There’s nothing men want to forget more than a strong woman who said “no.” So few will remember the name Vashti. But when her husband asked her to parade in all of her glory in front of a party full of his drunken friends, she refused. Vashti — that’s Queen Vashti at the very beginning of the Book of Esther in the Hebrew Bible. Before the drama that is the basis for the Jewish Festival of Purim even gets started Vashti has been so swiftly removed by the king, by the story, by the story teller, by tradition, by interpretation, by Jews and by Christians, so swiftly removed forever; perhaps so that no one would ever remember the Queen who refused to come when the King beckoned.
Some suggest the story is to be read as comedy with carnival like, burlesque quality to the ancient genre. So one should read the Book of Esther with a bit of light-heartedness, like reading a child-like fairy tale, understanding that all the roles are exaggerated, stereotyped characters intended to convey a folk message handed on from generation to generation.
But in this generation, in the here and now, when a long article in the Sunday New York Times appears with troubling details about the “hook up culture” on the University of Pennsylvania’s campus, and when several male college athletes at one college have been charged with sexual assault on an intoxicated, unconscious woman who are unable to say yes or say no, and when multiple women have now come out to speak against the mayor of San Diego citing multiple instances of his disgusting behavior, and when two candidates for two elected offices in New York City are hoping that voters will forget their lewd behavior, their mistreatment of women, and how they have publically demeaned their wives, how can anyone think Vashti’s story is funny?
It isn’t funny because the underside of the drunken, power-driven-its-all-about-me-I-deserve-it-all part of our humanity never seems to get any better. Vashti’s refusal is set in clear contrast to the worldly debauchery of the king. Vashti’s act of preserving her dignity while knowingly insuring her banishment stands opposite the king’s grotesque display intended to solidify his royal standing among men. The bible is frustratingly silent on why Vashti said “no,” but her “no” is a breath of fresh air in a room filled with the stench that comes when nothing matters but pleasing one’s self. With her refusal to be paraded around in front of a group of drunken men and treated like a something less than a piece of property, Vashti found herself staring down the very deepest hole of what the bearer’s of the Reformed theological tradition called “total depravity”. She stared it down and walked away. Amid a one hundred and eighty-seven day bash when humanity’s gluttonous sinfulness was on full display for all to see, Vashti said “no.” Though God’s name is nowhere to found in the Book of Esther, her act proclaimed a word of justice and dignity and respect and strength that ought to echo through the memory of every generation!
So in a summer when our public officials again elevated lewd behavior to the public square, remember Vashti. Don’t just remember her, join me in paying tribute.
Here’s to Vashti: on behalf of the children, that they say “no” to an adult who ever wants to harm them in some way, on behalf of young people, that they may learn to say “no” when confronted with what the world wants us to think about the body, and about beauty, and about sexuality, on behalf of my daughter and yours, that she may one day have the strength to say “no” to that persistent voice that comes from nothing but a fleeting relationship and voice that keeps saying “she’s the one.”
Here’s to Vashti: for my son and for yours, that they may rise to speak for kindness and mercy in the classroom and on the street corner, on the field and in the office, calling out a bully every time and treating every woman as a child of God, and taking the time to care for any who are labeled “other”, for all those headed to campus life for the first time, that they may go forth to change the world not just with their vision and their youthful enthusiasm, but with their willingness to say “no” to the power of evil knowing that important choices will have to be made that first Friday night, for the parents who grow weary of daring to say “no” when the culture only offers a never ending “yes” to our kids.
Here’s to Vashti: for those unnamed women who reach deep to know they don’t deserve to be hit, for the person after person who discovers if they don’t say “no” to this substance, or that drink, or this bet or that destructive relationship or that next credit card maxed, that if they don’t say “no” now their life will be lost, forr the many who will yet again find the courage to speak up when an employer cares little about destroying home life and a relationship with kids, for the administrative aid who will no longer fake the report or cover the boss’s indiscretion, for the executive who knows all too well that the whistle blower’s career will be finished, for the next generation just about to land in the work place whose potential to make a difference ought to be more important than their potential earnings, that they would find the strength deep down to say “no” to the assumptions about money and success on the street, that it really isn’t about how much you can make, and much you have, and how much you can gather.
Here’s to Vashti who taught us that when we find ourselves standing face to face with the utter sinfulness of our humanity, that there is a more excellent way