An Ancient Profile in Courage


Reading about the embarrassing timidity of congressmen fearful of voting their consciences for what they believe to be the good of the American people because doing so might make them vulnerable in the next election has put me in mind of an ancient tale of courage under far harsher circumstances. At stake is not a seat in Congress but the very life of a young woman called upon to stand up for her people.

Esther is Queen of Persia, but she is also a Jew, and the king’s counselor Haman has concocted a plot to destroy the Jews in the land. Mordecai seeks to persuade Esther to intervene with the king on behalf of her people, but under the law if Esther approaches the king without being called, she will be executed, unless the king chooses to extend to her his golden scepter. In the past thirty days, the king has not called for her at all, and so her favor in his eyes seems most uncertain.

The exchange between Mordecai and young Esther is telling.

Mordecai told them to reply to Esther, “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”

Then Esther said in reply to Mordecai, “Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will also fast as you do. After that I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.” (Esther 4:13-16, NRSV)

There are times in life when a person needs to hear some new Mordecai asking, “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to your present position for just such a time as this.”

I wonder how many will find the courage, not to risk their lives which are not at stake, but to risk only their seats in Congress by voting for what they privately believe is better for the American people. I look at the diagrams of potential votes, see the box for those who want the health care reform to pass but wish also to vote “No” to protect themselves, and I feel ashamed. Lives are at stake, but not theirs. Yet even small courage seems too much to ask.

“He who fights and runs away lives to fight another day.” Or maybe just to run away again. Perhaps it gets easier.