Jesus admits having sinned
RACHEL Emisoras Latinas arrives today in Jerusalem, along with Jesus Christ, who is visiting once again the capital of his homeland. He especially wants to walk the narrow, picturesque streets of the Arab districts. Is there any special memory, Jesus?
JESUS Well, all this has changed a lot, but it seems that it was around here that they dragged out that poor woman…
RACHEL You’re referring to the story of the adulteress?
JESUS Yes, it was Joanna – I still remember her name.
RACHEL And I remember the movie, when that woman was discovered in flagrante by her husband and taken out into the street half-naked and disheveled. She barely escaped being stoned by that furious mob, thanks to your timely intervention, Jesus.
JESUS That whole thing was scandalous…
RACHEL Yes, it was something more suited to a sensationalist tabloid than a gospel text.
JESUS No, I mean scandalous in another sense. The religious laws of my country punished adultery with death, but the Jewish men applied those laws with two different standards.
RACHEL They applied them for their own benefit, I imagine, as you men always do. Excuse me, I didn’t mean to refer to you, but it’s just that…
JESUS They used to claim that a man committed adultery and was unfaithful to his wife only when he slept with another married woman. But if he was unfaithful to her with a single woman, a widow, a divorced woman, a prostitute or a slave, then he didn’t commit adultery. And nobody punished him. The women, however, were judged by another standard whoever the man was that she slept with, she was an adulteress.
RACHEL And would they always kill her?
JESUS Yes, they would stone her to death. And since adultery was a public crime, the whole community would come out to throw stones.
RACHEL What a barbaric law. In some Muslim countries such laws still exist.
JESUS Great injustices were committed. Often mere rumors and terrible calumnies led to the death of innocent women. Many of the people throwing stones were men who had spent their whole lives deceiving their wives – they were unjust men who came forth to do justice! And in the name of God!
RACHEL I’ve always been very impressed by what you did then. You were very understanding and forgiving of that woman…
JESUS And why not forgive her? The tree of infidelity can have a lot of roots… But it was me they didn’t pardon.
RACHEL Who? The old men who still had a hankering to throw stones?
JESUS No, I’m talking about Peter, James, John, the members of the movement. They were very upset and complained to me. They tripped up on the rock of scandal, and that rock was the laws of my people, which were causing so much harm to women.
RACHEL Tell us, was that the first time you saw a woman who was about to be stoned to death?
JESUS No, the stoning of women was something quite frequent. I had seen it happen other times. Can I ask you a favor, Rachel?
RACHEL Sure, what is it?
JESUS I want to say something to those who are listening to your program.
RACHEL Go ahead, Jesus Christ. The mikes are yours.
JESUS I also sinned, Rachel. I offended God. Even though as a child I knew that such things were going on, even though I saw that kind of cruelty close up, I never did anything to stop it. But that day, with that woman, God opened my eyes. That day I understood that the laws and the traditions that offend women also offend God. I understood that violence against women is also violence against God.
RACHEL Thank you, Master, thank you in the name of all the women who are listening to us. From Jerusalem, near what was called the Corner Gate, this is Rachel Perez, Emisoras Latinas.
ANNOUNCER Another God is Possible. Exclusive interviews with Jesus Christ in his second coming to Earth. A production of María and José Ignacio López Vigil, with the support of the Syd Forum and Christian Aid.
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A very scandalous narrative
The story of Jesus and the adulteress appears only in the gospel of John (8,1-11), but is not found in all of the early manuscripts of that gospel that have been discovered. Some Bible scholars explain that it was suppressed in the other three gospels and in the original manuscripts of John because the Jesus’ position regarding the “sinful” woman – his leniency and his direct challenge to the religious law that ordained stoning – were considered excessive and even scandalous by the first Jewish Christian communities, whose members had all been formed in a culture that discriminated against women.
Paul: in Christ there is neither male nor female
Violence against women has very deep roots in the patriarchal religions. The Judaism of Jesus’ time was a completely patriarchal religion. Jesus’ attitudes with regard to women were scandalous in the eyes of his contemporaries. Etymologically, the Greek word “scandal” refers to a “stone on which one trips”.
Despite all the “tripping” of the first communities, they could not suppress completely the teachings of Jesus regarding the equality of all human beings, and therefore the equality of men and women. Even though Paul in his writings reflects his very traditional Jewish formation, he also uses many expressions which no doubt caused a great impact on people of his time. The most well-known and oft-quoted of Paul’s texts in favor of gender equality is this: In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3,26-28). What is particularly relevant in this text is that the Jewish Paul is explicitly repudiating the prayer that Jewish men recited daily: Blessed are you, Lord, for making me a Jew and not a Gentile, for making me free and not a slave, and for making me a man and not a woman.
Stoning: a form of torture
Stoning is a very ancient method of execution. It is really a form of torture, because death arrives very slowly, and this increases the suffering. The person to be executed by stoning is tied to a stake or else buried up to his or her waist so as to be unable to flee.
As people have become more conscious of human rights, this cruel torture has been gradually eliminated from most law codes. In Sharia or Islamic law there are still sex offenses, especially adultery committed by women, that are punished by stoning, just as in the time of Jesus, but this barbaric custom is no longer practiced in all Muslim countries. The penal code of Iran dictates stoning as the punishment for adultery and specifies that the stones used should not be so great that they would kill the person with just one or two blows, nor so small that they would not be considered stones. According to Amnesty International, after several cases detected in Nigeria in 2006, other isolated cases were discovered in Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq.
To avoid simplistic prejudices and to gain a more nuanced view of the situation of women in Islam, the works of the Moroccan writer Fatima Mernisi are extremely helpful and are also quite interesting. Especially provocative for western culture is her book The Harem in the West (Espasa Calpe, 2006).
Adultery and the law of the funnel
In ancient Israel adultery was consider a public offense, and the most ancient laws punished it with death. In the course of the years religious tradition and customs, controlled of course by males, applied a male chauvinist interpretation to this law, as to so many others,. Thus, the adultery committed by a married man was an offense only if the relations were with a married woman, but if the woman was single, a prostitute or a slave, then the relations were not criminal and were not considered adultery.
This was the law of the funnel: in the case of a woman, a crime was committed if she had relations with any man at all who was not her husband. Traditionally a woman suspected of adultery was submitted to a public test: they made her drink bitter waters. If her stomach swelled up, it was proof that she had committed adultery. If she experienced no ill effects, the suspicions were considered groundless (Numbers 5,11-31). This test was carried out on a daily basis by a priest at the Nicanor Gate of the Temple of Jerusalem, but no men were ever submitted to such a humiliating ordeal.
Stoning: a communal punishment
In Jesus’ time, once adultery was proved, the woman was sentenced to be stoned by the community. Since adultery was a public offense, it had to be eradicated publicly and collectively. The neighbors of the locale where the sinful woman had been discovered were the ones responsible for stoning her to death. Generally the stoning took place outside the city or the village. Those who witnessed the actual offense had to be the ones who threw the first stones. Other offenses punished with stoning were blasphemy, divination, violation of the Sabbath rest, and various forms of idolatry.
Endurance, patience, suffering: women’s virtues
The Judaism of Jesus’ time discriminated against women, and nowadays Christianity continues to discriminate against them, even if the cruelest laws of the Bible are no long applied. To understand the degree of discrimination that still exists in the Catholic Church, it is worthwhile examining the document issued in May 2004 by Cardinal Ratzinger, then prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith and later elected Pope. The decree, pretentiously titled “Letter to the bishops of the Catholic Church on the collaboration of men and women in the church and in the world”, does not contain a single line of reflection on or condemnation of violence against women, a topic which has finally in our own days become a subject of much concern, debate, research and action in all parts of the world.
In this document, however, Ratzinger writes as follows about women: They are the ones who, even in the most desperate of circumstances, possess a unique capacity for bearing with adversities, for making life possible even in extreme situations, for tenaciously preserving a sense of the future, and, finally, for recalling with tears the high price of giving human life.
This quote only reinforces the quality that society reserves especially for women: putting up with suffering at the expense of one’s own life, enduring without despairing. Such conceptions encourage the perverse idea that women should silently suffer all the violence committed against them. Instead of denouncing it, they should bear with it; instead of freeing themselves, they should have patience. Many women are taught a providentialist theology (all that happens is the will of God) and a religious valuation of sacrifice and abnegation as meritorious before God (Jesus saved us by suffering). As a result they are made to interiorize as a value the submissive, patient suffering of violence, because “it is the cross they must bear”; it is “the way they will win heaven.”
The representatives of Jesus are not like Jesus
The abyss existing between Jesus’ way of treating women and the present-day positions of the churches who claim to represent him is immense. The Catholic feminist theologian and religious, Elizabeth A. Johnson, is quite correct when she states in her book, She Who Is (Herder, 2002): The essence of the problem is not that Jesus was a man, but that most men are not like Jesus, since their identity and their relations are defined on the basis of the privileges they receive from a patriarchal culture.
Mercedes Navarro Puerto, another Catholic feminist theologian and religious, is also correct when she reflects as follows: Why do they ask, “What’s happening with women, that they have so many conflicts with their religion?” instead of asking, “What’s happening with religions, that their women feel so at odds with them that they are slowly but steadily abandoning them?”
A growing awareness
There is a growing consciousness throughout the world, on the part of both women and men, regarding the unspeakable injustice which is violence committed against women simply because they are women. This growing awareness represents a colossal advance in the consciousness of humankind. The Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano makes a telling commentary on this in his reflection on “the global fear”, which he describes as women’s fear of men’s violence and men’s fear of women without fear.
A contemporary political concern
Of course, no process of growing awareness is linear, and in many parts of the world religious arguments still have a considerable influence on governments as regards the matter of gender equality and the role and rights of women. These religious arguments always, in the long or the short run, generate violence of different sorts.
In the countries of Latin America the influence of church criteria on national governments is quite evident, but not only in Latin America. The European Women’s Lobby, an organization which unites 18 European and international bodies and non-governmental organizations from 25 countries of the European Union, issued on May 27th, 2006, a report which expresses concern in this regard; it is called “Religion and the Rights of Women”. The report states in part:
We observe that the more conservative political climate during the last decade in Europe and around the world has allowed for a growing influence of religion – of all religions – in Europe. We recognize the threat presented by religions when they refuse to challenge those patriarchal cultures which uphold for women only the roles of spouse, mother, and housewife, and refuse to adopt positive measures for the benefit of women. This is especially conspicuous in two of the principal religions, Islam and Christianity; it is evident above all in the Roman Catholic Church and in the more fundamentalist Protestant currents. (See: www.mujereslobby.org)
A scientific concern
In his own time Jesus understood well the nature of the hierarchical and patriarchal Jewish religion that based itself on the Bible. This same type of religion has been preached and practiced for centuries by Christianity and has served to reinforce the prejudices of the other two monotheistic religions, Judaism and Islam. Such religion has covertly been the most persistent and perverse root of discrimination and violence against women.
Patriarchal religions that promote discrimination and violence affect the daily life of all women and have negative influence on their psychology and even on their cerebral development. The neurologist Rita Levi-Montalcini, winner of the Nobel Prize in medicine, recently celebrated her 100th birthday with extraordinary mental lucidity; in one of her last interviews she stated that as regards cognitive functions, there is no difference between men’s brains and women’s. Differences are found only in the cerebral functions related to the emotions, which are linked to the endocrine system, but since religion marginalizes women with respect to men, it effectively hinders their cognitive development.
Jesus was a child of his time
Like all human beings, Jesus was a child of his time, and his time and his land were steeped in patriarchal customs and culture, which were profoundly discriminatory against women. One of the most original aspects of Jesus was his rebellion against that culture. He expressed that rebellion in the way he received and treated women and in his repudiation of the laws that humiliated women and subordinated them to men. The story of the adulteress is clear proof of his nonconformity in this regard. In this story we see in Jesus not the reaction of a religious administrator who, thinking himself superior and therefore able to forgive, acts benevolently toward the sinner. Rather, Jesus’ posture is that of a lay person who dares to violate religious laws and openly challenges those who hypocritically follow such laws and use a double standard.
Jesus was a child of his time, and yet he was also the herald of new times. Being the child on one’s time means being born in a society which has made normal behavior that needs seriously to be questioned. It means living in a society which has become anesthetized in the face of situations, laws, customs and prejudices that are simply expressions of a particular culture and so can be changed, since they are only cultural fabrications.
Awakening from anesthesia, understanding that what the culture has forged is not “natural”, and changing the customs is always the fruit of a long process. Why can we not imagine such a process in Jesus himself? Why can we not believe that Jesus’ own consciousness about the harm that the religious laws of his time were doing to women kept evolving during his life? Why can we not think that, like so many men of all times, Jesus finally understood that offenses against women were offenses against God and that, acting on this sentiment and this conviction, he had to revise his earlier attitudes, correct them and repent of them?