Charlotte Dando On Virgin Mary
- Created on Tuesday, 25 March 2014
I think I am going to have quite a different approach to the other two speakers but I definitely saw some overlap. In the interests of full disclosure I think I will start with a confession. It is the same confession I made to Julian when he called me and asked if I would speak tonight. This explains why my style and content is going to be different to that of the other two speakers.
First of all I confess that I am not much of a theologian. I am a sociologist of religion so my reflections are not as in depth or as well thought out as my other two speakers who are obviously experts in their field. Secondly my confession is that whilst I am a quaker I do not actually self identify as a Christian so we can unpack that later. I am not a Christian and I do have a lot of love for Jesus, particularly his social teachings and I do read the gospel regularly. As for Mary I did grow up as a Catholic and anyone who has ever been to a Catholic church will know that there is great reverence for the Virgin Mary in that religion. So while I lost my Catholicism so to speak I always retained a great love for Mary and I was really happy that Julian asked me to contribute on this topic.
While I am familiar with the Islamic story of Mariam my presentation is going to come from a very broadly Christian perspective and it uses a few biblical passages. But my reading of Mary and the biblical events that I will be discussing are not orthodox. A lot of mainstream Christians probably would not quite read it the way I read it.
When I read the bible and other religious scriptures I take a largely allegorical approach. I do not see these stories are literal or necessarily historical. When I am reading them I try to think what does this story tell me about the nature of God. That is the angle I am coming from. That is why my presentation is from a quakerish, interfaithist, feministish perspective.
As a quick aside I wanted to start with a picture [slide presentation]. Just hold on to your first impression for a moment. Now let us zoom out. When we zoom out we can see this is a picture of Mary, Joseph and Jesus. It comes from the cover of a childrens’ bible which I found in my mother-in-law’s house. She is an ordained member of the church of England. We get so used to seeing pictures of a white, sometimes blond Jesus that we very much forget that his heritage lies in the Middle East. Mary was a hijabi. This picture reminded me of the degree to which Mary can be used as a figure to spark interfaith dialogue. The figure of Mary raises so many important topics for Christians and for Muslims and beyond as well, from womenhood, prophethood, faith, trust love etc
I am so glad that the Muslim-Christian forum organised the discussion particularly on Mary. So I am thinking about the example of Mary and what it might tell me about the nature of God. One of my first reflections is that perhaps God did not actually need Mary. So if I understand it according to Christian and Islamic understandings of God, God is all powerful. So God could have brought Jesus down from heaven or he could have created him from a mound of clay as he did with Adam.
God chose the more traditional route that Jesus would be given birth by a woman. He picked Mary to give birth to his son. This brings me on to wondering why Mary? Why did God not pick a queen, a noble woman, a woman of status? This is the mother of Christ. Instead God picked pretty much nobody. Mary was a simple girl who was betrothed to a carpenter. She was living in a village which was not particularly interesting or important. So God’s son came from this humble beginning. And for me this suggests that God has a certain attitude towards wealth, power and nobility. The earthly importance of wealth and status do not really transcend when we are talking about spiritual and divine significance.
So when Jesus later went on to stand up for the hungry, the poor and the oppressed he was able to do so in a really genuine manner because he too was a lowly man from a very ordinary background. So back to Mary. Mary has not stood up very well to a feminist reading. I understand this on one hand but on the other I feel it is a real shame because personally I see no contradiction in saying that I am both a woman of faith and a feminist. In fact I would say that somewhere in my Qaker faith and our testimony to equality demands that I am a feminist.
If we take a great feminist writer Simone De Bouvoir s he wrote of Mary: “For the first time in the history of mankind a mother kneels before her son and acknowledges of her own free will her inferiority.” De Bouvoir describes this scenario as the “supreme victory of masculinity.”
I however take a slightly different reading because I see that Mary can be a great example to all women of faith and indeed to men as well for reasons I am about to explain which show that I am not being an anti feminist.
Let us look at story of Jesus conception as it is described in the bible. Historians and theologians suggest that Mary was about 12 or 13 when the Angel Gabriel visited her which is incredibly young. So let us imagine this. A young girl sat at home, maybe she is praying, she is just going about her day minding her own business and an angel enters the room. That is pretty scary to start with. That is before Gabriel tells Mary that she is going to give birth to the messiah the son of God, to Christ.
So Mary responds with some confusion and surprise but she never has any doubt. Her response is quite startling. Mary is going to be a teenage mum and she is also at the risk of being a single mum. She is betrothed to Joseph they haven’t yet married and in those times it would have been a much greater taboo to be a single mother. Just briefly in the bible in says: “Her husband Joseph being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace planned to dismiss her quietly.” Potentially when Gabriel came along and said “Mary you are going to give birth to Jesus”, - this makes Mary both a teenage mum and a single mum. But she very boldly answers: “Here I am the servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to your word.” No doubt. Just total faith, total trust.
Luckily the risk of being a single mum was averted when God stepped in and explained the situation to Joseph. Mary had demonstrated how prepared she was to take risks and to very much suffer for what she believed in. I can only imagine how exhilarating and also terrifying it would be to know that your first borne child is destined to change the world. Perhaps at that time Mary did not understand what all this would mean but right up witnessing her child’s death which was a terrible thing to go through, Mary recognised the righteousness of Christ. As we know her son was not exactly a welcome messiah. He was persecuted, he was unpopular and he was a young radical. So the suffering Mary faced due to her combined love of God and her combined love of her son was extensive.
Throughout all this Mary had faith. She put her trust in God in a way that I can only ever aspire to. And she stood true to herself and true to her beliefs. Significantly Mary’s values as a strong, pious woman were recognised before she became a mother. So it is not just that she is a mother that gave her value and significance in this story.
When Gabriel greets Mary he says: “Greeting favoured one, the Lord is with you. You have found favour with God.” This suggests to me that God valued Mary’s example and the way she lived her life very much. God knew that she had a good heart and a good temperament and also crucially that she was a strong, determined woman who would be able to carry out this plan that he had. I would argue that just as Mary put her trust in God, God put a tremendous trust in Mary. Mary was not just responsible for the physical birth but also for Jesus upbringing. The gospel gives little hint that God interfered with Mary’s parenting style. There is very little detail of Jesus life between the ages of 12 and about 30 when he began his ministry.
I have head Mary described as a prophet of God by a Christian lady. For me when we start thinking about this aspect of Mary’s life it certainly rings true that she was a prophet of God. The upbringing of the messiah was entrusted to a humble woman from Nazareth. Mary took on this unbelievably huge responsibility. She did this massively important work in the name of God.
Too often words to describe Mary are those of obedience and submission. They are not bad things in themselves but they have some very negative connotations. That is why she fell out of favour with feminists. What I am arguing is that fitting adjectives may be brave, faithful, strong. Mary may have well been sweet, kind and gentle. I am sure she was but she was also undoubtedly resilient and independent.
Quakers have a big red book called Quaker faith and practise. It is an anthology of our teachings. This is the first chapter. It is called advise and queries. I just wanted to read this.
“If pressure is brought upon you to lower your standard of integrity are you prepared to resist. Our responsibilities to God and our neighbour may involve us in taking an unpopular stance. Do not let the desire to be sociable or the fear of seeming peculiar determine your decisions.”
I really think that this embodies Mary and Mary is close to my heart. She did not just do as society asked for her. She was prepared to go against societal expectations for what she believed in which is a very, very hard thing to do and a rather radical thing to do. So let me leave you with this thought. Mary was a brave, independent prophet of God. She is a woman who all believers, Muslims and Christians, Qakers and who ever both women and men can learn can awful lot from.
*Charlotte Dando is a Quaker and an interfaith activist based in London. She is Assistant Director of the William Temple Foundation, a faith-based research institution concerned with religion in public life. She has recently completed a Master’s degree in ‘Religions of Asia and Africa’ at SOAS, University of London where her dissertation examined the effects of pluralism on the religious identities of young, Muslim interfaith advocates. She also holds a BA in ‘Religion in the Contemporary World’ from King’s College, London. Charlotte works as a freelance trainer for the interfaith organizations 3FF and URI, and she is a contributing scholar for the interfaith blogging website State of Formation. Her reverence of Mary stems from her Catholic upbringing, and she is interested in viewing Mary through a feminist lens.
Open discussions/Gulf Cultural Club
Virgin Mary: The mother of the believers
18th December, 2013
Sheikh Mohammad Saeed Bahmanpour
Revd Bonnie Evans-Hills