In the summer of my 12th year my woman’s body began to take shape. In that space between childhood and adolescence I was largely oblivious to my physical maturation preferring the usual business of sports, music and friends. I was younger than most, having been put up a class. But I did notice a dramatic change in the boys. We had some mature boys in our class of mixed aged groups. They were big racing stud farm boys, strong and developed. But I soon noticed how they claimed our classroom with impunity. I noticed how they strutted like peacocks, how they bragged and brawled, and filled up all of the school spaces, both inside and outside with their noise and bodies. I found that I had to negotiate my way around them, while simultaneously drawn to them and repelled by their sheer quaking mass. My body began to respond with both fear and attraction as both my maturing intuition and my nascent sexuality began to take hold.
This need to physically move through occupied male territory felt precarious. Hands would reach out to ping my bra, rulers would be used to flick up my skirt, boys would ease themselves past me in tight spaces so they could brush up against me. As the year wore on the encounters with these boys grew more insistent. I was shoved into corners in the locker bay, grabbed and groped at parties, and was often made the subject of the boys’ laughing and outspoken sexual fantasies. On the one hand I was quietly diverted by this male attention but on the other hand I was drowning in it losing a sense of my body and myself as both were claimed without my permission over and over again.
Girls in the community made me a target of their derision. Looking back I think it was because I wasn’t playing by the rules. I was supposed to shrink; make myself small and quiet beside the boys. But I didn’t. I spoke up and out, allowed some boys to kiss me and rejected others. I tussled with them, teased them, competed with them, outsmarted them and challenged them. It was a ferocious time. My body felt defiant, bruised and so very sure and then unsure of its young self.
As the school year wound down to its Christmas closing a class party was held at someone’s home. I wasn’t allowed to go – a deprivation I will always be grateful for. While I sulked in my room that Saturday night my friend Michelle was being raped by several of the boys from my class. The following Monday morning Michelle was absent. The boys were unusually quiet and the girls spent the day tittering about what a slut she was.
I went to Michelle’s house that afternoon. She was subdued and teary. A brick wall surrounded her house that sat across the street from the main train trunk line that runs beside State Highway One from North to South. We scrambled up to sit atop it and we let our feet dangle down as the hot afternoon sun beat down on us while I listened to her. I was 12 and without words enough to respond with articulacy my body took over and in that moment it burst with its first flushes of real knowing. Every cell in my body was wrenched with horror, outrage and pain for my friend who, in a climate of misogyny would have to live not only with the abuse that occurred that night but with the social shunning from a community that tacitly backed up the demands and claims of its young males – however abhorrent – and made her responsible for the injustice done to her.
It had been some time since I thought about Michelle. The other day as I was pondering upon the kinds of claims that the church patriarchy have made upon my body and soul over the last few decades this moment in my young life suddenly came up for me again with absolute clarity – and I wept anew at the iterations of patriarchy and misogyny that have ricocheted through my life and the life of girls and women over time.
The world continues to fail women and girls. The church continues to fail women and girls. The very place of refuge where the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ is intoned with piety fails frequently in its opportunity to take its discipleship seriously deferring instead to a chronic and unchecked misogyny that fills our church, drawing constant attention to a clamorous and pressing masculinity as the seat of all spiritual power. And I have to wonder how we call time on this because it dignifies NOT ONE SOUL.
Perhaps we could talk about equality, inclusion, and equity as the best of institutional aspirations for all.
Perhaps we could talk about the historical roots of Mormonism and the clear justification women have in that early theology to claim a space at the sacrament table.
Perhaps we could talk about the conflation of blind obedience with spiritual submission and the tendency this has had in the church to cultivate an unchecked patriarchy that governs with unbridled latitude.
Or perhaps we could talk about Jesus.
Not the suffering Jesus; the dead Jesus; the resurrected Jesus, but the living Jesus who walked dusty roads in the company of women.
We could talk about His first public miracle – performed for a woman – his mother.
We could talk about a woman who had gone to a well to collect water, who encountered a traveller who paid special attention to her when every social convention justified him taking without giving. And we could talk about how He offered her healing words that gave her spiritual breath and life.
We could talk about the women who found His message so exquisite that they clamoured just to touch Him and wept to find themselves cured.
We could talk about two women caught in a debate about their domestic duty versus a woman’s entitlement to spiritual respite, and how He solved this social tension with a simple invitation to enjoy the ‘better part.’
We could talk about that day where a woman, a convicted adulteress, awaited her brutal public discipline and how He stood quietly alongside her daring her accusers to find some personal moral justification to throw just one stone.
We could talk about His final tears and words for the women in his life who heartbroken gathered to be with him at his death.
We could talk about the first witness of His resurrection, a woman and a friend who’s natural impulse was to embrace and hold this man whom she loved so very dearly.
And if we talked about Jesus’ ministry in this way it becomes very, very clear that His life and teachings were a significant disruption to the cultural violence perpetrated against the women of his day.
When I think about a young Nazarene, Yeshua, I am intoxicated with love for the life of a man who against all social conventions spent his ministry in beautiful, transcendent, and heretical association with women. And I can’t help thinking that his call to the women of my day is not simply for us to fawn at his feet and to throw ourselves about in apoplexies of gratitude. I can’t help think that we are the next women in Jesus’ life.
If we truly honor Jesus and take his ministry seriously we are the women who rise up from his feet and take those audacious steps into spiritual wholeness.
We are the women who, having been renewed by the living water he offers, inhale and exhale a deep, deep cleansing breath finally inhabiting our full spiritual selves without apology.
We are the women who, having had miracles performed for us, perform miracles for others.
We are the women who, having been taught the beauty of stillness, now liberate ourselves from the overwhelming burdens of domesticity and learn to pay profound spiritual attention as a priority.
We are the women who, having been taught about the power of Godly courage, stand with other women against the patriarchy’s often graceless and sometimes merciless judgment upon our bodies – defying them with our challenge to throw down their ridiculous stones.
And perhaps as the next women in Jesus’ ministry our ultimate challenge is to invite men into friendship with the women in their lives – as He was. Loving us, trusting us, paying attention to us, respecting us, hearing us, supporting us and sharing the deep responsibility of leadership in Building the Kingdom of God is surely the ultimate honour men of the church can give the Jesus they proclaim as their Exemplar.
And to the Michelles of the world and to those who have made themselves quiet against the weight and claims of the patriarchy I would add the words of Sarah Bessey:
“Rest in your God-breathed worth. Stop holding your breath, hiding your gifts, ducking your head, dulling your roar, distracting your soul, stilling your hands, quieting your voice, and satiating your hunger with the lesser things of this world.”