Being Fully Human, cycle of violence, divine within, domestic violence, Easter, emotional abuse, Jesus, mary of magdala, partriarchy, resurrection, sexual abuse, shame, social isolation, women

A Call to Resurrection

Surviving Domestic ViolenceIn my book Sacred Sex I retell Will Willimon’s experience preaching in a croweded auditorum. He was given an introduction that far exceeded what he thought he would deliver and he remembered a teacher saying something like if you aren’t sure you have enough to say, say it louder. So he got up before the congregation and said, “And what is the most significant event our faith has to offer?” Then he bellowed out the answer, “The Erection!” Now that’s one Easter message I would have enjoyed hearing!

My message won’t be quite that provocative. I believe the Easter story and the Easter myth itself transcends the barrier of religion and that even if we don’t follow the Christian calendar, we can still find value in its premise. So I want to approach this story through the eyes of Mary of Magdala and dedicate this message to the women who have struggled throughout history into our modern times to find a place of genuine acceptance and inclusion as equals in society.

Mary at the Empty Tomb

What a poignant Easter text we find in John 20:10-18, so sad and so beautiful. Mary has come to the tomb of her beloved Jesus. You can imagine how she must have felt. Numbness fighting to still the shock still reverberating in her. Going through the motions of preparing the body, the one last way in which she can feel close to the teacher she followed and the man she most certainly loved. Feeling lost and alone and yet finding some comfort in these rites and rituals.

And then even that solace is taken from her. There is no body to touch or to cry over. There is no last time to speak her sorrow while gazing at the face she held so dear. Instead there is the certain knowledge that the joy has gone out of her life, that feeling of hollow emptiness and despair. The sense of being small and insignificant and utterly alone.

Indeed, 2000 years ago, women as a whole were considered small and insignificant. Women were nobodies. Women were property. They had few of the rights of men. They could not be witnesses in court or file for divorce. They could not be taught the Torah. They were to be nearly invisible in public. Public meals were for men only, and if a woman did show up she was assumed to be a prostitute. Women lived on the margins of society.

Jesus’ Treatment of Women was Scandalous

And for a brief period of time, Jesus elevated Mary and the other women he interacted with to a glorious height of equality. His actions toward women were nothing short of scandalous. He defended them, spoke with them, healed them, ate with them, and even learned from them. Mary was part of the intimate group that traveled with Jesus. She knew personally the warmth of his unconditional love.

And now so profound is her despair that when Jesus speaks to her she doesn’t even recognize him… until he speaks her name. When she is named, when she is recognized for who she is at a time when she feels again as if she is nothing. When she is recognized for who she is at a time when she has lost everything. When she is recognized for who she is, she recognizes her Teacher. She is filled with new life. In a very real sense it is Mary who is now resurrected.

So why in this moment of mystical reunion would Jesus torment her further by telling her not to hold onto him? Shouldn’t he have swept her into his arms and held her as she wept? Shouldn’t he have offered her words of comfort and peace, assuring her of his presence, promising her this was real and that he was there, right there with her?

John wrote the most mystical of the four Gospels that were included in the official Canon. In it Jesus is always using common language to say something beyond the obvious. So when Jesus says, “Don’t hold onto me.” Was his statement as obviously cruel as it sounds or could it be that this man who so often used common language to point to the spiritual is at it again? “No Mary, you don’t have to hold onto me. You don’t have to cling to me, because everything you saw in me is now in you. That same divine presence that you sensed in me, I now challenge you to see in yourself. This is what I came to teach and show you. See in yourself the Spirit you saw in me.”

Mary’s Call to be Fully Human

In the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, a Gospel that did not make it into the Canon, Jesus tells his followers that the son of Man dwells inside them. And Mary responds by saying that Jesus is calling them and us to be fully “human.”

Perhaps to be fully human is to recognize that what Jesus says is true. To understand that it is within our humanity that we are all resurrected. Perhaps it is only in fullness that we learn not to belittle ourselves and dismiss our gifts and abilities. Perhaps it is only in human fullness that we come to realize that we are also fully divine.

The Terror of s

I’d like to tell you now about another women. I was returning with a group from Extended Grace from a Renaissance Festival when we stopped at a gas station. One of the teenagers with us went into the restroom where she was approached by a young lady asking her for help. Her name was Tanika and she looked barely 16 years old. Tanika explained that her boyfriend had beaten her for the last time and that she had finally left him for good. But he had followed her and when she stopped at this station for gas he took over her car with her child in it. I called the police. I left Tanika with the police officers and my card and told her to call if she needed any help connecting with legal assistance or a shelter.

None of us expected to meet Tanika that day or to find ourselves face-to-face with the terror of living in abuse. More often we can ignore the problem. More often it stays behind closed doors. But as unusual as our encounter with Tanika proved to be, there is nothing unusual about domestic violence. In the United States, someone is beaten by their intimate partner every 9 seconds. For 12.4 million people, home is not a safe place. Today even many teenagers view violence as an unavoidable aspect of their relationships, and 1 in 3 will experience physical or sexual abuse or threats during the year.

The face of abuse is shared by all races, all ages and all socioeconomic classes. Domestic violence has severe physical and emotional consequences for its victims. And while 1 in 3 women will be victims of abuse sometime during their lifetime, studies also show that as many as 1 in 4 domestic abuse victims are men. The FBI reports that 2/3 of all marriages will include violence at some point. Domestic violence is just as real and just as prevalent in heterosexual and same sex relationships.

“People Like Her Just Like to Get Hit.”

I never heard from Tanika again. According to the frustrated police officer, her boyfriend was in a lot of trouble for a lot of things, but in the end Tanika never pressed charges. The officer was angry with her – and obviously ill-educated about abuse. I was dismayed when he said to me, “People like her just like to get hit.” I tried to explain. I tried to help him see. I hope I made some impact.

Why would anyone stay in a violent relationship? This is probably the most commonly asked question – and for good reason. It seems so logical and obvious that these victims should just get out of the house. But the reality is that there are a lot of barriers to freedom. The reality is that the most dangerous time for a person who is being battered is when they leave. A full 75 percent of women who are killed by their partners are murdered after the relationship is over or as it ends. But that’s only one of the barriers to freedom.

Another is that many women and men don’t think of themselves as being abused. Abuse is generational and those who have grown up in abusive homes are far more likely to become the victims of the perpetrators of violence when they have grown. Abuse at its core is about control. It’s one person scaring another person into doing something. And it’s not just physical abuse but sexual abuse, emotional abuse, psychological abuse and financial abuse. Domestic violence may include insulting and name-calling, isolation, intimidation, and threats, which may be directed at children or other family members.

Cycle of Violence

Another important concept to understand is the Cycle of Violence. The relationship doesn’t start out being violent. In fact, the abuser most likely begins as a seducer, buying presents and showering praise and attention on their partner. Eventually, though, this calm gives way to a tension-building period. In this phase, minor incidents begin and communication breaks down. The victim feels the need to placate the abuser and “walk on eggshells.” Eventually, the tension is released in an incident, which may take the form of physical, sexual or emotional abuse.

The next stage is a return to seduction as the abuser apologizes and may cry. A honeymoon stage ensues complete with gifts. And promises are made that it will never happen again. But at the same time, the victim is blamed for provoking the abuse, subtly planting the idea that it was their fault and that they can keep it from happening again. As time goes by, the abuser denies that the abuse ever took place — or at least that it was as bad as the victim claims.

In the calm that follows, the incident is forgotten. Some of the promises are kept and the victim is left with hope that the abuse is over. As the tension building stage begins again, the victim remembers that it is their responsibility to behave in a manner that will not bring about the abuse — which eventually recurs no matter what they do. The entire cycle may take more than a year to complete – or as little as a few hours.

Another barrier is religion. We all know that you cannot possibly use scripture from any religion to justify abuse. Nevertheless, we also know that scripture can be misused. Citing passages to “submit to your husbands” or to “turn the other cheek,” Christian men and women often feel compelled to stay in abusive relationships because of their marriage vow. For this reason, victims of abuse often feel doubly abandoned by God.

Beating Ourselves Up

When all is said and done, I find the best explanation for why people stay in abusive relationships was captured by Don Miguel Ruiz. He said that if you are with someone who is beating you up more than you beat yourself up, you will leave. But if you are with someone who is beating you up just a little bit less than you beat yourself up, you will stay forever. I also believe that people who beat up other people, never beat them up more than they beat themselves up emotionally.

I know Ruiz named my experience. I used to believe in my own unworthiness. My life was so flawed. I was so flawed. There was all this crisis and trauma in my life. I had failed at so many times in my life. I wanted somehow to make a difference, but realized that I probably never would. Then I met Dr. Rudy Featherstone, a truly incredible man. He as a retired professor of theology. A proud black man with snow white hair who spoke glowingly of his wife, his children and his grandchildren. And most joyful person I think I have ever met.

Recognizing the Divine Within

Rudy really shook me up that day. I couldn’t argue with him. Whatever energy permeates our universe, I am part of that universe and that energy is necessarily part of me. When I am fully human, when I am fully me, then I have to admit that the package of body, thought and emotion that is Barbara Lee is not all I am. When I am fully human, I realize that I am also divine.

This is the Good News of the Easter story. It is the refreshingly good news that has been proclaimed throughout the history of all faith traditions. It is the life giving good news that we can never be separated from God because however we define God, we live in THAT and THAT lives in us.

Odds are you know someone who is being abused – even if you don’t know it yet. There’s a good chance that someone hasn’t glimpsed the divinity within themselves. As helpless as we often feel, there are things you can do to help. Let them know you understand domestic abuse. Tell them clearly that it is not their fault and that there is NOTHING they can do to prevent the violence. If they choose to open up, listen nonjudgmentally. Offer to help with childcare, transportation and storage of valuables. Encourage them to contact Every Women’s Place or the Center for Women in Transition or to call the domestic abuse hotline.

A Reason to Hope

Try not to get discouraged. And above all, try not to blame. Victims of domestic abuse are suffering already from a great deal of shame and a sense of hopelessness. Don’t blame yourself if they don’t make the decision you would choose for them. Your role is to offer friendship, hope and a space for the possibility of change. It isn’t your responsibility to fix someone else’s world. More than anything victims need you to model what a loving relationship really looks like. They need a reason to hope.

I am pretty public now about my own history of abuse because I have met too many people who only trusted me with their story after I shared my own – after they knew that I would not judge them for the circumstances they were in.  As a result of my experience, I ended up founding and chairing the Muskegon County Domestic Violence Healthcare Initiative. In that role, I gave a presentation on Domestic Violence at the Lion’s Club. After presenting all of my information, I opened it up for questions. A man sitting in the middle of the room who didn’t even bother to stand up said, “I know someone whose wife won’t let up on him until he hits her. Sometimes there’s just nothing else you can do.” And a number of others seemed to nod their heads and murmur their agreement.

There is NO excuse for violence. Not against women, not against men, not against children. There is NEVER an excuse for one person to use violence in any form against another.

Domestic violence alters the landscape of our lives and the lives of those we love. Violence by an intimate partner, rips deep valleys through the sense of self; builds mountains of shame and guilt and isolation; twists, bends, and distorts notions of love and relationship, and shatters into rough and jagged pieces the spirit of hope.

A Prophetic Voice

We need to be the prophetic voice. We need to be the voice of Jesus and Dr. Rudy Featherstone for Mary of Magdala and Tanika. We need to call all of those who suffer at the hands of abuse by name so that they may also be resurrected to new life.

Individually we can make a dramatic difference in the life of a friend or loved one. Together we can create a society in which we will no longer ignore or excuse acts of domestic violence. It begins with us, it begins here and it begins now.


Spiritual Inquiry Discussion Question:

Is domestic violence caused by the patriarchal values of our culture, or is domestic violence caused by individual socioeconomic and/or psychological factors (e.g. substance abuse, mental illness, unemployment)?

Progressive Christianity, Spiritual, Uncategorized

Women in the Early Church

Women in the Early ChurchAnd Help Him Comfort by Mira
God has
a special interest in women
for they can lift this world to their breast
and help God

Once upon a time you might have told your children the story of Thecla as you tucked them into bed at night. Once upon a time Thecla was considered by many to be the most important being outside of the Trinity – more important even than Mary the mother of Jesus. But that was once upon a time. Chances are few of you even recognize the name. So I am going to tell you a bedtime story – the Story of Thecla as recorded in the second century in The Acts of Thecla.

Thecla was a virgin engaged to be married. One day as she sat in her window, she heard the Apostle Paul preach. So enraptured of his message was she that she remained in the window listening to him for three days and three nights. Her mother became distressed and called for her fiancé but neither of them could change her mind. She decided to follow Paul.

The fiancé and the mother were upset and both Paul and Thecla were arrested. Because Paul was an outsider, he was flogged and exiled from the city. But because Thecla was a resident, she needed more drastic punishment. Her mother pled with the governor to execute her and he ordered her to be burned at the stake. She was tied up and the fire was lit.

Miracles Abound
But then a miracle occured. A thunderstorm began and doused the fire, allowing Thecla to escape. She found Paul and begged him to let her follow him. He allowed her to come with him but wouldn’t baptize her in case she changed her mind and proved to be unworthy.

While they are in Antioch a wealthy man named Alexander is immediately inflamed with passion for Thecla and offers to bribe Paul for her. But Paul denies even knowing who she is. Alexander tries to force himself on her, but Thecla publicly humiliates him, tears his cloak and pulls off his crown. He has her arrested and she is condemned to be thrown to the wild beasts.

When she is brought to the arena, however, she is repeatedly protected from harm. A lioness instead of killing her, licks her feet and the day ends with Thecla still alive and well. The next day she is again put in the arena where another lioness kills a bear in her defense but is then killed by a lion. More beasts are sent in. Thecla notices a vat of human eating seals (really!) and decides this may be her last chance for redemption.

She throws herself in the vat shouting, “In the name of Jesus Christ, on this final day I am baptized!” A bolt of lightening hits the vat, killing the seals and allowing Thecla to escape once more. More miracles occur until finally the governor gives up and lets her go.

She dresses like a man and heads out to find Paul once more. She tells him what has happened and not only does he let her travel with him, he commissions her, “Go and teach the word of God.” And Thecla lived happily ever after.

A Female Hero

Obviously this book was not written in order to promote conformity with the traditional social order. This tale of a female hero of the faith is about disruption, escape from worldly trappings, and spiritual union with the divine. Thecla’s values are a very different set of values from the world at large. And this book written presumably to entertain does much more – for it instructs, encourages and even advocates for the leadership of women in the church.

Many women appear in Scripture and other literature: widows, workers, financial backers, Mary Magdalene, Lydia, the Corinthian women, Philip’s daughters, Ammia of Philadelphia, Philumene, the martyr Perpetua, Prisca, Maximilla, prophets, healers and counselors. Many whose names have been lost to us.

Some early Christian communities ordained women, allowing them to celebrate the Eucharist and to baptize. Some allowed women to serve as deacons and priests. And many testified to their faith as virgins or by suffering the torture of martyrs.

Although they are a diverse group, today we can look at documents written by and about these women and discover some of their common beliefs. Karen King offers this list:

  • Jesus was understood primarily as a teacher and mediator of wisdom rather than as ruler and judge.
  • Reflection centered on the experience of the risen Christ more than the crucified savior.
  • Direct access to God was possible for all through receiving the Spirit.
  • In Christian community, the unity, power, and perfection of the Spirit was present in the now, not just in some future time.
  • Those who were more spiritually advanced gave what they had freely to all without following any hierarchical order of power.
  • An ethics of freedom and spiritual development was emphasized over an ethics of order and control.
  • A woman’s identity and spirituality could be developed apart from her roles as wife and mother (or slave). Women (and men) could exercise leadership on the basis of spiritual achievement apart from gender and without conformity to gender roles.
  • Overcoming social injustice and human suffering were seen as integral to spiritual life.

We also read in these texts an unexpected wealth of Christian imagination of the divine as feminine. For example, Wisdom, a feminine figure of God, enters into the lower world and the body in order to awaken the innermost spiritual being of the soul to the truth of its power and freedom.

Mary of Magdala

Another woman who plays a prominent role in the Bible is Mary Magdalene. We don’t know all that much about Mary of Magdala, but what we do know is significant. She was probably named Miriam and she was from the fishing village of Magdala. She was a follower of Christ and probably a financial backer of his ministry. She was a demonic – from whom Christ drove out 7 demons. But she was not a reformed prostitute.

This distorted picture of Mary Magdalene emerged in the year 591 when Pope Gregory the Great delivered a sermon in which he combined several Biblical women into one. It took a while, but I’m happy to report that the Vatican officially overruled Gregory on this matter in the year 1969. Nevertheless, the image of the prostitute continues to stick – we see it in the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Jesus Christ Superstar and we see it in Mel Gibson’s movieThe Passion of the Christ.

Mary is, however, mentioned by name in all four Gospels. This woman waits at the foot of the cross during Christ’s crucifixion after his male disciples have fled. This woman helps prepare Jesus’ body for burial. This woman finds an empty tomb. And this woman is the first to see Jesus Christ resurrected. This woman is sent to tell the others – an Apostle to the Apostles. This woman, Mary Magdalene, provides the thread of continuity that is central to the story of Christian history. It’s amazing, really, that there are any women at all mentioned in these ancient texts. And for Mary to play such an integral role is nothing short of astonishing! Once again we find that it is the marginalized who prevail and who are entrusted to deliver the Word of God.

It may be that Mary’s reputation was tarnished on purpose because she posed a threat to male control of the church. Some of the Gnostic gospels indicate that she and Peter were rivals for leadership of the early church and that Mary had a superior understanding of Jesus’ teaching. King believes that by making Mary into a reformed whore, the church effectively killed the argument for women’s leadership and for recognizing women as fit recipients for divine revelation.

How interesting that such maneuverings would contradict the testimony of the Scripture itself! Because here the portrait we are given of Mary is stunning! Mary’s role in the story of Jesus the Christ is nothing short of extraordinary!

The Subjugation of Women

Let’s back up for a minute. If we’re going to be honest, we really can’t blame the early Church for single handedly subjugating the role of women in society. That had been going on a long time before Gregory the Great climbed into the pulpit.

Even in Paul’s writings we are privy to the arguments in the church over whether women should pray and prophesy in church. Already patriarchal patterns are replacing the discipleship of equals that Jesus had instituted. Church authority became modeled after imperial Roman rule, with its well-defined hierarchy and subordination of women as norm. Churches had a choice to make and they chose to conform to the status quo, even as church fathers such as Tertullian argued vehemently against allowing women, inferior in his belief to men, to baptize or to teach.

Every single variety of ancient Christianity that advocated women’s leadership was eventually declared heretical, and evidence of women’s early leadership roles was erased or suppressed.

This erasure has taken many forms. Collections of prophetic oracles were destroyed. Texts were changed. In Romans, Paul sends greetings to a woman named Junia. But deciding that women can’t be apostles, translators transformed Junia to Junias – the name of a man.  Even the word church is an interesting choice for this new institution, for it comes from a Greek word meaning “belonging to the lord, the patriarch, the master.” Whereas the term used in the Bible – ekklesia – means assembly, something closer to a discipleship of equals.

Integral Philosophyer Ken Wilber has interesting observations about the role of males and females. Hetraces these roles throughout known societies as they have gone through evolutionary stages. He notes that in the foraging and horticulture stages, there is no difference between the kinds of work a man and a pregnant woman can do. In these stages, some societies have male deity, some have female deity and some have both male and female gods. But when societies develop to the point where they become agrarian, when they start using heavy tools, things change. A pregnant woman cannot so easily handle a horse drawn plow. The role of women becomes inferior to men and the idea of female deity disappears.

It is only after the society passes through the Industrial stage and enters into the Informational stage that men and women can again perform necessary, society enhancing tasks with equal ability. So isn’t it fascinating that in our information age culture there is now a renewed interest in the notion of female deity and the sacred feminine?

Suppression of the Sacred Feminine

So it was that in Jesus’ world some 2000 years ago, women were considered inferior beings. Both official and folk Judaism were deeply male centered and patriarchal. Women were nobodies. Women were property. Women were impure. They had few of the rights of men. They could not be witnesses in court or file for divorce. They could not be taught the Torah. They were to be nearly invisible in public. Any public meal was for men only, and if a woman did show up she was assumed to be a harlot. Women lived on the margins of society.

In this setting, Jesus’ attitude and actions toward women is striking. He defends them, speaks with them, heals then, eats with them, and even learns from them. Women were part of the intimate group that traveled with Jesus. They were among his most devoted followers, as well as financial supporters. And in the post-Easter Jesus movement, women took on leadership roles.

Jesus brought forth a radically different social reality, a major cultural revolution that would lead Paul to declare, “In Christ there is neither male nor female.”

But so disturbing was this change in the social order that many tried, and eventually succeeded, in suppressing it.

Two years ago I preached at a church outside Grand Rapids. I was invited because it was “Women’s Sunday” and because I was working as a leader in the church hierarchy. Between the two Sunday services was an adult discussion time. I was there to answer questions and hear concerns. I was not prepared for the hostility that met me; or the man who declared, “The church has been going downhill ever since they decided to ordain women!”

Such is the legacy of suppression that today female ordination continues to be denied in many religious environments and questioned by pastors.

Fortunately, not everyone shares these views or these values. Remarkably, the formal elimination of women from official roles of leadership did not eliminate women’s actual presence and importance to the Christian tradition. What is remarkable is how much evidence has survived in spite of systematic attempts to erase women and their models of leadership from history.

Evidence that we can continue to build upon as we are reclaimed and reshaped by the living spirit of God. For this is not a woman’s issue, but a call for the church and for all God’s people to understand the ways in which men and women can be who they are and be in community with each other. For justice is the work of the whole community, male and female together.

Invitation for Reflection:  Please add your comments below…

1)      Why was the early church so threatened by female leadership?
2)      Are men and women significantly different? How? Why?
3)      Where are men and women still not treated as equals today?