This week Daily Theology has featured an octave of posts on the topic of rape and rape culture especially as this occurs in higher education. These posts have been wide-ranging and brilliant from Bridget O’Brien’s account of prophetic anger to Megan McCabe’s articulation of the details of rape culture and the moral implications of identifying with the accused in the rape narrative as opposed to the accuser. (1) (2) Jenny Peek viscerally describes the dangers to all involved of avoiding the topic of rape in Christian settings. (3) I will not rehearse the many thoughtful and sensitive points that have been made about rape this week. Instead I will rely on their brilliant articulations of the situation and offer a theological response from the perspective of Mary’s agency in the story of Jesus’ conception in Luke 1.
Mary’s consent to carrying, birthing and raising Jesus provides a powerful corrective to rape culture. Mary’s consent is the most important “yes” in salvation history because with that yes Mary bore the child of God (thus becoming the Theotokos) and participated in bringing to fulfillment God’s plan to redeem the world. God did not send the Holy Spirit to conceive Jesus without Mary’s consent; Mary’s full verbal consent was required and obtained before Jesus was conceived. God waited for consent; and it was not “implied” or “presumed” consent. Luke 1:38 is clearly Mary’s full consent to God’s plan. This has significant bearing as a Catholic statement on rape culture and the ways in which “actual consent” are supplanted with “implied consent.”
Rape culture is all around us as the creeping presupposition that experiencing a woman’s body does not require her full verbal, intellectual, spiritual and emotional consent. Rape culture encourages us to hear the story of sexual assault through the hermeneutical lens of the “wrongly accused rapist” and not through the lens of the “rape accuser” as McCabe pointed out earlier this week.
Rape culture teaches us that men are entitled to view women’s bodies in whatever state they wish. Ask any young woman with a smart phone and a Snapchat account if she has been pressured to take and send naked pictures of herself; the answer is usually always yes. If she sends the picture it is often accompanied by pressure to do so. If the picture becomes public she is blamed for having been stupid enough to send it in the first place.
In order for sex to be consensual (thus not rape) the initiator must receive full permission for all sexual contact, without pressure or coercion; including coercion by intentionally encouraging intoxication. Because the initiator has received permission to have sex with this person before does not mean that they have permission to have sex with this person again. Because this person might be dressed provocatively, flirting with, or engaged in some other sexual contact (making out etc) with the initiator does not mean that they have given “presumed consent” to further sexual contact. Rape culture teaches the rapist that these actions on the part of the rape victim lead to presumed or implied consent. Implied consent is not actual consent.
Mary’s “Yes” as a definitive “No” to Rape Culture
Jenny Peek mentioned an excellent sermon she heard on the rape of Tamar in 2 Samuel 13:1-21. She mentioned that this horror story between Tamar and her step brother Amnon is heartbreaking and devastating. Phyllis Trible’s seminal work The Texts of Terror makes a similar exegetical statement about Tamar’s rape and adds that Tamar’s pleading with Amnon to marry her first (prior to the rape) and then not send her away (subsequent to the rape) is evidence that Tamar understands that her lowly position as a female leaves her vulnerable to rape; even as the daughter of King David who subsequently did nothing after he learned of Amnon’s sin. (4) In Scripture, Tamar’s rape stands in strong contradistinction to Mary’s consent in Luke 1. One might even say that the fact that God asks and receives Mary’s consent to be the mother of Jesus redeems the rape story of Tamar because God’s answer to the rape of Tamar was to obtain Mary’s consent. Through Mary’s consent, Tamar is restored because God did what Amnon was too sick with lust to do; receive consent.
God did not violate Mary’s freedom (or ability to give actual consent) to bring Jesus into the world through implied consent. Luke describes a God that respected Mary’s free choice to give birth to Jesus.
And Mary said to the angel, “How shall this be, since I have no husband? And the angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God…For with God nothing will be impossible.” And Mary said “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:34-38, RSV)
Notice the last line. This is Mary’s full consent “…let it be to me according to your word.” Mary’s yes is celebrated in our faith as one of the most important moments in salvation history because our salvation depends on that consent. Mary’s yes resulted in the incarnation of the Word in the hypostatic union thus opening the possibility of our full participation in the beatific vision. Omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent God; source and font of the universe; source of that which according to St. Anselm of Canterbury no greater thought can be thought would not violate the consent of a poor, unwed, Hebrew teenage girl with no power and no political or social position by diminishing her agency and eliding her actual consent with her implied consent. Through the medium of the angel, God required and received Mary’s actual consent before Jesus was conceived as is clear in Luke 1:38.
This should lead us to a Mariology in which the entire importance of Mary as the Theotokos rests in not only her ontological status as the Immaculate Conception but also in her all important consent; consent which God would not violate. This Mariology, properly understood should serve as a powerful corrective to rape culture. Taking our cue from Mary’s absolutely crucial role in salvation history, female consent is so pivotal to our faith that it actually merits an elevated theological status within the tradition. If this is properly understood and applied than Catholics should adopt an approach to rape culture that proceeds from female consent as the first constitutive element of a discussion around rape culture rather than including it in a periphery manner or not at all. The entire discussion needs to be shaped around female consent and a proper understanding of Mary’s agency and in her role in salvation history can accomplish this.
This post is part the Octave of Theological Reflection on Sexual Assault and Higher Education at Daily Theology.