Rather like opera choruses who slink silently on stage after the death of the hero(ine) in the final act, it’s the women who gradually occupy centre stage after men have done their worst to Jesus. If you think that’s sexist, you’d better skip to another page. It gets worse.
Whether or not you think the Resurrection was a historical, video-recordable event (I don’t, because the Greek text doesn’t), it’s the women who come to anoint his body for burial and the first to perceive him as “risen” — that is, an experience stronger than and independent of physical death. Whatever your views of Jesus’ Resurrection, the account was carefully worded. The early church was leaderless after his death. Understandably they reckoned that those who had “seen” the risen Jesus had the greatest claim to be the new leaders. So, as Elaine Pagels maintains, women were the first priests in all but name, until the old boy network pushed them out, roughly in the middle of the second century.
In the Passion story, also sometimes in opera, a lone woman foretells the tragedy to come. During Holy Week there is the story of how a prostitute (often assumed, wrongly, to be St Mary Magdalene) anoints Jesus for burial (Mk 14). Again, the story is placed with precision. The Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem before Passover, when nationalist feelings ran high, would have put both clergy and soldiery on Orange alert. People would therefore have been expectant, watching his every move and waiting, like journalists, to trap him into saying something indiscreet.
For a woman, and an immoral one at that, to touch and kiss him lovingly in those circumstances is all the more astounding. What a contrast that gentle touch was to the humiliation and physical abuse he was subjected to a few hours later at the hands of men, let alone wrongful execution.
We should not infer from his gratitude to her that he had the enlightened attitude toward women held by some today. He was a first century Jew, with many assumptions that today we would call unenlightened, which is exactly what people in a century’s time will say of ours. He resisted those who tried to attribute to him roles (Lk 12:14) and value judgments (Mt 19:17) he did not recognize and we must resist doing the same. Mental images of Jesus often have little connection with the original.
Nevertheless, when we take into account his reaction to the woman at the well (Jn 4) a foreign woman, out on her own, daring to chat up a stranger the fact that he took her seriously shows a basic attitude towards fellow human beings that demolishes political correctness. It’s very different from the way that half the human race is still given a subordinate role in most Christian denominations today.
The causes are not difficult to state. Men and women think and react differently, so it is right that they should be treated differently. Developed countries are reluctant to send women into the front line or even to prison. It’s not so easy to see when protection becomes subjugation, then exploitation, so that even outright violence is just shrugged at.
At the time of the Shafia family’s “honour killings”, Margaret Wente did a valuable service by telling us not to get ensnared in fruitless debates about different cultures but to see the girls’ murders plainly and simply as violence against women. Forget for a moment that Tori Stafford was a little girl; her murder was violence against women. The class action against the RCMP, if successful, will reveal violence against women. We sometimes speak jokingly, in the abstract, of conquering troops indulging in “a spot of rape ’n’ pillage.” Translated, that means violence against women. (200,000 women and girls are known to have been violated, many by peacekeepers, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo alone, where rape has been used as a weapon of war for many years.) In Iran, it is the female victims of rape who are pronounced guilty and beheaded. That’s double violence against women, as it is when half-hearted murder investigations are carried out on Jane Does on Vancouver East Side, simply because they were sex workers.
If there is no energetic enquiry because sex workers found dead in ditches outside Winnipeg city limits are aboriginals, multiply the violence by three. (Ontario legislation has just come round to acknowledging that prostitutes are people.) Orchestrated resistance to a just claim also amounts to constructive violence, as shown by the resistance to equal pay for women. The glass ceiling, an old boys’ club device to prevent women being promoted in business, is a more subtle instance of violence against women. But that is what it is, even though 1 Corinthians 11:3 (“the head of the woman is the man”) is often interpreted, quite wrongly, by some Christians to justify it. Even William Barclay, no radical, calls that dom/sub text “of purely local and temporary significance,” absolutely not a model for all Christians for all time.
Happily, on Feb 4 of this year, the Primates of the Anglican Communion urged us Anglicans to “accept responsibility for our own part in perpetuating oppressive attitudes towards women.” Not all Christians are theologically illiterate.
If we can generalize about the differences between men and women (and who doesn’t?), it seems that women can role change more naturally than men: a female boss and her secretary can indulge in girl talk in the powder room but revert easily to their professional roles when back in the office. Men tend either to stay locked in old-boy-network mode, or else hide behind such rigid formality that you wonder if they run on batteries (the story doing the rounds is that Dick Cheney didn’t get a heart transplant but an implant).
The women in the Holy Week account make us think about how women act, and are acted against. They treated Jesus primarily as a fellow human being, just as he treated them.
Was he being unprofessional in doing so, or exemplary?
» Rev. Michael Skliros is a retired Anglican priest in Brandon.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition March 31, 2012