Monday, July 23, 2018
Recovering the Christianity of Mary Magdalene
July 23, 2018
On the occasion of the feast of Mary Magdalene, which is celebrated on July 22.
In her work Le Livre de la Cité des Dames ("The Book of the City of Ladies"), in the early 15th century, French writer Christine de Pizan noted the disparity between men's negative image of women and the knowledge she had of herself and other women. The men stated that female behavior was full of every vice -- a judgment that in Christine's opinion showed meanness of spirit and dishonesty. She, on the contrary, after talking with many women of her time who told her their most intimate thoughts, and studying the lives of prestigious women of the past, recognizes their gift for words and a special intelligence for the study of law, philosophy and government.
The situation then repeats itself 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 actors,therefore they are put under the guidance of a male who leads them along the path of virtue, understood and practiced patriarchally as obedience, submission, modesty, silence, humility (=humiliation), service, self-denial, sacrifice. They are denied the right to freedom on the assumption that they would misuse it. They are vetoed at the time of assuming leadership responsibilities because it is understood that they are irresponsible by nature. They are excluded as impure from sacred space. They are silenced because it is believed they are garrulous and say improper things. They are the object of every sort of violence -- moral, religious, symbolic, cultural, physical, etc.
However, religions would have hardly been able to be born and survive without them. Without women, it is possible that Christianity would not have emerged and perhaps not expanded as it did. They accompanied its founder Jesus of Nazareth from the beginning in Galilee to the end at Golgotha. They traveled the cities and towns with him proclaiming the Gospel (=Good News), they helped him with their resources and formed part of his movement on equal terms with the men.
The 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 dependence, with economic autonomy, who identified themselves as women in solidarity with other women and met to celebrate common meals, live experiences of healing and reflect as a group.
Jesus' movement was an egalitarian collective of men and women followers, without discrimination for reasons of gender. It did not identify women with motherhood. It opposed Jewish laws that discriminated against them, like the libel of repudiation and stoning, and it questioned the patriarchal family model. It harmoniously combined the option for the poor and emancipation from patriarchal structures. Women were friends of Jesus, trusted people and disciples who were with him until the most dramatic moment of the crucifixion, when the male followers had abandoned him.
In Jesus' movement, women recovered the dignity, citizenship, moral authority and freedom that both the Roman Empire and the Jewish religion denied them. They were recognized as religious and moral agents without the need of patriarchal mediation or dependence. One example is Mary Magdalene, a figure of myth, legend and history, and icon in the struggle for women's emancipation.
Both the secular feminist movements and the theologies from the gender perspective appeal to her, whom they consider a fundamental link in the building of an egalitarian society respectful of difference. Mary Magdalene responds, I think, to the profile Virginia Woolf draws of Ethel Smyth: "She belongs to the race of pioneers, of path makers. She has gone before and felled trees and blasted rocks and built bridges and thus made a way for all those who come after her."
Women were the first people who lived the experience of the resurrection while the male disciples were unbelieving at the beginning. It is that experience that gave rise to the Christian church. One more reason to state that without them, Christianity would not exist. Quite a few of the 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 no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female..." (Gal 3:28)
However, things soon changed. Peter, the apostles and their successors, the pope and the bishops appropriated the keys of the Kingdom for themselves. They made off with the ruling rod which had nothing to do with the shepherd's crook to pastor the sheep, while on women they imposed the veil, silence and religious or domestic cloister. This happened when the churches stopped being domestic communities and became political institutions.
When will such injustice to women in Christianity be repaired? One would have to go back to its origins, more in tune with the emancipation movements than with the Christian churches of today. It is necessary to question the supremacy - the primacy - of Peter, which implies the concentration of power in one single person and impedes women's access to shared leadership responsibilities.
We have to recover the discipleship of Mary Magdalene, "Apostle to the Apostles," a recognition she was given in Christian Antiquity and that feminist theologian Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza recovered in an article by the same pioneer title in feminist research on the Christian Testament. It is necessary to revive, re-found the Christianity of Mary Magdalene, inclusive of men and women, in continuity with the men and women prophets of Israel and with the prophet Jesus of Nazareth, but not with the apostolic succession, of marked hierarchical-patriarchal accent, of scholastic theology, that viewed the Church as a monarchy.
A Christianity forgotten among the walled ruins of the city of Magdala, Mary Magdalene's place of birth, which I visited five years ago, seven kilometers from Capernaum, where Jesus of Nazareth resided during the time his public activity lasted. In the excavations that are taking place in Magdala, an important synagogue was discovered in 2009. There is found the subversive memory of the original Christianity led by Jesus and Mary Magdalene that was defeated by official Christianity.
But from that Christianity buried under those ruins emerges a vigorous liberating Christianity, defiant and empowered through the egalitarian movements that are rising on the margins of the great Christian churches, as rose up on the edges the first movement of Jesus, Mary Magdalene and the other women who accompanied him during the few months his public activity lasted.
It is necessary to inherit the moral and spiritual authority of Mary of Magdala as friend, disciple, successor of Jesus, and pioneer of equality. We have to rebuild the line of continuity of the emancipating movements throughout history and establish new inclusive alliances, created from below and not from power, fighting against the social, political and religious exclusion of women that ends in gender violence, and against discrimination against women, which is intersectional in nature -- by social class, culture, ethnicity, religion, affective-sexual identity, etc.
Juan José Tamayo is a member of the Comité Científico del Instituto Universitario de Estudios de Género of the Universidad Carlos III in Madrid. Among his works devoted to feminism should be cited: Otra teología es posible. Interculturalidad, pluralismo religioso y feminismo (Herder, Barcelona, 2012, 2nd ed.); Cincuenta intelectuales para una conciencia crítica (Fragmenta, Barcelona, 2013), that offers and intellectual profile of fourteen women pioneers of equality; Invitación a la utopía. Ensayo histórico para tiempos de crisis (Trotta, Madrid, 2012), that devotes a chapter to feminist utopia; Religión, género y violencia (Dykinson, Madrid, 2017, 2nd ed.). Islam: sociedad, política y feminismo (Dykinson, Madrid, 2018, 1st reprint).