This opinion piece is by the Rev. Ruth Everhart, a pastor and the author of two spiritual memoirs.
Church culture tends to be fixated on sexual purity year-round, but during Advent, I’m tempted to blame it on the Virgin Mary. After all, she set an impossibly high bar. Now the rest of us are stuck trying to be both a virgin and a mother at the same time. It does not seem to matter that this is biologically impossible. Can you at least try?
I’ll speak for myself. I was raised in the church and taught to be a good girl, by which I mean obedient, quiet and sexually pure. That worked reasonably well until I was 20. During my senior year of college, my housemates and I were the victims of a home invasion. The intruders held us for hours and took turns raping us at gunpoint. The next year of our lives revolved around the criminal-justice system.
Of course, I was traumatized. But what was harder to describe — and more long-lasting — was how the crime became bound up in a sense of sexual shame. I wondered constantly: Did I somehow deserve to be raped? Had the rape ruined me irreparably? Both questions seemed inevitable. After all, what is the opposite of being sexually pure? Sustaining irremediable damage. Being ruined.
I’m not blaming my sense of ruin on the Virgin Mary, not entirely. Protestants do not claim Mary in the way Catholics do, but every Advent I feel a sense of kinship. I know what it’s like to be a good girl whose life got upended by what someone did to her body. Of course, her story plot was good and mine was bad. Plus she was, well, a saint. And I’m not.
Still, I study her this time of the year — always dressed in blue with downcast eyes — and want to ask: “How was it really? And how do you feel about what the patriarchy has done with you?”
I’m convinced of this: Mary is not responsible for what we’ve done to her story. Church culture has overfocused on virginity and made it into an idol of sexual purity. When it comes to female experience, the church seems compelled to shrink and distort and manipulate.
Maybe that’s why, more than a decade after I was raped, I became a pastor. I had to face down the demons. To do that, I had to live inside church culture. I had to come to terms with Mary’s story, and so many others. What is the gospel call for women? I believe it’s more than being a good girl.
For starters, I believe it’s impossible to be a good girl — meaning unblemished and pure — and also inhabit a body. It’s certainly true if you’ve been sexually assaulted, and may also be true if you are fortunate to not have been.
I could say more about living in a female body, but it might be helpful if you just checked in with your own body right now. Is your body feeling quiet and clean and pure at the moment? Or is it hungry or noisy or smelly? Does it have needs?
That’s what I suspected. Bodies are like that. Even bodies that don’t bleed or ovulate or lactate. Bodies have needs.
Don’t get me wrong — I love having a body. A body is super convenient for getting around in. It is a gift from God.
If you’re a woman, it’s a complicated gift. But why does Mary’s story have to oppress women when it could liberate us? What would it look like if the church celebrated Mary’s story as a hymn to the beauty of incarnation? (Admittedly, we Westerners could learn a few things from the Eastern Orthodox traditions.)
The fact that God chose to send Jesus to inhabit a body is powerful. Let’s not assume this basic fact. The incarnation is one of the unique aspects of Christianity. Incarnation means that it’s not a bad thing to inhabit a body. Even Jesus’ body was ushered to earth via a birth canal.
See, there’s “birth canal” in the same sentence with Jesus. To some that will be a problem. Why? Because to some people, vaginas are inherently dirty. They can never be purified. And isn’t that the definition of hopelessness? Does it bother you that half of the human population is condemned to hopelessness because their body parts can never be pure?
What exactly is purity, anyway? Some things are not intended to be sparkling white. Bleach is no panacea; it can burn holes in your underwear or strip the enamel off your teeth.
Purity must have alternate meanings. It does not have to mean unused, or sparkling white. Maybe the church could ask body-owners to weigh in about their experiences. Most people have thoughts and feelings about their sexual selves. Having a body is complicated. It involves trial and error. I’d wager that most body-owners have made mistakes. We need to forgive ourselves, and each other. Sometimes our bodies are at the mercy of others because the truth is that bodies are uniquely vulnerable, especially our sexual selves.
We want to hide from this truth, especially that last line. We don’t like that our bodies can be preyed upon. We want to protect ourselves and our daughters. We want to pretend sexuality is something we can lock in a box and keep on a shelf. But a lockbox won’t work. Neither will a chastity belt or a purity ring. Certainly not the abstinence pledges they make young folks sign.
Fortunately, what does work is the precise thing that we find in large supply in the gospel: Redemption.
Maybe I was fortunate to be ruined. Because it set the stage for me to appreciate redemption. God worked on me gradually, of course, the way God does. The three primary avenues of healing can be named by the roles I acquired: wife, pastor, mother.
Decades of being a wife taught me healing touch and faithful love. Decades of being a pastor taught me to wrestle with scripture, where some women were healed by Jesus, and others were torn limb from limb. Decades of being the mother of daughters made me want to pass along the lessons that are so hard to articulate — that I want you to be modest and good, yes, but also confident in your own skin.
The world still needs to hear from Mary. What Mary gives us is the gospel — not a gospel of sanitized sexuality, but the gospel of incarnation. Or as it says in John: “The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen His glory.”
The Rev. Ruth Everhart’s book “Ruined,” her story of rape at gunpoint and her struggle with faith afterward, received a 2017 Christianity Today book award. She is the pastor of Hermon Presbyterian Church in Bethesda, Md., and a speaker on recovery from sexual violence and shame.