Notes from WATERtalks: Feminist Conversations in Religion Series

Mary, Mother Of Martyrs: How Motherhood Became Self-Sacrifice In Early Christianity

with Kathleen Gallagher Elkins

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Mary E. Hunt: WATER thanks Kathleen Gallagher Elkins for a rich and provocative hour of discussion on her book Mary, Mother Of Martyrs: How Motherhood Became Self-Sacrifice In Early Christianity.

We greet you at a hard time in our country’s history when racism and white supremacy demand our outrage and our concerted action. All of WATER’s programs are meant to be educational, spiritual, and conducive of social change. So it is today when we look at MARY, MOTHER OF MARTYRS with author Kathleen Gallagher Elkins and think about the many women who are themselves oppressed by a racist climate, and the ones whose children are killed. 

Kathleen Gallagher Elkins is a colleague on the Feminist Studies in Religion projects. It was FSR Books that published this volume, a revision of her important doctoral dissertation from Drew University. 

This is how the Committee on Promotions and Tenure at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin described her when she was promoted to Associate Professor:

“Kathleen Gallagher Elkins began teaching at St. Norbert College in 2014 and she is a faculty member in the Theology and Religious Studies discipline. Dr. Gallagher Elkins has taught Theological Foundations, Women in the Bible, Christian Traditions, New Testament, Judaism & Christianity: The Holocaust, Scripture & Biblical Interpretation, Christology, and the capstone course.

Kathleen envisions her teaching a journey that her students join her on. On this journey, she tackles difficult and emotionally charged topics that cause her students discomfort, all while creating a comfortable classroom climate that allows her students to feel safe to discuss a variety of perspectives. Students regularly share that they appreciate the positive classroom climate that Dr. Gallagher Elkins creates, her care and concern for her students, and her enthusiasm and passion for the subject she teaches. One colleague noted: ‘She exhibits authority in the best sense of the word. It is the authority that comes from competence, authenticity, and integrity.’

Kathleen’s scholarship focuses on self-sacrifice in motherhood, children in the Biblical world, and feminist studies in religion. She has published a book, Mary, Mother of Martyrs: How Motherhood Became Self-Sacrifice in Early Christianity while maintaining a productive scholarly agenda on a number of additional pieces of work, including book chapters and publications related to pedagogy.”

In the book MARY, MOTHER OF MARTYRS, she explores the connections between motherhood and martyrdom in the ancient church, and how those ideas inform our conversations about motherhood, families, children, and women’s roles today. In our current situation where mothers of children taken unjustly suffer the same fate as biblical women—shame, dishonor, misunderstanding, indeed often their own being killed—this book strikes a chord. 

Kathleen Gallagher Elkins: It might seem like motherhood in early Christianity is pretty far afield from the movement for Black Lives, but it seems that there are important connections, like the questions of who lives and who dies, and the ways we’re seeing violence and suppression in response to important and necessary conversations. 

In addition to acknowledging the connections between what we’re seeing in the news and the protests we’re participating in, I wanted to start by how I came to this topic. During my doctoral studies, my advisor noted that I kept writing term papers about a mother in some kind of situation of violence. I realized what had me hooked was that modern conversations of motherhood in the US frequently talk about the experience of motherhood as self-sacrifice. And people assume that motherhood means sacrifice. When I was doing my doctoral work, I would read about ancient families, and then I would come home and read “ how to parent” books, and the assumptions of what parenthood is, are very different. 

When I read the modern blogs, they assumed that being a mother meant being a martyr. But the ancient texts didn’t assume that, which was interesting, especially because the ancient stories are often in contexts of violence, so you might expect that there would be a linking between motherhood and self-sacrifice. Even though I was looking at stories of violence, the texts didn’t assume that motherhood meant sacrifice or loss, and I wanted to know why that was. I thought that if motherhood had a history, if there was a change, we can imagine it differently, and hopefully in a way that is not always linked to self-sacrifice. 

I focused on Mary, and three other Jewish and Christian maternal figures from the first three centuries CE, in which motherhood and self-sacrifice are explored but not linked together. What I explored was that these are seeds for the idea that motherhood and self-sacrifice go together, even though it’s not assumed the way it is in modern conversations. 

There are four chapters which focus on some sort of mother and child relationship, and each chapter is paired with some contemporary example of maternal activism. Maternal activism is the use of motherhood in activist movements, i.e., Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Mothers for Gun Safety, Mom’s Rising. 

Mamie Till advocated for the casket to be left open at her son, Emmett Till’s funeral so that people would see what happened to her son. This set off the civil rights movements. I think of Mamie Thill as a paradigmatic Maternal Activist, because she used her experience related to motherhood and incredible loss to make the world a better place. 

The Mothers of the Movement (pictures from 2016 Democratic convention) – When I was editing this book, I was watching these mothers give speeches and I was struck that the ways they talked about their activism and motherhood used the same approaches as the maternal activists I wrote about used. Three of the women spoke, all three emphasizing the communal nature of their motherhood and their activism. One example in Geneva Reed Beale, the mother of Sandra Bland, who said “losing one’s child is a personal loss, it’s a national loss, and it’s a loss that diminishes all of us.” Jordan Davis’ mother whose representative Lucy McDath spoke of using their voices so this club of broken hearted mothers stops growing. And Sabrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin, said she is an unwilling participant in this movement – “I would not have signed up for this.” So while they were there, their speeches referred to Hillary Clinton as a mother who listens to grieving mothers and who will say the names of their murdered children. So these mothers were mobilized by experiences of violent loss and created a community that works for justice. 

The four chapters of the book are juxtapositions of two mothers:

Chapter 1 juxtaposes Mary of Nazareth and the Madres de Plaza de Mayo in Argentina. The Madres were women who protested the disappearance of their children, when the government very famously tortured and ‘disappeared’ student activists in the 70s and 80s. They frequently used Mary as a maternal activist. They would be told to stop being loud, and responded that when Jesus died, Mary stayed with him and didn’t abandon him, so they would stay for their children. They used Mary’s story to name what it means to be a mother. 

Chapter 2: Women in Revelation are symbolic visions of what will happen in the end time and all portray a vision of motherhood, compared with female combatants in the FLMN, the leftist group in the Salvadoran civil wars in the 80s and 90s. The women in the FLMN are fighters, not women mourning their lost children. 

Chapter 3: The Maccabean mother with seven sons are juxtaposed with women suicide attackers in Israel Palestine in the early 2000s. The Maccabean mother had seven sons, who were told by the King that they needed to eat pork, which presents a problem because they’re Jewish. They decide not to, and each son is killed and then the mother. 

Chapter 4: Perpetua and Felicitas, who were early 3rd century CE martyrs, are juxtaposed with the feminist performance art group, Pussy Riot, in contemporary Russia. When I wrote this originally in 2012, this group did performance art pieces where they sang and danced in a cathedral in Moscow, where they prayed to Mary to convert Putin and make him a feminist. They were eventually imprisoned. And some of them were mothers, which highlighted a tension between being an activist and a parent. 

This is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time – the book came out two years ago, and I was editing it for two years before that. So there are many layers to my thinking. So I wanted to share what seems most important to me now in mid-2020, looking back on it. 

There are 2 things that we’re seeing right now that feel relevant to me in this work:

  1. We’re suddenly paying more attention to issues of racial injustice and working through the hard conversations and hard changes that need to happen because of that, and that gives me hope. 
  2. It seems increasingly clear that the Trump administration is acting in authoritarian ways. 

So thinking of both these things, one that feels hopeful and one does not, it seems the maternal activists and the ancient mothering stories were in contexts that were equally complex, where the communal well being was not assured, where the threat of violence was quite real, and where the idea of hope felt risky. I learned that changes aren’t easily won, and there are terrible costs – a lot of these stories include terrible, real violence. I also learned that we don’t need to accept the vision of reality that is presented to us, and we can make real change. So I hope that thinking of these stories can inspire us to work for change today. 

Question and Answer: 

Question: Do you see Mary as an ancient goddess figure who continues to break through time and space, and how does that figure relate to mothers today?

KGE: Mary seems so much like goddess figures in a variety of traditions, not just in the ancient world but in Indigenous traditions in the US. I think there are ways to see her as an example of the eternal feminine, the ways the divine speaks in feminine ways, and I think there is something powerful about that. 

What I like about studying Mary is that she was a regular, not that special person, living in the backwaters of the Roman Empire. She was someone who would have been a nameless person in history. What I think is so powerful about that is that Christian traditions teach that she was chosen. And she participates in giving birth to and raising Jesus. And for Christians that is a particularly powerful idea, that the example of God on earth is in a particularly ordinary time, mothered by a particularly ordinary woman. I think that there can be something lost, either when we talk about Mary as a goddess, or in the Catholic tradition, as an untouchable figure, that makes her unlike us. 

I think Mary is often used against women. One of my favorite books by Elisabeth Johnson, Truly our Sister, quotes a novelist who states “Mary is a stick to beat smart girls with” and I think that Mary is an impossible ideal, as a virgin and mother, and that she never has problems, doubts, and feels struggle. So I think that traditional way Mary is described can be harmful, though that’s not the only way to describe her.

I think that Mary can be a powerful figure, which explains her persistence through time. Lots of women love Mary, so there must be something about her that is inspiring and life giving. 

Q: I have been doing a study of Mary in Palestine and I find her to be pointing to an ancient figure in the Canaanite traditions and someone who is very present today in Christian and Muslim practices and traditions. 

KGE: One thing my students are surprised about is how Mary is much more of a main character in the Qur’an than the bible. 

Q: Where does the concept of martyrdom come in? I don’t see these maternal activists as martyrs, it seems like intelligent action and protest. 

KGE: I included these activists to see activism and martyrdom in a different way. Activism involves losses even if they’re choices that we make and we think are worthwhile, there is some loss, or risk of loss. And that’s what helped me to think of these martyr stories differently. I’ve heard these martyr stories described in a way that doesn’t mean facing the losses and the ripple effects. So thinking of activism and martyrdom as more closely tied helped me see martyrs as more empowered than they are usually portrayed. Especially women martyrs are seen as passively going to their deaths, rather than as an activist – making a choice that includes risk of loss, with a hope for a better future. Activists choose loss and struggle with the hope that it will be better. There is a kind of protest in martyrdom, as if they are protesting living in such a violent world, even if that means death. 

Q: A concern out of a Catholic tradition as a feminist is around sacrifice– the staying with, and a testament to life and truth, and God’s demand for sacrifice. This is particularly when it comes to people who were testifying to wrong and wrongdoing that resulted in loss of life, rather that they sacrificed their life. How do you work with that? 

KGE: I agree. You’re right to name the danger, and that was the thing that drew me in. I think Mary can be a danger, martyrs can be dangerous. The way that I came to see martyrs, martyrdom is a thing that happens after. That helped me to be able to describe activists and martyrs in a way that they weren’t going to do this already. They suffered a violent loss that should never have been, and because of that we commemorate them, we try to learn from them, and try to prevent such deaths in the future. That kind of martyrdom story is powerful and useful and not dangerous. The other kind of martyr story is used against women, poor people, and LGBTQ people. 

Q: In the African American tradition, we see Mary as the mother of a martyred son.  Would you agree especially in these times of racial strife? To me it was obvious in the mother of black son who died violently at George Floyd funeral. If you had to partner with a womanist theologian, how would you look at Mary? Would you agree with her being a mother of a son that was martyred? 

KGE: Yes. Stephanie R. Buckhanon Crowder has a book about motherhood, that came out as I was sending in my manuscript, called When Mama Speaks, and it is about mothers from a womanist perspective. She has chapters on mothers, including Mary. I think it’s really powerful to see Mary as someone who mourns her son’s loss, who didn’t think it was inevitable. In some traditions, there’s a sense that Mary knew and accepted that Jesus would die violently, which is an incredible loss to how we see her story and how we see Jesus. She may have had a sense of what happened, but seeing her as accepting it from the beginning can be very harmful.

There’s a book by Colm Tóbín, The Testament of Mary, where Mary is furious at the disciples, and she is so mad about what happened to her son. I love the idea that she can barely speak to the disciples because she thinks they egged him on, and didn’t prevent his death like she could have. We’re watching so much public mourning right now, and it mobilizes us to prevent violence, and not just mourn it. 

Q: What kinds of new projects are you working on? 

KGE: I am currently thinking in three directions:

  1. How to create trauma-informed college classrooms – I think about this teaching women in the Bible, but especially with the pandemic and conversations about racial injustice.  In the fall I will be in a room full of traumatized people. So, I’m thinking about how to teach responsibly. 
  2. Children in the Bible, especially stories that talk about violence
  3. The use of John 8:44 where Jesus calls the Jewish people “Children of the Devil” and that image was used in Nazi children’s literature. So I’m publishing a book about the use of that text. 

Mary, Mother Of Martyrs: How Motherhood Became Self-Sacrifice In Early Christianity by Kathleen Gallagher Elkins, published by Feminist Studies in Religion Books, 2018

WATER thanks Kathleen Gallagher Elkins for this helpful conversation about her important book.