Christ and The Women Of The Body

Michelangelo's Pieta
Michelangelo’s Pieta

 

It’s been said before and it will be said again, but Catholicism has a palpable paganism to it that is very hard to miss. It’s there in the saints and the relics and the icons, many of whom are directly appropriated or adapted from many traditions, myths, and regions of the world. There are the rituals, the costumes, the long holy festivals, the murmuring, and decadence. Catholicism is deeply conservative but I always grew up thinking of Protestants as being conservative and severe with their prohibitions against gambling and drinking and smoking. An old school Irish Catholic was the Monseigneur of my childhood parish and he saw no sin in reviewing the racing form with a cigar in his mouth just outside the church and he enjoyed beers in our small downtown and he certainly knew his way around a swear word or two.

On one hand, any good Catholic will scowl at the comparison to paganism but start up talk about stripping the church of its art, music, pageantry, statues, incense, strained glass windows, or Mariology and see what kind of reaction you get. Get rid of the saints? Are you out of your mind? How on earth would you get through the passage of ordinary time? Who is going to intercede on your behalf for anything from getting a semi-sinful relative out of purgatory or preventing you from choking to death on a fishbone as a child?

Though the Catholic Church has absolutely condemned the body in many of its teachings, it affirms it when it doesn’t overly concern itself with micromanaging the immediate affairs of its congregants. When the political battle for the legal status of abortion is removed, one can see an absolute adoration of fertility. The fixation on suffering is that on the corporeal experience of pain and immutable corporeal reality. The central thesis of the religion is that God took human form and experienced everything that the body does to better know and love us and out failings. It was to take on a first person experience of this body that God designed rather than the view of the creator. There is an active theology of the body at play and this hardly the first or the most astute commentary on it so much as a slight furtherance to encourage consideration of a preferential option for female body workers as those who tend to something sacred.

I say this as I continue to move from solidly from sex work to birth work and into death work. These rites have been largely in the domain of the feminine for a long time but under patriarchal capitalism shifted into the domain of men and law. Sex work is criminal and so often is independent birth and death work by women. When men manage these affairs, there is less legal interference and often the law is constructed to privilege their process of obtaining control in the first place.  The more I serve the body in its sexual, reproductive, and deconstructive modalities the more I can see that we are not in charge. I can point to things I know to be biological law and I can point to instances that break those laws. I know that we do not have ultimate control of life or death. Working with sexuality, birth, death and also with harm reduction for substance use and overdose compels these thoughts after awhile.

The Christ story is one of God born unassisted from a broke teenager burdened by laws that condemned her reproductive choices: an unmarried pregnancy was already a major problem within her own culture but on top of that there was a death sentence ordered for her child. Mary and her son, Jesus, were in mortal danger of patriarchal laws claiming authority over her reproductive choice. She had to be a brave young woman not in some ‘not choosing abortion’ trite way but because she was willing to violate all kinds of laws (in modern parlance, Mary would be violating federal, state, county, and city laws all at once and would probably have Interpol on her ass today for moving across borders to commit these crimes) to carry out God’s will. It’s exceptionally notable that she gave birth unassisted because some douchebag innkeeper wouldn’t even make room for a miracle in his hotel.  The fabled Magi of the bible are pagan astrologers of traditions that are not the regional economic dominants who foretold this revolutionary birth in their own traditions but there are also medieval traditions that talk of midwives who heard the cries of the Christ child and came immediately to attend and assist in the stable.

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Complementarians v. Egalitarians

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Although the world of Christianity has a strong diversity of cultures, rituals, philosophies, and people the issue of gender relations seems to break firmly into two camps. There are the egalitarians who believe in equity and equality between genders and there are the complementarians who believe that there are two sexes of humans that are equal in God’s eyes but whose innate differences and roles are designed to complement one another on earth.

I’ve been obsessed with complementarianism for a long time. Feminism was a no brainer for me as a stubborn and willful child stepping into atheism long before I could even fit a bra (let alone burn one in defiance) coming of age in the Catholic Church. Being told I was fundamentally unfit for a leadership role in my community or my household made me blood boil. As a sixth grader I used to pronounce that I was going to be the first PERSON to walk on Mars, not the first woman and if women could be astronauts then being a priest or the pope was obviously a possibility. The ‘complementarian’ bullshit didn’t work on me. My logic at the time was that if a woman was the best person to make sure a family had a clean and hygienic home, oversee daily child development, plan meals, and stay on top of all the work and rigor that goes into homemaking than she was probably more than adequately prepared to run a parish.
IMG_3302The Catholic Church made me feel so much that being a woman was a punishment. Eve was responsible for the downfall of the first man and the rest of humanity for all time. Nevermind the fact that God decided to take on human flesh and redeem everyone (even women!) and opened up a New Testament where the gates of heaven were reopened and salvation was for all who wanted or needed it. If Eve had offended God so gravely, wasn’t it more than apparent that through the Cross, she was forgiven for that ill-fated snack of an apple? Why was the church of man still insistent on carrying out a punishment on all women, for all time?

Patriarchy is not God’s design for the world. Patriarchy was very much a product of sin, not part of the original design.

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Progressive Christians I’m Reading

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I’m a native California girl who was born and raised in Los Angeles, attended university in Santa Cruz, and made my home in the San Francisco Bay Area. What this means primarily is that my veins look like the highways and byways that connect California’s biggest cities with major arteries like the 5, 101, or 1 and small little farm highways known as “blood alleys” that haven’t exactly aged with grace. As a child, I was a wizard at car reading. Later I lost that superhero ability but to my surprise digital books don’t seem to bring on the nausea. I was delighted to read all of Erin Lane’s Lessons in Belonging From A Church Going Commitment Phobe.

The more progressive Christian books I read, the more I can parse out their culture and cadence. The first author to get me sucked in was Nadia Bolz-Weber who blogs as the “Sarcastic Lutheran.” Erin Lane is a “Holy Hellion.” Both are feisty spirits who have written a kind of Christianity that doesn’t make me run screaming from the room and actually gets me to sit down for a moment and think about things like Grace and God’s Love without leaving a mass-produced and hollow cheap candy saccharine cough syrup taste on your tongue.

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The Christian church is said to be having a masculinity crisis but I would say that’s been happening for a long time now. It has been said that church attendance could be increased if hipster chic manly men could appeal to their fellow bros-in-Christ and bring forward artistinal patriarchy. (I’m talking to you, Mark Driscoll.) But it’s unreal to suggest that Christianity is losing its patriarchal edge, it just has God forsaken hair and terrible patterned wall paper. It’s not Christ that makes Christianity a hard place to be a feminist. When I hit puberty and realized that my Catholic upbringing had a lot to answer for when it came to the way it regarded my anatomy and that anatomy’s role in our collective salvation and I washed my hands of the business. I fled out of a sense of self-protection. The women with the most power in the church always seemed to be the ones who affirmed patriarchy the best and lost touch with what it meant to be a girl coming up under it.

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