Purim and the Responsibilities of Privilege

When Queen Esther contemplated whether to approach the King of Persia, uninvited, to ask that the Jews be spared, the stakes were high. Stay silent, and her people would be slaughtered. Speak up, and risk death herself at the hands of a capricious ruler.

Ultimately, her uncle, Mordechai, persuaded her with the following argument: “Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will escape with your life by being in the king’s palace. On the contrary, if you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter, while you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis!” (Esther 4:13)

Those who occupy positions of privilege often feel insulated from the challenges confronting others. When it’s not impacting me directly, it doesn’t feel like my problem. So why would I risk what I have to speak out on others’ behalf?

Mordechai, however, reminds Esther that her welfare is ultimately intertwined with her people’s welfare, just as our wellbeing is bound up in the wellbeing of everyone else. We cannot be truly safe, truly free, truly prosperous, until everyone is safe, free, and prosperous. As Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” (“Letter from a Birmingham Jail”).

We usually think that privilege is about comfort, achieving a position free of concern. On the contrary, Mordechai reminds Esther that privilege is about responsibility.

If you are reading this column, chances are good that you are among the ranks of the most fortunate people to ever live. Mordechai‘ s challenge to Esther is, therefore, our challenge as well. When there are those in our world, in our country, whose lives are at risk, do we stand by, fearful that speaking up will cost us our position? Or do we remember that our fate is bound up in their fate, too, and perhaps we have attained our privilege for just such a crisis?

This was the question of Esther’s time. This is the question of our time. As we celebrate Purim, let us honor Mordechai’s challenge, and recall Esther’s heroic response.

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