liberating mother mary
Updated: Jul 11, 2019
Korean women theologians are concluding that the idea that no human male is included in the conception of Jesus means that the world cannot be saved through the existing patriarchal system. Instead, by believing in herself and believing in God, Mary conceives a child outside of marriage—thus risking social criticism and perhaps even stoning—in order to give birth to the Messiah and open the way for liberation of her people and the potential for a radically transformed world order. Asian women also identify with Mary’s agony at the foot of the cross on which her son was crucified, for many have seen their own sons tortured, imprisoned, or massacred for political reasons because they have tried to bring justice and love into the world. They do not see Mary as the obedient servant of male-dominant society but rather as the radical disciple of God alone (Fisher 231).
I typically have a hard time with liberation theology. I find myself aligned with thinkers like Elizabeth Cady Stanton who “felt that the Christian Church as so deeply imbued with its own anti-female interpretations of Judeo-Christian traditions that it could not be reformed; a new, more rational religion was needed” (Fisher 223). I have dismissed liberation theology as ultimately ineffective in terms of effecting paradigm shift because institutional religion is inherently flawed and perpetuates the dominator model. Until reading the Smith and Fisher chapters on Christianity, I believed that Jesus’ teachings were not unique and could be found via a dedicated personal spiritual practice (I still believe that true religious experience is ultimately a personal phenomenon). After reading these chapters, however, I have a new appreciation for the foundational philosophies of Christianity and I am realizing that because of my own negative experiences with the modern Church, I have been doing exactly that which I counsel against: conflating spirituality and religion.
As an Italian-American woman raised within the Roman Catholic church, I have a very close knowledge of the disconnect, shame, guilt and sexual violence built into the fabric of that institution. The hierarchal structuring of the institution as well as the resulting interpretations of the Bible and its teaching renders the ideal woman as a white-washed, obedient, sexless, mindless vessel created for use by men. Mary, mother of Jesus, is depicted as “an impossibly chaste and docile symbol of oppressed womanhood” as a standard to which all women are held (Fisher 232). As I view this depiction of Mary alongside that of Eve, I cringe, and feel all the old resistance come boiling to the surface.
One thing that cannot be denied is the significance of theology on culture. Marcella Althaus-Reid, in her awesome book Indecent Theology: Theological Perversion in Sex, Gender and Politics, states that “every theology implies a conscious or unconscious sexual and political praxis, based on reflections and actions developed from certain accepted codifications. These are theo/social codifications which configure epistemologies, visions of life and the mystical projections which relate human experience to the sacred” (4). This means that even if we consider ourselves non-religious, as members of modern Imperialist culture our worldview is still likely informed on the deepest spiritual level by Judeo-Christian theology. And there is arguably nothing more damaging in Church doctrine than the treatment of sexuality. The psycho-spiritual and social trauma sustained on a mass level is profound, as we have seen in the sex scandals of the Roman Catholic church and the Evangelists.
The opening quote I offered changed something for me. I have always been resistant to the notion of the virgin birth and of the primacy placed on chastity. To read that Mary’s conception of a child out of marriage and without male involvement, risking social expulsion or even death, is interpreted as the world being unable to be saved within the existing patriarchal system blew something wide open for me. The fact that this understanding is being cultivated by Asian women in the context of militarized imperialism is simultaneously dazzlingly inspiring and heartbreaking: “Asian women also identify with Mary’s agony at the foot of the cross on which her son was crucified, for many have seen their own sons tortured, imprisoned, or massacred for political reasons because they have tried to bring justice and love into the world.”
Theology is inescapable. We can shun organized religion from our daily lives, but if we are members of modern imperialist culture, we are inevitably affected by it. For this reason, I see clearly the impetus for liberation theology: redefining that which defines a killing culture is an argument worth having.
Althaus-Reid, Marcella. Indecent Theology: Theological Perversion in Sex, Gender and Politics. New York: Routledge, 2000.
Fisher, Mary Pat. Women and Religion. New Jersey: Pearson Longman, 2006.