Tag Archives: equality

Hungry for equality? Service is the great equalizer.

The usual motley crew getting ready to trespass into the secret testing site.

At most of the protests in which I have been involved, starting with nuclear testing and El Salvador (and this year moving into climate change, gun control, police violence and immigration), I have often been asked the same question, “Is this protest doing any good?”

This better do some good

I suppose all protesters have to ask that question, at some, level, at least because they had to leave work or miss lunch, most of them, to add their voice to the cries of outrage. And “work” generally cares about itself, not justice, so who knows what it might do to them? So “This better do some good!”

I think “Is this effective?” or “Will this work?” is a typical empire question when asked in the United States. Especially here, people think they have the right and the power to make things happen, to remake the world according to their desires, to effect progress. So, especially here, all public discourse has to do with power — and most private discourse does, too, unfortunately (at least I know a lot of people who are in a perpetual power struggle). Work harder, work smarter, but get something done. Get what you deserve. Control things. Manage situations. Protect your future; it depends on your choices now.

We all seem to think we are in charge of the world and our own destiny. By extension, a protest is generally about exerting enough power to get the government/corporations to change.

Sometimes it works. During my lifetime I have seen pressure influence the government to change. For instance, the government stopped nuclear weapons testing at Mercury, NV in the 90’s after arresting 15,740 protesters (me included). Social action works often enough to keep hopeful, infuriated people in Hong Kong in the streets for weeks. I feel compelled to raise my voice quite often, myself. But there always seems to be some further travesty to shout about, doesn’t there?

Being effective is a secondary benefit

But being effective is not my main interest. My hope does not rest in getting Moscow Mitch McConnell to do the right thing nor rest in Mitch getting canned by Amy McGrath. Obviously, our protests about nuclear weapons have not stopped Putin, Trump and unknown numbers of Iranians and Israelis from plotting a nuclear solution to various problems (like hurricanes!).

People power accomplishes some great things, but it is amazing how often the evil powers beat the people at the game of domination. People who protest and organize to get power are often discouraged. If they think Jesus is all about dominating  the worldly powers or is just as preoccupied with exercising power as they are, they quickly get sorely disappointed with God for refusing to play the power game at all.

Of course, Jesus has miraculous power…

But here is the main thing Jesus shows us about how to get justice and equal rights:

You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. – Galatians 5:13

In the “empire,” people are constantly jockeying for the best deal for themselves. They become experts in the law in order to protect themselves and fight against people who steal their freedom and their wealth (or the possibility of wealth). Here the freedom to be autonomous is a paramount value and the only ethic is “Do no harm,” which includes harm to identity. Equality under the law is the main thing people hope in and what they protest about.

But I don’t protest just because I want to get the government to do good. I protest as a prophecy because the grace of Jesus gives me the freedom to BE good. I’m not just trying to get something; I AM someone. I don’t hope to get freedom from some evil power; I have already been given freedom by God. I don’t use that freedom for myself, like I formerly used whatever small freedom I felt I had before I rose with Jesus, in order to get more power; I use it to serve. Like Jesus, I use my freedom to become like a slave to others, bound to love. I think that is what Paul’s teaching is all about, and I wish it were a more common teaching today among his people.

Service, given freely,  will make us equal

People thought Jesus was a fool. Paul is quite aware he is a fool, as far as the rulers of his age are concerned. People still think getting out on the streets as a witness to the goodness and freedom of Jesus is foolishness. What does it get done? How can it give the protestor a proper share of the domination? Many people find it fruitless. Why not forget about the whole mess and frantically become as powerful as possible, carve out a piece of the capitalist pie as a hedge against whatever terrible thing is coming instead of trying to change things?

Here are my two reasons to show God’s goodness in the face of the corruption of the world:

Being a slave to all is good in itself. Don’t get me wrong, I think demanding equal rights under the law is a good thing. It is very hard for a traumatized person to feel free enough to serve anything but their self-interest. And the powers that be around here have created the huge injustice of income stratification and privilege hoarding to overlay their traditional racism and rapacious capitalism in the U.S. We’ve got to say “NO,” and loudly. But the freedom of walking into daily life free of its clutches, only constrained by the love that fills us and dominates our reactions is more precious than anything the “administration” can accomplish.

But what’s more, serving one another is the actual great equalizer. Being the family of God in service like our brother Jesus makes us all one in love – at least that’s what He’s hoping. Even when people get so-called “equal rights,” for which Americans think they are famous, even the light of the world, they still face discrimination every day and then a Trump regularly shows up to make it all worse. Does fighting for and waiting for equal rights make anyone free? Does going into denial and pretending Jesus makes me free in some otherworldy way make me free? — more than the former, perhaps. But I think what really makes us free is what Paul says: “Use your freedom to serve” or “choose the slavery of love.” That makes us all equal in character and purpose and gives us the experience of being free we crave.

I have rediscovered this truth repeatedly over my sojourn many times. One of the places it first became clear to me was in Nevada when I trespassed in the nuclear test site on behalf of the world and got “arrested.” Actually, I was just detained by bored policemen,  handcuffed with plastic bands and put in a chainlink cage for a little while because they did not really want to bother with a bunch of people clogging up the courts with their righteousness. Strangely enough, we accomplished something. But more, I accomplished being free. I faced my fear of the power: too little power on my part, too much power on the government’s part. Neither power made that much difference, but faith acting in love just WAS different. Being a locked up “slave” of the state for a while has been educational ever since.

Our common service, mutually compelled by the love of Christ makes us equal. Hopefully the world will come to resemble that truth. But I’m not waiting for a miracle that already happened; I want to live it now. According to Paul, we are free to live it now in Christ, and no other power on earth can give that freedom or take it away.

Mary Magdalene restored

mary magdaleneOne of the most maligned women in the Bible is actually a very interesting example of someone who dramatically overcame her past and pioneered a new direction for others to follow as she followed Jesus. I am talking about Mary of Magdala — Mary from a little town not far from Capernaum called Magdala, the Magdalene.

A new investigation of this Mary

I approve of the new interpretation of Mary Magdalene seen in the picture above. I am happy for her to get reformed from all the nonsense that has been pasted on her over the years. For instance, long about the 600’s, the church in Europe went into a new phase of reinterpreting the Bible and women got a raw deal. This can especially be seen in the way the two most famous Marys in the New Testament were developed. Mary the mother of Jesus and Mary Magdalene end up on the opposite ends of the stereotype of women: Mary as an untouchable, perpetually virgin saint and Mary Magdalene as the all-too-touched, perpetually repentant sinner. Instead of the saved people Jesus and Paul so obviously saw women to be, they end up stereotyped and back in oppression.  I find that painful.

Mary Magdalene even ends up with a derogatory word attached to her stereotype: maudlin. You may have never used that word, but if you read English novels, you may have run into it. It means affectionate or sentimental in an effusive, tearful or foolish manner (especially when you’re drunk and self-pitying). It is a very British word. The ways Brits pronounce Magdalene is “maudlin.” So her name means weepy.

mary magdalene maudlinIn church art, Mary has almost always been pictured as a loose women who is weeping, since her main scene in the Bible is one in which she is weeping: “Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying” (John 20:11). For some reason the church kept her weeping, even though in just a few more lines of John she recognizes the risen Jesus and becomes the apostle to the apostles.

Mary Magdalene’s background

We know just a little from the Bible about Mary Magdalene, although she is mentioned much more than most of the twelve disciples. Here is one of the places we get some details: “Soon afterward he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out,  and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s household manager, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means” (Luke 8:1-3).

Seven demons is having an extreme problem! But nobody knows what kind of life Mary Magdalene had been living before she met Jesus. When Luke says women followed along with Jesus who “had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities” he could be talking about a variety of things we regularly see: a person who is sick physically, relationally, mentally, or certainly spiritually.  Later in church history, the legend of Mary Magdalene was used to discredit sex in general and to disempower women, so her “demons” were characterized as the torments that accompany someone who is promiscuous. She was tagged as a prostitute, for which there is no shred of evidence in the Bible or even in the extra-Biblical books from the early years in which she is mentioned. Regardless, she had been consumed by something horrible and Jesus freed her. His grace made her thankful and devoted. That we know. Just last week one of us told me they felt a spirit leave them when they gave up a sin. So we understand what Mary felt like and why she was so tied to Jesus.

Mary Magdalene the lead woman apostle

She was not only tied to Jesus, she was important to Jesus. During the time of her life recorded in the Bible, Mary Magdalene’s name is one of the most frequently found. In Matthew, Mark and Luke the women who were with Jesus are listed. Each time, Mary Magdalene’s name appears first. In Luke the three main disciples are listed and Peter is listed first.  I argue, with many, that Mary Magdalene must have held a very central position among the followers of Jesus. She could have been the lead woman like Peter was the lead man.

At the time of the crucifixion and resurrection Mary Magdalene comes to the fore. Uniquely among the followers of Jesus, she is specified by name as a witness to three key events: Jesus’ crucifixion, his burial, and the discovery that his tomb was empty. In Mark, Matthew, and John, Mary Magdalene is the first witness to the resurrection. She is the one to tell the disciples about the resurrection and to give them a message from the Lord. So Mary Magdalene was the “Apostle to the Apostles.” After her first report to the other disciples that Jesus was risen, Mary Magdalene disappears from the New Testament. She is not mentioned by name in the Acts of the Apostles, although she may be one of the women mentioned in Acts 1:14. Her next acts are undocumented.

In the time of Jesus himself, there is every reason to believe that, according to his teaching and who was in his circle, women were unusually empowered as fully equal. In the early church, when the norms and assumptions of the Jesus community were being written down, the equality of women is reflected in the letters of St. Paul (c. 50-60), who names women as full partners—his partners—in the Christian movement. In the Gospel accounts that were written later, evidence of Jesus’ own attitudes can be seen and women are highlighted as people who had courage and fidelity that stood in marked contrast to the men’s cowardice.

Mary Magdalene’s deformation

As the church was co-opted into the state and then when the church of Rome became the state after the Roman empire fell apart, Jesus’ rejection of the prevailing male dominance was eroded in the Christian community. In the books of the New Testament, the argument among Christians over the place of women in the community is already a regular feature. Mary Magdalene became the poster child for the argument as time went on. I say she was a leader, an apostle to the apostles. She became a weepy prostitute repenting of her sins.

The Mary Magdalene creator, Gregory I
Gregory I dictating a chant

Here’s an example of how her deformation happened. In the late 500’s Pope Pelagius II died of plague and one of the most influential popes ever succeeded him, Pope Gregory I (c. 540-604).  When the disciplined and brilliant Gregory was elected pope he at once emphasized penitential forms of worship as a way of warding off plague, among other things. His reign was marked by the codification of spiritual disciplines and thought; it was a time of reform and invention. But it all occurred against the backdrop of the plague, a doom-laden circumstance in which the abjectly repentant Mary Magdalene, warding off the spiritual plague of damnation, was created. With Gregory’s help, she was transformed from leader among women to maudlin prostitute.

In about 591 Pope Gregory I gave a series of sermons that rewrote Mary’s history. He took a few of those Marys in the Bible, squashed them together and made them into a composite Mary Magdalene. He said that Mary’s seven demons were the seven deadly sins, heavy on the lust. He said that she was the same woman who poured ointment on Jesus — repurposed ointment that formerly made her a nice-smelling sex partner. She was the one who washed Jesus’s feet with tears and dried them with her wantonly uncovered hair. He said,”She turned the mass of her crimes to virtues, in order to serve God entirely in penance.”

Thus Mary of Magdala, who began as a powerful woman at Jesus’ side became the redeemed prostitute and Christianity’s model of repentance — a manageable, controllable figure, and an effective weapon and instrument of propaganda against her own gender. What most drove the anti-sexual sexualizing of Mary Magdalene was the male need to dominate women. In the Roman Catholic Church, as elsewhere, that need is still being met.

The church did her wrong. It may have done you wrong and may do you wrong again. But I pray that you maintain your own sense of how Jesus freed you and let you touch him and made you his messenger, even if someone tries to steal that from you.  Mary Magdalene is a cautionary tale about how the story of redemption can be warped. But she is also an example of how the truth retold has a remarkable capacity to shake off the corrosion of the misguided. People overcome what loads them down and stride into their fullness when they follow Jesus.