“Identify, Don’t Compare”

17 Mar

A sermon preached at the White Plains Presbyterian Church

on the Third Sunday Of Lent, March 11, 2012

Celebrate the Gifts of Women Sunday



(on difference, privilege and marginalization)

The Rev. Peggy Howland

Genesis 16: 1-6 and Genesis 21: 1-21

Let us pray: Open our hearts, O God, to your Word and your will, that we may be taught by your Spirit, and be guided to think and act in ways that honor you. Amen.

Have you ever seen your own story in the story of someone else? We call it IDENTIFYING with the other person’s experience.

In the church in Yonkers where I was pastor for 20 years, there was a Saturday night Alcoholics Anonymous open meeting, which I occasionally attended.  They always had two speakers from a visiting AA group, who told their personal stories.  They called it “sharing their experience, strength and hope”.  But first the Chairperson of the meeting would always say these words: “Identify, don’t compare.” 

He (or she) was telling them:  Don’t say to yourself, Oh, that’s not ME.  I’m better than that.  Or, I’m worse than that.  Instead, see the places where your own experience is like this person’s experience.   See the places that are similar….  So that you can learn something about yourself, or see some possibility for yourself, some direction, or  warning, or reminder, or hope….

I always found those stories helpful to me, even though I’ve never been an alcoholic, because I could identify with the humanness, the mistakes, the craziness, the wanting to escape reality, the necessity of asking for help, the opportunity for a second chance, and a changed life with the help of God and of caring people ….

That’s how I read the Bible, too.  Finding my story in the stories of the sinners and saints, the misfits and the redeemed, the people whose lives were changed by God, or whose lives were touched by Jesus,  who followed the leading of God’s Spirit….

IDENTIFY, Don’t compare! Clothe yourself in their skin, walk a mile in their shoes, think what YOU would do – if you were in their situation.  And perhaps you will understand the emotions and thoughts that you share with them, the struggles, the fears, the defenses you put up, the despair that paralyzes you, the faith that sustains you, the encounters with God that lift you up and set you on a new path, by God’s grace.


It is very common for people to compare, instead of identify. To compare, as in – I’m not that bad, or – I would never do that!  or – She should be ashamed of herself! Judging another, instead of seeking to understand the other, applying rigid rules, instead of compassion, pronouncing God’s condemnation on someone, speaking ill of another, even hating with righteous indignation and superiority.  That’s in the Bible, too!

Remember the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable? …. who compared himself to the tax collector, when both came to the temple to pray.  The Pharisee stood proudly and prayed, God, I thank you that I am NOT LIKE OTHER PEOPLE, or even like this tax collector, for  I work at being Good and I follow your laws and do what is Right and Charitable.  I thank you that I am not like that fellow over there. …. And the tax collector bowed and did not even lift his eyes up to heaven, but smote his breast in repentance, praying, “God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.”  The Bible says Jesus “told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” (Luke 18:9)

That’s the secret of how to listen to people’s stories … IDENTIFY, don’t compare. 

Do we regard the storyteller with respect or with contempt?   

Do we regard certain classes of people as superior and other groups inferior?

You see, the Bible, just like our life today, is full of the stories of people who are DIFFERENT from each other.  There are rich and powerful people like Abraham and Sarah, a wealthy herdsman and his wife.  There are slaves who are in a position of powerlessness, like Hagar, a slave girl from Egypt who was given to Sarah to be her maid and to be subject to whatever Sarah required of her and however Sarah treated her.  But even Sarah, as a woman in a patriarchal society, was in a vulnerable position, especially as a woman who was barren and in her old age felt ashamed and ridiculed and looked down upon because she had still not borne a child and an heir for her family.

Where there are differences between groups of people, whether in the Bible or in our society, differences of nationality, ethnicity, gender, age, class, religion, financial standing, political power, education level, marital status, sexuality  . . . where there ARE such differences, it becomes possible for one group to use the difference as a means of gaining privileges that the other group doesn’t have.      

The group with more power, prestige, money or greater numbers may take privileges for themselves and set themselves up as SUPERIOR, and push others to the margins of society, to “marginalize” them, denying rights or benefits to those they consider INFERIOR, and causing the vulnerable population to develop their own sense of inferiority.  We know this, of course, from the shameful history of slavery in our own country.  And we have seen it in genocidal atrocities like the Nazi slaughter of Jews, and more recent ethnic wars in some European and African countries (among others).

What I want us to realize is how the BIBLE itself has been USED to foster such systems of dominance and oppression, as genocidal wars against Native Americans, attacks against Equal Rights for women, South African Apartheid, American racial segregation, anti-Semitism, anti-Catholic bigotry, the fight against lesbian and gay rights–and many other causes, ALWAYS augmented and supported by the dominant groups’ interpretations of the Bible.[1]

A favorite method of using the Bible for political oppression is by “SELECTIVE LITERALISM”.  That is, selectively choosing proof texts, often pulled out of their context in Scripture, declaring them to be the infallible Word of God, ignoring any human elements of prejudice or cultural blindness which may be in the text.  And this method of selective literalism conveniently dismisses or creatively does away with whole portions of the Bible which contradict their chosen verses.[2]  This is happening outrageously in the current political discussions of social issues today.

But there is another side, the good news of how disadvantaged and vulnerable groups have found their own stories in the Bible.  “The Bible has been reclaimed by many marginalized communities as a powerful tool with which to overcome oppression.”[3]They read a Bible story and then discuss what it has to say for their own lives, and develop plans of action.

You cannot take the Bible seriously without seeing the teachings of God’s concern for the poor, and Jesus’ compassion and inclusion of women, outcasts and marginalized classes who were considered inferior and undeserving by the political and religious establishment of his day.  Political prisoners and farmworkers and Latin American peasants have identified with and been motivated by the Bible to change their lives

Nineteenth century African slaves saw in the story of Moses and the deliverance of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt the inspiration that encouraged their own dreams of freedom.  Just so the story of Hagar has given courage to many women today in their struggles for dignity and personhood because they can IDENTIFY WITH HER.  They see her caught in bondage, forced to become a second wife to her owner, and a surrogate mother whose child was not to be her own, fleeing from harsh treatment by her jealous mistress, yet still having the mindset of a slave because she had no sense of who she was or where she wanted to go, back again in slavery, then rejected and tossed out to become homeless with no means of providing for herself, grieved to see her son at the point of death for lack of food and water, ultimately being rescued and cared for only by the grace of God.   

Even Sarah, who was in a somewhat powerful situation in relation to Hagar, was powerless in other ways, a victim of patriarchy and cultural prejudice and subject to stigma and ridicule, despised by “the other woman” she had herself created, as well as put in compromising and dangerous situations twice by her husband to save his own neck. (That’s in the chapters in between today’s two scripture readings.)

Their stories call us to identify and understand with compassion the difficulties they faced, and not compare or judge either of them by standards and rules that show no mercy. 

On this “Celebrate the Gifts of Women Sunday”, that is how the story of Hagar and Sarah speaks to me.   I remember how the modern Women’s Movement of the 60’s and 70’s taught me to TRY not to speak ill of any woman, but to try to understand ALL women, even those who might disagree with me or criticize me. 

That same church where I was pastor for 20 years, where they had the AA meetings…  was a church of working class people, of immigrants from Africa, Asia, South America, the Caribbean, and Europe.                   

This is my Hagar (holding up a small mahogany wood carving of an African woman)… it belonged to Eunice, whom I loved. She was the granddaughter of a slave, and it reminds me of her. The people of that church, whom I loved, were multi-ethnic and interracial, more dark-skinned than light…  I knew their stories, THE INDIGNITIES they suffered in their lives because of prejudice, because of who they were, and what they looked like, and where they were from … I also knew THEIR DEEP FAITH IN GOD, that sustained them, because they knew the love of God in their lives.


[1] “Texts of Terror, Texts of Hope: Teaching the Bible as Literature” by Michael J. Mazza, University of Pittsburgh.

[2] “Texts of Terror, Texts of Hope: Teaching the Bible as Literature” by Michael J. Mazza.

[3] “Texts of Terror, Texts of Hope: Teaching the Bible as Literature” by Michael J. Mazza.