Two years ago, I wrote a series of posts entitled “Myths of the Nativity.” In this series, I tackled six stories surrounding the birth of Christ and the Christmas holiday, and gave them new twists. The first of that series was titled “Mary, Joseph, and the Virgin Birth,” where I challenged the idea of a Virgin Birth, and speculated on what the circumstances of Jesus’ birth might actually have been.
This post has been on my mind lately, due to the Roy Moore story. Last week, after the allegations surfaced, some numb skull Republican official in Moore’s home state of Alabama decided to defend Moore by saying that, basically, God is a pedophile too, because Mary was a teenager and God impregnated her and so what Roy Moore did was OK and probably even Godly or something. It’s disgusting and perverted all around, and it’s also deeply deeply theologically problematic. Which means it got my attention.
I’ve seen comments from several non-religious friends of mine on Facebook that basically bought or at least were sympathetic to this characterization of the conception of Christ, and that thus this was a strike against Christianity. I really, really want to push back on this. To all my non-religious/atheist/humanist/doubting friends out there: please don’t perpetuate this type of perverted theology. You may not like Christianity, and honestly, I can’t blame you, but we cannot let people like Roy Moore and his ilk define the boundaries of the Christian story.
Especially because, the story of Mary and Jesus is one of such beauty and hope and empowerment! That’s what made me think of my post from two years ago. What really were the circumstances of Jesus’ conception? I took at stab at articulating what I thought was more likely. I wrote:
Rape at the hands of the ruling Roman soldiers would not have been that uncommon. There was very little to check the power of soldiers enforcing Roman rule in distant provinces, and the word of a peasant girl against a Roman citizen soldier would hold no water. What if the exercise of that power in this case consisted of the forcible rape of Mary? Would that have been something outside the bounds of possibility? Absolutely not. In fact, it’s highly probable that a majority of Jewish women had less-than-pleasant encounters with Roman soldiers during the 100 years of Roman rule of Palestine.
This is extreme and unpalatable for many Christians, but, I contend, that’s the point. Christianity, as Paul himself wrote, is foolishness and scandal. The origins of Jesus being the child of sexual violence falls directly into this pattern. And it gives the story power, and meaning:
I believe the idea of Mary as a single teenage mother, the victim of a terrible act, raising a Messiah, imbues Mary with a extraordinarily formative role in the development of Jesus. If he is the product of adultery, then Mary was probably at best looked down upon by her family, and at worst, cast out by them. Either way, this leaves Mary as the one who chiefly raised and formed the child Jesus. This gives her much credit to his eventual ministry, credit she justly deserves. If she was the victim of rape, and thus raised the child of such a monstrous act, then she carries the awesome weight of an extraordinary woman, one who overcomes great hardship and incredible odds to raise a son of singular importance. Instead of crumbling in the face of ruthless imperial violence visited personally upon her very person, Mary made a life for herself and her unexpected son.
Mary, in this telling of the Nativity, is as central as a character can be. She moves from the passive vessel carrying the child of God, a largely silent and symbolic figure, to the prime mover in the first act of Jesus’ life. She becomes a person to be greatly admired for her strength of mind, of personality, of pure will to thrive.
Now, let me be clear. I’m not endorsing the minimizing language used by many evangelicals today, that pain, oppression and suffering are somehow justified because it all comes from God, and so if we suffer, it’s because God wants us to, and it God does it for a reason, and we should be grateful, and that the positive externalities that result are all that matter in the end. Quite the opposite.
As a process theologian, I believe God created the universe with endless possibility and contingency, and we, as free beings, are given the agency to make choices free of coercion. However, living in a rational world, and being limited beings, bad things do happen. There is natural suffering, like a earthquake or hurricane or illness. Then there is moral suffering, the result of our own poor choices. The rape of Mary, or the sexual assault of Roy Moore, are evils caused by us, in our freedom, not chosen or willed by God.
But, God works in conjunction with us, to capitalize on the potentialities in every moment, oriented towards God’s good will for Creation. Within every act, there are boundless possibilities of what could happen next. God has a will towards what will happen, but doesn’t know, because in the end, the choice is up to us. This means that we both have the personal, in-the-moment ability to make choices, and the social ability to create structures and institutions that react positively to moments of evil and suffering.
Out of Mary’s terrible situation, she tapped into God’s will and produced something beautiful; something, in fact, that would change the world beyond her imagining. Similarly, the actions of Roy Moore were reprehensible, and were in no way ordained, ordered, or condoned by God. But God works with those victims, and with us, to orient the world towards Good. And, working with God, we have the power to tap into that Good, to take this terrible moment and make it out of it something beautiful. In this case, that may something as simple as defeating a candidate for office who will enable suffering and pain for people of different faiths and ethnicities and skin color; but it may also be something as powerful as another step in the on-going fight against routine sexual assault and abuse towards women and children by men in power.
So, please, don’t let Roy Moore win, not just this election, but the conversation. Hold in tension the simultaneous idea that God both didn’t want this happen, and that God can use this to achieve some good in the world. That’s the hope, and the story, of Christ.