Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Reflections on Mary's "yes"...



New Year’s Day brings us a Marian Feast Day, a day upon which many clergy will extol the virtues of Mary’s “yes.”  Calling Mary’s response a “yes” implies there was a question with the possibility of answering “no.”  But, did Mary really have a choice?  

In Luke’s gospel the angel Gabriel didn’t seem to ask Mary a question when he announced her impending pregnancy.  He didn’t say, “Mary, what do you think about becoming pregnant before you get married?”  Or, “Mary, would you be willing to have the Holy Spirit impregnate you even though this could totally screw up the partially transacted business deal of your marriage to Joseph and get you stoned to death?”  He just said it was going to happen and that she shouldn’t worry.  Gabriel’s statements were declarative not interrogative.    

In Matthew’s gospel, the announcement didn’t even come to Mary; it came to Joseph - who according to Mosaic Law did have options…quietly end the betrothal, accuse Mary of being damaged goods or complete the betrothal process and marry her, likely for a lower bride price.   Mary’s religious, social and legal status largely depended upon what Joseph said and did, not what she said or did.      

The non-canonical gospel of James offers some insight into Mary’s early life, telling us Mary’s parents, Anna and Joachim, donated her to be a temple virgin when she was about three years old.  If I had done similarly with any of my daughters, I would probably be in prison for child neglect or human trafficking.   However, the church sings the praises of Anna and Joachim, calling them saints.

What is the likelihood a child donated at and conditioned since three possesses sufficient critical thinking skills to realize, assess and exercise any of her options, limited and unpalatable as they may be?   

Some might dismiss this with a hand-wave, saying that those were different times - and they were.  Children and women were considered property with zero to few rights.  They had very little legal voice to oppose authority.   Would she have even thought “no” was a possible response?

According to Luke’s infancy narrative, Mary’s response to Gabriel’s announcement was that things should be done unto her according to Gabriel’s word.  That seems predictable based upon her childhood experiences…pretty ho-hum given the context, some might say.  Personally, I would be more amazed if she had said, “Gabe, Thanks, but no.”  Please note, I’ve not found saying “no thanks” to God to be a consistently reliable technique for God sparing me from things I do not want to endure.  So even if Mary said “Gabe…not gonna lie on this one…not loving your tidings…please tell the Lord to favor someone else” would that have prevented her pregnancy according to her wishes?

More interesting to me than Mary’s “yes” was her referring to herself as a “handmaiden of the Lord.”  In ancient Hebrew culture, a handmaiden’s married female owner could order the handmaiden to sleep with her husband to conceive a child on her behalf if the wife was unable to conceive.  Sarah ordering her handmaiden, Haggar, to sleep with Abraham to bear a child is such an example. 

The husband could not order the handmaiden to be sexual proxy for his wife; only the wife could do this.  Therefore, I wonder if Mary carried feminine rather than masculine imagery of God…in that her response was to consider herself conceiving a child as proxy for God…something culturally she would only do for her female owner?

We actually know almost no facts about Mary.  Over the years, myths evolved adding details based upon supposition and imagination rather than fact.  Eventually some of the details within those myths were declared infallible doctrine by Popes Pius IX and Pius XII - her being conceived immaculately/free from original sin, and her being assumed into heaven - sucked up by a Holy Hoover vacuum cleaner into heaven rather than taking the standard route by dying.  As an aside, her perpetual virginity has never been declared infallible doctrine, although it is doctrine.

Though we know little about Mary, we know a little more about Mosaic Law and the status of women at the time.  In some respects it offered women a degree of financial security not offered in other cultures at the time.  But if you read the various details regarding women’s virginity and legal implications for tampering with it, you see that women get a pretty raw deal.  They are property; they are objects upon which to be acted; their punishments are more severe, etc…  The list of marginalizing aspects is long.

Fast forward through history to today and we see that though some women have progressed in financial and physical security, discriminatory and marginalizing attitudes ingrained over thousands of years are difficult to shed.  Attitudes depicting women as dependent objects lead to practices that make them dependent objects.  For example, many girls around the globe prostitute themselves just to get a secondary or university education because their families believe formal education for girls is frivolous - females are to depend upon their fathers until they depend upon a husband.  Practices like this have led to a disproportionately large percentage of adults in poverty being women.  I have read statistics as high as 70% of impoverished adults are women. 

Pope Francis says he’s an advocate for both the poor and women.  A true advocate for the poor must be an advocate for women because they are to a large extent “the poor.”  A sincere advocate for the poor would also try to help alter the circumstances leading to poverty.  With women, this includes offering education and eradicating attitudes and practices defining women as dependent upon men.  This includes eradicating attitudes and practices that artificially limit women’s chances based upon gender. 

Unfortunately, I have not yet heard Pope Francis acknowledge the connection between poverty and the marginalization of women.  With his supporting institutionalized sexist practices in the church that emerge from its gender-based ideology while at the same time declaring feminists’ efforts at empowering women as “demonic gender-based ideology”, he seems primarily to reinforce regressive attitudes about women – attitudes that jeopardize their financial and physical security – attitudes that place more women in poverty.   Furthermore, Francis can’t seem to speak about women without sexist drivel and/or sexist jokes escaping from his mouth.  It makes his statements about valuing women ring hollow.  Meanwhile, his actions to support his words take a long time to occur and have been underwhelming when they finally do – to the point that they seem largely to be token gestures.

Even in a developed nation with great progress towards women’s empowerment, I am experiencing the downstream effect of the rock-star popular Francis repeatedly making sexist jokes.  For example, Christmas Eve Mass the priest told us the highest ministry a woman could have was to make cookies for a priest…har-dee-har-har.  If an executive made such a sexist comment at my secular job, the executive would be reprimanded or possibly fired depending upon severity.  But there are few people willing to go against the grain and call Francis out for his sexist statements.  This gives a sense of normalcy or invincibility to downstream clergy.  They can make similar sexist comments without fear of repercussions.  This also works against empowering women and ultimately increases their poverty.

Another area causing severe poverty ties to women’s reproductive health – an area where the church increasingly tries to eliminate women’s options, making “yes” the only “answer” regarding conceiving children.  Perhaps this explains or mirrors the clergy’s fixation with Mary’s non-optional “yes.”  Is giving women actual options truly something to fear to the point of restricting them?

Rather than prattle on about Mary and her “yes,” I ask Francis and the clergy to shed the scales from their eyes that blind them from seeing the role church hierarchy’s centuries of gender-based ideology plays in determining women’s economic options.  I ask them to stop the disparagement of feminism and feminist theology that empower women by helping them actually address the causes of poverty via developing self-confidence and independence.  Such theology is not afraid to be surprised by what the Holy Spirit asks women to do as it places no limitations around what the Holy Spirit can or will do.  When I see marked progress in these areas, then I will believe that the rock-star pope is a sincere advocate for women and consequently the vast majority of the poor.

I acknowledge Francis has done some heart-warming gestures in support of giving comfort to the poor.  But, when is he going to address the core issues causing so many women to live with their children in poverty?

1 comment:

  1. Kathleen SchatzbergJanuary 2, 2015 at 8:23 AM

    An interesting article to pair with this reflection, Ewe…
    http://www.salon.com/2014/12/21/why_rape_is_so_intrinsic_to_religion_partner/

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