I, like many other priests, pastors and preachers am preparing to preach on the Gospel story of the woman with "an issue of blood" as I have heard it referred to euphemistically for most of my life in Mark 5:25-34 as part of the larger text assigned for July 1 this year according to the Revised Common Lectionary used by Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian and many other churches.
More recently, I have heard her ailment referred to as a hemorrhage, but I do not recall ever hearing that she had a vaginal hemorrhage. I do not believe that I have ever heard the word vagina used in the pulpit. And based on the silencing of Michigan State Representative Lisa Brown after -- and many would argue because -- she used the word vagina in her remarks opposing further restrictions on abortions designed to prevent women from accessing health care when they determine they need it and choosing to terminate pregnancies, all of which is legal, I think it is time to talk about vaginas in the scriptures, in the church and in and from the pulpit.
First of all, it needs to be said that vagina is an anatomical, medical term, like arm, leg and prostate, all of which occur in our public discourse without censure. The attempt to codify the word vagina as unfit for mixed company reflects the equating of women with vaginas -- when women's (and men's) bodies come in many configurations -- and the devaluing of women as full participants in society, demonstrated recently by the rash of legislation pertaining to women's health care, bodies and vaginas: laws requiring medical personnel to insert ultrasound probes into women's vaginas without their consent or medical necessity determined by a health care professional; proposed legislation giving employers the right to deny birth control to women, leading to discussions about women giving men repeated, unfettered access to their vaginas making them sluts. Add all of this to the recent silencing of Rep. Brown (and MI State Rep. Barb Bynum after she used the word vasectomy).
One response to the silencing of Reps. Brown and Bynum was a performance of Eve Ensler's play The Vagina Monologues on the steps of the Michigan State House. That performance was a contemporary example of a prophetic response to an injustice. Biblical prophets were poets and performance artists. And their language was regularly graphic and shocking: Ezekiel speaks of the rape of menstruating women (22:10), Ezekiel also speaks of Jerusalem as a woman being handed over by God to men who will strip, beat, stone and cut her to pieces (chapters 18, 23); Hosea speaks of the skulls of babies being crushed and pregnant women having their wombs ripped open (Hos 16:33); Jeremiah accuses God of overpowering him using a verb that means rape in other contexts, (Jeremiah 20:7, see also 2 Samuel 13:14).
And into the tradition of the Israelite prophets Jesus of Nazareth was born to a woman in what classical Christian theology calls the scandal of the Incarnation. I once heard Cornel West say that the scandal is that Jesus emerged from a woman's body in intimate proximity to urine and feces. Using those medically appropriate terms, like specifying that Jesus emerged from the vagina and not just the womb of the Virgin Mary, would probably be shocking to many contemporary congregations, yet neither the claims nor the language would be shocking in the world(s) of the scriptures: King Rehoboam's advisors tell him to say that his little finger is thicker than his father's penis (most translators choose the word "loins" in Two Kings 12:10). And while the Church would eventually seek to limit the participation of women in religious and public life in the name of Jesus, it would do so disregarding the Judaism he practiced and modeled. (Patriarchy and the subordination of women is neither endemic nor unique to first century Judaism -- of which there were many varieties.)
And so I turn to the story in the Gospel of Mark in which a woman bleeding profusely from her vagina touched the tzit-tzit fringe on Jesus' clothes -- that symbol of observant Judaism that endures to the present day. She takes it upon herself to effect her own healing, believing that touching the clothes of Jesus would make her well. And it did. His response to affirm her healing and her agency in securing her own healing -- "Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease" -- does not treat her or her vaginal hemorrhage as any different from any other ailment he heals.
In the aftermath of the silencing of Rep. Brown, I confess that I took some delight in the many tweeple who took to the twitterverse to speculate on what if any euphemistic term would have been acceptable in lieu of the medically appropriate anatomical term, vagina. And I affirmed the sentiment in and reposted the Facebook meme saying that people [men] who could not say "vagina" should not legislate about them. But beyond the hashtag still lies the question of whether women can be seen as full human beings when our very biology remains unmentionable.
Lastly, the representative's point in her remarks before her censure that her Judaism permits and even calls for abortion in some cases to save the life of the mother was overlooked in much of the debate about her use of the word "vagina." It is an important point about religious freedom. She insists as is her right under the United States Constitution to the free exercise of religion without having anyone else constrict her religious practice by say, denying her or her daughter access to legal medical services because of their religious beliefs.
And finally (I know I said "lastly" above but you can count on many black preachers to add one more point after "lastly") hear the word of the Lord through the urban hip-hop prophet 2Pac Shakur:
And since we all came from a woman
Got our name from a woman and our game from a woman
I wonder why we take from our women
Why we rape our women, do we hate our women?... Keep ya head up.
Follow Rev. Wil Gafney, Ph.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@WilGafney