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The Princess Festival – 2/24/2013

Most of you know that I am a father. When I was first anticipating the arrival of my daughter, I imagined many things that I would have to look forward to: changing diapers and singing lullabies, tying shoe laces and practicing multiplication tables, and reading favorite books with her like the Borrowers and the Wizard of Oz. I thought about all the things I wanted to teach her: the songs and the games and the lessons about being human in this world.

Of course, no one ever knows much about being a parent until they become one, or at least that was how it was for me. And among the many, many things that I did not anticipate, that I could not imagine might come from being the father of a daughter was all that princess stuff. Crowns and circlets and tiaras, gowns and dresses, all manner of things sparkly, pastel and mostly pink. Somehow it managed to make its way into my house, into the life of my family, into the imagination of my 4-year old without my partner or I ever desiring or intending it. So that now when one of us comes across a deposit of glitter between couch cushions or in the linen closet, we hardly shrug. Even if we found some inside of a sealed box we thought had been closed since before she was born, I doubt we would be surprised.

This is not an interest unique to my particular child, I know. One or two of you out there this morning are nodding along thinking, “Yes, I have lived this story before, or am living it now.” The cultural and economic power of the royal fascination led Peggy Orenstein to give it the label of the “princess-industrial complex” in her book “Cinderella Ate My Daughter.” Sesame Street recently felt the need to comment on this issue by having Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor on the program to explain to female muppet Abby Cadabby that dressing up like a princess might be fun, but being planning to become a princess is not a career like teacher, doctor or engineer.[i] The mainstream, big name princesses have a few laudable traits between them, of course: kindheartedness, a surprisingly strong work ethic and an almost saintly refusal to hold grudges or seek revenge. But as a parent, and in particular as a Unitarian Universalist parent, princess-dom is associated with a number of themes and habits that I would not wish for my child or any child, for that matter: passivity, dependence, entitlement and a shallow over-valuing of unrealistic beauty standards.

Now, we Unitarian Universalists have had a profound evolution over the course of our history in our attitudes towards scripture. If you had come to worship with this congregation 340 years ago, shortly after its founding, you would have seen the public reading of the Christian bible at the center of the service. In the Universalist branch of our history, a thorough, detailed, near encyclopedic knowledge of the bible was expected of our ministers, who had to be ready to answer accusations of heresy by quoting scores of biblical passages as evidence that a God whose nature was perfect love could not and would not damn any person to Hell.

200 years or so ago, some of our ancestors began to expand the seat of revelation and spiritual authority beyond the pages of the bible to potentially include profound personal experiences and insights, and other writings, both sacred and secular. Originally this meant bringing the same reverence and respect that had been reserved for this one document to everything that might offer us insight into how to live with meaning, purpose, and holiness.

Particularly in the last 100 years, however, this attitude has shifted for some of us to read something like this: Since life-giving wisdom and spiritual sustenance can be found anywhere, any story or ritual or practice that seems at first contrary to that can safely be discarded. Pieces of the bible or any element of the religion we inherited that trouble us or appear to run against the themes of love, justice, and connectedness which define our faith can just be replaced with other material from other sources. Explicitly or implicitly, that’s a relatively common attitude among us. But our deep religious commitment not to discard people, not to hold anyone irredeemable, not to deny the worth inherent in every person, ought also to counsel us to be almost as unwilling to throw away a story or idea only because it poses problems. Every source of meaning offers possibilities and limitations, and we have a responsibility to use whatever tools we have, and every tool we have to craft a world together that is more just, more hope-filled, and more abundant with life.

What does all this have to do with the princess phenomenon, you ask? Just like one of the bloodier or more narrow-minded passages from the bible, there is so much troubling stuff tied up in the princess mystique that it would be tempting to just say it should be done away with altogether. But that would ignore the creative potential that lies inside of it. If a child dons a pink satin gown and goes out to run and jump and throw a ball and play with her friends, that dress is not necessarily getting in the way of her becoming fully herself. One of my favorite images from the congregation where I did my ministerial internship was of a young boy who came to worship with his sister, each in their own princess dresses having decided to get fancy together for church that Sunday.

One of the approaches to reconciling a passage from scripture with a larger spiritual generosity which it seems to contradict, is by reading it against the grain. David betrays Uriah to steal his wife; Paul forbids women from speaking and church, and instructs slaves to obey their earthly masters – I read those things and my conscience rebels. And that, itself, is an instruction. So that a child who is deeply interested in princesses may also be introduced, eventually, to the deep questions that the princess lifestyle raises. Just how is all this luxury and fine apparel being produced? How many serfs had to struggle to support just one real-life princess, and what were their unglamorous lives like? Even if your beautiful gown was made for you by enchanted mice or magical blue birds, were they fairly compensated for their labor?

Most of all, if we are going to find some life-giving, meaning-making, justice-fostering potential in princess mythology, then we will need to start looking for some more inspiring princesses. Princess Leia, from the Star Wars franchise is a more powerful and capable figure than Sleeping Beauty or Snow White, being a successful politician and leader of the galactic rebellion. She does have the unfortunately stereo-typical princess habit of being captured, however. There are also real-life figures like Pingyang, who became a literally self-made princess 1400 years ago in China. She raised her own army to help her father overturn the ruling dynasty, and their disciplined, respectful treatment of the common folk won them favor over the cruel and destructive ruling forces. At her death, Princess Pingyang was buried with military honors befitting a general including a military band, something unheard of for a woman at the time.[ii]

In this vein I want to spend a little time with a particular princess story, one that happens to come from the bible. Today happens to be the festival of Purim in the Jewish tradition, which celebrates the story of the book of Esther. As we walk through the story together, I want to ask you to imagine yourself as Esther, think about the challenges of her life and how they might apply to the challenges of your own. In order to help set the mood a bit, my daughter Miriam has graciously loaned me this crown. And with that, we can begin.

Esther is normally referred to as a queen, but her story has a certain likeness to common princess fairytales as you’ll see. Her book begins in ancient Persia, when the king, Ahasuerus, ruled an empire from India to Ethiopia. Among the many people of this empire were Jews who had been taken into exile by the Babylonians and passed into the authority of Persia after Babylon fell. King Ahasuerus paid no attention to running his government and spent his days enjoying himself with parties and feasts. At one of these parties he called on his wife Vashti to come forward and display her beauty to his guests, with lewd implications to the request. Vashti refused the king, making her a heroic biblical feminist, and resulting in Ahasuerus’ divorcing and banishing her from the rest of the story.

A new wife was sought for the king, and it was commanded that the most beautiful maidens in his empire should be assembled, and he would choose amongst these. Esther was one of these women summoned to the palace. She was an orphan who had been adopted by her older cousin, Mordecai. The beauty contest took a long time to complete, and each day Mordecai paced in front of the palace gate, hoping to learn how Esther was doing. Even without fancy makeup, clothes, or jewelry, Ahasuerus found Esther to be the most beautiful of all, and chose her to take Vashti’s place. Neither he, nor anyone at the palace knew that Esther was a Jew; she had told no one, as Mordecai had warned her not to.

We have an orphaned heroine, a common theme in princess tales, but in Esther’s case her adoptive parent is compassionate rather than cruel like Cinderella’s ‘wicked stepmother’. Like Snow White, Esther is found to be the ‘fairest in the land,’ winning a royal husband just like Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty, and nearly every other fairy tale princess. This is the point at which one of those stories would normally end – just in time for a happily ever after.

But this story is only beginning. For King Ahasuerus, besides being generally incompetent and misogynistic, had a villainous prime minister – another fairy tale trope – named Haman. As Mordecai spent his days outside the palace gates, he encountered Haman and ran afoul of him when he refused to bow to the pompous minister. In a scene-chewingly evil turn, Haman spun his grudge against Mordecai into a universal hatred of his people. Using his influence over the foolish king, Haman convinced him to order the destruction of all the Jews in his empire at a certain date several months away.

When Mordecai learned of the plot, he sent word to Esther that she needed to convince Ahasuerus to rescind the edict and save her people. But hers was not a marriage in the modern sense: there was nothing like equality between her and the king, and monogamy was not something he concerned himself with. Esther saw the Ahasuerus only when he summoned her, and at that time she had not seen him for a month. If she, or anyone else, went to see the king without his invitation, the punishment was death. “Do not imagine,” replied Mordecai, “that you of all the Jews will escape with your life by being in the king’s palace…And who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis.”[iii]

There are times and places where it is dangerous or costly to reveal the fullness of who you are. In Phillip Roth’s novel, The Human Stain, the character Coleman Silk leads a life built out of the secret that he is an African American living as a white Jew. In the formative period of the movement for Gay and Lesbian rights in this country, and particularly after the outbreak of the AIDS pandemic, activists called upon same-sex-attracted men and women of power and influence who were living in the closet to use their resources in defense of the community. And there were some, perhaps very many, who would not do so, afraid that it would reveal the truth of who they were and whom they loved.

“Your silence will not protect you,”[iv] wrote the poet and activist Audre Lorde in a sentence almost paraphrasing Mordecai. This was the position that Esther found herself in: great personal risk over a great personal secret, and the certainty that if she did nothing, a great many people without the privilege to keep themselves secret in the same way would suffer greatly. If we imagine ourselves for the moment as Esther we must answer ourselves honestly as to which course we would choose. It may also be, for some of us, that we have already faced a moment in which danger would come from revealing ourselves, when some good was possible from it as well.

Esther answered Mordecai, “I shall go to see the king, though it is against the law, and if I die, I die.” The story does get its happy ending; the scheduled destruction of the Jews is averted, Haman gets his comeuppance, and Mordecai is even named prime minister instead, but this is the moment on which all of that turns: “I shall go to see the king, though it is against the law, and if I die, I die.”

There is no escaping the fact that the princess fantasy is about privilege: privilege of wealth and social station, of power and conventional beauty. And our faith calls on us to confront and struggle against systems of injustice that create privilege for some and oppression for others. But we also find ourselves in the imperfect, imbalanced world as it is, and so some of us are possessed, from moment to moment and situation to situation, of privilege that gives us power over or greater opportunity than others. What this particular princess story has to teach us, is the responsibility to use the opportunities we encounter in life to do what we can in the service of justice and life, even if it means risking ourselves to do it. Now that is an inspiring princess lesson, and teaching our children or ourselves to follow it is worth all the plastic crowns and polyester dresses in the world.

 


[i] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EHICz5MYxNQ

[ii] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Princess_Pingyang

[iii] Esther 4:13-14

[iv] From “The Transformation of Silence Into Language and Action”, a talk printed in The Cancer Journals, 1980.

[v] Esther 4:16

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