One of my favorite children’s stories is the ‘Paper Bag Princess’, by Robert Munch.
In case you haven’t read it, here’s a synopsis:
There is a princess called Elizabeth and she lives in a castle and wears fancy princess clothes and is betrothed to a prince called Ronald.
One day a dragon comes along and he smashes Elizabeth’s castle, burns all of her things including her fancy clothes and kidnaps Ronald.
Elizabeth, having nothing left to wear, puts on a paper bag that she finds and takes off after the dragon to get Ronald back.
She finds the dragon pretty easily, following his trail of destruction, and manages to out-smart said dragon by appealing to his ego and convincing him to fly around the world several times and to breathe out all of the fire he has as a show of force, exhausting himself.
With the dragon now too tired to do anything but sleep, Elizabeth is free to go find Ronald and bring him home. Only what she finds is a petulant prince who isn’t interested in being rescued by a dirty princess in a paper bag despite her heroism and wit, and he tells her to go home and clean herself up and to come back when she looks like a ‘real’ princess.
And (this is my favorite part) Elizabeth gives him a piece of her mind, she says he looks pretty (something he has managed despite being kept by a dragon) but that he’s actually not all that great, and she skips off into the sunset leaving him in the dust and they don’t get married after all.
I love this story because it’s fun – but also it shows a strong female character who in the end refuses to back down – who knows her worth and who chooses to happily skip off into the sunset alone rather than do as Prince Ronald expects of her, paperbag and all.
An act of a resistance.
And I am all about simple acts of resistance right now. There is of course a place for big acts of resistance: protest movements, sit-ins or lie-ins, showing up en-mass in the streets to show opposition to something that is wrong.
But there is also a place for us to simply refuse to conform. For us to say “no,” your expectation of me, of my gender, of my person of my clothing, of the actions you want me to take, are wrong and I will not follow along, I will refuse to act on your behalf or to accommodate you.
And of course this is where it gets complicated, there is a balance to be sought. We need to ask ourselves: what am I resisting and why? And for whose benefit? Am I refusing to do or be a part of something just because I don’t want to, or am I refusing to do or be a part of something because it is truly oppressive us, to another person or group of people for the benefit of another. And sometimes we do have to participate for the good of the community that we are in, which is of course, where discernment has a role to play.
So, in thinking along this line, with all of this rolling around in my head, as I read the Exodus story for this morning, it wasn’t actually the birth of the important character of Moses that stood out for me, but rather the resistance of Shiphrah and Puah, who refused to do as was expected of them.
And it occurred to me that in fact there are so many forms of acts of resistance all around us that are done by people who are oppressed by another, who are expected to live into a particular way of being because it is better or more convenient for another, perhaps dominant group of people.
Indigenous people, black and brown people, the queer community, women.
Everywhere we look, if we look closely, we can find beautiful acts of resistance that are apparently as old as the first stories of the Bible and probably earlier.
Acts of resistance are a really important way for us to participate in social action, advocacy and change. They can be non-violent and subversive or overt, they can be subtle or blatant. They are courageous and important.
When something strikes at the very heart of our teachings to love each other or clearly harms us or someone else, we are called as people who follow Jesus Christ, to resist.
Theologian and professor Wil Gafney offers a fabulous addendum to this biblical story using her ‘sanctified imagination’, in her book: Womanist Midrash, in which she imagines Shiphrah and Puah calling together all of the midwives in the land to tell them about what Pharoah has told them to do and then making a plan to do otherwise. Some of that imagining sounds like this:
Finally Shiphrah speaks. She tells them Pharoah’s words. The women gasp. Some mutter. Some shout. Some of the children are frightened. Shiphrah begins to prophesy: ‘God has brought our people a mighty long way. And I don’t believe God has brought us this far to leave us. Do not fear this pharaoh or his warriors, not his warhorses not his chariots. God will blow them away like smoke in the wind. In our days, before our eyes God will break the back of Egypt and wash away its might. God will raise up one of our sons to lead us and all our children out of this house of slavery. Our hands and our wombs do God’s work. We will deliver the deliverer. We will keep him safe until the day that God calls him to lead us to freedom. We shall receive our freedom dancing to woman-song if we trust in the mighty power of Shaddai, who drew us from her holy womb, whose spirit covers the earth.’ 1
An act of resistance. And an act of faith in a God who has birthed them (and us) into being and who they know will guide them in their work.
We could look at the majority of the Gospel texts and see them the same way – in fact Jesus’ whole life and ministry could be seen an act of resistance. We follow One who refused from the start to fit into the expectations that were put upon him, in the name of seeking justice for all and caring for the poor, the disenfranchised, the outcasts; who was rooted in the stories of the Hebrew text filled with stories of resistance and escape from slavery.
In the most recent edition of the Walrus, there is an article by Simon Lewson, called: ‘How Pandemics shape history’, it looks at the most recent examples of how within pandemics, political systems in England, Canada, Haiti and Lebanon , to name a few, have been impacted by exposing weaknesses in the systems we have built. Not that we would wish pandemics on anyone anywhere at any time, but as we are seeing even now, some things are being made to lay bare around us and there are opportunities to act or maybe resist a system that had previously been in place. Lewison writes the following:
Much as they infect the body, pandemics infect the body politic. They move through our social systems, finding vulnerabilities to exploit. In the process, they lay bare those vulnerabilities to scrutiny – and afford opportunities for self-reflection.
And I wonder, what if anything have you been reflecting on as you look around right now? As you watch the news or listen to the radio or read the papers? What are you paying attention to or noticing? What do you hear in the story of Shiphrah and Puah?
I believe that it is our job as followers of Christ to seek out ways to resist the systems that we have in place to contain us, to ensure same-ness and specific roles and rather for us to work to create systems of justice and care with space for each of us and a diversity of voices.
And I wonder if we have an opportunity particularly now as COVID has sent us to our rooms and as voices continue to rise around us speaking about how the systems that we have in place have never worked for everyone.
I keep thinking about what it means to be a Christian now, right now. What I need to leave behind because it tethered me to a way of being or a set of expectations that did more harm than good. And I believe we have to keep thinking about it, keep reading the stories of scripture and listening to what Jesus has to say to his disciples and to us about what love looks like.
And I know I have said some version of this before, but I think we need to keep hearing it, I will keep saying it – because I worry that our yearning to go back, could mean that we forget what we are learning.
Systems like to go back to the way they were before, they resist change and prefer stability even if that stability wasn’t good.
My hope is that we can resist going back.
I love the story of the Paper Bag Princess, because she is fearless and smart and in the end she does not stick around to be contained by what someone else thinks a princess should look like.
And I want to pay attention to the story of the two midwives in the Exodus story and their refusal to participate in the dominance and fear of the Pharoah. I want to pay attention to their courage and creativity and willingness to stand up.
I want to read the stories of Jesus and notice what he refused to participate in and the people that he consistently stood for and hung out with and gave voice to, none of whom likely showed up in the right clothes. And I want to have enough faith in the one who breathes us unto being, to trust that she will guide where we go from here, of we are willing to listen.
Acts of resistance, maybe that is our call – a simple refusal to go back, but the courage to move forward with creativity, courage and fearlessness.
1 Wilda C. Gafney, Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne. Westminster Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky. 2017 pg.90