Mary Magdalene and #MeToo

In an age of online outcry, it’s time to consider Jesus’ relationship with Mary

The global takedown of powerful men accused of sexual assault and/or the serialised sexual harassment of women began with Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, before proceeding through Louis C.K., Matt Lauer and, closer to home, Don Burke and Craig McLachlan.

But then there was Aziz Ansari: self-declared feminist, guru on the trials of modern love, as explored through his Netflix comedy Master of None, and proud ally of #timesup: the war the women of Hollywood have declared on sexual harassment in the industry.

The internet exploded: women ruefully related, men cried foul.

Even Ansari has been swept up in scandal; accused of insistently pressuring his 23-year-old date into having sex despite her “clear verbal and non-verbal” signals that she wasn’t into it. She eventually complied, a little, before Uber-ing home in tears. The next day, Ansari texted: “It was fun meeting you last night.” Her response was a punch line not even the comedian saw coming: “Last night might have been fun for you, but it wasn’t for me.”

The internet exploded: women ruefully related, men cried foul. One New York Times op-ed despaired that “young feminists” were prepared to “torch men” for “bad sex” when they could have walked out. Others worried that #MeToo was getting a little carried away by demonising otherwise decent men. But feminist journalist Jessica Valenti summed up the mood in a widely shared tweet: “A lot of men will read that post about Aziz Ansari and see an everyday, reasonable sexual interaction. But part of what women are saying right now is that what the culture considers ‘normal’ sexual encounters are not working for us, and oftentimes harmful.”

Every new story of men using their power and influence to bully, intimidate, harass, or pressure women into sex (and yes, this includes even nice feminist guys like Ansari) has exposed something rotten about the state of sex today – experienced by ordinary people as well as the rich and famous.

Every new story is the same old story. Maybe even an ancient one.

• • •

“Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” Anyone familiar with the biblical creation story may recall God’s fateful words to Eve as punishment for her share, along with Adam, in disobeying God. This is part of the episode known as “the fall”: a name that will prove not only descriptive, but also predictive since their act of transgression will cause them to fall far short of the relationship of love, trust, intimacy and partnership that they were otherwise destined to enjoy.

Moreover, the breakdown of this relationship, between the proverbial Man and Woman, will corrupt the sexual and romantic affairs of the rest of the species. There will be chronic enmity between men and women, and men will, typically, have the upper hand. In relation to sex, men will be disposed to prey on women and reduce them to sexual objects. And women, conditioned by powerful social norms that train them to be compliant, and to ignore their own desires, will, at times, allow themselves to be used as one. They may even come to accept “bad sex” as, simply, sex.

Sexual embrace is to act as a sign, pointing beyond itself to the self-giving, other-honouring, eternally faithful love of God

It was not meant to be this way. Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body spells out God’s intended relationship between the sexes: that each see and love the other as God sees and loves them, with all the perfection and glory that that implies. Having recognised the other in all their beauty and significance, existing as an end in themselves and not for another’s instrumental use or gratification, one man and one woman were meant to give themselves to each other, fully aware of the responsibility and magnitude of that gift. According to this vision, sexual embrace is to act as a sign, pointing beyond itself to the self-giving, other-honouring, eternally faithful love of God.

Today, this description seems hopelessly idealistic, and the Fall an essentialist apologetic for structural injustice – since there’s no point resisting an ingrained, fallen human nature. But if the Pope’s reading is right, then contemporary sexual culture witnesses to the fact that men and women have fallen from soaring heights. And right at the bottom getting trampled on are the women – even in these times of so-called sexual liberation.

• • •

Mary Magdalene, in cinemas March 22, cannot help but speak into #MeToo. The film wishes to redeem the reputation of Mary of Magdala, perhaps the most tainted woman (next to Eve) in Christian history. We’re told that Pope Gregory labelled her a prostitute in 591; that slur would prove hard to shake for nearly 1400 years, until the Vatican quietly cleared her name in 1969.

Mary Magdalene doesn’t veer into Dan Brown-style flights of fancy that suggest that Jesus married Mary. In fact, the depiction of their relationship is all the more startling because it falls outside the standard framework of Hollywood heterosexual romance.

Women are seen and heard by Jesus, treated as full human beings …

Mary begins the film an oppressed figure, accused of demon possession for her independence of spirit. Yet Jesus sees her clearly and takes her seriously. He listens to her and values her presence. He honours her spiritual agency, and affirms that women have the right and responsibility to follow God – even in defiance of social convention or the say-so of husbands and fathers. Women are seen and heard by Jesus, treated as full human beings with needs and voices of their own — the very opposite of what it means to be objectified.

In a time increasingly aware of the systemic abuse of women by powerful men, it is incredibly affirming to see Mary Magdalene’s Jesus (but not just the film’s Jesus; the Jesus of the Bible as well) treat marginalised women with such honour and respect. It’s a depiction that allows even the sceptical viewer to entertain the possibility that following Jesus might actually be liberating for women. Not for nothing, then, is Jesus called the “new Adam” by the Apostle Paul: he ushers in a new order, one that brings life out of death and perhaps, in relation to relationships, a new start between men and women where each can embrace the other as beloved equals.

Mary Magdalene is not without problems: it invites criticism from orthodox believers who will take issue with its apocryphal account that elevates Mary above all the other disciples, especially Peter – a none-too-subtle dig at the institutional church that he will come to signify. But the most pointed statement the film can make in a time of #MeToo is that the one with every reason to lord it over others – he is the Son of God, after all, as claimed in the Bible – chooses instead to lift them up.

Jesus treats women so well that it’s not just the people of his own highly patriarchal society who could take their cues from him. If the roar of aggrieved women echoing around the web is any indication, we yearn for such a renewed vision of relationships today.

Dr Justine Toh is Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity.

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