It fits in that category of holy writing that I think ought to be scripture. It certainly calls into question the blindness of people in positions of domination and the power of the truth. When the truth is exposed, good news is often the result.
So, in the interest of looking at the story a bit more in depth and knowing that we do not want to have a two-hour service, let me just say a few things.
One commentator said that the story deals with three universal fascinations: Sex, death and God. I think it also deals with three equally important topics: power and domination and truth. If you looked at your bulletin, you’ll see that the scene we sung a few moments ago from Carlisle Floyd’s oratorio Susannah, was written in 1955 during a time when the McCarthy hearings were in full swing. Like Susannah, people were losing their livelihoods and their community respect because of thinking the wrong thing and associating with the wrong people. Trumped up charges often were exaggerated and people were convicted without due process. This ancient story is a sadly contemporary one.
The book of Susannah is about two powerful men using their position to get what they want. They manipulate the system for their own gain. It’s not about intimate mutuality. It’s about conquest.
Susannah, like Queen Esther, is a beautiful, poised and wise woman. Two elders fall in lust with her. They ogle her whenever she is around. They are supposed to be responsible for making the rules for the Hebrew people. The elders are called judges. But their judgment was clearly blinded by their lust.
Like Amnon’s lust for his half-sister Tamar, this lust was not just a fantasy. The elders conspired to trap her while she was bathing alone in the garden on a hot day. In verse 20, the elder say to her: “Look the garden doors are shut and no one can see us. We are burning with desire for you; so give us your consent, and lie with us.” At least they asked. I imagine that they were used to getting their own way, for they added in verse 21, “If you refuse, we will testify against you that a young man as with you.”
Susannah knew she was trapped. She knew that if people believed the elders’ story, she would be put to death. And if she let herself be violated, she would live with the shame for the rest of her days. So she screamed. She screamed that she was being violated. She screamed that it was no longer safe in her own home. She screamed that the two men had done a shameless thing. But the elders’ screams were louder than hers.
And here’s where it gets really ugly. The elders, who desired intimacy with Susannah, accused her of adultery with a younger, stronger man who ran away. But they did so in a particular way. They brought her into court and concocted the story. The elders unveiled her and put their hands on her head. The Septuagint says that she was stripped naked. Their very touch must have been repulsive. I imagine the elders getting excited by getting to do in public what Susannah denied them in private. Susannah was there with her family and her husband. Everyone with her was weeping. The elders spoke of how in their righteousness, they caught Susannah in the arms of another man. Because of the position of the elders, the people believed them and condemned Susannah to death. Perhaps the people feared the elders. During this whole trial, her husband said nothing. Susannah was not even able to tell her side of the story. The elders were prosecutors, judges and jury. There was no defense, no character witnesses.
The only defense in the story is the prayer that Susannah makes to God. “O Eternal God, you know what is secret and are aware of all things before they come to be; you know that these men have given false evidence against me. And now I am to die, though I have done none of the wicked things that they have charged against me!”
Daniel next comes on the scene. Was he inspired by God or by the blatant misogyny of the elders? He declared that he wants no part in this injustice. He condemns the people for allowing no defense, no cross-examination, no discovery, no lawyers. He does a thorough cross-examination and separately interviews the elders. He asks where the elders saw the supposed intimacy of Susannah and the young man. One said under a mastic tree. The other said, under an evergreen oak tree. He caught them in their lies. The two elders were condemned to death for bearing false witness. Susannah was set free with her dignity and her freedom. And we like to think, the whole community learned a valuable lesson about authority, lust and revenge—but mostly about truth and how it sets people free, or at least it ought to. Denise, you ought to teach this story in law school.
So what does this old story say to us today? What wisdom does it impart?
There is a difference between power and domination. Susannah exercised great power. She remembered her dignity. She was coerced to compromise herself. And she held to her truth.
The elders were in positions of domination, which they confused with power. They had standing in the community. They were used to getting their own way. They were used to telling people what to do. They were used to seeing something or someone they wanted and taking it. When their wicked plans were thwarted, they upped the ante and condemned Susannah to death. They knew what they were doing. They might have even done such a thing before. But they did not expect Susannah to have advocates.
The elders were able to win round one of the trial because they had the acquiescence of the crowd (and the silence of Susannah’s husband). They had the media market cornered. They painted themselves as the righteous preservers of morality—the politeness police.
But they didn’t count on the fact that Susannah had advocates out there. She had people who were on her side. People who demanded that she get a fair trial. People who were suspicious of people in positions of domination. People who said, this doesn’t pass the smell test. This doesn’t sound like the Susannah we know and love. And these advocates took to the streets and exorcized their power. They demanded a retrial and had their own recall call campaign against the unjust judges.
I think the good news in this story is not necessarily the punishment of the judges, or even the exoneration of Susannah. I think the point of the story is in the retrial. It’s in the people seeing the truth unveiled. It’s in the people rising up and resetting balance in the community.
So what does this mean to us? It means to me, that we need to be patient with our legal process. The same goes for our legislative process. Unveil the truth, give the sides their due process, remove it from spin. Then make decisions after weighing all of the evidence. I heard on the radio the other day that one of the reasons the Wisconsin Democratic Senators fled the state was in order to slow down the budget process and give people a chance to read and absorb what is in the governor’s budget proposal. Apparently there are more issues that have come to light in addition to the removal of collective bargaining rights.
It also means that we need to be patient with each other, too. We need to take the time to hear our stories. To let them ring out with truth. Judge not quickly. And let your judgments be reconsidered in light of new evidence.
How many of you have seen the film, “Precious”? It tells the story of a 16 year old young woman who has been impregnated by her father twice. She has taken on the role set for her as an incubator and a source of family income by the birth of the children. She believes that she is worthless and plays out that self-loathing in part by becoming overweight. But she eventually has advocates who hear her story. They hear her voice. They seek to help her change her narrative. They help her reweave her life and the lives of her children. She got new life because someone heard her truth, unveiled it. Could you be the person to hear someone’s truth? Could you ne the one ho gently and bravely lifts the veils of lies and uncovers the hopeful and blessed core of a person?
Susannah is everywoman who has been viewed as an object of lust rather than a person with choices.
Susannah is everywoman who has been violated and trapped by a sexist culture.
Susannah is everywoman who has been falsely accused.
Susannah is everywoman who has had their rights taken away-slowly whittled away by the dominant-seeming majority and a passive populace. Look at the recent defunding of family planning services, pay-equity checks and balances, let alone collective bargaining rights.
Susannah is also everywoman who has stood her ground.
Susannah is everywoman who has held onto the truth. She proved that God guides and protects those who cling to the truth—often in the form of sisters and brothers who stand in solidarity with a person wronged.
Susannah is us insomuch as we identify with a power greater than ourselves that can restore us to sanity.
Susannah is us insomuch as we unveil the truth, exposing injustice, exposing lust-blindedness, exposing the co-called purity police who take away women’s rights and dignity.
Thank God for Susannah and the truth that she unveiled. It was not just about her. It was about her world. It’s about our world. It’s about us.