Monday, April 21, 2014
The Christianity of Mary Magdalene
April 19, 2014
In her early 15th century work, The Book of the City of Ladies, the French writer Christine de Pizan noted the disparity between the negative image men have of women and what she knew about herself and other women. The men stated that women's behavior was full of every vice, a judgment that in Christine's opinion showed mean-spiritedness and lack of honesty. She, instead, after talking to many women of her time who told her their most intimate thoughts and studying the lives of prestigious women in the past, acknowledged their gift for words and a special aptitude for the study of law, philosophy, and government.
The situation at that time is repeated today in most religions which are patriarchally configured and have never gotten along well with women. The latter are not usually considered religious or moral agents, therefore they are put under the guidance of men who will lead them along the path of virtue. They are denied the right to freedom, it being assumed that they will make poor use of it. They are vetoed when the time comes to assume leadership responsibilities because it is understood that they are irresponsible by nature. They are excluded from sacred space as impure. They are silenced because they are believed to be chatterboxes and say unsuitable things. They are the object of every sort of violence -- moral, religious, symbolic, cultural, physical, etc...
However, religions could hardly have been born and survived without them. Without women it's possible that Christianity might not have emerged and perhaps would not have spread like it did. They accompanied its founder Jesus of Nazareth from the beginning in Galilee to the end on Golgotha. They traveled the towns and villages with him, preaching the Gospel (the Good News), helped him with their assets, and were part of his movement.
Feminist theologian Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza has shown in her book In Memory of Her that Jesus' first followers were Galilean women freed from all patriarchal dependency, economically autonomous, who identified themselves as women in solidarity with other women and who met to hold meals in common, experience healing, and reflect as a group.
Jesus' movement was an egalitarian collective of followers with no gender discrimination. He did not identify women with maternity. He opposed the Jewish laws that discriminated against them, such as the repudium and stoning, and he questioned the model of the patriarchal family. In him, the option for the poor and emancipation from patriarchal structures were harmoniously combined. Women were Jesus' friends, his right-hand people and disciples who were with him until the most dramatic dying moment of the crucifixion, when the male followers abandoned him.
In Jesus' movement, women regained the dignity, citizenship, moral authority and freedom they had been denied by both the Roman empire and the Jewish religion. They were recognized as religious and moral agents without any need for mediation or patriarchal dependency. One example is Mary Magdalene, a figure of myth, legend, and history, and an icon in the struggle for women's emancipation.
Both secular feminist movements and theologies from the perspective of gender appeal to her, whom they consider a vital link in building an egalitarian society that respects difference. I think Mary Magdalene is like the profile Virginia Woolf sketches of Ethel Smyth: "She is of the race of pioneers, of pathmakers. She has gone before and felled trees and blasted rocks and built bridges and thus made a way for those who come after her."
Women were the first people who experienced the resurrection, while the male disciples were incredulous at first. That's the experience that gave birth to the Christian Church. One more reason to state that without them, Christianity would not exist. Quite a few leaders of the communities founded by Paul of Tarsus were women, according to the principle that he himself established in the Letter to the Galatians: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female."
However, things soon changed. Peter, the apostles and their successors, the pope and the bishops, appropriated the keys to the kingdom, made off with the staff of office -- which had nothing to do with the shepherd's crook to herd the sheep, while they imposed on women veils, silence, and monastic and domestic cloister. This happened when the churches ceased to be house communities and became political institutions and The Church.
When will such great injustice towards women in Christianity be repaired? You would have to go back to basics, more in tune with the emancipation movements than with the Christian denominations of today. It is necessary to question the supremacy -- the primacy -- of Peter, which involves the concentration of power in one individual and prevents women's access to shared leadership responsibilities.
You have to recover the discipleship of Mary Magdalene, "Apostle to the Apostles" as Elisabeth Schüssler calls her in a pioneering article by the same title in feminist research on the Christian Testament, referring to the recognition she was given in Christian antiquity. It is necessary to revive, to refound Mary Magdalene's Christianity, inclusive of men and women, in continuity with the prophets and prophetesses of Israel and with the prophet Jesus of Nazareth, but not with the apostolic succession, which has a marked hierarchical-patriarchal accent.
A Christianity forgotten among the fenced in ruins of the city of Magdala, birthplace of Mary Magdalene, which I visited three years ago, seven kilometers from Capernaum, where Jesus of Nazareth resided during the time of his public activity. In the excavations that are taking place in Magdala, an important synagogue was discovered in 2009. There is the subversive memory of the original Christianity led by Jesus and Mary Magdalene, which was defeated by official Christianity.
But from that Christianity buried under those ruins is emerging a vigorous, defiant, and empowered liberating Christianity through the egalitarian movements that are emerging on the margins of the great Christian denominations, as the first movement of Jesus, Mary Magdalene and the other women who accompanied him during the few months his public activity lasted, rose up on the margins.
It is necessary to inherit the moral and spiritual authority of Mary of Magdala as Jesus' friend, disciple, successor, and pioneer in equality. In short, Jesus of Nazareth, Mary Magdalene, Christine de Pizan, Virginia Woolf, the feminist movements, the denominations' grassroots communities and feminist theology are moving in a similar direction. That's the way new alliances in the struggle against gender violence and the social exclusion of women, created from below and not from power, must go.
Juan José Tamayo is a member of the Comité Científico del Instituto Universitario de Estudios de Género of the Universidad Carlos III in Madrid and author of Cincuenta intelectuales para una conciencia crítica (Fragmenta, Barcelona, 2013) and Invitación a la utopía. Ensayo histórico para tiempos de crisis (Trotta, Madrid, 2012), which has a chapter devoted to feminist utopia.