There is perhaps no better character, fictional or non, that better exemplifies the life of a social pariah than Ms. Hester Prynne. In Nathanial Hawthorne’s classic tale, The Scarlet Letter, Hester has a baby out of wedlock, and is thus forced to wear a scarlet “A” (for Adulterer) and stand on a scaffold in the middle of town for 3 hours, once every year. The complete humiliation and vulnerability that Hester feels as she stands above her scoffers is best described when Hawthorne writes:
“Could it be true? She clutched the child so fiercely to her breast, that it sent forth a cry; she turned her eyes downward at the scarlet letter, and even touched it with her finger, to assure herself that the infant and the shame were real. Yes!—these were her realities,—all else had vanished!”
Having been caught in the mother of all scandals (pun intended), Hester retreats to the countryside, only to return once a year for her public roasting. There would be no future romances or even friendships for Hester Prynne. Her penance required of her to no longer contaminate the community with her shabby self. She was better for it, she believed, to be alone was safe. It freed her from fear. The world she now lived in revolved around the letter stitched upon her gown and the eyes of indignity that looked up at her face every morning. It was safe here, they could no longer reach her.
After seven long years in her sectioned of Siberia, Hester re-engages with the people that once disowned her. Having been thrown into the Puritan penalty box for nearly a decade, she saw the world she once lived in with a dramatically different perspective. It occurred to her that she could be much more than a church cautionary tale. While her skeletons were hung high above the town, there was an invisible cohort of fellow runaways struggling to keep the lock secure on their own cupboards. Her eyes were opened to the sick, hungry and shamed that had long lived in the shadows of her hometown. Instead of trying to disguise the mark that made her untouchable, she brandished it as a red badge of courage. And instead of trying to become popular with the Puritans, she dressed the leper’s wounds and gave dignity to their divorcees.
“Such helpfulness was found in her,—so much power to do, and power to sympathize,—that many people refused to interpret the scarlet A by its original signification. They said that it meant Abel; so strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman’s strength.
Death by a thousand condemnations can spare us of being who they want us to be. Our fullness will never be found on the Christian bestseller list or the church confessional. It’s found when we strip away the expectations of every circle we have a foot in. It’s found when we rest and realize that the only expectations we are required to meet are His. And his yoke is light. That’s when thirsts are quenched. That’s when the frostbitten toes we try to cover become marks of empathy, attracting those with still soft feet.
There are a number of paths that Hester could have taken with her shame, be it living as a hermit or trying to blend back in with the world. Instead she retained the mutilated mark of her disgrace. She resolved to show her former friends how much she still cared for them despite their hatred. She put her pride down and lifted her love up. In this fictional community, Hester was the hero.
Are we not called to do the same? Those who have been slighted by the Christian community may be tempted to slip away from the world they once knew or try to fit into the outfit of a wonder bread believer. But what if we went the way of Hester? What if we made it our mission to show them how much God cared about us and thus, we care about them?
Is it possible for the Scarlet Letter on our chest, to incarnate the red ones in the Gospels?