Why the Internet meme that God raped Mary is wrong (COMMENTARY)

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Sandro Botticelli (Alessandro Filipepi), Madonna and Child (Madonna col Bambino),  also called Madonna of the Book (Madonna del Libro), 1480–81;  Tempera and oil on wood panel, 22 7/8 • 15 5/8 in.; Museo Poldi Pezzoli, Milan; inv. 443. Photo courtesy of National Museum of Women in the Arts

Sandro Botticelli (Alessandro Filipepi), Madonna and Child (Madonna col Bambino), also called Madonna of the Book (Madonna del Libro), 1480–81; Tempera and oil on wood panel, 22 7/8 • 15 5/8 in.; Museo Poldi Pezzoli, Milan; inv. 443. Photo courtesy of National Museum of Women in the Arts

(RNS) It’s beginning to look a lot like a God-raped-Mary Christmas.

That’s right. While the majority of Christmas refrains are inspiring, this screed is a shrill one-note drone desperate to steal the joy of any holiday sap within earshot.

Calling Virgin Birth tales “rapey,” Salon gives readers a history lesson on the ancient context that produced them.

“Within a society that treats female sexuality as a male possession, the only consent that can be violated is the consent of a woman’s owner.” It’s not surprising, then, that Mary was raped by God. “Consent,” the writer claims, “isn’t really part of the story.”

Except consent is not only part of the story — it’s the cornerstone of the story.

The Virgin Birth is part of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. When the Angel Gabriel tells Mary that God will “overshadow” her in her virginal state, she replies: “I am the servant of the Lord. Let it be to me according to your word.”

It’s only after she gives her consent that the angel departs from her.

In a helpful article in The Atlantic, Karen Swallow Prior calls Mary’s response a “radical declaration of consent.” Likewise, James Martin, author and Jesuit priest, said in an email that there would be no Christianity without Mary’s consent.


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“As the poet Denise Levertov says in her poem about the Annunciation, God asked the question of Mary and then ‘God waited.’

“In the Christian story,” claims Martin, “a woman’s yes began it all.”

Then as now, yes emphatically means yes.

The biggest problem with the rape charge is that it is so ignorant. One of the stories the gospels tell is that Jesus, as opposed to Roman rulers, is the rightful Lord of the world. But unlike these earthly rulers, the kingdom Jesus will install will not be brought about by force or coercion.

Or rape.

Part of the problem may be that we don’t know much about Mary. She isn’t that prominent a character in the gospels, and, outside of a passing reference in the Book of Revelation, the New Testament is quiet about her.

This is a point German theologian Jurgen Moltmann takes up in “The Way of Jesus Christ.” Paul, he says, makes no mention of the Virgin Birth, nor does it appear in John’s Gospel.

Nevertheless, Moltmann notes, the Virgin Birth became part of the church’s creeds beginning in the third century.

If the church wanted to hold that Jesus was the Son of God, then leaders had to account for his origins. What they did, Moltmann argues, was to retroactively project what they learned about Jesus’ resurrection onto the stories they told about his birth.

While thinking through the implications of Jesus’ resurrection, the early church ended up reading Jesus’ life backward and, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, clarified the theological shape the narratives took in light of the Easter story.


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Indeed, the central tenet of Christianity — that God raised Jesus from the dead — is an independent claim from the Virgin Birth, and presumably, one could believe the story of Easter without swallowing wholesale the infancy narratives. In fact, Moltmann argues, early Christians might have believed the former without having heard of the latter.

Wolfhart Pannenberg argues that when a Christian recites the confession of the church, she aligns herself with all Christians, past and present, and places herself “in the context of the intentions expressed” in those creeds. Inasmuch as the phrase “born of a Virgin Mary” was originally intended as an authoritative response to heresy, Pannenberg says Christians can recite this portion of the creed even if they doubt the historicity of the event.

But is this just a clever way for Christians to have their cake and eat it, too? Many influential thinkers have tried to retain the basic shape of Christianity while dispensing with its magical trappings.

The problem with this is, of course, that Christianity is cut through on all sides with deep magic.

Christianity maintains that God created this entire universe from nothing. And as Martin likes to remind Catholics, if God could do that, then why couldn’t he pull off something like a Virgin Birth? “If we believe Jesus could heal the sick and raise the dead, which most Christians have no problem with, why couldn’t God effect a miraculous birth?” he asks.

Of course, that reasoning turns on the definition of “miracle.” In an essay on the Virgin Birth, N.T. Wright insists the biblical definition of a miracle does not suppose that God intervenes from outside the world, but that he is “always present and active within the world” — and “sometimes shockingly.” It may well be, suggests Wright, that God was active in a shocking way when Mary became pregnant with Jesus. We can’t definitely say one way or another.


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Brandon Ambrosino is a Delaware-based writer. Photo courtesy of Brandon Ambrosino

Brandon Ambrosino is a Delaware-based writer. Photo courtesy of Brandon Ambrosino

What Wright says, and indeed what I’ve come to believe, is this: Since God was dynamically active in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, it’s appropriate to suspend our disbelief when it comes to the Virgin Birth, and to confess — perhaps with fingers straining to be crossed — that this teaching seems entirely consistent with what God has revealed to us about the way he works in this world.

Indeed, as my friend Marlene reminded me, every single birth in this world is a miracle. An egg is fertilized by a sperm cell, and from that — what? — consciousness? A soul? An appreciation for beauty? Love for humankind?

God is involved miraculously in every pregnancy. Why would it be any different for Jesus?

(Brandon Ambrosino is a contributor to RNS)

 

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  • CM Roberts

    A miracle was involved in the conception of Jesus. Just what this was the angel explained to Joseph: “That which has been begotten in her is by HOLY SPIRIT.” (Matthew 1:20) We do not know precisely how this was done. Yet we must admit that if mere man can in a limited way manipulate the fertilization process in the laboratory, surely it is not beyond the power of the Creator and Life-Giver of the universe to do so and to transfer the life-force of his Son from the heavens to the ovum of a virgin girl. Jesus’ life-force was not to be extinguished but would be transferred to the ovum of the virgin girl, Mary. She, ‘overshadowed by the protective power of the Most High,’ could produce a perfect body for the babe Jesus.—Luke 1:35.
    An imperfect Jesus could not have become the ransom. Nor could he have become such as an incarnation or God/man. God selected a virgin to be the earthly mother of Jesus so that it would be clear that he was the son, not of an imperfect human father, but of God.

  • Neon Genesis

    Salon can be overly-sensationalist at times but I think the author is also kind of ignoring that God does kind of order a lot of violence against women throughout the OT and even commands rape victims to marry their rapists. I don’t think the gospel writers intended anything sexual from the story of the virgin birth but theologians who try to paint the Virgin Mary as this feminist heroine of the faith are clearly reading a modern interpretation into the bible. I’m also not sure why the author seems to think we should stop using critical thinking skills just because of a human made holiday makes him feel warm and fuzzy or something.

  • George R David

    are you guys mad

  • Jon

    As anyone involved with rape know, “consent” is not freely given if there is a perception of a large difference in power. Someone in a comparatively powerless situation can be forced to say “yes” by someone with power.

    And who could have more power than God?

    Rape. …

  • Garson Abuita

    God commands the rapists to marry the victim, not the other way around. Bad enough but that’s what is written.

  • samuel johnston

    Well here we are discussing an absurd mythical story, believed by half the population, in light of whether it conforms to our current notions of morality. Such is the damage that this Christian religion has done to the Western mind since the Greeks gave us philosophy and logic.

  • Ben in Oakland

    Well here we are discussing an absurd mythical story (Sodom and Gomorrah, or Leviticus and god’s obsession with the proper way to sacrifice animals to him in order to propitiate him, or Paul’s certainty about who gets into heaven, or whose marriage god blesses

    believed by half the population (conservative Christians and other people who use religion as their excuse for 2000 years of shameful behavior),

    in light of whether it conforms to our current notions of morality (but we shouldn’t be concerned at all about whether it conforms to the constitution or morality, let alone the reality of the harm done to the lives of gay people for millennia).

    Such is the damage that this Christian religion has done to the Western mind since the Greeks gave us philosophy and logic. (And yet, you advocate that we gay people should never have gone to the Supreme court for relief, but it was fine when conservative Christians misused the democratic process).

    Sorry, but I’m not buying.

  • Peter

    The discussion means something because most stories of divine-human birth are stories of rape, and Mary’s is not.

  • samuel johnston

    I am sorry for anyone so hurt and bitter that they take the” it’s us or them” position. Socretes observed that it was easier for a rich man to be generous, than for a poor man not to be bitter.