In an amazing confluence of Lenten disciplines, my reading of Elaine Pagels (Adam, Eve, and the Serpent: Sex and Politics in Early Christianity) and Michel Foucault (The History of Sexuality: An Introduction) and my participation in Lent Madness (though this is not really a discipline, it is just good fun) have led me to reflect on sexuality. Yay for Lent! A brief summary of what led me here:
A few weeks back, St. Lucy, a virgin martyr, was matched up against John the Baptist (in a stunning upset, in spite of a smidgen of voter fraud and a good deal of umbrage, she tackled the man who prepared the way). The most delightful (yet truly horrific) part of Lucy’s myth (I leave you to learn more about her story) is that as the guards came to take her away to be defiled in a brothel, the Holy Spirit so filled her that she was too heavy to be moved. So heavy, in fact, that even a team of oxen could not make her budge. Somehow she was finally moved but in the meantime her prosecutors decided not to have her raped first but to simply execute her.
Last week, I learned about Agnes of Rome who also was a virgin who was a victim of the Diocletian persecution. Also, like Lucy, prior to her martyrdom, she was to be defiled in a brothel. On the way to the brothel, as she prayed, hair grew all over her body thus clothing her. Upon arriving at the brothel, anyone who tried to rape her was struck blind, thus protecting her virtue. Again, the assailants tire of the effort and finally decide to lead her straightway to her execution.
Both of these stories (with all their brutality) raised important questions to me about gender and sexuality. I outline here some (yet to be fully developed) thoughts. I appreciate any insight that you may have to offer.
- What are we communicating by venerating victims of sexual assault and gender based violence? How do we share our story in such a way that it does not valorize subjecting oneself to abuse. This is a vital issue–the host of the Oscars and The Onion reminded us that violent sexism is alive and rampant. The vote to renew and update the Violence Against Women Act passed the Senate with moderate resistance and the GOP in the House is working to eliminate provisions that protect certain groups of women (so those women deserve to be abused?). How can we ensure that the church is not part of the problem (which sadly, too often, it is)?
- How exactly does it work that a woman loses her virtue when she is victimized? The logic here seems incredibly backward. The myths implicitly accept this framing in their explicit demonstration that God miraculously protected the women’s virtue. The stories in all their strangeness led me to question the logic yet I know that even still today this is commonly how the issue is framed (hello honor killings and massive wartime rape).
- Why are female virgins lifted up as examples? How many male saints are notable because of their sexual purity? What is the message we are sending here? Some earlier female martyrs, Perpetua and Felicitas, are both sexually active and have families. Their story is still frightfully horrific. How did other types of Christianity in the 2nd-4th century deal with sexuality?
- Finally, the issue of body image in these texts is noteworthy. As I was tweeting I playfully (and perhaps too irreverently?) referred to Lucy as “the heavy” and Agnes as the “hairy preteen virgin martyr.” As I tweeted I realized that these epithets tapped into two current struggles that women may have when it comes to body image (Did that stop me? No. Should it have? Maybe.). Do the stories today reinforce unhealthy conceptions about the ideal woman’s body? Is this an older problem than I had previously realized?
So there you have it, my thoughts. I’d love to hear yours!