It means seriously considering the possibility that those who are not heard as often may have something valuable to contribute to our understanding, and therefore taking the time to find out.Jon Stovell, Jul 23, 2018, 10:19 AM
Thanks for weighing in, Jon, and explaining the core ideas in my post so well. Indeed, I am encouraging us to be a bit more attentive in listening to the voices and experiences of those who have been dismissed, whether intentionally or unintentionally, over the course of history. We are all better for hearing what those on the margins have to say.
Darryl, when you describe Hagar as the most privileged among the slaves and "the 2nd most powerful woman in the camp," you seem to be redefining the very nature of slavery. Slaves have no real privilege and power because they are property. They can be used, bought, and sold at the discretion of the owner. This demeaning, dehumanizing status is the very antithesis of privilege or power.
Jesus did not downplay the oppressive existence of his followers, but showed them that the kingdom of God was in the middle of their suffering.
You are right that the meaning of "margins" and "marginal" is contextually defined, such that the question of who is on the margins of a group depends on how that group is defined. I'm not sure why that should count against it as a useful term, though.
It seems to me that the fundamental point of concern you have here is a worry that "listening to voices on the margins" means silencing the voices of those who have heretofore been dominant in a group, such that "if a woman with brown skin says something, we are obliged to believe her; if a man with pink skin says something, we are obliged to dismiss him." If that were what Matte was advocating, I can see how that would feel threatening—it'd mean silencing and dismissing me, among other things.
But that isn't what Matte is advocating. Not at all. This isn't an either/or scenario. This is a both/and scenario. Listening to voices on the margins means listening to them as well as to the voices in the centre. It means seriously considering the possibility that those who are not heard as often may have something valuable to contribute to our understanding, and therefore taking the time to find out.
Moreover, "listening to" does not mean "uncritically accepting all the ideas of" here. Listening to the voices on the margins does not mean one is obliged to agree with what those voices say, just as listening to the voices in the centre does not mean one is obliged to agree with what they say, either. Once we have listened to what is said, whether from the centre or the margins, we need to weigh what has been said based on its merits.
In short, the point here is that we should not rule out certain sources and perspectives a priori in our search for truth, but rather than we should broaden the range of potential inputs we consider in the process of trying to discern the truth. That, at least, is how I see it, and I think Matte would agree.
Hey Jon, I'm grateful for Matte's post, if only because it has led me to think about how ill-defined (and therefore useless) the words 'margins' and 'marginalized' are. I'm ashamed of myself now for ever having used them. The Biblical word, 'oppressed' is far more useful-even if it does limit the victim group in ways that exclude a lot of westerners. (Everybody wants to be a victim, right?)
The story of Hagar is a perfect illustration: yes, she's an 'outsider' if we set the limits of the group at Abraham's little community. But is she an 'outsider' among the other slave women? I have to think she would actually be the most privileged person in that group. How about if we just consider the female members of Abraham's community? Surely she is actually the 2nd most powerful woman in the camp. Sarah sees her as a threat, and therefore arranges her expulsion.
The reason I'm reacting so strongly to this post is that I understand this kind of post-modern thinking as the easiest way to legitimize ideas that have no merit. For instance, John Stott dealt authoritatively with the gay marriage debate 30 years ago. But he was a white man with an English accent. If you can label him 'privileged' and his opponents as 'marginalized,' you can bring the debate back onto the table. You might want to take a look at Jordan Peterson's critique of post-modernism.
I've read this blog 4 times in the last two days, and I'm finding myself growing more and more concerned. The word 'truth' is thrown in the trash heap here, and I think that's a word we really need. Once we've lost that word, we will have no alternative but to yell at each other. And the alternative offered here is truly frightening: if a woman with brown skin says something, we are obliged to believe her; if a man with pink skin says something, we are obliged to dismiss him. I'm a man with pink skin, but I also happen to be so deformed that many people dismiss me at first glance. I am a minority of one, and I live on the margins of society and of the church. So does my voice matter?Darryl Penner, Jul 06, 2018, 1:55 PM
I read Matte's post here rather differently, Darryl. I don't think she is throwing truth onto the trash heap at all. I believe that she is instead highlighting for us how we all only ever see part of the truth and that we need to hear other voices in order to discover and understand more of God's truth.
Think of it like this: In the Vineyard, we usually like to pray in small groups for people during our ministry times at the end of our services. Oftentimes, the Spirit will reveal different messages, images, promptings, etc., to the members of the group in order to guide the prayer time and reveal his word to the person being prayed for. In those situations, no single individual holds all of what the Spirit is saying. Rather, it is the collective message that reveals the Spirit's total word for that time. Each part is necessary, and usually the different parts play off of one another so that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
The same dynamic applies not only to group prayer, but to all sorts of ways that the Spirit of God interacts with us to reveal his truthful word to us. We need to hear all the voices of God's people if we want to hear the fulness of God's word to us. No one of us, and no one group of us, hears it all on our own.
Moreover, we all often hear wrongly and need to be corrected. Sometimes this is simply a matter of our limited perspectives (and everyone's perspective is limited) blocking us from understanding something well. Other times it can be a matter of sin leading us to consciously or not-so-consciously choose a certain interpretation because we want it to be true. In both cases, we need to hear the word of the Spirit, usually given through the word of another person with a different perspective, if our misunderstanding is to be corrected.
Often the insights of people who are dominant and powerful in society are the only ones that are heard regularly, with the result that the insights of those on the margins are often not heard, or heard only faintly and occasionally. This results in an impoverishment of our understanding of God and his truth compared to what we might gain if we listened more carefully to the voices on the margins.
Matte's post reads to me, therefore, as an important reminder from the Holy Spirit that we need to listen to the voices from the margins in addition to the voices of the dominant, even if it takes extra effort to hear those marginal voices because they don't naturally "hold the microphone" in the day to day. I get the impression that you thought she was saying that we should listen to the voices of the marginalized instead of the voices of the culturally dominant. I encourage you to re-read the post in the light that I am suggesting and see if that is helpful to you.
I've read this blog 4 times in the last two days, and I'm finding myself growing more and more concerned. The word 'truth' is thrown in the trash heap here, and I think that's a word we really need. Once we've lost that word, we will have no alternative but to yell at each other. And the alternative offered here is truly frightening: if a woman with brown skin says something, we are obliged to believe her; if a man with pink skin says something, we are obliged to dismiss him. I'm a man with pink skin, but I also happen to be so deformed that many people dismiss me at first glance. I am a minority of one, and I live on the margins of society and of the church. So does my voice matter?
Abraham was not the 'paradigmatic insider.' He was an economic migrant with no inherent civil rights. The nation of Israel itself was only transiently powerful. For most of its history, it was marginally viable. I don't understand the thinking that transforms these people into 'insiders,' and the 'powerful.' All God's people are outsiders; the only way to become an insider is to compromise truth.
Our contexts have major implications for how we live our lives and engage with our world, that much is obvious. However, we sometimes overlook how much they inform our concepts of God. For those of us occupying the central or dominant demographic in society, we often associate God with power and truth. As a result, our theology is characterized by confidence, certainty, and an expectation that others should be accommodating. For those of us living on the margins of society, our sense of belonging stranded in ambiguity, God is seen as an advocate for the powerless. Our theology leans more toward inclusivity, and we talk less about divine holiness and righteousness and more about a God who suffers. On the margins, the priority is merciful and just action, not correct beliefs.
There are significant theological incongruences between Christians who occupy the mainstream segment of society and those who exist on the margins. The world of theology has been dominated by Western male thought for centuries, and this has had a major impact on our concepts of God, our interpretation of scripture, and our engagement with the outsider. There is no doubt that the church has been enriched by these men and their work, but the theological monopoly has also inflicted deep wounds. Not only has it silenced a large portion of the church, it has also limited our view of the gospel and blinded us to certain aspects of the nature of God. It is easy to listen to the familiar voices, the nearby voices, the loud voices, the voices which speak our language, and the voices which echo our thinking, but the voices calling from the wilderness (like John the Baptist) are the ones which invite us to repent, to change our way of thinking, to see the kingdom of God in unexpected places.
One of those voice from the wilderness is found in Genesis 16. Hagar is described by the Hebrew word, shifhah. The King James Version translates this as "handmaid" and the New American Standard Bible reads "maid." Hebrew scholar, Robert Alter, notes that these translations "[impose] a misleading sense of European gentility on the sociology of the story. The point is that Hagar belongs to Sarai as property, and the ensuing complications of their relationship build on that fundamental fact."  Hagar's story is the inspiration for Margaret Atwood's disturbing dystopic novel, The Handmaid's Tale, in which fertile women without social standing become sex slaves, given to powerful men in order to produce children for the ruling class. No, Hagar is not a maid; she is a slave, a woman forcibly displaced from her native Egypt, a woman whose value is tied to her work and her womb. Theology has much to say about the God of Abraham, the God who blesses and multiplies and keeps his promises, but I want us to consider: who is the God of Hagar?
Most of us know the story: YHWH promises Abram that he will be the father of a great nation, but his wife, Sarai, is barren. Enter Hagar, the Egyptian slave girl. Sarai gives Hagar to Abram as a "wife" and Hagar conceives. The slave who had little worth suddenly sees her value increase, and she relishes the lift in status, looking down on the barren Sarai. Sarai is offended by the slave girl's uppity attitude and, with Abram's blessing, treats her badly. The abuse causes Hagar to flee into the wilderness, perhaps on her way back to her native Egypt. By a spring of water, she is intercepted by a messenger from God who tells her to return to her mistress and suffer the abuse. Hagar is reassured that YHWH has heeded her suffering and that she will bear a son, calling him Ishmael, which means "God has heard." Hagar addresses YHWH as El-Roi, "God Who Sees."
Fourteen years later, Sarah finally conceives and Isaac is born. When the younger child is weaned, the rivalry between the two women comes to a head. Sarah observes Hagar's son, Ishmael, laughing or quite literally "Isaac-ing" it (Isaac means laughter). Sarah is outraged that Ishmael might consider himself an equal to Isaac. When Sarah insists that Abraham get rid of the slave girl and her son, he expresses concern for Ishmael, but none for Hagar. Abraham gives them provisions and once again Hagar finds herself in the wilderness. When they run out of water, they resign themselves to death, but God hears the cry of the lad and directs Hagar to a well. Once again, YHWH promises that a great nation will come from her son. 
Traditionally, this story has been swallowed up into the larger narrative of Abraham, seen as an unfortunate misstep for the great father of faith. Far from being an addendum to Abraham's story, Hagar's tale is noteworthy in its own right. Though she is what Daniel Hawk calls "the quintessential outsider," marginalized in matters of gender, social class, and ethnicity, she is the only person, aside from the patriarchs, who is given the promise of a great nation of descendants.  Hagar, whose mistress never names her (referring to her only as "slave girl") is the only person in Genesis who names the Lord. She is also the only woman in Genesis who carries on a conversation with YHWH. Hagar's story bears some resemblance to Abraham's narrative in structure and themes. Hawk goes so far as to conclude that "Abraham's and Hagar's story are one and the same, the only substantive difference being that Abraham's represents the view from the center, and Hagar's represents the view from the periphery."  Hawk notes that "The message is unmistakable: Human hierarchies of ethnicity, class, and gender make little difference in the way the Lord speaks to and interacts with those at the center and those on the periphery. God takes the paradigmatic outcast on a journey of promise and salvation, just as he does the paradigmatic insider." 
YHWH takes special note of Hagar. She is not forgotten, not overlooked, not incidental. The God of Hagar is the God who hears (Ishmael) and the God who sees (El-Roi). We must never separate the God of Abraham, the father of a nation, from the God of Hagar, the African slave-girl who encountered YHWH. Divorced from Hagar's story, the narrative of Abraham comes off as a tale of conquest and accumulation. One can understand how those schooled only in the Abrahamic covenant would disqualify Jesus as the Messiah. However, in Hagar's tale we see YHWH's heart for the outsider, for the abused, for the powerless. The God of Hagar is the God we see revealed in Jesus.
We can learn a lot by giving weight to the voices on the periphery of culture, society, and normative religion. We learn to become more critical of our own contexts, recognizing how deeply we are immersed in them. We learn to accommodate others instead of always expecting to be accommodated (accommodation is one of the characteristics of God, after all). We begin to reimagine what it means for the kingdom of God to be near. Instead of looking for dynamic manifestations of the Spirit, prosperity, or moral and political influence, we learn to recognize the sweet presence of God in the wilderness, in the lack, in the isolation and loneliness. We also become aware of our tendency to see God primarily as the Almighty, the Sovereign Ruler of All. Though these divine depictions are certainly present in the biblical witness, they do not dominate the narrative as much as we might think. In fact, the entire book of Revelation is a scathing denunciation of military conquest. The writer's metaphor of choice for the one who overcomes is the lamb that was slain, not the predatory king of the beasts, the lion.
When we read carefully, we notice that the overlooked, the outsiders, and the downtrodden feature prominently in the scriptures. I have already mentioned the significance of Hagar's story. Bilhah and Zilpah, the slaves of Leah and Rachel, are integral to the history of the nation of Israel. David enters the Messianic lineage through Bathsheba, a woman he stole from another man. Judah learns about justice from his daughter-in-law, Tamar. The Syrian, Namaan, is healed because he listens to a slave girl from Israel. Jeremiah is rescued from a muddy pit by Ebed-melech, an Ethiopian eunuch. The first to see and recognize the Messiah are unclean shepherds. A city in Samaria hears the gospel through a divorced and socially-marginalized woman.
Once we start being attentive to the so-called minor characters in the biblical witness, we find a God who seems to have a preference for the marginalized. This is confirmed when we look at the life of Jesus. Here is a man on the periphery of culture, society, and normative religion. Gregory Boyle states that, "The strategy of Jesus is not centered in taking the right stand on issues, but rather in standing in the right place – with the outcast and those relegated to the margins."  Through Jesus, we learn the breadth and depth of the love and presence of God, a love which thrives and flourishes at the margins. Perhaps this is where we are invited to thrive and flourish as well.
 Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses: A Translation and Commentary (New York: Norton, 2004), 77.
 Genesis 21:8-21.
 L. Daniel Hawk, "Cast Out and Cast Off: Hagar, Leah, and the God Who Sees," Priscilla Papers, Vol. 25.1 (Winter 2011), 9.
 Hawk, "Cast Out and Cast Off," 11.
 Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart (New York: Free Press, 2011), 72.
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