Recently I took one of those on-line quizzes that show up on Facebook. Based on my response to particular questions, it promised to tell me what my Biblical name would be. To my joy I received Mary Magdalene. To my disappointment her bio lacked any of the historical tensions we have come to expect.
On July 22 we celebrate the Feast Day of Mary Magdalene, witness to the Resurrection and therefore deemed, “apostle to the apostles.” For as many depictions of Mary there are just as many interpretations. Her status in early Christianity surpassed the Virgin Mother in popularity but by the fourth century her positive image began to decline. In 594 Pope Gregory the Great delivered a sermon in which he conflated the story of the unnamed woman anointing Jesus in the Gospel of Luke with Mary of Magdala as penitent whore, a title she would embody for nearly 1,400 years until in 1969 when the Catholic Church repealed its teaching of Mary as prostitute.
On the other hand, recent feminist theological scholarship, especially by Karen King, offers a depiction of Mary as leader within ecclesial settings, where, “From the second to the twenty-first century, women prophets and preachers have continued to appeal to her to legitimate their own leadership roles,” (King, 153). By casting Mary as prostitute and adulteress, King argues, the church tarnished the image of Mary as a spiritual leader. It is this binary of Mary as repentant whore or “prominent disciple of Jesus, a visionary, and a spiritual teacher” (King, 154) that I wish to explore.
To begin I ask the question what does it mean for Mary’s role as leader for her to have been a prostitute who also functioned, in the words of King, as disciple of Jesus, a visionary and spiritual teacher? To answer this question I turn to Marcell Althaus Reid and Indecent Theology, and more specifically to Martín Hugo Córdova Quero’s “The Prostitutes Also Go Into the Kingdom of God: A Queer Reading of Mary of Magdala.” Quero begins by bringing to light those binaries that establish decent from indecent theologies:
Normal. Correct. Honest. Saint. Orthodox. . .Labels of decency.
Abnormal. Incorrect. Dishonest. Sinner. Heterodox . . . Labels of indecency.
Indecent and Queer theologies challenge this binary between normal and abnormal as a denial of the body and sexuality. For Quero, Mary is held hostage to this way of thinking, she is “either sinner or saint, decent or indecent. Binary thinking does not allow for further alternatives.” Binary thinking eliminates Mary’s sexuality from her role as prominent leader in order to co-opt her as a decent woman. The task of Indecent/Queer theology is to challenge what is considered acceptable and normal, especially when sexuality is introduced.
A destabilization of sorts occur when we ask if a queer Jesus is capable of saving humanity or if a prostitute can be a reliable eye witness to the resurrection? For Indecent and Queer feminist readings, Mary’s movement from indecent to decent is little different from classical Christian tradition imposed by men, she must become acceptable to traditional Christian morality. Only when Mary’s reputation is cleaned-up and her sexuality denied might she function within the right order of morality and leadership. In so doing Mary now “fits” into sanctioned roles deemed acceptable and necessary by hetero-patriarchal understandings of female sexuality.
Issues centered on what qualifies as normal, decent or orthodox render those viewed as abnormal, indecent or heterodox silent through nonconformity to artificial modalities. What is needed, as Quero argues, is a theology unafraid of indecencies. What might this look like? To begin, it would worry more about the safety and violence experienced by sex workers worldwide than the morality of sex work as judged by abolitionist feminists and hetero-patriarchy. When speaking of all forms of sex outside of marriage within the Catholic Church, Christine Gudorf argues the overall focus regarding the framework of sexual ethics continues to suggest:
[T]hat it is the physical structure of the act or the status of those engaged in the act, rather than the qualitative nature of the relationship in which the act occurs, or the motives emerging from that relationship or lack of it, or the consequences of the act on persons, which determine the morality of the act (Gudorf, 15).
While not speaking of sex work directly, Gudorf’s analysis situates itself within my own concern for the binary that has found its way into our understanding of Mary Magdalene as prostitute when viewed as either sinner or saint. For Quero, in speaking of Mary Magdalene as a queer counter-icon, Christianity must “embrace people whose gender and performances of sexualities disrupt the assumptions of normalization carried out through centuries by classical theology” (99).
To that end I suggest we free Mary from safe readings that make us uncomfortable. That sexuality, even sex work, is viewed within a framework of context and relationship, liberated from a short-sided moral minimalism of either or thinking. The title of prostitute/sex worker does not imply a loss of moral standing or integrity as hinted at by Karen King’s insinuation of a loss of moral capital when Mary Magdalene is viewed as whore. Mary is no less a disciple or leader if she actually were a prostitute. Slut-shaming does little to advance the subjectivity and advancement of women.
This July 22 I hope you find the time and space to honor Mary Magdalene in all her various incarnations. May she be freed from any forms or readings that lessen her strength, faithfulness, discipleship or moral integrity and may she be situated within an expansive framework of indecency.
Cynthia Garrity-Bond is a feminist theologian and social ethicist, is completing her doctorate at Claremont Graduate University in women studies in religion with a secondary focus in theology, ethics and culture. For the past six years Cynthia has been teaching in the department of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University where she completed both her BA and MA in Theology. Her research interests includes feminist sexual theology, historical theology with particular emphasis on religious movements of women, agency and resistance to ecclesial authority, embodiment, Mariology and transnational feminisms. Having recently returned from Southern Africa, Cynthia is researching the decriminalization of prostitution from a theological perspective.