Mary, #MeToo and the question of consent

November 28th, 2017

The national conversation that we are currently having about issues of sexual assault and sexual harassment seems to only have intensified as we come to the end of the year. Nearly every day, a new perpetrator is called to account for his past behavior. Inappropriate actions that have come to light by politicians on both sides of the aisle, journalists, and well-known media personalities show just how widespread this is. And it’s only the powerful perpetrators who make the news.

In response to the popularity of the hashtag #MeToo, two women started to hashtag #ChurchToo, to tell their stories about sexual harassment, assault, and predation by male leaders in the church. Their experiences and the experiences of others using the hashtag primarily center around the white evangelical church and the way that particularly theology often excuses or even justifies inappropriate behavior. The obsession with female sexual purity and the insistence on male-only leadership promotes a culture of older men seeking out relationships with teenage girls. While these horror stories are not unique to evangelicalism, they are unfortunately common, and perpetrators are often not beholden to the kind of denominational structures and discipline of Mainline churches.

As we turn towards Christmas and the observance of Advent, the story of Jesus’ conception and birth might start to sound different in light of these conversations. After all, we know that Mary was probably a young girl, a teenager, and by our standards today, this already makes us uncomfortable. Then, we add in a huge power differential — Gabriel, an angel sent by God. Given her age and the presence of an angel, is Mary actually able to consent to these things that are going to happen to her? She definitely has a couple of questions about how, exactly, she is going to get pregnant as a virgin. Gabriel, on behalf of God, does not precisely ask Mary’s permission, but she eventually says, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

I am wary of reading our present-day cultural standards and mores into an ancient document, but as preachers, teachers, and leaders, we should also be aware of how this story sounds in our present cultural moment to people in the pews. We should be prepared to wrestle with what this text means to us today. In the least charitable reading, God preys on a young, pubescent girl and forces her into carrying a pregnancy to term despite the shame and embarrassment that it brings upon her and her family. Oh, and the child turns out to be the Son of God.

Details that appear problematic to us today were not at the time of the story’s telling and writing. As modern people, we should be careful about assuming that we are more enlightened and developed, that our standards are the “right” ones. In response to Mary’s meeting with her cousin Elizabeth and Elizabeth’s prophecy, Mary finally gives the enthusiastic consent that we have been looking for in her song, known as the Magnificat. She embraces the position in salvation history in which God has placed her and praises the Lord, the God who saves.

By approaching the conception and birth of Jesus with a critical eye in light of our current conversations, we must not throw the baby out with the bath water. The parts of the story that make our modern sensibilities uncomfortable should be examined, but by ignoring or skipping over this story, we lose a testament of hope in God’s plan, of submission to God’s will even through uncertainty, of the power of the incarnation and a conception and birth that demands we sit up and pay attention. In the era of #MeToo and #ChurchToo, we need to talk about these things and how they relate to Scripture but without losing the thread of how God reveals God’s self through Scripture.

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