Wednesday, February 15, 2012

A Discussion Starter on the Root of Conflict

This slight study on Gen. 16 is meant as a discussion starter for those seeking resolution of conflict. Reconcilation is the goal. Patience and persistence is the rule and way forward. Peace to all. JRK

A Bible Study based on Genesis 16:1-10, by (Rev) John R. Kleinheksel Sr.
Such a presumptuous title from such a slight study! And yet here are helpful insights so we can cope with conflict—whether in our biological family, with our neighbors, or among those in a cross-cultural situation (like Israel/Palestine). This short study is meant as a discussion starter!
Sarai, Abram’s wife, was childless. This was a sore spot, an underlying inadequacy in her eyes and the eyes of her society. Abram didn’t love her any less, but she felt undervalued just the same. Furthermore, her children-bearing years were coming to an end. She was starting to panic and was desperate to have a family.
Hagar was an Egyptian maidservant in the employ of Abram’s household, attending especially to Sarai. She was hired at some point during the ten years that Abram had been living in the land of Canaan.
“Sleep with my maid”, Sarai suggests to Abram. “Maybe I can get a family from her” (v. 2). (This sounds like the origin of the fall of Adam and Eve in Genesis 3, when Eve invites Adam to partake of the forbidden fruit).
Abram agrees to do it (v. 2). There is no evidence of emotional entanglement with Hagar, no evidence of any agonizing over the ethics of it. (It sounds like a bid for “Open Marriage”!) He slept with Hagar, a lower ranking member of the clan; yet never denying his love (wholehearted?) for Sarai, his wife. But oh, what a rat’s nest was stirred up!
When Hagar becomes pregnant, Sarai was sure she detected a superior attitude in the actions of her servant (v. 4). Hagar had a smirk on her face in Sarai’s presence. Hagar held her in contempt. Sarai: She treats me like dirt; I’m a nothing to her (v. 5, The Message).
So Sarai begins a carpet-bombing campaign, aimed at Hagar. “Choose between her and me”, she demands of Abram. Abram wisely refuses to choose between them, but does give Sara the freedom to deal with her maid as she chooses (v. 6). Sarai becomes so abusive that Hagar flees to the desert (vs. 6b, 7). Sarai has the power. Hagar has no power. Who oppresses whom? If Hagar wanted to push Sarai into the sea, Sarai wanted to banish Hagar to the desert. Who wins in this contest?
Here we have the root of conflict between people. There is not only class warfare; there is a power imbalance. We constantly play the “Blame Game” (like Adam and Eve), and refuse to understand the issue or resolve it. Our well being (security) as humans come from being loved (valued). This comes about from God in the primary sense, and through parents, spouses, children, neighbors, fellow citizens, and outsiders. We are extremely sensitive when “others” act in such a way that throws our “value” into question. (As Tom Friedman puts it in a New York Times editorial on Russia and the Arab Spring: (P) olitical eruptions . . . are driven . . . by the quest for dignity and justice. Humiliation is the single most underestimated force in politics (NY Times, January 31, 2012).
Sarai was certain that Hagar despised her. Hagar was NOT an equal. Hagar was inferior, lower on the scale of valued persons. When Hagar was “successful” as a woman and child-bearer, it stirred up spiteful jealousy and a desire for reprisal in Sarai, the superior person in the network.
Conflict continues to fester when two parties each feel profoundly disrespected as persons. Rebellion is engendered when, in our view, our dignity in the scheme of things is being trashed. Fortunately or unfortunately, our self-image (how we understand and accept ourselves) is influenced by how others perceive us, giving it more value than may be warranted.
Instead of being reassured by the constant affirmations of love from Abram, Sarai allows Hagar’s haughty view of her to take precedence. Feeling abused, she abuses in return. Felling like she is “nothing”, she treats Hagar as “nothing”.
This is the huge Abyss that forms between persons and peoples if allowed to fester unchecked, unchallenged, and unchanged. This is the seemingly insurmountable chasm that leads to a widening gulf refusing to be bridged (Israel/Palestine!). It also happens in families or communities or among nations.
Except that there is help. There is a way forward. It is in the word given to Hagar in v. 9. First some background. Hagar has fled. She feels she is being kicked out of her home and place in the scheme of things. She finds herself near a spring of water “on the road to Shur”—v.7) [The reader wonders if this is might be a separate account of the “well of water” that miraculously appears to Hagar in 21:17-19].
“God” asks her a question: What are you doing here? She might have replied, Because I’m not being treated with any dignity/respect by my mistress. But she replies: I’m running away from my mistress (v. 8).
God responds: Go back to your mistress. Put up with her abuse. I’m going to give you a big family, children past counting (vs. 9, 10, The Message).
The way forward is to be present in the oppressive situation, quietly outlast the abuse and experience how you are chosen, loved, and favored by God (and others). Keep hope alive that you will take your place in the family, in the neighborhood, in the family of nations. Hagar is also chosen and loved. Chosenness goes to all people, not just one person, family or nation.
Each of us has to confront abuse and overcome it, knowing we are loved and that our role will be vindicated when the time comes. (This is as much a way forward for Sarai as it is for Hagar. When the love deficit is filled there is no room for envy or jealousy).
I can whine all I want. I can launch a counter-offensive. Or I can see adversity through the eyes of faith and work toward reconciliation. I am more than my despised self. I too am a child of God.
God always comes alongside of the oppressed and outcasts, and works to bring them into the family.
Break Out Questions:
• In what way have you been (or at least felt) devalued?
• What ways have you used to cope?
• What are the ways you (and others) will now try to cope?
• How might this apply to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians?

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