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Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Patriarchal Prerogative | Annunciation of The Lord

If you follow the standard Christian narrative about Jesus of Nazareth, you're reading about a life that began with violence. 

The 'Immaculate Conception' is often misunderstood, even among Roman Catholics. People assume that it refers to the conception of Jesus, when in fact it is about the conception of Mary. In Catholic doctrine, as in much of Western Christianity, the doctrine of original sin looms large. We're said to be born with this stain on our souls, meaning that we're damned from the start. Baptists and others softened this a little, with their talk of an ill-defined 'age of accountability.' Really they're only delaying the inevitable. In any case, for Catholic theologians of old, something had to be done about Mary. How could she, as someone born with the mark of original sin, be the Christ Bearer? To resolve it (I'm simplifying a great deal), they came up with the idea that God somehow intervened so that original sin was not transmitted to marry when she was conceived.

So apparently original sin is like an STD. 

In the 'canonical' New Testament, as accepted among Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant Christians, we're told that Mary was a virgin when Jesus was born, having been conceived by the work of the Spirit of God, and not by natural means. That was the 'Virgin Birth.' The day that Mary found out that she would be having God's baby (again, simplifying) is referred to as the 'Annunciation.' 

The angel Gabriel, we are told, showed up one fine day to inform Mary of her role in God's plan. She doubted, because of course she was a virgin. He explained that it was a God-thing, giving us one of the most popular lines of the account: "For nothing will be impossible with God."

People love that verse, found in Luke 1:37. It feels encouraging, as if anything that comes our way can be overcome by God, if it is his will. Evidently it also means that where God is concerned, consent doesn't matter.

As a former evangelical minister and missionary, I can attest that in conservative religious circles not much is usually said about consent. Oh, sure, there are exceptions. There are always exceptions. But those exception are not the rule. Instead, young people in evangelical churches and youth groups are admonished to avoid pre-marital sex. The boys are made to feel ashamed about masturbation, understanding it to be a sin against God. An outlet for the demands that millions of year of evolution make on them through the hormones rushing through their bodies is taken away from them, while they're also being told very strictly that sex outside of marriage is a sin.

The girls have it worse. They get the same message, with a lot more shame and responsibility to boot. A girl's virginity is perversely held up among evangelicals as a sacred totem that must be reserved, like a shiny brass ring, for whatever man marries her. It's a gift she holds onto just for him. Further, she is condemned if she dressed 'immodestly,' as this excites the passions of the boys (and men) to an extent that they are often let off easy if they have sex with such a girl, while she is looked on as a disappointment. The language used to teach girls these ideas is telling, with one of the most common comparisons being to chewing gum. No one wants to chew someone else's chewed come, and so likewise no one decent would want a young woman who isn't a virgin.

It's bizarre and sick. The very people teaching these things more often than not had active sex lives before they were married. Perhaps the shame they were made to feel about it through their beliefs is being transferred to the young people, in hopes that they will do better. It's a nearly impossible standard.

In all that, consent rarely comes up. Girls are told to always say 'no' until they're married, and boys...well...they'll be boys. 

My children had it somewhat different. Without really thinking about it I taught each of them about consent. This isn't something that most kids in evangelical circles seem to get. It doesn't help that a core element of the Christian narrative depends on true consent not being an option.

Reading the relevant verses in Luke, you'll see that nowhere was Mary asked if she would like to bear the son of God. She was simply told. In the end, she said, 'let it be with me according to your word.' Evangelicals will want to claim victory at that point, and that's because they don't understand consent.

When Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky became known in the 1990s I was studying for the minister. I listened as 'godly men' around me gloated over the weakness of the president, and clicked their tongues at the loose morals of his intern. I have since heard that one of those men was himself involved in extramarital affairs with multiple women in different parts of the country. None of the men in that program, nor among the faculty, were so without sin that they were worthy to cast the first stone.

What no one, at least that I can recall, ever considered was the power differential involved. Bill Clinton was President of the United States, the 'leader of the free world,' and Miss Lewinsky was a White House intern. As in any case of an affair between boss and worker, the validity of any consent was in question. She may have been a willing participant, but Clinton was terribly in the wrong for even considering such a thing, and not merely because he was already married. He had the power in that situation, and so without ever having to threaten or promise, his influence removed from him the ability to receive informed consent from an intern. They were not equals. 

As dramatic as the divide between US president and White House intern is, so much greater is that between the purported Lord of All Creation and a young peasant girl. Fortunately in the latter case, it never really happened. It's a story created as part of the legend of Jesus, similar to other such myths about gods and mortals in the ancient world. It was adapted to fit the mould of the tradition in which it was placed, explicitly leaving out the vulgarity of sexual union involving the deity. It was a story written, received, and passed along by men

Seeing the Annunciation for what it is, a scriptural and ecclesiastical exaltation of virginity and implicit lesson about the 'duty' of women, it's hopefully not difficult for someone to understand its role in shaping the worldview of those who take it at face value. 

Not too long after this account in Luke we read the 'Magnificat,' wherein Mary celebrates the overthrow of the powerful. If there's something to celebrate here, I'd say it's the endurance of Mary, a character in this story, despite the confining place she was inked into by the gospel writer. The Annunciation, like much of the ancient literature we have available to read, is a tale of patriarchal prerogative.