Warning: The Following Scene Contains Violence and Nudity
A radiant young woman is assaulted, forced into a wilderness of spiritual exile for years. Her assailant? A draconian caricature of a man, drunk on his own power. Actually…not a single man, but a coiling cabal of corrupt, violent and self-serving men conspiring to silence her. Why? They fear the truth she will birth; they know it will be their undoing. But justice cannot be postponed forever. She may have fled, but her truth is safe, waiting to be revealed.
The thought of her assailant lording it over others horrifies her allies. This monster does not deserve power. He must be stopped. Swords are drawn. Everyone takes sides, some siding with the monster. War breaks out in the great seat of power, the place of honor. Bitter partisans clash in an epic battle as the fate of countless lives hangs in the balance.
So much is at stake. More than this one assault. More than this one birth. This woman and her assailant are not just people; they are signs. Her suffering stands in for the suffering of others like her. His will to dominate signals a vast culture of abuse and exploitation at the highest levels. Her witness, her words against him, tortures his soul because he knows it’s true. Outraged, he puffs himself up as judge and Accuser. But a champion arises to defend her.
It’s a very close fight. Birthing this truth is costly and painful, but it’s worth it. Her truth unmasks the smoldering egoism powering this monster. In the end, unmerited suffering and “the word of their testimony” win the day. At least for now…. Her assailant is furious! He lashes out indiscriminately against her allies, breathing contempt and lies. Everyone waits with bated breath to see what will happen next…
No, this is not a dramatization of Thursday’s hearing on Capitol Hill, but you could be forgiven for thinking so. Rather, this is the dramatic sequence of Revelation 12, the Bible passage heard today by millions of Christians as Catholics, Anglicans and Orthodox celebrate The Feast of St. Michael and All Angels. It’s a riveting story that would make Dan Brown proud, pitting the forces of heaven against hell in a battle royale: angels v. demons, Archangel Michael v. the Seven-Headed Dragon.
But, they’re not the real stars! The Woman crowned with twelve stars, clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet – she’s the real hero. As if an agonizing birth weren’t enough to deal with, she’s also being assaulted. The language of Revelation is spare, but clear. “Crying out in pain,” she faces this Dragon, this menacing monster, reeling and writhing over her as he thrusts his long necks and fierce crowned heads into her groin. Phallic much? Lunging at her loins, he snaps at her womb with drool-drenched razor sharp teeth, ready to eviscerate her divine Son, The Truth, the moment He breaches the birthing canal.
Rev. 12 is at least NC-17 or MA. But unlike other horror movies, it’s depiction of the pornographic violence against this woman isn’t gratuitous. It’s a judgement against that violence. More on that in a bit, but first I need to nerd out for a minute, so stay with me…
Woman, Assault and Trauma in Jesus’ Time
See, scholars don’t agree over the Woman’s identity: some read her as Mary, others as the churches of Asia Minor, and still others as Israel. Regardless, they all have two things in common: they’re all personified as women and they all suffer violent assaults at the hands of men. Mary flees Herod’s infanticidal rage in Matthew’s Gospel; the churches of Asia Minor named in Rev. 1 endure persecution in Domitian’s Rome, and; Israel is variously conquered, enslaved, and exiled by Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Macedonia and Rome. Whatever else may be said about the Book of Revelation, it was written from a place of profound psychospiritual trauma, and it’s not a coincidence that trauma is narratively embodied as a woman.
Women in Jesus’ time were intimate familiars of trauma. Not by choice. The many-headed dragon of fallen patriarchy perpetrated unthinkable crimes against them as emperor, governor, prefect, king, centurion and soldier (to say nothing of father, husband, brother, etc.). For first century Christians there was no mystery about who the many-headed dragon signified: the imperial Paterfamilias, the Pater Patriae, who demanded worship as Lord and God. Offer incense at the altar of the emperor’s genius, or face the pornographic violence of the arena. Literally. Bulls, chimps, giraffes, hyenas and other wild animals were trained to rape women as part of live re-enactment scenes of Rome’s ancient myths. Christian women were humiliated as their genitals were exposed, their bodies ravaged and torn apart while blood-thirsty crowds roared with laughter, and shouts of acclamation. Rome’s appetite for violence was bottomless, and women played a vital, graphic role in that violence.
While the gladiatorial quality of Rev. 12 makes the churches of Asia Minor the most likely candidate for the Assaulted Woman, their spiritual mother in the faith, Mary of Nazareth, was no stranger to their pain. Many Christians don’t know the deep trauma Mary and Jesus suffered in their lifetimes. Pastors are guilty of painting a bucolic picture of Nazareth, full of baby lambs and baby Jesus. But that’s just not Biblical. And it sure as hell isn’t historical. So, what was it really like? Well, since we’re talking about birth, that’s prolly a good place to start. While some scholars argue that the Massacre of the Innocents in Matthew’s birth narrative is a later Christian fabrication to justify the fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy, I believe it reflects, instead, the general climate of violence in which Mary conceived and into which Jesus was born.
When Herod the Great died in 4 BCE, it was a lot like when Saddam Hussein was executed in Iraq. With the strong man gone, the lid came off Pandora’s box, and blood flowed in the streets. The Galilean peasant class who starved, and saw their land confiscated while they slaved away building Herod’s new glammed-out Greek cities, had enough. In the same year Jesus was born, they revolted – in 4 BCE and again in 6 CE – (Most scholars put Jesus’ birth around the time of the first revolt in 4 BCE.). Rome’s response was swift and merciless. Josephus describes how they unleashed the beast: two thousand of Jesus’ kinsmen were crucified in the streets; thirty thousand sympathizers from bougie ole Sepphoris were sold into slavery, and; Galilean women were raped by Varus’ Syrian legions as they brutally put down the revolt. Sepphoris was leveled.
Years later, as a tekton (“artisan”), Jesus likely made the hour-long trek from Nazareth to Sepphoris every day. As he and other day laborers rebuilt the regional capital as a monument to Herod Antipas’ ego and a playground for the nouveau riche class of Jewish Roman collaborators, whispers spread and rumors flied.
The Legacy of Victim-Shaming in Early Christianity
Matthew and Luke, the only two Gospels with a nativity, frame Jesus’ conception as the moral dilemma of a young woman impregnated outside of wedlock. The traditional explanation offered by the Gospels is the Virgin Birth. But not everyone was on board with that explanation. Not even in the Gospels. Witness Mark 6:3. When Jesus is rejected at Nazareth they call Him, “the son of Mary.” No, these were not proto-Catholics giving a shout-out to the Mother of God. This was some serious shade cast at Mary’s son. Israel was a patrilineal society; sons were almost always addressed by their father’s house – unless they had no father, or were part of competing matrilinies under the same paternal house. In effect, the townspeople of Nazareth said: “Who is this uppetty, illegitimate bastard of a whore?” (Yeah…you’re not gonna find that translation in The Message lol)
They weren’t alone in questioning the legitimacy of Jesus’ paternity. Early anti-Christian sources, like Celsus, relished the rumor that Jesus was, in fact, the bastard child of a Roman soldier named Pantera. Religion scholar, James Tabor, even believes archeological evidence for Pantera’s paternity exists, placing him as an archer in the Roman assault on Sepphoris in 4 BCE. Do I believe that a Roman soldier sired my Lord and Savior? No. But this hateful smear campaign against Mary and Jesus was only plausible because Roman soldiers raped vulnerable peasant girls like Miriam of Nazareth. And then their own next of kin slut-shamed, disowned, dispossessed or shame-killed them. Celsus didn’t claim Mary was raped, but committed adultery. Because, obviously, if a woman is sexually assaulted by a man it’s her fault. See where I’m going with this?
Christian men who dismiss the testimony of women like Christine Blasey Ford can only do so because they are either way more chill with the Dragon than they should be, or are willfully ignorant of their own history – of the forces that shaped not only Jesus’ world and Scripture, but one of the central preoccupations of the Good News. It’s not a coincidence that Jesus dedicated so much of His ministry to breaking up the broshit. He ruffled a lot of feathers calling out self-righteous, power-hungry men on their moral equivalency and hypocrisy, while also inviting women into His orbit and empowering them unlike almost any other male religious leader of His time. Stories like the Woman at the Well, the Woman Caught in Adultery, and the Woman Anointing Jesus’ Feet consistently point to one conclusion.
As uncomfortable as it may be for Brovangelicals, Brothordox, and Brotholics to accept, Jesus was, what we today would call, “a feminist,” by His sociocultural standards. But, I mean, you would be too, right? If you grew up hearing the Mean Girls of Galilee gossiping about Your Mom’s shady pregnancy, You’d probably be passionate, too, about challenging conventional Israelite socioreligious gender norms.
The Truth of Trauma & Breaking Up the Broshit
Ok, no more nerding out, I promise. You can tune back in. In fact, you probably should. It’s about to get real. Because here’s the kicker: while I was studying all this stuff at Harvard, I got a phone call that no brother, father, husband, uncle or friend should ever have to get. If I close my eyes, I can still hear her voice quaking through the tears. I can still feel my blood pressure rise as she recounted the details: “It was just a drink. I didn’t think anything of it. It was a party, but I wasn’t going crazy. Then it sort of went dark, and he was on top of me. I was on the floor. I couldn’t move. I tried to scream, but I couldn’t. He drugged my drink. I think I tried to force him off. I can’t remember exactly. I felt like I was inside a horror movie.”
Like Christine Blasey Ford, this young woman couldn’t remember all the details; the sequence at times seemed blurry even though it only just happened. Did it cast doubt on her ability to identity her assailant? No. Just the opposite. As Ford explained in her testimony, the brain processes trauma in a way that can make it virtually impossible for victims to forget the more chilling details, leading to PTSD. Was it because she was having false memories, as Sen. Ron Johnson recently suggested of Ford? Hell no. (Shame on him. He’s part of the Hyrda. Why is Ford’s memory suspect, but not Kavanaugh’s? Shouldn’t he be asking, instead, why so many of Kavanaugh’s classmates are claiming he lied under oath on national tv? Devil’s Triangle is a game of coins?)
Never have I understood Michael, the Dragon Slayer, better than when I hung up that phone. If she told me his name, I don’t know what I would have done. I know what I wanted to do. No, the Woman couldn’t unsee the the monster’s face who was attacking her. It was seared in her memory. For Christians, it’s seared into our collective memory through passages like Rev. 12. But unlike the arena, John doesn’t show us this horror for mere entertainment. He is giving birth to a truth that Christians need to reconnect with if they hope to be credible with millions of women who have suffered sexual assault in their lives: trauma fragments experience, memory and reality; it makes the world feel cosmically unsafe.
It’s not a coincidence that scholars can’t agree on a sequence for the Book of Revelation. Yes, he’s scattered, but John is not “on some acid trip” as I’ve heard too many pastors quip. Comments like that trivialize the trauma that gave birth to our sacred story as Christians. The soul was also portrayed as a woman in ancient Christianity. Could the Assaulted Woman of Revelation 12 be John’s own soul in chains on the island of Patmos? Revelation is hard to crack because John spoke in veiled signs on purpose. He knew that if the empire understood the power of his words, they would stop at nothing to silence him. I pray this Sunday that Christians everywhere, regardless of party, lean in to the subversive testimony of the Assaulted Woman. With God’s grace, Christ’s love, and the Spirit’s power we must not let the Dragon prevail. The only alternative is to be complicit in the Devil’s Triangle.