“Every woman has a story and every woman’s story matters to God.”
“One nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all,” is the last sentence of the Pledge of Allegiance, the creedal expression of America’s declaration and intent to all of her citizens. This pledge was written in 1892 by a white Baptist minister, Francis Bellamy, twenty-seven years after the emancipation of African-Americans in the United States. These well recited words that have become a pronouncement for America, and to the world, sound lofty and noble indeed; however, those of us who are of a darker hue, America’s native people, and the poor and marginalized of this country have experienced a much different reality, than that of a nation who swears allegiance to “One God, indivisible.” Instead, the words of Howard Thurman, the great African-American thinker and preacher, writer, and social justice advocate are much more apropos: “Too often the price exacted by society for security and respectability in its formal expression must be on the side of the strong against the weak.” – “Jesus and the Disinherited” – Howard Thurman
Therein lies the story of America in a nutshell – the powerful and privileged against the disinherited and the marginalized. Those who lack power and privilege are literally pressed down (oppressed) by those who possess it. This was America’s reality in 1619; this was America’s reality in 1892; and this is America’s reality now.
Because, as the Bible states in Ecclesiastes 1:9, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again, there is nothing new under the sun,” we will study a woman of the Old Testament, Potiphar’s wife, who has resonance and connection with the privileged wives of America, (“The Karens”) to attest to this scripture verse that still informs our world today.
And now, THE WORD from Our Sponsor (NAB or NSRV translation)………………………………………………………………………….
Genesis, chapter 39: 7-20
We know this story and we are curiously familiar with all of its salacious details because it reads like a modern day reality show or soap opera – the scandalous nature of its sexual presentation, the failed attempt of a desperate housewife to lure a handsome and desirable man to bed her, and finally the scornful and scathing nature of her lies that place Joseph, an innocent man behind bars. If we are not careful, we will let the titillating themes blur the intent of the text – what Potiphar’s wife did to Joseph was inhumane, cruel, and sinful. Potiphar’s wife’s actions against Joseph was a spiritual affront to God because it was a deliberate act of dehumanization.
The Bible presents two calls to humanity – the chief call to worship God with all one’s heart and soul, and the second (as Jesus tells us) is like the first – to love one’s neighbor, as one’s self. When either of these commandments are violated by humanity, this is a sinful insult against God. Potiphar’s wife was more than a lustful, desperate housewife, she was a violent offender against God and her neighbor, Joseph. Her unlawful and sinful acts against Joseph, were in part due to her myopic viewpoint of humanity – Joseph was a slave, “the other,” and she viewed herself as the opposite – a privileged, pampered wife of a powerful “courtier of Pharaoh,” and she knew this well.
When Joseph, the moral resistor, dismissed her sexual advances, she yielded the power of her husband against him. Potiphar’s wife understood who she was- she in herself had little power or sovereignty; but she aligned herself with one who possessed the power and privilege of the state. The victimizer pretended to be the victim, and the result was one she planned and reveled in – Joseph’s life (albeit temporary) was collapsed and he was oppressed once more.
Potiphar’s wife’s strategy worked in part because Joseph was deemed “the other” in Egyptian society. Joseph, while given authority by his master, was still a slave, and a slave’s existence was precarious, at best. Joseph to Potiphar’s wife was “the alien, the foreigner, the slave” and Potiphar’s wife used her alignment to privilege and power to take Joseph down. She understood who her husband was, and she understood who Joseph was also. Despite Potiphar’s trust and confidence in Joseph, the mere presentation of tears and screams from a seemingly fragile and frantic female spelled disaster for a man who was innocent of any crime: “She screamed for her household servants.” “I cried as loud as I could.” “But when I screamed for help……he fled.” The toxic tears of a frantic female, whose intent was to “pay Joseph back” was enough to ruin a man’s life, without a single thought for his humanity.
As we know, God steps in for Joseph and reworks the nature of Potiphar’s wife’s destructive intent. Things work out for Joseph and Joseph becomes the second most powerful man in Egypt. But, that was Joseph, and this story is thousands of years old. Does this ancient narrative have any meaning or relevance for our contemporary times? Amazingly it does! The story of Potiphar’s wife – an ancient “Karen” is as timely and important as any one story in scripture can be, because the destructive intent and lethal nature of an ancient “Karen” is as active in our times, as Potiphar’s wife was in hers.
THE NEW POTIPHAR’S WIVES – THE “KARENS”
“Visuals of Karens exploiting their privilege when things don’t go their way have become Internet shorthand of late for a particular kind of racial violence white women have instigated for centuries – following a long and troubling legacy of white women in the country weaponizing their victimhood.” (“How the ‘Karen Meme’ Confronts the Violent History of White Womanhood – Cady Lang – Time.com)
Go on a Facebook page for any length of time and you will encounter a series of memes outing “The Karens” of America. The news is filled with white women who pull guns on brown and black people in their own driveways, accusing them of burglary or criminal acts. Amy Cooper, one of the most notorious “Karens” lost her job and her dog, when she was filmed by a black man, whose only “crime” was asking her to leash her animal. Ignoring all semblance of decency, she furiously dialed 911 and acted as if she was being molested by the black man filming her actions. What is the nature of this behavior and why should we take it seriously? Are these outrageous displays just fodder for late night comics and Facebook postings, or is there something more dangerous and concerning in these “Karens” behaviors?
For African-Americans, the “Karens” are nothing new. We know the “Karens” well and they are as deadly to the safety and security of black lives, as they were in the antebellum South. There is NOTHING funny about the “Karens” because they are an effective and useful tool in the arsenal of racism and oppression. Their very existence today signals the uprooting of vicious, violent, and deliberate actions to take innocent black and brown lives. We can attest to their malacious intentions with one name, “Emmett Till.” To joke about the nature of “Karen” presentations, is to be ignorant to the history of what Robin Diangelo calls “white fragility and culpability.”
“White men also get to authorize what constitutes pain and whose pain is legitimate. When white men come to the rescue of white women in cross-racial settings, patriarchy is reinforced as they play savior to our damsel in distress. By legitimating white women as the targets of harm, both white men and women accrue social capital.” (pg.137 – “White Fragility- Why it’s so hard for White People to talk about racism.”)
Even more descriptive and germane is an aphorism that is a potent warning in the Black community: “When a white woman cries, a black man dies.” We, in the African-American community understand who “Karen” is, her toxic tears, and the dangers she represents to our very existence.
When the veneer of indifference, superiority, and fragility of white women aligns itself with white male power, privilege, and patriarchy, the results are often lethal – somebody will lose their freedom and possibly their life, and it will be a person of color. Yet, to focus solely on the behaviors and actions of “Karens” is a mistake and a serious misstep. Their behavior is only a symptom to a much deeper problem – the origin of “Karens” behavior is spiritual. Like Potiphar’s wife, who attempted to destroy Joseph, the offense to dehumanize a child of God, to dismiss the “imago dei (created in the image of God) of another, and to attempt to take another’s personhood, is not a benign act; but an intentional evil – to view another person as inferior and disposable is inhumane.
So, what is the solution to this spiritual manifestation of racism and dehumanization? Lord knows we have a million questions and very few solutions. Perhaps, the first step is to understand, for communities of color, that God is on the side of the oppressed. Scripture attests to this undeniable fact over and over again. This, however, may give us little to no relief from the current, violent presentations of racism and hate we must live with in these unprecedented times. Perhaps, we look back to see the strategies of our elders and ancestors who overcame odds that we cannot even imagine. Perhaps, we understand that it will take the beloved community to overcome this present day evil as we work for justice and reconciliation. Perhaps we, like Joseph, understand that God is on our side and there is nothing too impossible for God. Perhaps, we keep on pushing forward, keep on fighting onward, keep on believing, praying, fasting, and trusting in the God of the Oppressed, knowing that:
“Indeed our survival and liberation depend on our recognition of the truth when it is spoken and lived by the people. If we cannot recognize the truth, then it cannot liberate us from untruth. To know the truth is to appropriate it, for it is not mainly reflection and theory. Truth is divine action entering our lives and creating the human action of liberation.” (James H. Cone – God of the Oppressed).
Questions for our discussion and consideration:
Consider this quote by Ijeoma Oluo: “White People: I don’t want you to understand me better; I want you to understand yourselves. Your survival has never depended on your knowledge of white culture. In fact, it’s required your ignorance.” Based upon this awesome observation, do you, as a person of color, have any solutions to this observation?
What are some of your own personal strategies for “the Karens” behaviors and actions? Have they been effective?
What do you think is behind the “Karens” behaviors? What is the underlying cause (besides racism) for these actions? As a community, what can we do about it, or should we do anything?
OUR SENDING PRAYER
Our little lives, our big problems – these we place upon Your altar!
The quietness of Your temple of silence again and again rebuffs us:
For some there is no discipline to hold them steady in the waiting,
And the minds reject the noiseless invasion of Your spirit.
We do not know how to do what we know to do
We do not know how to be what we know to be.
Our little lives, our big problems – these we place upon Your altar!
That we may find strength for these days – courage and hope for tomorrow.
We rest in Your sustaining grace, which makes possible triumph in defeat,
gain in loss, and love in hate. Amen!
(Excerpted from “Our Little Lives” by Howard Thurman)
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