- Exploring Ancient Discourses of Motherhood in Relation to Mary, Mother of Martyrs
Mary, Mother of Martyrs is an eloquently written, well-argued study about a phenomenon—the convergence of motherhood and self-sacrifice—that has deep roots and continued repercussions. Motherhood and childbearing have been scholarly interests of mine for a long time. In my dissertation, published as Birthing Salvation: Gender and Class in Early Christian Childbearing Discourse, I studied early Christian childbearing discourses and mapped how ideas about gender, class, and mothering interrelated with notions of salvation in the Pastoral Epistles, the Acts of Andrew and the Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas.1 Mary, Mother of Martyrs takes up overlapping themes, such as ancient discourses of motherhood and how these discourses were both perpetuated and reframed in early Christianity.
An Innovative Approach
Kathleen Gallagher Elkins’s approach is innovative and creative on several fronts. First, she selected texts for this study—New Testament texts about Mary, stories about the Maccabean Mother, the mothers of Revelation, and the two martyr mothers Perpetua and Felicitas—that I have not previously seen discussed together. These texts offer an interesting site from which to explore interconnections among motherhood, self-sacrifice, suffering, and violence. Gallagher Elkins argues that these texts present us with maternal figures as examples of self-sacrifice, but holds that “the modes of sacrificing are varied.”2 She shows in the book that these texts were part of a discursive negotiation about women’s roles, arguing that [End Page 179] “self-sacrificing mothers are powerfully useful and flexible figures for reflecting on the fecund transformation of pain and suffering.”3 She also shows that these texts have long trajectories. Their effects are with us even today, since much traditional Christian theology still frames motherhood as a naturally self-sacrificing institution.4 In Gallagher Elkins’s words, self-sacrificing maternal figures “are textual sites with pernicious effects.”5
A second innovative aspect of this study is how Gallagher Elkins engages the voices of “maternal activists” as conversation partners in her interpretation of the ancient texts and uses these maternal activists not only to show the reception history and long tradition of interlinkage between motherhood and self-sacrifice but also to bring new perspectives to the interpretation. In so doing, Gallagher Elkins is able to bring into relief the interrelations between modern and ancient experiences of motherhood, suffering, and violence. Mary is read alongside the Madres de Plaza de Mayo. The mothers of Revelation are joined by women combatants of the Salvadoran civil war. The Maccabean mother is put in conversation with suicide bombers in Israel and Palestine. And finally, Perpetua and Felicitas fight together with Pussy Riot. I appreciated this cross-cultural perspective and was inspired to take Gallagher Elkins’s readings even further, which I do toward the end of this reflection. In other words, Mary, Mother of Martyrs brings new insights. It is an interdisciplinary work that hopefully will spark conversations within and across various fields of study, including biblical studies, theology, gender, social studies. Even media studies scholars could benefit from reading the book, as Gallagher Elkins discusses how media have portrayed maternal activists and made normative assumptions about the priority of motherhood over activism.
A final praiseworthy aspect about Mary, Mother of Martyrs is how Gallagher Elkins discusses motherhood and self-sacrifice within a wider framework of violence, including structural violence and authoritative regimes. She brings in a communal perspective to reframe and challenge earlier feminist understandings of agency and choice. The voices of the modern maternal activists—none of whom are white, Western women—help bring out this perspective. In my opinion, Gallagher Elkins succeeds in her attempt to “recognize maternal self-sacrifice as a potential space of resistance for women experiencing violence, without celebrating or reinscribing sacrifice as normative for all women.”6
My first critical remark has to do with the book’s subtitle, “How Motherhood Became Self-Sacrifice in Early Christianity.” Such “how”-titles often become [End Page 180] too simplistic. The title suggests a simple cause and effect approach to history; it promises to explain how A led to B. However, the historical understanding we are...