Sunday, August 26, 2012

The power of women and the fears of men

Text: Mark 5 21-43 (two healings)

When religion becomes the focus of a news story, I often cringe. Today, I look at two such stories. The first is about the recent jailing of three women in a Russian punk rock group for a protest video they made in a Moscow Cathedral this February. The second is about the false claim made last week by a religious politician in the United States that rape cannot lead to pregnancy.

Both events show us religion at its worst, I think. In searching for a different way for the church to approach the issues of women, the state and reproduction, I place these news events against the backdrop of our reading today about the healing of two women by Jesus. The latter can be viewed through the lenses both of women's fertility and of religious and legal propriety, I think.

A desperate father approaches Jesus because his daughter is dying. As Jesus walks to the girl's house, a woman who has suffered from irregular bleeding for 12 years touches the hem of Jesus' robe. Her bleeding would have made this woman infertile during those years. The young girl at age 12 is about to enter her fertile years. In both cases, their healing allows them to live into one of the roles associated with being a woman -- the power to give birth and to form a family.

Jesus' healing of these women in our Gospel story occurs despite religious rules that deem both to be ritually impure and therefore untouchable. The irregular bleeding by the older woman means that she would have been permanently taboo in the culture of her time. And when the young girl died, her corpse would also have be considered ritually unclean and taboo.

In both cases, Jesus ignores these rules around impurity. He applauds the woman for touching his robe and says that her faith has healed her. And when Jesus approaches the corpse of the young girl, he takes her by the hand and raises her to new life -- once again ignoring a taboo.

The power to become pregnant and religious rules about what is taboo appear in the news stories that have dominated our media recently.

This February, three Russian punk musicians filmed a 30 second video in an Orthodox cathedral while performing a satirical song that prayed to the Virgin Mary to prevent the re-election of autocratic Russian President Vladimir Putin. They were arrested after the video became popular on the Internet. A week ago Friday after a trial in which the judge showed his contempt for what he called their blasphemy, they were sentenced to two years in jail.

No one would deny that the action of these three women was provocative. It was designed to anger both Orthodox worshippers and supporters of Putin and to protest the close ties between church and state that have developed in the last 20 years in Russia since the collapse of Communism.

To their shame, the Patriarchs of the Orthodox Church backed this prosecution. They seemed more focused on the sanctity of the sanctuary than on the right of public dissent. Did they forget that Jesus cleared the Temple of his time? Did they forget that he flouted religious rules in favour of healing? Charges of blasphemy and heresy dodged Jesus throughout his ministry and contributed to his crucifixion by the Roman Empire.

The Russian state, by making this group's "blasphemy" a crime punishable by two years in jail shows that it has given up any pretence of the separation of church and state. In Russia today, Patriarch and President are united against voices of dissent and protest. It looks to me like a flashback to the days when church and empire worked hand in glove across most of Europe.

Then there is the second news story. Last Sunday, U.S. Congressman Todd Akin repeated a fiction that rape cannot lead to pregnancy. This repugnant idea is an attempt by people on the religious right to justify their opposition to legal abortion even when a woman says a pregnancy is the result of rape.

Now, I imagine that in any church gathering like ours today there will be different attitudes towards abortion. The United Church of Canada has been in favour of personal choice on abortion for many decades. But some churches oppose legal abortion, and some members of the United Church are "pro-life."

Parenting has a huge impact on all of our lives. The decision whether to become a parent or not; the heartache of infertility; the panic if a pregnancy is unwanted; the physical risks of pregnancy and childbirth; the joys and difficulties of raising children; the unimaginable pain if one's child dies -- these and other issues related to parenting are some of the most difficult and important ones we ever face.

Perhaps it is the central role of parenting that explains why the politics of reproduction remains at the top of our cultural and church agendas.

Men and women, of course, play different roles. During the nine months of pregnancy, women play a role that men cannot. Many of us think that attempts to outlaw abortion reflect a wish by some men to gain control where nature has not given it to us.

Of course, women are not the only one's affected by reproduction. Given how high the stakes are, they way these issues are handled affects all members of family and society. Nor would anyone say that decisions around pregnancy are trivial or without great emotional impact. But in the end, given that a woman's body and her health are uniquely at stake, who should have the final legal say about a pregnancy?

Canada gives that choice to the individual woman who is pregnant. While many Christians  argue that abortion is murder, most Canadians do not agree. In the past decade, there has been an average of 500 murders in Canada each year. During that same period, there has been an average of 80,000 abortions here every year. The difference between the two is clear to most of us.

Are a million or more Canadian women murderers? Should they all be locked up in jail? To ask these questions is to answer them, I believe.

Nevertheless, some Christians say that every pregnancy is a reflection of God's will, which is another reason put forward for making abortion illegal in all cases.

One way of interpreting our Gospel reading today might support such a theology. Jesus heals an illness and raises a young child from her deathbed. One could then argue that sickness and death depend upon God's will to act or not to act. In this interpretation, everything that happens to us -- including sickness, death, and certainly pregnancy -- reflects God's will.

However, I could not disagree more. God is with us. But this does not mean that sickness, death or pregnancy happen for anything other than natural reasons.

Scripture, tradition and our hearts assure us that healing and salvation are available to us all. But the healing given to us by God's grace is not an escape from sickness, death, or natural causes. Healing is the presence of God in Christ even when we are sick or dying. Salvation reflects the fact that death does not overcome the spirit of divine Love within each of us.

Our Gospel reading should never be used to suggest to grieving parents that their child could be resuscitated if they just had enough faith. It should never be used to suggest to sick people that they could be cured if they would only reach out to God. It should never be used to suggest that they have been abandoned by God. To me, the passage reminds us that Jesus comes to us regardless of religious rules and that God's Love is present even in the face of sickness or death.

All of life is a gift, both what we appreciate about it -- such as good health and a wanted pregnancy; as well as things we don't appreciate -- such as sickness or an unwanted pregnancy. But accepting the gift of life does not mean being passive in the face of things we do not like. Just as we can try to cure a sickness by medical means so we can also choose to nurture or terminate a pregnancy. The latter action, while never taken lightly, is not blasphemy or murder. To say otherwise is irrational, in my opinion. It is a theological cover for the desire to control women's bodies.

When I hear of religious politicians who demand that the state control women's bodies on the basis of irrational theology; or hear of presidents like Putin in Russia who collaborate with church patriarchs to put protestors in jail, I feel anger.

I am cheered, however, when I remember that Jesus stands against both religious elites and the state in favour of relationship, sharing, and the flourishing of life.

Jesus did not urge us to grab state power so that we could impose our religious prejudices on others. He stood against the power of both state and religious rulers in order to be with the sick, the powerless, and the oppressed.

Today I pray for all who are struggling with an unwanted pregnancy, including those who are the victims of rape. May they be free of the harassment of religious moralists who harbour irrational ideas about God. Today, I also pray for the protestors who have been jailed in Russia. May public pressure free them soon. Finally, I pray that churches will stop urging the state to use its repressive power to control women's bodies and to turn bad theology into public policy.

May all of us feel the healing touch of God in Christ who has the power to raise us to new life in any moment despite pious politicians and misguided church leaders.


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