Friday, July 21, 2006

Feast of Mary Magdalene

July 22 is the feast day of Mary Magdalene. I'm travelling and may not have internet access, so I'm posting this early.

Mary Magdalene is one of the most prominent women in the Bible. There are three Marys in the New Testament. One is Mary Magdalene. Mary of Bethany is Lazarus’ and Martha’s sister. Another Mary is a repentant sinner who anointed Jesus’ feet with perfume; she is generally considered to be a prostitute. Roman Catholics have generally considered all three Marys to be Mary Magdalene. Eastern Orthodox Christians generally consider these to be separate persons. In 591, Pope Gregory delivered a sermon that conflated these women’s identities, and this tradition has continued.

She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary, we believe to be the Mary from whom seven devils were ejected according to Mark.

Generally, modern scholars believe that Mary Magdalene was not the repentant prostitute. Some scholars have theorized that she was in fact married to Jesus; it was extremely unusual for a Jewish rabbi to be unmarried, violating the commandment to be fruitful and multiply. The evidence is mainly circumstantial, and there is no way to prove or disprove this contention for a fact.

Mary has often been portrayed with long, uncovered hair, which had very sexual connotations at the time. This may be why Paul commands women to cover their hair in church. Mary is also often portrayed with red hair, and there are sexual stereotypes about redheads. The real Mary was not likely to have had red hair; see the Wikipedia entry for geographical distributions of redheads:

Jane Schaberg, a prominent feminist theologian, asks us to take a look at our views of Mary. Men in general tend to see women as either virgins or whores. In Christianity, we have the chaste Virgin Mary, who the Roman Catholic Church teaches was a virgin until her bodily assumption into heaven, and we have Mary Magdalene the repentant prostitute. Joan of Arc was a great military leader, but she also died unmarried and very likely still a virgin. We see sex as impure, and accord a special status to virginity. If not that, then chastity is better than nothing.

On the other end of the scale, we have the repentent whore. In Passion of the Christ, Mary Magdalene was played by Monica Bellucci, with her sexy Italian accent and sexy, um, other assets. Schaberg asks us, why not someone like Helen Mirren? Why all these sexualized images of Mary? Can men, or women, take Mary the sex kitten seriously? And for the more modern possibility, that she was Mrs Jesus, does she have to be married to Jesus to be significant? Could she not have been a major player on her own, not owned by a man?

Those views of women have shaped our perception of the Gospels over the centuries. Mary Magdalene was the first person who the risen Christ revealed himself. And yet, because no women were called as apostles, some Christian denominations deny ordination to women. Mary’s historical role could have been much bigger, but we may never know about it, because her role and the roles of other women could have been obscured from history. And so, it is possible that our theories of Mary are inkblot tests that tell us much more about ourselves than about Mary.

How can distorted perceptions of Mary and of women harm us? Two words: Magdalene Laundries. In 1998, an order of nuns in Dublin, Ireland sold some property off to real estate developers. Buried on that property were the remains of 133 women in unmarked graves. They were virtual prisoners of the Catholic Church, sent there for perceived or actual sins of the flesh to live in servitude. The stigma attached to promiscuity around the 1950s was so strong that if they had not become prisoners, they would have become homeless. In those days, the church was the state, so they became prisoners of the church.

CBS broadcast the story, and interviewed some ex-Magdalenes. They essentialy prisoners at hard labor, except that they never knew when they would get out. You could be claimed by a relative willing to take responsibility, but the chances of that were slim. Few were aware of the laundries, and no one knew what went on behind the walls. And unmarried mothers had their children taken away from them, and they were often given up for adoption.

There are two questions here for the Church in Ireland. One, how could you do this? Two, how could you possibly do this in the name of God? There has been no willingness to dialog on this issue, attempts to stonewall compensation claims, and the church took a long time to release the names of those buried in unmarked graves. It is as if they are stonewalling until the media forgets about this. Only Bishop Willie Walsh of Killaloe was willing to talk to CBS and express regret.

Here’s the link to the story:
More info at:

So, in view of all that, we have to choose which Mary to follow. I choose Mary the activist. For centuries, Christians have shared painted eggs on Easter Sunday, representing the new life of Christ. One tradition concerning Mary holds that she used her position to gain an invitation to a banquet by Tiberius Caesar. When she met the Emperor, she held a plain egg in her hand, and exclaimed, “Christ is risen!” Caeser laughed, saying that Christ could no more rise from the dead than the egg could turn red. Before he finished speaking, though, the egg turned red, and Mary proclaimed the Gospel to the entire Imperial house.

This icon of Mary by Robert Lentz was commisioned for Grace Cathedral in San Fransisco, to commemorate the consecration of Barbara Harris as a suffragan bishop. This Mary is gazing intently at the viewer, the egg in her hand about to turn bright red. Christianity is as much about the moment before the Resurrection as after it – has God deserted us, is it all really over, did they really kill Jesus? Faith deserts us, leaves us blind. But this Mary has witnessed the Resurrection herself.

Barbara Harris is the first female bishop consecrated in the Episcopal Church, and she is also African-American. Mary’s name is written across the bottom of the icon in Syriac, a dialect of Aramic. Lentz says, “The Gospel comes to us, not from Rome or Greece, but from the deserts of the Middle East. We owe our faith to Semitic Christians like Mary Magdalene. With this debt in mind, we should hear her voice in Palestinian cries for justice in our day.”

And I would like to add: we need more women in church! We need women in Christian history. We need women pioneers like the Philadelphia Eleven, the first eleven women to be ordained (albeit irregularly) in the Episcopal Church, like my friend who is a priest, a woman, a lesbian, a partner and a mother. We need women willing to die for their faith, like Mary Dyer, a Quaker activist executed in Massachusetts when Quakerism was illegal, like the four nuns executed in El Salvador by a death squad for helping refugees fleeing the civil war. We need women who are liberators, like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, promiment feminist critic of religion; like Mother Jones and Dorothy Day, promiment labor activists. Christianity has been limited by the images it presents to us. Come, help us reshape it.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Prisoner of Conscience of the month

Jesus himself was a prisoner of conscience. He was tried illegitimately and crucified by the Romans. In that spirit, every month (or two, or three, or whatever) I will highlight a prisoner of conscience. Not to compare them to Jesus, but to invite us to pray for their safety, their release, and the same for all other such prisoners.

Tayseer Alony Kate is a Syrian-born Spaniard, and a top reporter for Al-Jazeera. He somehow wrangled an interview with Osama bin Laden, a month after 9/11. His other reporting on al-Jazeera and CNN on civilian deaths caused by US raids embarrassed the Pentagon. He was sentenced to 7 years in isolation in a maximum-security Spanish prison, allegedly for aiding two terrorists. The Spanish government's evidence was somewhat dodgy. However, prosecutors failed to prove that he should have known that his contacts were terrorists, or that they were even instrumental in arranging the interview. All the evidence presented against him was tenuous and circumstantial.

Alony pressed bin Laden as to how a devout Muslim could justify indiscriminate murder. Bin Laden's justification was inadequate. He said that "good terrorism" deterred others from killing people in Palestine and in other places. As to the fact that innocent civilians died in the 9/11 attacks, bin Laden points only to the people who have been killed in Muslim lands for decades, that the Prophet's proscription of killing women and children is not "set in stone," that there are other writings that uphold it. Towards the end of the interview, his replies degenerated into threats and warnings against Muslim countries that "collaborated" with the enemy. Either way, Alony's interview with bin Laden did not exactly glorify terrorism. It merely exposed bin Laden as an idiot who is using the Palestinians as an excuse.

As for Alony, it does not look likely that he will be pardoned. To appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, his lawyers will have to prove that he was not given a fair trial in Spain. Mark Ellman, a british human rights lawyer who observed Alony's trial, said that it might be difficult to prove that Spanish legal procedure was violated. The Zapatero government is likelier than the last one to pardon him, but that will be difficult as well.

Information for this piece was taken from an article by Leslie Crawford in, of all places, the Financial Times. You should be able to find it on the FT website, but to view it, you'll need either a subscription or to take a free trial. Below is a prayer service in honor of nonviolent resistance that also offers intercession for political prisoners.

L. We pray for all people according to their needs ;
Response: God, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

L. We give thanks to those throughout history and today who have risked their freedom and their lives in the cause of justice:
For Jesus of Nazareth, who was imprisoned and executed by political authorities;
For Mahatma Gandhi;
For other prisoners and martyrs [invite people to name some...]

L. We pray for all prisoners of conscience and political prisoners throughout the world; we pray for a free and just society open to hearing diverse political views without feeling threatened. And pray for the release of those whose only crime has been to speak the truth.

L. We pray for all the political prisoners in this prison and in other prisons in Chiapas.

L. For those imprisoned unjustly, and for those that languish in prison without due process; we pray for just treatment and the rule of law.

L. We give thanks for the advances that Governor Pablo Salazar has made in releasing political prisoners and pray that further steps will be taken, especially on the federal level.

L. We pray for all prisoners everywhere and for their families; that those who are incarcerated may feel God’s presence and see the light of hope even in the darkest places; that the families whose loved ones are imprisoned may know God’s comfort during the time of separation, and that God will grant them strength and resources to carry on under additional economic and psychological burdens.

L. We pray for an end to violence, for the transformation of hearts of those that have used or would use violence, and for an infusion of God’s grace and peace into those hearts.

L. We pray for forgiveness for our complicity with unjust structures and violent systems, and for a cleansing of violence and vengeance from our own hearts.

L. We pray for all the poor and for thosse imprisoned by conditions of oppression and economic hardship, and pray for a just society under the reign of God in which all people will live togethere in freedom, gathering around the same table to enjoy the abundance of God’s gifts and grace.

L. We pray for wisdom and courage to help bring in the Reign of God that Jesus proclaimed; to liberate the captives and the oppressed; to give sight to the blind, and to manifest a year of jubilee.

L. We know that God hears our prayers, spoken and unspoken, and is near to all who call upon the name of God. In this assurance we commend all our prayers to the God of justice and Peace, who reigns over all creation now and forever.
Rx: Amen.

(Sponsored by: ECAP (Equipos Cristianos de Accion por la Paz). Tel. (in Chiapas): 678-5905; e-mail:
In conjunction with a vigil sponsored by SERPAJ (Servicio Paz y Justicia) – Morelos and students of UNAM, to be held in front of the National Palace, Mexico, D. F. on the same day)

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

A note to the Church of England

To the minority in the CofE who are wringing their hands about possibly being under the authority of female bishops, it should be pointed out that the titular head of the Church of England is the monarch, who is presently a woman. England has had several very capable Queens.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Some pithy quotes

In the code of the Satyagrahi, there is no such thing as surrender to brute force.
Mohandas Gandhi

I do not believe in death without resurrection. If they kill me, I will be resurrected in the Salvadoran people.
Oscar Romero, not long before his assasination

Recognize that being followers of Jesus is costly, and entails selfless love, conscientious resistance to evil, and renunciation of privilege.
Point 8, the Eight Points of Progressive Christianity

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
Martin Luther King, Jr

Nay, I came to keep bloodguiltiness from you, desiring you to repeal the unrighteous and unjust law made against the innocent servants of the Lord. Nay, man, I am not now to repent.
Mary Dyer, before being executed

"Let's get lunch."
Attributed to Pope John XXIII, after being elected

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

We-wha of Zuni

This is We-wha, a Zuni lhamana – a man raised as a woman, a ritualized third-gender role in the Zuni tribe. Many Native tribes recognized three genders, men, women, and a third gender. The French called such people berdache, but this term is frequently rejected as offensive by Native Americans because it derives from a French word meaning male prostitute. A better English term, closer to the Native understanding, is two-spirit, denoting a person with a female and a male spirit. The term is translated from Ojibwe. The modern LGBT community might recognize them as gay and/or transgendered, but two-spirits do not fit neatly into any of the categories, and it could be a mistake to characterize them as such.

In the Zuni tribe, lhamanas were non-warriors who were men, but who moved freely between the genders. They were initiated into male religious societies, became crafts specialists, and wore female garb. Two-spirits existed in most Native tribes, were often granted ceremonial spiritual roles, and were often accorded great respect. Among the Lakota, there was one ceremony at the Sun Dance that could only be performed by a Two-Spirit, which the Lakota call winyanktecha, or winkte. In one other account, raiding soldiers of a rival tribe begin to attack a group of foraging women. All run, except for one, who counters them with a stick. This woman is a two-spirit. The soldiers determine that they will not be able to overcome her, and they retreat. Here, We-wha is dressed as Kolhamana. Kolhamana is a kachina, a Pueblo Indian word meaning spirit, or life. The word Kachina refers either to these spirits, which may bring rain, good fortune, or other aid; those who dress and mask to represent them in religious ceremonies, and are believed to actually become the spirit for the ceremony; or masked dolls which are given to women and children of the tribe and are placed at home.

The traditional binary understanding of gender is insufficient in We-wha's case. Several sources I have seen claim that female pronouns are more appropriate for We-wha. The Whites that We-wha spoke with certainly did not understand. We-wha visited Washington, and met President Cleveland and his wife, ‘passing’ as a woman. Later, someone found out that We-wha was biologically a man, and thought that We-wha was a “bold bad man” playing a joke. This person, Clara True, threatened to expose We-wha’s identity. In fact, We-wha was sent, not to play a trick, but because We-wha was the most respected member of the tribe. Now, with the genocide and colonization of the Native Americans, many communities now shun such people.

A dogmatic Christianity that believes that only Christianity holds truth, and refuses to recognize the truth in other religions, is a tool of cultural imperialism. It allows us to pass off our own cultural prejudies as God's will. A Native American friend of mine maintains that many Native tribes would have recognized Jesus as one of their own, had his teachings not been forced upon them in reeducation camps. She also said that Christians had lost out on a great opportunity to learn from Native Americans, and that some Native Americans felt that they should not bother anymore to try to reach out to Christians, since we had never shown any willingness to learn. We-wha and other two-spirits offer non-Natives a chance to broaden our understanding of gender. Let us listen.

Monday, July 03, 2006

A reflection on the second-richest person on earth

This is Warren Buffett, nicknamed the "Oracle of Omaha" for his investing prowess. He is currently worth about $44 billion US dollars. He could stay in a 5-star hotel and drink Dom Perignon every day for the rest of his life. He is 75, so that probably won't be more than 2 decades, but still, he is rich.

However, he is giving practically all of it away. He recently committed to giving $37 billion worth of stock in his company, Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A BRK.B), to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Most of the other $7 billion, he will give away at his death. He lives in the same house in Omaha he bought in 1958 for $31,500. His annual salary is $100,000 - not even loose change by the standards of corporate America. The license plate on his old Lincoln Town Car was "Thrifty". He has almost always been an unpretentious man. He did buy a couple of corporate jets for his company, perhaps against his better judgment (he later called the plane "the indefensible"), and he does drink 5 cans of cherry coke a day. But, we can allow an old, rich man some minor vices.

Jesus commended an old woman for giving 2 copper coins at temple, which was all she had. How much more he demanded of the rich, asking a rich young man to sell all he had and give to the poor. When you have wealth, it's very hard to give it up. But, indeed, we are called to do so. There are Christians who point to Jesus' comment that "the poor you will always have with you" as an excuse not to do everything they can to alleviate poverty. To put it bluntly, these Christians are blind, perhaps wilfully blind. We may always have the poor with us. This means that we must never stop advocating and acting for meaningful solutions to poverty, and we must give of our wealth to the poor in our own communities and in more needy ones. Whether you are a conservative Evangelical or a progressive Christian, the social implications of the gospel - the injunction to aid the poor and the oppressed in every way possible - cannot be ignored. From the Mishna (Jewish oral law), Rabbi Tarfon says, "It is not up to you to completethe work (of perfecting the world), but neither are you free to refrain from doing it."

Saturday, July 01, 2006

I offer this image in good humor as a bit of a metaphor for what's happening to the Episcopal Church. I used to be quite interested in astronomy. This is the Cartwheel Galaxy, taken by Hubble. A smaller galaxy hit a larger galaxy head on, right through its core. Mind you, galaxies are mainly empty space, so it passed right through - most likely no stars have smashed into each other. The gravitational interactions created a ring where several billion new stars are forming - hence the cartwheel. When galaxies 'collide', a lot of stars also get flung off into empty space. I believe our Milky Way and the neighboring Andromeda galaxy are due to collide in several billion years. Our galaxies are spiral galaxies, but will likely merge to become an elliptical galaxy. More info here:

This is where it gets a bit partisan, but I see the ultra-conservatives in the Anglican Church (e.g. Akinola) as that small, intruder galaxy. When I say ultra-conservatives, I mean the minority of conservatives who believe that homosexuality is a simple problem that can be solved by persecuting the LGBT community in the legal arena as well as the religious one. I believe some African churches have already ordained priests and bishops in the US. I also believe that they will eventually leave the Episcopal Church. Conservative US bishops have already petitioned the Archbishop of Canterbury to oversee them directly, and they will likely ask to be recognized as the 'Anglican franchise' in the US. Either way, the Episcopal Church will likely not be quite the same. Perhaps events won't be quite as drastic as the Cartwheel galaxy (most merging galaxies become elliptical disk-shaped galaxies, which is the most common galaxy shape), but certainly some sparks will fly, harsh words will be exchanged, parishes will leave.

One should keep the big picture in mind. When galaxies collide, those collisions take place over billions of years. It will take about 3 billion years for Andromeda and the Milky Way to collide. The sun has been around for about 5 billion years, and it will be around for about 5 billion years more. The universe is 13.7 billion years old, plus or minus a bit. The Anglican Communion is only a few hundred years old. In just one hundred years, I will certainly be dead, barring drastic improvements in medical technology. In the eyes of the universe and in the eyes of its Creator, the struggles of the Episcopal Church are not even an eyeblink. We on both sides of the debate must focus on loving our neighbors and even our enemies, for (if traditional Christian teachings on the afterlife are correct) we will hopefully be spending eternity with them, and with God.