By Chelsea Langston Bombino
All of life is religion. All of life is redeemed. These are concepts that are integral to a theology of public justice. Public justice is a Christian political philosophy that recognizes that God created individuals for community—and community for individuals. Our gracious Creator gave each of us individual and differentiated identities, which are accompanied by sacred roles and responsibilities in different, yet interconnected, areas of life. And yet, it is not always easy to see God in every sphere of life.
I am a daughter of the Most High, a wife, a worker with a specific vocational calling, a member of a faith community, a citizen. I strive, and often fail, to bear the image of our Creator in each area of life. My various identities only make sense in the context of the corresponding communities through which I engage in my image-bearing responsibilities.
Public justice recognizes that God’s creation is born out of and sustained through these communities—the structures and institutions—in which we live our lives. These spheres of life—family, congregation, workplace, service organization, civic group, government—have overlapping yet distinct purposes. A public justice framework insists that each of these communities was created by God to be inherently good, yet because of sin, each of these spheres also experiences brokenness. Public justice recognizes each differentiated sphere of life—including government—must work in concert, fulfilling its unique purpose, toward shalom. Government’s role, in a public justice framework, is neither to try to fulfill the roles and responsibilities of other areas of life, nor to shirk its own.
Therefore, our sanctification is not just personal; it is structural. We are called to engage the communities and groups in our lives toward a sacred vision of restoration and wholeness. The Book of Esther offers some hope for a vision of all of life sanctified for God and the advancement of public justice.
Yet upholding and advancing public justice is a difficult task for individuals, in their varying roles, and for the spheres of life in which they live out their roles. The paradox of a vision of life in which everything has sacred purposes is that God is often hard to see. God does not, for the most part, appear before us or speak to us directly the way another human being would. So how do we, as imperfect image-bearers, live out our distinctive purposes in each area of life in a way that not only sanctifies us and those around us, but also the institutions in which we live our lives?
The Book of Esther is known as the only book in the Bible in which God’s name does not appear even once. In other words, it is harder to see God in Esther’s story because we have to look beyond the obvious.
Esther’s story is ultimately about the Jews’ deliverance by a lowly orphan. A Jewish girl, Esther is raised by her cousin Mordecai. When the ruler of Persia, Ahasuerus, deposes his queen and seeks a new spouse, Mordecai instructs Esther how to compete for, and ultimately win, the king’s affection and the role of wife. Throughout this process, Esther hides her Jewish identity. The king’s advisor, Haman, attempts to use his influence with Ahasuerus to execute a plot to annihilate the Jewish people. Although Esther is initially reluctant, she ultimately risks her own life to save her people.
In its “Introduction to the Book of Esther,” the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) observes how God goes unmentioned throughout Esther’s story:
This would not be unusual in a book whose subject matter or outlook was more secular, but Esther is a book in which the religious element is prominent: the Jews fast in order to be delivered from imminent peril, experience deliverance at the eleventh hour, and commemorate their deliverance with an annual festival.
Does God’s glory dwell in Esther and Mordecai themselves? In the king’s private domain? In the public courts and seat of government? With the Jewish communities scattered throughout the land? There is nothing explicit that guides the reader to God’s presence throughout the book of Esther. Yet for those who know how to see the Creator in all things, every word of this book is saturated in God’s sanctifying spirit.
Esther 4:14 shows Mordecai indirectly referencing God’s holy power and sovereignty when he urges Esther to participate in the deliverance of her people by approaching the king, although it could put her own life at stake: “For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?”
Esther has multiple roles and identities. She is the adopted daughter of Mordecai. She is a wife. She is a queen and therefore the leader of a political community. She is Jewish and therefore has a specific ethnic and religious identity. Each identity is intrinsically connected to a distinctive community to which Esther has clearly defined, yet interconnected, responsibilities.
In this story, we clearly see the complexity of the specific, yet overlapping, roles and spheres in which Esther is navigating her life. While she is tempted at first toward preserving her individual roles as wife and queen, she ultimately lays aside self interest in order to fulfill her responsibilities to the larger community. Ironically, in so doing, one could argue she is able to more fully step into her roles as wife and queen because she is now bringing her God-created self to those roles.
In Esther 7:3, we see our protagonist approach her husband as her full self—a wife, a queen, but also a daughter, a representative member of a particular faith and an oppressed people group. She states, “If I have found favor with you, Your Majesty, and if it pleases you, grant me my life—this is my petition. And spare my people—this is my request.”
We see public justice advanced in the story of Esther. We see government restrained and a people group remain free to flourish. Esther’s plea to her husband ultimately leads to the salvation of her people. Yet it was not just the individual lives of the Jewish people that were delivered. It was also the structures and communities in which they lived their lives. Esther’s request for justice for her people saved both God’s chosen people and His ordained communities. The deliverance of the Jews was also the deliverance of families, of worshipping communities, of marketplaces, of trades, of the mediating structures in which the Jews exercised their humanity.
In the popular worship song “Oceans (Where Feet May Fail)” by Hillsong, the lyrics state, “You call me out upon the waters / The great unknown where feet may fail / And there I find You in the mystery.” We are also called to find the presence of God, which is always a sacred mystery, in the story of Esther. We are invited to see the Divine Creator, the Deliverer and Sanctifier, in every passage of this story. He is in the harem, at the city gate and in the royal courts.
It is especially important today that we seek out God in the very spaces and communities in which, on the surface, He appears absent. Esther provides a model for how we can work toward restoration in every sphere of our lives.
Chelsea Langston Bombino is the director of Sacred Sector, an initiative of the Center for Public Justice.