The Courage to Tell Our Story
When my big sister was a little girl – this was a long, long time ago – my mother would read her story books. And because my mother wanted my sister to see herself in the stories, to imagine herself a part of the story, my mother often changed the name of the main character from a boy’s name to a girl’s name. She just couldn’t find that many books with female heroes, she had to make them up.
When I came into the picture she had stockpiled a library full of books with female protagonists. Things were getting better for women who wanted to hear stories, not about getting rescued or about some evil stepmother, but someone they could look up to.
But it was still tough for girls who loved stories. I remember playing “Star Wars” with my friends and we added women to the story. You, perhaps, have never heard of Princess Leia’s cousin Charlotte, but she is awesome! Years before I knew anything about fan fiction, I added stories of women heroes to Tolkien’s massive Lord of the Rings trilogy.
But this is nothing new. Women have been having to imagine their stories and add their storylines back in since the dawn of time. Those of us who are used to filling in the blanks left by stories that leave out the women will find our readings fairly familiar. On the one hand we have an uncomplicatedly evil woman and on the other hand we have a silent, unnamed woman.
We can imagine, with the sympathy borne of having been down this road before, that Jezebel has gotten the short end of the historical stick. A foreign princess married to an Israelite prince, perhaps she hangs on to the gods of her childhood not because she is thoroughly wicked, but because to abandon her religion would mean her people would die. Perhaps, she figures out, like many smart women with limited power, that manipulating her husband allows her to exercise the gifts she has been given for statecraft. Perhaps her machinations with the vineyard reprehensible, but no more reprehensible than the shenanigans of beloved King David. And his name did not persist through the ages as a synonym to sexual promiscuity – even though that has everything to do with his sins and nothing to do with hers.
And the anonymous woman in the gospel story who anoints Jesus and washes his feet with her tears. This story appears in all of the other gospels, but Luke, typically so generous with details about women is silent about the woman’s notorious sin – scholars conclude that it is probably a sexual sin, because what else would make a woman a notorious sinner – and her name. Unwittingly, by not naming her he dooms her to be confused for ever after to be confused with Mary Magdalene, a woman who was not a prostitute, but happened to be in the same story as a woman who might have been. We can imagine that this anonymous woman came to Jesus more as a victim than a perpetrator.
Many of us are used to this activity of filling in the details when it comes to women’s stories. We know how to read between the lines. How shocking, how mind boggling it was last week, when a woman, another anonymous woman got up in court and read a twelve page letter detailing the full horror of her sexual assault.
If you ever find yourself wondering what this “rape culture” that people keep talking about is, you need look no further than this Stanford sexual assault case. Here was a victim who had done everything right. She had submitted to examination, she had pressed charges, she had testified, undergoing withering cross examination attacking her character. There were witnesses. And amazingly, a jury convicted her assailant. But even though all of the stars had aligned the judge sympathized with the perpetrator’s plight. He had been a star swimmer, headed to the Olympics maybe. A jail sentence anywhere close to the minimum for his crime would “have a severe effect on him.” The judge thought the assailant was an exception, a nice young man caught up in bad circumstances – drinking culture, promiscuity on campus – as opposed to the rule. As opposed to the truth, that this nice young man is the face of rape. See it seems our culture makes nice young men who think unconscious young women are theirs for the taking. Perhaps it’s because they never heard stories where women are the heroes, so they have no capacity to recognize when they are playing in the villain in the worst story in a woman’s life.
But we can tell ourselves a different story. We have the story of new life. We are born into a world that erases women or turns them into sexual objects, a world that teaches men that the only way they can relate to women is through dominance. But in baptism we let go of that world. The language is stronger – we die to that world.
We are reborn to a different world. And in the tension of Christian life, which is the tension between the already and the not yet, we live in the world as if people were treated as full human beings and agents in their own story AND we strive to create a world where that is possible.
We promise at baptism to love and support every human being as made in the image of God and we promise to try to have the courage to live out that image in our own lives. We may be discouraged when we hear stories like we heard this morning; we may be discouraged when we hear that a judge sympathizes more with the abuser than the abused.
But we can recommit ourselves today to take heart and to have courage. The courage of a young woman who tells every bit of her harrowing story straight to the face of the man who attacked her, the courage of another unnamed woman who crashes a party she is not invited to in order to claim the love God made her for. These women refuse to be erased, to be written out of history, or to have their stories told for them. They are the main characters.
As we tell the story of baptism, remember that you have a part to play in the story, a part that you might only beginning to imagine.