A Feminist Christmas Story

March 22nd, 2008

Singing:  Silent Night, Holy Night, All is come, All is Bright, Round Young Virgin, Mother and child, holy infant so tender and mild…

Wait a minute.  Please raise your hand if you have given birth or been present at a birth.  Please keep your hand raised if you would have described that birth as silent or quiet.  Now imagine that birth happening in a barn, 2000 years ago or so, no mid-wife or other trained person to help with the birth, no pain killers, just a husband who must be deeply confused after hearing from an angel of god that his child about to be born is the messiah predicted in his religious text.    With all of that going on can you imagine it a silent night?  I certainly cannot.  Why then is one of the best known Christmas songs glorifying the holiness of the silence?  Why is silence revered over the beauty of the miracle of birth?  Why are we not remembering the cries of Mary, as she, a young woman, was giving birth?  Why do we not remember that as one gives birth it is filled with blood, other fluids, and cries of joy and pain?  

It is without question that Christianity has been controlled, written, and professed by straight, white, men, for generation upon generation.  However, as radical and progressive people we know that wherever there is oppression there has always been resistance.  Individuals and communities we would call womanist and feminist people of faith today, have been rethinking and retelling Christianity since the first words were written down more than 1500 years ago.  Unfortunately, because of patriarchy, many of these earlier stories have been lost.  The great joy to hold on to is that many women, gender nonconforming folks, and allies have been rewriting, rethinking, and retelling these old stories over the past few decades.  We have the opportunity to listen and use the tools they have created to do this work on our own.  

Today we have the opportunity to look at Christmas.  Our focus is on a feminist Christmas story.  The logical question to ask is, how do we create a feminist Christmas story?  If we know that dominant Christianity has been written by and controlled by White, straight men with immense amounts of power and that many of the early interpretations of Christianity by those of other genders has been lost, how do we really create a feminist Christmas story?  This is where the perspectives and tools created by our modern feminist and Womanist storytellers comes in.  

It is in the first chapter of Luke that Mary is visited by Gabrielle, an angel of god.  A common way to read the interaction between Mary and Gabrielle is one of command.  One could see Gabrielle’s charge to Mary as a demand from God.  One could read of a God that sent Gabrielle to tell Mary that she was to have a child that God had impregnated Mary with without her consent.  The logical conclusion to reach from this interaction would be that god raped Mary.  

However, what if, instead, we allowed Mary to have her own autonomy and power?  What if we used some of the tools we have been given by modern interpretations of the Bible?  The original word used to describe Mary as a virgin in this story has nothing to do with any sort of sexual fidelity.  The Ancient Greek word simply means that Mary was a young woman, likely a teenager.  After Gabrielle speaks Mary says, “Let it be with me, according to your word.”  What if Mary was pregnant?  What if she had sex with Joseph, or even some one else, and Gabrielle was telling her that God had plans for the incredible child she held in her womb?  What if Mary was about to be pregnant and Gabrielle was telling her of things to come?  The possibilities here are endless.  We weren’t there.  Maybe it was a miracle conception or more likely maybe that was the story needed in order to fulfill the prophesy from Isaiah.  Quick time out, please, no one in here tell my Nana that I am saying these things, she’s a good Irish Catholic and every word  I am speaking is heresy and I don’t want anyone worrying about the damnation of my soul.  It is Christmas time, and we’re here to celebrate, even if it is in a different way.  

Feminist, Womanist, and Liberationist perspectives of theology call us to be suspicious.  We must look, deeply, into who benefits from certain stories.  We must look at who is writing, when they were writing, and for what purpose they were writing.  Christianity, generally, give us two women, Mary Magdaline, the supposed prostitute and Mary, the mother of Jesus, the supposed sexual virgin.  Women are then given two options, be pure and pious or dirty and sinful.  The only true Christian example of womanhood is the submissive, obedient, silent mother who suffers in peace.  

What if we looked at Mary differently?  What if we looked at all the women within religion differently?  Delores Williams, an inspiring Womanist theologian gives us the tool of wilderness experience theology.  Williams begins her analysis with the story of Hagar, the mother of Ishmael, Abraham’s first son.  Hagar had been a slave of Sarah’s, Abraham’s wife who could not bear children.  The tradition of the time allowed for a man to have a child with one of the slaves in the house if his wife could not bear children.  Hagar became pregnant and things did not go well between Hagar and Sarah after that, not to mention the fact that she was, essentially, a forced surroget mother for Sarah’s child.  By tradition, the child that Hagar was pregnant with would not be hers but would belong to Sarah and Abraham in order to carry on the family line.  To make a very long story short Hagar entered the wilderness, she ran away from Abraham and Sarah, God’s chosen ones, Hagar’s slave holders.  Hagar ran away and made her home in the wilderness of what we now call the Middle East, the Ancient Near East.  Hagar developed a relationship with God on her own terms within her own context.  Though born an Egyptian and held in slavery by Jews Hagar had a relationship with a God different from either tradition.  Hagar is the only person who is attributed, in the entire Bible, of having the power to name God.  Among other things, Williams gives us the tools to see the stories of women in the Bible as stories about survival, resistance, and community building.  Hagar’s son, Ishmael, went on to be one of the first in the lineage leading to Islam.  

It is up to us to find Mary’s experience of the wilderness.  After Mary finds out from Gabrielle that she is going to bring the Messiah into the world she leaves for her cousin, Elizabeth’s house.  Mary goes off, away from the man she is to marry, through the wilderness, the unknown, an unwed young pregnant woman.  At the time such a woman could be put to death.  Mary was in the business of survival.  Upon her arrival to her cousin’s house she began to prophesize about the future of the child she was carrying.  The prayer she made was once outlawed in Guatemala because of it’s revolutionary nature.  Mary was calling for resistance to the current system.  We only need read the words, “He has shown strength with his arm and has scattered the proud in their conceit, Casting down the mighty from their throne and lifting up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good thing and sent the rich away empty.”  Mary was prophesying a new order.  This is not a woman I would think of as submissive or quiet or simply suffering in silence.  This woman claimed to have the son of god in her womb and that things were going to change.  She, as mother, was going to bring a child into the world who could be a miracle in his life, regardless of how he was conceived.  

The story of Christmas is, of course, focused on Jesus’ birth.  Mary’s journey did not end at her cousin’s home.  Mary joined Joseph on the long journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem.  She was already quite pregnant by then.  The actual story of the birth is very short.  We heard it just a bit ago.  I think it is important to note that the story leading up to Jesus’ birth and the journey of his mother, in particular, fulfills some of the most radical and faithful stories in the Christian Bible.  

The feminist story of Christmas does not end with Mary.  A very popular feminist slogan, you’ve probably seen it on bumper stickers, pins, and t-shirts, claims, “the personal is the political.”  That works vice versa, the political is the personal.  When talking about feminist and Womanist theology we can add another piece.  The personal is the political is the theological and the theological is the political is the personal.  This cycle gives us a reason to reinterpret the story of Christmas.  Our statement of purpose reminds us to, “study and practice universal religion.”  I wonder if there is actually such a thing.  However I think the point is that there is much to be learned from many of the faith traditions out there.  More importantly there is much to be learned from those who approach their religious and spiritual practice with a similar political lense that we hold.  

The personal is the political is the theological.  I consider myself a feminist.  I was raised by a mother who called herself a feminist when she was 12 years old.  My stepfather has long called himself a feminist. In my personal life I have been blessed with parents who encouraged me to question where the things I learned came from.  I was blessed to have a mother who made sure I knew that oppression existed in the world and that we could do something about it.  The personal is the political.  When I was 10 years old my mother took me to the Stand for Children  We rode a bus together with a bunch of other families over night to D.C.  It was my first protest.  I heard Sweet Honey in the Rock, I heard children get up and speak for themselves, I saw thousands upon thousands of people marching for what they believed in.  I bought a pin that read, “This is what a feminist looks like”.  

The political is the theological.  How many of you have heard about what is going on right now in New Orleans?  Let me share with you a bit of an overview that I found from Democracy Now reporter, Jacquie Soohen,

“Since Hurricane Katrina emptied New Orleans of its residents, a battle has been waged over the future of the city. The struggle over what the new New Orleans will look like and who will return to live there largely depends on the future of the city’s public housing developments. And this past week has been a crucial showdown in that fight.

The city began demolitions two Wednesdays ago, which, if completed, will destroy 4,500 units of public housing, making way for mixed-income neighborhoods with only 800 units of public housing, an 82% reduction in size. 41,000 affordable rental units were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, and the city is facing an acute housing shortage. Rents have almost doubled since before the storm. But HUD, the federal housing authority, is pressing ahead with the demolition.

50% of families who want to but are unable to return to New Orleans make less than $20,000 a year. Watching the demolition of part of their housing development from across the street, residents of B.W. Cooper believe that the city does not want them back.

The homeless population of New Orleans has doubled since the storm. Every night, over 12,000 New Orleanians sleep under bridges and crowd into the city’s parks. Hundreds pitch their tents and blankets in a plaza in front of City Hall within sight of the mayor’s office. According to UNITY, a charity that is working with the city to relocate the plaza’s homeless, at least a third of the homeless there work steady jobs.

Things have only gotten worse throughout the week.  On Friday the City Council voted unanimously to go forward with the demolition of the housing.  The fight continues but the City Council has tragically turned against the people of New Orleans.  

Just yesterday things got worse.  Homeless folk who have been camping in Duncan Plaza since this summer will no longer be visible from the mayor’s office window as they have been pushed out by city police and officials.  However, the homeless population may surge again as FEMA begins closing their trailer parks, which house more than 50,000 families across the region. In the next six months, all of FEMA’s trailer parks will be emptied.

Why is this relevant?  The personal is the political is the theological.  In the story of Christmas Mary and Joseph were in search of a place to stay.  They knocked on door after door. They were denied over and over again, there was no room for them in any inn.  Joseph was not a wealthy man.  Joseph was a carpenter in a small town.  In just a couple of days he was going to be providing for a child as well.  

My friends, there appears to be no room for poor and low-income folks in New Orleans.  The residents and activists have been knocking on doors.  They knocked on the door of the federal government and George Bush made it clear that there was no room for him in any inn he controlled.  They knocked on the door of their own City Council.  Their own local politicians slammed the door in their faces.  Not only did they slam the door but the police attacked, tasered, and arrested over a dozen activists trying to fight for justice.  People around the country are showing up in New Orleans to stand in solidarity and yet so many are about to lose homes and voices.  

On Friday I was at the annual memorial service for those who have died of homelessness in Massachusetts.  Representative Byron Rushing spoke, among others, and he started by saying, “Each year I come here and each year I come in sad and angry and each year I leave sad and angry.”  That is not what we are going to do today.  The season we are in is about hope and possibility.  Christmas is about hope for change to come with leadership from a peace loving soul.  Solstice, which just passed, is about hope for the Earth as the days begin getting longer and spring is surely coming.  Hanukkah, past nearly two weeks now, is about hope of a community that came together through the hardest of war and oppression.  The New Year is just around the corner where we can all have hope in new beginnings and a fresh start.  

This is another time to reach for the teachings of our feminist and Womanist storytellers and scholars.  So often Christians turn to the blood shed theology of Jesus.  They get stuck in the dead, dying, suffering Jesus crucified on the cross.  I had a professor this passed semester, Valerie Dixon, who is working on a book on nonviolent Christian Ethics that calls us to think of the blood lived theology of Jesus.  We all have blood flowing through our bodies.  Regardless of our faith, politics, race, gender, identity of any sort, we all live with blood in our veins and the work we do would not be possible without blood flowing through us.  Dr. Dixon invites us to remember the blood flowing through Jesus’ body as he practiced his ministry.  However, it’s Christmas.  Jesus’ ministry has yet to begin.  What if we think of the blood flowing through Mary.  What if we think of the blood that flows through all mothers and all those who have struggled to bring the message of liberation to those in need and those who are fearful?  We can think of each human body who has stood outside of the city hall in New Orleans.  Not only can we, but we need to.  We must remember that we are not in this alone.  We are often taught that it just takes one person to make a difference.  While we can each do something on our own it is with communities and movements of people that we find liberation.

 For some more heresy, Jesus didn’t save the world.  Stories of Jesus can inspire people to do justice and love centered work, but he was just one man.  Jesus may have been far more enlightened than many of us, but his message continues to exist because people have continued to expand on it and bring it to others.  

We must remember that each person comes into the world through another.  What if we think about the blood that flowed as Mary gave birth?  New life and new possibilities do not come without some pain and fear.  This is not to say that we need more martyrs but that we must know that while tears are being shed and hearts are breaking in New Orleans, at this moment those same people are gathering and strategizing how to survive and thrive anyhow.  Here in our community we have the potential to make some changes to help ourselves grow.  It is scary to move away from things that have long been secure and venture out into something that is new.  We fear failure, we fear losing a sense of who we are, we fear all sorts of things.  The good news is that we have the capacity to feel that fear and continue anyhow.  We are not bad to be afraid. We are human.

So what is a feminist Christmas story?  Christmas is the story of an unwed, teenage, mother who had faith.  Christmas is the story of a family that was trying to survive under an imperialist government.  Christmas is the story of a young feminist who knew that things were not right and that she, as a mother, was going to bring a child into the world to affect the political sphere, bringing down the mighty from their throwns and that her faith, her theology, her knowledge of god was what she could use to teach her young son how to be become the prince of peace many call him today.  The personal is the political is the theological.  

Our Christmas hope cannot stop with ourselves.  I have petitions for you to sign.  We must stand with our family in New Orleans.  We must be in touch with our congress people, nearly all of whom claim to be Christian and remind them of Mary’s prayer, “He has filled the hungry with good thing and sent the rich away empty.”  There are people who need just one home and other people who own 10.  It is time for New Orleans to return the homes to homeless and for a feminist Christmas story to be heard by all those in power.  

To close, I rewrote the words to the first verse of Silent Night.  I welcome you to join me in singing.

Joyous Night, Mary’s Night
From her womb, gave Christ life
In a barn Mary cried
Joseph there with her lost and tired
A child born into love
A child born into love

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