While I was in Europe at a conference recently, I found myself witness to something most terrible. A witness to violence.
I walked down a cobbled street on a gray morning, and three people ahead of me were screaming at each other. A man and a woman yelled until their voices cracked, and a second woman stood with them. The verbal combat spiraled furiously between the two who shouted, and I approached as the man pressed himself close to the woman, forcing her backward as all those hidden instincts to express power through physical space played themselves out between them.
They screamed in French. Their voices were too broken for me to understand exactly what they said.
I walked directly between them, coldly breaking the invisible field of combat, and I glared straight into the man’s anger-darkened face. I tried to fill my eyes with every ounce of contempt that I felt for him.
I kept walking, and for a brief moment it seemed the argument had died. But when I turned to check, they were striking each other, the man and the woman. He pressed her off balance with his greater strength, and she clawed at his face. Their associate stood by and watched.
I froze, helpless about what to do: who to call, what language to try and speak, and whether confronting them physically would halt the violence or worsen it. My fists tightened and I gritted my teeth, uncertain.
A large man strode angrily between them, pulled the man away. Shook a giant and stern finger at the man, overcoming obvious language boundaries with a menacing gesture.
The man stiffened at his tall adversary, and shouted in heavy English, “She is my woman!”
Then they were gone, suddenly all three vanished down a twisting street, leaving me and the towering rescuer all at once equally helpless and bereft of answers.
I stumbled numbly down a different street, my mind collapsing into a quiet and dark place as the rest of me attempted to resume the day.
When I had a chance to be alone, I disintegrated into tears. I fell apart into a hundred fractured pieces, rage surging along the sharp edges like an electric tide, heating the splinters into a bright, scattering fire. I burned with what I had seen, burned at the fists and the words – the possession – and I burned at its familiarity. The searing and helpless rage, so familiar. And so familiar to so many. I cried hot tears, furious and heartbroken, weeping for myself and for everyone.
I surface this personal story in order to address a much larger problem, one to which we tend to close our eyes. If I said, “I want to talk about injustice,” we might nod our heads and fall asleep. At least, it seems to me that is what we do. I’ve done it. Lashed as we are by rhetoric that renders words like mercy and justice into empty noise. So I want to talk about that day. Let me put it that way. I want to talk about what I saw that day.
“She is my woman,” he said. As if that made sense of beating her.
It makes no sense at all, of course, unless we assume that one person can own another. Unless we assume that women in particular are creatures to be owned. It is a way of viewing the world. A horizon. A systematic point of view that makes sense of violence. That is what he was doing: making sense of his violence.
With his nonsense.
There exist in the world many systematic oppressions, many structural forms – whether in a culture, an institution, a family, and beyond – bent to the shape of maintaining injustice as a norm. That is to say, there are things that keep people vulnerable. Keep them poor. Keep them hurt. We partake in these things. We grow up in them, learn them. We are blinded by them.
And we can wake up to them. We must.
Or else remain consigned to schematized helplessness. That is perhaps the strongest, angriest thread that winds its way through the experience: helplessness at what to do, at how such things can come to be, at how familiar they are to so many experiences. There exists such a thing as normalized helplessness.
It seems to me that vulnerability winds its way through most forms of oppression: those who are already vulnerable, or who are rendered vulnerable, by the horizon at hand are kept that way. So women, who have historically suffered incredible degrees of formal prejudice, are rendered vulnerable in a system that presumes them to be so. So children, boys and girls who are always vulnerable because they are children, are forced into silence and unspeakable agony through their own vulnerability.
Still, what are we to say? Simply that it is wrong? Well done: we have recited the obvious. And it remains to be seen how we might be armed to say more.
So I return now to those same two forms of vulnerability, a woman and a child, and I turn to Mary and her Son.
Christmas is soon. It is on my mind. And so is this bleeding puzzle, the wreckage of that day, and the wreckage of many other lives and days. Too many others. Christmas is on my mind, and so are these ruins.
To say that Mary, in the story given to us, was vulnerable would be putting it mildly. A woman of that time and location is definitively vulnerable, and thoroughly in the hands of powers that are not her own. Add to that a rather controversial pregnancy out of wedlock, and we have a woman familiar with the shape of vulnerability.
Sometimes I wonder at the way Mary is depicted in art and in popular devotions. She is all soft lines and comfort. She is the warm, rotund blonde of Rubens; she is a fluffy pillow in the otherwise risky world of grace and faith. She is our Mother, and something of a pushover. Of course, I am not against all these things: softness is good, and even vulnerability. Love is not possible without vulnerability.
Still I wonder if we forget something of the freedom and bravery of this woman. We call her ours as if it could be presumed, our Mother and Mother of the Church, without also remembering that she allows it to be so. Our presumption forgets something important about every authentic relationship: that it is always free.
And our need for softness forgets that all love requires courage.
If God did not presume Mary’s cooperation – what with that visit from Gabriel and all, which does not read as instructions for what will happen regardless of her consent – we ought not do so either. Freedom is wild – God’s freedom especially, but ours too. And its wildness is not derived from the possibility that a free decision, once made, can be revoked (though it can). Its wildness is derived from the simple fact that a free decision, once made, needs to be made again and again for the sake of its own consistency. Freedom is never a single moment. It is many and all moments.
This is also why authentic freedom, which is always most itself in love, also requires courage. For the sake of love’s consistency, for its repetition. The faithfulness of love is brave and free.
So it can never be forced. Any coercion of love is violence to it, and renders it a lie.
This is all a rather long way of saying that the Christmas narrative contains a dialogue with vulnerability. Much of it rests in such vulnerability. Redemption enters the world through a young woman most vulnerable, and most free. Her vulnerability in itself is not good unless it is also free. And, though that vulnerability has ambiguous and negative forms, still her “let it be done” is something to consider alongside the shape of those other vulnerabilities. It imbues Christianity with a touchstone that requires us to look again and again at what I saw along those cobblestones that day, and to counter it with a different horizon. One that refuses to presume. One that insists there must be more to every life than systematized helplessness.
Or we might challenge the distortions of violence and abuse with that very odd and very early teaching that Mary was perpetually a virgin. Stay with me now. This perpetual virginity thing: it is a surprisingly ancient and consistent teaching. It is also very strange. It is hard for us moderns to understand why it is so important to early Christians. There are many theories. I will pass them over for a moment and wonder if, in an attempt to counter horizons of violence, there is something else here. Besides a fight over old and new notions of sexuality. I wonder if there is within this enigma another interpretation of her perpetual virginity: the thoroughgoing insistence that she was no one’s possession. She was perpetually outside of the war to own and be owned. It is a lyric or a lark, I know. To render virginity into a metaphor, a poem, against violent power. It is perhaps too fanciful to be taken seriously.
Still, I would like to take seriously the idea that no one can own anyone, and that perhaps there is room for that idea in the Christmas story. That Christmas reminds us of these and many other things that we forget. That Christmas tells us that God does not forget these things.
Perhaps she was free. And vulnerable too. Free and vulnerable and holding in her arms that most vulnerable freedom of all: a little baby. And here all words fail, and I gesture quietly to a horizon that far outdistances this Mother and this picture I have drawn. Consider this Child, in whose Heart wild freedom beats, and whether with this One every tortured system must fail and fall.
It is not over. Neither resolved nor softly shaped to comfort. Consider: that is why stories are retold. Because they are not over.
It’s Christmas again.
The sleeping Child in His Mother’s arms urges us to wake up.