On Tuesday, February 7, 2017, Senator Elizabeth Warren began to read a letter Coretta Scott King wrote in 1986 that criticized Jeff Sessions record on civil rights – the nominee for attorney general. The majority leader, Senator Mitch McConnell interrupted Ms. Warren with an objection, claiming that she was “impugning the motives and conduct of our colleague from Alabama.”
Ms. Warren asked to continue her remarks, but Mr. McConnell objected.
“Objection is heard,” said Senator Steve Daines, Republican of Montana. “The senator will take her seat.”
In a party-line vote of 49 to 43, senators upheld Mr. Daine’s decision, forcing Ms. Warren into silence – at least on the Senate floor. On Wednesday, February 8, 2017, Senator Jeff Sessions was confirmed as President Trump’s attorney general.
This story is shocking, untenable, and almost impossible to believe – so rife with patriarchy, misogyny, and harm.
And…we’ve been here before.
There is an old, old story told of man who led his tribe against a seemingly undefeatable foe. Before he headed into battle he prayed to his god: “If you give me this victory, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph will be the Lord’s and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.”
It was inconceivable that he would win, but he did!
His daughter, an only child, heard the news of her father’s success. Thrilled to see him again and join in his celebration, she flew out the door and danced her way down the street. And as the story goes, she was the first thing he saw.
He cried out, “Oh, my daughter, what have you done? You have brought me low. You have brought me such trouble. I have made a vow to my god that I cannot break!”
As the story is told, she consoles him, saying that he must honor his vow. All she asks is that she be allowed eight weeks with her friends to grieve the fact that she will never marry. So, she and her companions head into the mountains to weep over all that she will never know, all that is lost to her, all that is lost to them.
Her story ends with this line: It was a custom that the women gathered to grieve the daughter of Jephthah for four days every year. We might even say, “Nevertheless, she persists…”
Her story is shocking, untenable, and almost impossible to believe – so rife with patriarchy, misogyny, and harm.
And unlike the one of Ms. Warren, few of have heard it. Understandably, given that it has not made the rounds of MSNBC, Twitter, or Facebook. In truth, it is rarely told even in places where its larger context is read and respected. No, she is quickly skipped over (and silenced) – again and again.
That sounds familiar.
Mitch McConnell, the Senator who led the objection against Ms. Warren explained afterward that “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted…”
Sometimes persistence is all we have.
And persist we must in the telling of Jephthah’s daughter – again and again. Nothing skipped over. Everything seen. All told. Her voice heard. And truth vs. alternative facts proclaimed.
Her story is a brutal reminder of what gets overlooked, silenced, and indefinitely perpetuated when stories are told with the patriarch as protagonist – which, of course, has happened throughout all of history and yes, even and still today. Unbelievably, predominant interpretations of this particular text honor the father’s faithfulness and determination no matter the cost, his unswerving loyalty to his principles and sacred vows.
That sounds a little like what Senator Dan Sullivan, a Republican from Alaska, said during the debate on Wednesday afternoon: “Everybody in this body knows Senator Sessions well, knows that he is a man of integrity, a man of principle.”
I completely reject this – the commentary, Senator Sullivan, all of it. There is nothing honorable in the sacrifice of his daughter, nothing credible about beliefs that affirm or perpetuate the harm of another, nothing within his actions to which we should ever aspire. And yes, this includes Senator Sessions.
The story of Jephthah’s daughter’s story is a painful reminder of what happens when we do not think to ask how any and every story would be told differently when the woman, the victim, the harmed one is not silenced. What have we not considered? What have we not seen? What have we not heard? Did she willingly comply with his vow? Did she mildly and calmly plan a getaway with her girlfriends? Did she become a burnt offering without protest? Or did she, as we might expect, find herself without volition and agency in her own story and, sadly, even in its telling throughout time? With this telling we no longer overlook and explain away the violence and misogyny. With this telling we spontaneously and unanimously rise up and scream, “No!” so that no such thing ever happens again.
Except that it has. Except that it does. Even this week with Elizabeth Warren…And just a few weeks back on November 8, 2016.
We are re-living the story of Jephthah’s daughter as we witness a man in power who chooses his ideals over the value of a life, who makes and fulfills promises that perpetuate harm, who does not actually believe that others – especially women or vulnerable populations – have agency or will of any kind, who uses his role as protagonist to perpetuate the worst of patriarchy, the worst of humanity.
What are we to do but head to the hills and weep?
Exactly! This is the wisdom and hope that Jephthah’s daughter still and always offers us today. Her story is a clear reminder that we must gather together as women to grieve, to wail against injustice, to stand in solidarity alongside one another; nevertheless, to persist.
It is true, the story of Jephthah’s daughter is a tragic and traumatic tale, but not without hope. Hers is the only sacred story (within this particular text) that tells of women gathering together, that names and honors its necessary continuance throughout time. When these smallest of distinctions – deeply embedded within a patriarchal text, culture, and reality – are found, they strike me as nothing other than the undeniable evidence of grace and goodness that nevertheless persists despite all that threatens to destroy. Then…and now.
The hope and grace and goodness in Elizabeth Warren’s story? Within hours of being shut down on the Senate floor, says the NY Times, Ms. Warren read the letter from Mrs. King on Facebook, attracting more than two million views – an audience she would have been unlikely to match on C-Span, if she had been permitted to continue speaking in the chamber.
Nevertheless, she persists.
Jephthah’s daughter, Elizabeth Warren, you, and me. And nevertheless, hope does. Hope that darkness and death don’t have the last word. Hope that stories can be redeemed, that they can be rewritten and retold, that new endings and even new beginnings are still and always possible. Hope that despite it all, women still gather. Hope that when we do, we will be able – again and again – to hear Jephthah’s daughter speak into our hearts and on our behalf. Hardly silenced, instead allowed, amplified, and affirmed.
“Fear and silence are neither your birthright nor your curse,” she says. “And my fate is not to be yours. Go out the dangerous door and dance in the streets. Gather the women, climb the mountain, and wail. You will be seen. You will be heard. You will be honored and strengthened and healed. You are never alone. And nevertheless, no matter what, you must persist. How can you do anything other? You are my daughter, my lineage, my kin.”