In my book Sacred Sex I retell Will Willimon’s experience preaching in a crowded auditorium. He was given an introduction that far exceeded what he thought he would deliver and he remembered a teacher saying something like if you aren’t sure you have enough to say, say it louder. So he got up before the congregation and said, “And what is the most significant event our faith has to offer?” Then he bellowed out the answer, “The Erection!” Now that’s one Easter message I would have enjoyed hearing!
Mine won’t be quite that provocative. In April we are focusing on compassionate action so I decided early on to talk about the social epidemic of domestic violence. Then the question was raised about whether we should do something with an Easter focus. For me this is an easy link to make. Easter is all about celebrating the example of Jesus and Jesus offers us an ultimate example of compassion in action.
In fact, I believe the Easter story and the Easter myth itself transcends religion and that even in this community where we don’t follow the Christian calendar, we can still find value in its premise. So I want to approach this story through the eyes of Mary of Magdala and dedicate this message to the women who have struggled throughout history into our modern times to find a place of genuine acceptance and inclusion as equals in society.
What a poignant Easter text we find in John, so sad and so beautiful. Mary has come to the tomb of her beloved Jesus. You can imagine how she must have felt. Numbness fighting to still the shock still reverberating in her. Going through the motions of preparing the body, the one last way in which she can feel close to the teacher she followed and the man she most certainly loved. Feeling lost and alone and yet finding some comfort in these rites and rituals.
And then even that solace is taken from her. There is no body to touch or to cry over. There is no last time to speak her sorrow while gazing at the face she held so dear. Instead there is the certain knowledge that the joy has gone out of her life, that feeling of hollow emptiness and despair. The sense of being small and insignificant and utterly alone.
Indeed, 2000 years ago, women as a whole were considered small and insignificant. Women were nobodies. Women were property. They had few of the rights of men. They could not be witnesses in court or file for divorce. They could not be taught the Torah. They were to be nearly invisible in public. Public meals were for men only, and if a woman did show up she was assumed to be a prostitute. Women lived on the margins of society.
And for a brief period of time, Jesus elevated Mary and the other women he interacted with to a glorious height of equality. His actions toward women were nothing short of scandalous. He defended them, spoke with them, healed them, ate with them, and even learned from them. Mary was part of the intimate group that traveled with Jesus. She knew personally the warmth of his unconditional love.
And now so profound is her despair that when Jesus speaks to her she doesn’t even recognize him… until he speaks her name. When she is named, when she is recognized for who she is at a time when she feels again as if she is nothing. When she is recognized for who she is at a time when she has lost everything. When she is recognized for who she is, she recognizes her Teacher. She is filled with new life. In a very real sense it is Mary who is now resurrected.
So why in this moment of mystical reunion would Jesus torment her further by telling her not to hold onto him? Shouldn’t he have swept her into his arms and held her as she wept? Shouldn’t he have offered her words of comfort and peace, assuring her of his presence, promising her this was real and that he was there, right there with her?
John wrote the most mystical of the four Gospels that were included in the official Canon. In it Jesus is always using common language to say something beyond the obvious. So when Jesus says, “Don’t hold onto me.” Was his statement as obviously cruel as it sounds or could it be that this man who so often used common language to point to the spiritual is at it again? “No Mary, you don’t have to hold onto me. You don’t have to cling to me, because everything you saw in me is now in you. That same divine presence that you sensed in me, I now challenge you to see in yourself. This is what I came to teach and show you. See in yourself the Spirit you saw in me.”
In the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, a Gospel that did not make it into the Canon, Jesus tells his followers that the son of Man dwells inside them. And Mary responds by saying that Jesus is calling them and us to be fully “human.”
Perhaps to be fully human is to recognize that what Jesus says is true. To understand that it is within our humanity that we are all resurrected. Perhaps it is only in fullness that we learn not to belittle ourselves and dismiss our gifts and abilities. Perhaps it is only in human fullness that we come to realize that we are also fully divine.
I’d like to tell you now about another women. I was returning with a group from Extended Grace from a Renaissance Festival when we stopped at a gas station. One of the teenagers with us went into the restroom where she was approached by a young lady asking her for help. Her name was Tanika and she looked barely 16 years old. Tanika explained that her boyfriend had beaten her for the last time and that she had finally left him for good. But he had followed her and when she stopped at this station for gas he took over her car with her child in it. I called the police. I left Tanika with the police officers and my card and told her to call if she needed any help connecting with legal assistance or a shelter.
None of us expected to meet Tanika that day or to find ourselves face-to-face with the terror of living in abuse. More often we can ignore the problem. More often it stays behind closed doors. But as unusual as our encounter with Tanika proved to be, there is nothing unusual about domestic violence. In the United States, someone is beaten by their intimate partner every 9 seconds. For 12.4 million people, home is not a safe place. Today even many teenagers view violence as an unavoidable aspect of their relationships, and 1 in 3 will experience physical or sexual abuse or threats during the year.
The face of abuse is shared by all races, all ages and all socioeconomic classes. Domestic violence has severe physical and emotional consequences for its victims. And while 1 in 3 women will be victims of abuse sometime during their lifetime, studies also show that as many as 1 in 4 domestic abuse victims are men. The FBI reports that 2/3 of all marriages will include violence at some point. Domestic violence is just as real and just as prevalent in heterosexual and same sex relationships.
I never heard from Tanika again. According to the frustrated police officer, her boyfriend was in a lot of trouble for a lot of things, but in the end Tanika never pressed charges. The officer was angry with her – and obviously ill-educated about abuse. I was dismayed when he said to me, “People like her just like to get hit.” I tried to explain. I tried to help him see. I hope I made some impact.
Why would anyone stay in a violent relationship? This is probably the most commonly asked question – and for good reason. It seems so logical and obvious that these victims should just get out of the house. But the reality is that there are a lot of barriers to freedom. The reality is that the most dangerous time for a person who is being battered is when they leave. A full 75 percent of women who are killed by their partners are murdered after the relationship is over or as it ends. But that’s only one of the barriers to freedom.
Another is that many women and men don’t think of themselves as being abused. Abuse is generational and those who have grown up in abusive homes are far more likely to become the victims of the perpetrators of violence when they have grown. Abuse at its core is about control. It’s one person scaring another person into doing something. And it’s not just physical abuse but sexual abuse, emotional abuse, psychological abuse and financial abuse. Domestic violence may include insulting and name-calling, isolation, intimidation, and threats, which may be directed at children or other family members.
Another important concept to understand is the Cycle of Violence. The relationship doesn’t start out being violent. In fact, the abuser most likely begins as a seducer, buying presents and showering praise and attention on their partner. Eventually, though, this calm gives way to a tension-building period. In this phase, minor incidents begin and communication breaks down. The victim feels the need to placate the abuser and “walk on eggshells.” Eventually, the tension is released in an incident, which may take the form of physical, sexual or emotional abuse.
The next stage is a return to seduction as the abuser apologizes and may cry. A honeymoon stage ensues complete with gifts. And promises are made that it will never happen again. But at the same time, the victim is blamed for provoking the abuse, subtly planting the idea that it was their fault and that they can keep it from happening again. As time goes by, the abuser denies that the abuse ever took place — or at least that it was as bad as the victim claims.
In the calm that follows, the incident is forgotten. Some of the promises are kept and the victim is left with hope that the abuse is over. As the tension building stage begins again, the victim remembers that it is their responsibility to behave in a manner that will not bring about the abuse — which eventually recurs no matter what they do. The entire cycle may take more than a year to complete – or as little as a few hours.
Another barrier is religion. We all know that you cannot possibly use scripture from any religion to justify abuse. Nevertheless, we also know that scripture can be misused. Citing passages to “submit to your husbands” or to “turn the other cheek,” Christian men and women often feel compelled to stay in abusive relationships because of their marriage vow. For this reason, victims of abuse often feel doubly abandoned by God.
When all is said and done, I find the best explanation for why people stay in abusive relationships was captured by Don Miguel Ruiz. He said that if you are with someone who is beating you up more than you beat yourself up, you will leave. But if you are with someone who is beating you up just a little bit less than you beat yourself up, you will stay forever. I also believe that people who beat up other people, never beat them up more than they beat themselves up emotionally.
I know Ruiz named my experience. I used to believe in my own unworthiness. My life was so flawed. I was so flawed. There was all this crisis and trauma in my life. I had failed at so many times in my life. I wanted somehow to make a difference, but realized that I probably never would. Then I met Dr. Rudy Featherstone, a truly incredible man. He as a retired professor of theology. A proud black man with brilliant white hair who spoke glowingly of his wife, his children and his grandchildren. And most joyful person I think I have ever met.
We were riding in a car together when he asked me something about myself and my plans and I must have mumbled something about my inadequacies. Because the next thing he asked me was if I believed in the Holy Spirit. Now at the time I was fully steeped in the traditional language of the church so I replied, “Yes, I do.” Do you think the Holy Spirit can work in anybody? I paused, but then answered, “Yes, of course.” Then he asked me the question that would change my life. “What then,” he asked, “makes you so special that you think the Holy Spirit can’t work in you?”
Rudy really shook me up that day. I couldn’t argue with him. Whatever energy permeates our universe, I am part of that universe and that energy is necessarily part of me. When I am fully human, when I am fully me, then I have to admit that the package of body, thought and emotion that is Barbara Lee is not all I am. When I am fully human, I realize that I am also fully divine.
This is the Good News of the Easter story. It is the refreshingly good news that has been proclaimed throughout the history of all faith traditions. It is the life giving good news that we can never be separated from God because however we define God, we live in THAT and THAT lives in us.
Odds are you know someone who is being abused – even if you don’t know it yet. There’s a good chance that someone hasn’t glimpsed the divinity within themselves. As helpless as we often feel, there are things you can do to help. Let them know you understand domestic abuse. Tell them clearly that it is not their fault and that there is NOTHING they can do to prevent the violence. If they choose to open up, listen nonjudgmentally. Offer to help with childcare, transportation and storage of valuables. Encourage them to contact Every Women’s Place or the Center for Women in Transition or to call the domestic abuse hotline.
Try not to get discouraged. And above all, try not to blame. Victims of domestic abuse are suffering already from a great deal of shame and a sense of hopelessness. Don’t blame yourself if they don’t make the decision you would choose for them. Your role is to offer friendship, hope and a space for the possibility of change. It isn’t your responsibility to fix someone else’s world. More than anything victims need you to model what a loving relationship really looks like. They need a reason to hope.
I am pretty public now about my own history of abuse because I have met too many people who only trusted me with their story after I shared my own – after they knew that I would not judge them for the circumstances they were in. As a result of my experience, I ended up founding and chairing the Muskegon County Domestic Violence Healthcare Initiative. In that role, I gave a presentation on Domestic Violence at the Lion’s Club. After presenting all of my information, I opened it up for questions. A man sitting in the middle of the room said, “I know someone whose wife won’t let up on him until he hits her. Sometimes there’s just nothing else you can do.” And a number of others seemed to nod their heads and murmur their agreement.
There is NO excuse for violence. Not against women, not against men, not against children. There is NEVER an excuse for one person to use violence in any form against another.
Domestic violence alters the landscape of our lives and the lives of those we love. Violence by an intimate partner, rips deep valleys through the sense of self; builds mountains of shame and guilt and isolation; twists, bends, and distorts notions of love and relationship, and shatters into rough and jagged pieces the spirit of hope.
We need to be the prophetic voice. We need to be the voice of Jesus and Dr. Rudy Featherstone for Mary of Magdala and Tanika. We need to call all of those who suffer at the hands of abuse by name so that they may also be resurrected to new life.
Individually we can make a dramatic difference in the life of a friend or loved one. Together we can create a society in which we will no longer ignore or excuse acts of domestic violence. It begins with us, it begins here and it begins now.
I want to invite you to stand up now and face another person. Then repeat after me:
My name is _____________
I am fully human.
I claim my humanity.
I recognize my divinity.
I see the divine in you!