we can abandon responsibility like Abraham, or we can hunt them and haunt them like Javert for the sake of law and order, or we can rescue the perishing and provide sanctuary for them like Valjean. Whatever we do, may the God Who Sees continue to look down on them, and may sweet Jesus hear their prayer.
*Daily Passages are the weekday reflections of Stan Dotson, connecting culture to biblical texts. As always, your feedback and comments are welcome. Feel free to share where the passages take you in your journey of faith.