- A Postcolonial, Indian Feminist Response to Mary, Mother of Martyrs
I must confess that I have a bit of a soft spot for Mary.1 Probably because when it comes to women in the New Testament who speak with a voice one cannot ignore, Mary, mother of Jesus, plays a central and important role. In fact, my own monograph—Reading Mary Alongside Indian Surrogate Mothers: Violent Love, Oppressive Liberation, and Infancy Narratives—also focused on the character of Mary, motherhood, choice, and agency in the gospels.2 Kathleen Gallagher Elkins’s book, Mary, Mother of Martyrs: How Motherhood Became Self-Sacrifice in Early Christianity expands the conversation about motherhood, agency, choice, and maternal self-sacrifice to include characters in the New Testament and beyond.3 Gallagher Elkins’s strategic and conscious placement of the four textual sites that include the gospels, Revelation, Maccabees, and the martyr texts of Perpetua and Felicitas allows one to see the different ways maternal agency is at play in each of these texts. Furthermore, by pairing each of these texts with real-life stories of maternal activists from contemporary contexts, Gallagher Elkins nuances the ways in which maternal self-sacrifice becomes a political tool that empowers women to fight for justice in situations of oppression and violence.
Gallagher Elkins uses what she calls flexible discourse to analyze and interpret the maternal figures in the ancient texts.4 The examples from contemporary [End Page 159] contexts shed light on the ancient texts, allowing us to read each instance of maternal self-sacrifice as different, divergent, and contextual. Feminists have warned that the image of a self-sacrificial mother is detrimental to the well-being of both mother and child. However, as Gallagher Elkins rightly observes, assuming that maternal self-sacrifice is a detriment for all women is not just homogenizing and limiting but also colonizing. In “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses,” Chandra Talpade Mohanty wrote, “we see how Western feminists alone become the true ‘subjects’ of this counter history. Third world women, on the other hand, never rise above their debilitating generality of their ‘object’ status.”5 The contemporary examples of maternal activists Gallagher Elkins uses in her book relate, for the most part, to women of color. Thus, I would argue that by opening up the discourse on maternal self-sacrifice and demonstrating to the readers the ways in which women of color/third-world women strategically and politically use their losses and suffering to create moments of empowerment in their own contexts, Gallagher Elkins forces us to look beyond our own presumption that maternal self-sacrifice must be victimizing. She asks us to view these mothers both ancient and modern as agents of change and social justice.
In addition, inspired by the work of Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Elizabeth Castelli, and Hal Taussig, Gallagher Elkins employs a feminist rhetorical analysis to interpret both the ancient texts as well as attend to the scholarship of the maternal figures. Drawing on the persistent and important voice of Schüssler Fiorenza, who has called on biblical scholars to do justice not only to texts and their interpretations but also to contemporary readers (especially readers who are affected by biblical texts today), Gallagher Elkins asks her readers to not interpret the sacrifice made by these ancient mothers in a vacuum but instead to be aware of the ways these texts affect us as readers in contemporary contexts. The pairing of contemporary examples with ancient texts compels readers to not look away from the violence while at the same time, bearing witness to their empowerment and agency toward their community.
In chapter 1, Gallagher Elkins provides an in-depth analysis of Mary in the New Testament. When it comes to speaking about Mary and her motherhood in the gospels, Gallagher Elkins includes the annunciation of Mary and incorporates the image of the suffering mother who witnesses the death of her son. She writes, “As mother of a crucified messianic figure and a classic model of traditional femininity, Mary is hailed both for her submission to God’s plan (especially at the Annunciation) and for enduring (even accepting) the violent death of her son.”6...