By Amy Carr
As a Benedictine oblate who is also a lifelong Lutheran, and as a woman who has never borne a child, I have not had any ritually-taught identification with the Virgin Mary. But the iconic image of Mary holding her infant son comes to mind as I ponder a question circulating in my heart’s thoughts of late.
As someone who helped make a video about the spiritual effects of clergy sexual abuse for a synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America over 25 years ago (when I was not yet 25 years old), my first thought about the MeToo movement was a startled awareness that those of us speaking out then about sexual abuse were forerunners of a movement that has come of age only in the era of Trump — even though my participation felt already midstream, built as it was on two decades of public advocacy against various forms of intimate violence committed not only by strangers but by men (and sometimes women) familiar in the fabric of our lives.
Now, though, we are no longer breaking silence in a public that overwhelmingly wants to suppress our testimonies, a public wholly unable to take in the gravity of the effects of sexual abuse on the shape and weight of our lives. That has begun to change.
Now there is a growing chorus of public witnesses – a chorus JoAnn Wypijewski says builds on a complex history of sex panic in the United States, which can unite feminists and social conservatives in ways that leave us less able to navigate well the interpersonal intricacies of desire explored together – much less the politics of public policy around consent.
From the perspective of Christian faith as it has taken root in me, I believe the Holy Spirit is animating the cries for justice, for acknowledgement and reform, in movements against sexual abuse and predation.
And it is especially when we are on the right side of history that we need to be the most vigilant – the most attentive – to the ways we can be propelled from being prophets in the wilderness (speaking truth to power) to becoming Herodias herself, demanding the head of John the Baptist because he dares to question the morality of our own use of power in our own newfound place of political privilege.
We can find ourselves with less wisdom in the face of two visceral forces that monastics of old would surely call familiar demons with which we wrestle:
On one side, a fear of contagion (being tainted as an abuser or as abused) that can bind up our ability to freely negotiate our own intimate relationships;
On the other side, a fear of further harm and a righteous anger that at its best can use social shaming to alter destructive gendered behavior norms, yet at its worst replaces justice before the law with revenge outside of any law.
Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks! (Psalm 137:9)
Long ago, Jews exiled in Babylon prayed honest prayers about a spirit of revenge that arises amid the injustices that uproot our lives.
So here is where Mary comes to me.
What if – I have been thinking – what if we who identify as female approach the movement to end violence against women not only as real or potential victims, but also as mothers of the men (and women too) who are drawn to sexual predation?
It is an obvious thought, I know – so often I stumble upon the obvious as if it is profound!
But I have been thinking of this with my heart, as I said – for more reasons than I perhaps should describe here.
I do know that when betrayal comes through our most sacred symbols, perverting them, we can be unmoored aliens who no longer belong safely to that which we held most dear as home, as vision, as sense of direction.
It has taken a long while, but by now I know that I too am quite capable of a rage that can quicken into a desire to kill the one who wounded me.
But what would I be killing?
If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out (Mark 9:43, 47).
It is hard to do lectio, or sacred reading, with the underbelly of being sinned against, with the insects that crawl under the rock we overturn when we face the consequences of sexual abuse. It is hard to be hospitable to the temptations to fear and revenge that demand a hearing, a place.
We think of the Virgin Mary as the archetype of the Inviolate One – the One free of contamination by the complexities of sexuality and its capacity for wounding and being wounded. In this view of her seeming invulnerability, she gets used as a shelter for denial, as food for the fear of contamination that prevents us from cultivating a space of discernment in our intimate relations with one another.
But Mary can also be the Inviolate One because she knows so very well all the ins and outs of all our ways of sharing and violating life – sexually and otherwise – and has nevertheless persisted to find her bearings enough to take responsibility not only for her own life, but for raising a son who – with her – will receive all those who listen to the denunciations of the Spirit-guided prophets of our time, and beg for mercy and insight.
But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:24).
Every justice movement reaches a flood stage, unsettling everyone’s footing and drowning some, but eventually finds its new life-giving path.
Amy, such a thoughtful essay. I like your thoughts of inclusion and the way our hearts may take this subject from the perspective of the abused and the mother of a precious son who might be a sexual predator. That kind of inclusion keeps our hearts wide open and compassionate. Bravo for seeing so widely with wide open eyes.
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Thank you, Amy, for raising the hard questions we must ask ourselves as disciples of Jesus and oblates of St. Benedict. When faced with the dilemma of rage no matter what the issue may be, it truly is a struggle with our demons and our desire for justice along with productive dialog. Thank you for being a pioneer in the struggle with and against sexual abuse. What is it that helps you keep the balance as you continue the healing and action in the struggle? That might be a valuable insight for the students now protesting gun control. I admire them and hope they have the passion to continue the call.
Balance is easier to find now than it was 10 years ago, and easier than that it was 20-30 years ago. Balance isn’t about avoiding the full range of feelings, I think; it is about feeling those as they come to one (and they do so differently for each of us), then being curious by stretching into a wider set of questions. Going deep and in; looking also wide and out (like asking about our responsibility toward those we raise or know who are sexual predators, as well as taking responsibility for our own potential or actual violations of others).
But the apparently unbalanced cries and laments of those who have been profoundly harmed by the abuse of trust and intimacy — these need to be given space too, difficult though it is. This is so even as survivors of abuse are also responsible for finding our reins and noticing grace and sorting out a path forward with integrity.
Simone Weil perceptively noted that we want always to look away from affliction. It is not all there is to look at, but trying not to avert our gaze from it is an act of compassion that matters immensely to those who have journeyed to other side of normal, to the landscape of feeling alien, cast out of the ordinary world of belonging, where all the rules are upside down..
Thank you,Amy.I like to think Mary knew how to listen with the ear of her heart. And still does.So many know the terrible damage of abuse in all its hideous forms.You can understand how some can’t get beyond rage.
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