Mary of Magdala and Intersectionality by Gina Messina


We recently celebrated the feast day of St. Mary of Magdala, a woman who is responsible for the founding of the Christian tradition and a model of what it means to live up to the role and expectation of being a human being. 

Committed to Jesus’ message of love, inclusion, liberation, and social justice, she funded his ministry and in his darkest hour, when the male apostles had abandoned him, Mary of Magdala stood at the foot of the cross. 

The Gospels honor her as the person Jesus chose to reveal his resurrected self to – and the first person to preach the message of the Risen Christ — a message initially met with utter disbelief by the male apostles. This male dominated book was careful to ensure that the world knew that Mary of Magdala — a woman — had a primary role in Jesus’ ministry and the establishing of Christianity. Without her – we would not know the message of Jesus as we do today. 

We see how she has been punished for this.  The shifting of her identity dictated by the patriarchal structures of the Church is well demonstrated through art history. Early on her image was shared as a woman who was respected – her head covered and wearing colors that signified her position of importance. Following the not so accidental interpretation of Mary of Magdala as a prostitute in 591 CE by Pope Gregory I, suddenly the imagery changes to a woman with red hair, long and flowing, often nude, begging to be forgiven. What better way to silence a woman than call her a whore?

 

It is important to note here that sex work is not a sin of the female flesh, but rather a sin of the power structures that force women into sex work, of those who exploit the bodies of women and girls. Women who freely choose to engage in sex work are active agents and it is not their actions, but instead the judgment they endure that is the sin. 

Sadly – and very representative of the need for both Church and societal reform – many still think Mary of Magdala was a sex worker and have no idea of the role she played in Jesus’ ministry or her representation of humanity.

When I think about the relationship between Mary and Jesus — it is one characterized by solidarity. Mary of Magdala stood in solidarity with Jesus and all those suffering under the Roman Occupation.

If we take the time to think about identity and who Mary of Magdala was, who Jesus was — we see the difference in levels of oppression – No doubt Mary of Magdala was oppressed as a woman living during the 1st century. However, she had a level of privilege that Jesus did not. Although it is believed that she was Jewish – her culture and manners are connected to a Gentile background which would have offered a particular position in society – not to mention her financial stability. 

We know from her name that Mary of Magdala was a woman of means – a woman of privilege. She is not referred to as a woman connected to a man – as was the tradition. She is called by her name – and connected to her birth place. This is so incredibly rare and signifies that in fact she had power, wealth, and influence.

Jesus was an impoverished Jew suffering under Roman Occupation. He was characterized by his Jewishness and marginalized for it. Fishing was a necessity for survival in Galilee; it was how people fed their families. However, Rome made it illegal for Jews to fish, so Jesus – like so many others – struggled with poverty and hunger.

As a woman, Mary of Magdala experienced oppression – but not in the same ways that Jesus did. Just as I experience oppression as a woman, but do not fear the fate of Trayvon Martin. This intersectional complexity is demonstrated in their lived experiences.

In today’s world, many of us are disenfranchised because we are part of the 99% – yet many of us also have privileges that keep us from encountering an ongoing state of fear because of the many injustices that exist. 

While feminist and anti-racist movements have made significant contributions toward disrupting injustice, they often function on a single axis and are characterized by problematic exclusions that do not address the multi axis nature of oppression. 

Mary of Magdala demonstrates the responsibility we have as persons with privilege in a world where power structures continue to oppress the historically disenfranchised. We must acknowledge our privilege and choose to stand in solidarity with those who live at the margins.

I imagine that if Mary of Magdala was living in our world today, she would be at the border demanding justice for immigrants, participating in a Black Lives Matter march, and demanding an end to discriminatory laws against the LGBTQ community. I also imaging that she would be challenging westernized Christianity as a tradition that has morphed into a weapon of colonization and oppression. 

As human beings we are called to honor humanity, recognize the importance of community, and work towards the flourishing of a society that serves the needs of all living beings. Mary of Magdala offers us this example. We must challenge ourselves to own our privilege, choose to relinquish it, and work to disrupt the power structures that deny the value of every life. 

Gina Messina, Ph.D. is an American feminist scholar, Catholic theologian, activist, and mom. She serves as Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Ursuline College and is co-founder of FeminismAndReligion.com. She has written for the Huffington Post and is author or editor of five books including Jesus in the White House: Make Humanity Great Again and Women Religion Revolution. Messina is a widely sought after speaker and has presented across the US at universities, organizations, conferences and on national platforms including appearances on MSNBC, Tavis Smiley, NPR and the TEDx stage. She has also spoken at the Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations to discuss matters impacting the lives of women around the globe. Messina is active in movements to end violence against women and explores opportunities for spiritual healing. Connect with her on Twitter @GMessinaPhD, Instagram: @GinaMessinaPhD, Facebook, and her website ginamessina.com.



Categories: intersectionality

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9 replies

  1. Preach it!
    btw Mary of Magdala was never viewed as a prostitute in the Orthodox tradition. It did associate her with the woman of many sins.
    https://feminismandreligion.com/2015/04/13/kassiani-placing-a-woman-at-the-center-of-the-easter-drama-by-carol-p-christ/
    She is at the center of the Easter Week “Divine Drama” in the Orthodox tradition.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Just thinking: if Mary’s contribution to Christianity is the “Risen Christ” this is not a particularly Jewish idea but more a Neoplatonic idea! Also not a particularly “liberation theology” idea which focuses on liberation of the oppressed in this life, not in heaven or some other form of life after death. It does however fit with the Gospel of Mary Magdalene which also does not seem to be Jewish but rather Neoplatoinic.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Terrific article! A truly enjoyable read!
    I am familiar with the myth of the Madeleine as a prostitute and I have also been told that she was the woman of the seven sins. If you know anything of this tale, can you speak about it, too, Gina?
    Thank you!

    Like

  4. Many thanks to you both, Gina and Carol, for enhancing and inspiring my morning reflections and next actions!

    Like

  5. I believe Mary of Magdala would also stand in solidarity with sex workers and fight for justice and freedom for all women, children, and men who are trafficked today, as they were in the 1st century. I see no reason why sex workers cannot be ministers and spiritual teachers. There is no biblical evidence that Mary Magdalen was a whore; true, that depiction was originally a papal concoction. But there is biblical evidence that Jesus himself did not despise or distance himself from prostitutes. “Verily I say unto you, that the publicans and the harlots go into the Kingdom of God before you.” Matthew 21:31. He saves an adulteress from stoning. He allows a woman of questionable reputation to bathe his feet with tears and dry them with her hair. He defends her actions to his scandalized host. It troubles me when feminists find it necessary to distance themselves–or Mary Magdalen–from sex workers. Men can silence us by calling us whores only so long as we ourselves despise women who are prostitutes. Let us not be divided by the patriarchy. Such divisions between serve the patriarchy not women.

    Apart from that issue, which I always feel obliged to address, thanks for an inspiring post and call to compassionate action.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Elizabeth, I so appreciate your comment. I certainly agree with you and tried to address this in the piece:

      “It is important to note here that sex work is not a sin of the female flesh, but rather a sin of the power structures that force women into sex work, of those who exploit the bodies of women and girls. Women who freely choose to engage in sex work are active agents and it is not their actions, but instead the judgment they endure that is the sin.”

      Please do share with me what you think I could add to this. Also, I want to acknowledge that I think that we need to make a distinction between sex work and trafficking – as with all movements/theories/experiences there are intersectional complexities that i think need to be explored. This said, I do agree with you wholeheartedly. Thank you@

      Liked by 2 people

      • Thank you, Gina. What you said is perfect. I should have read with more attention. My hands start shaking and my heart starts pounding whenever people (not you in particular) take exception to the depiction of MM as a prostitute. There are so many ways to see her, and so little that we know about her. I agree there is a distinction between sex work and trafficking. The line gets blurry sometimes. People who were victims may find ways to make choices, People who apparently made choices may have felt they had no choice. All of them need compassion and advocacy. I like to think women and children have an advocate and protector in MM. Again my apologies for not reading more carefully. Thank you so much for your response.

        Like

  6. Wonderful post!

    And Elizabeth I love these words “Men can silence us by calling us whores only so long as we ourselves despise women who are prostitutes. Let us not be divided by the patriarchy. Such divisions between serve the patriarchy not women.”

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Thank you! Such clarity!

    Like

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