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A Catalogue of Consent

8 Dec

Three kinds of yeses are on my mind these days:

  • 3-minute meditation last week over at Loyola Press was all about Mary’s yes, her Fiat. (No, not the Fiat Frankie drove in around Rio last year.) The Annunciation, the visitation Gabriel made to Mary to announce God’s plan for her to bear the Son of God, culminates in Luke 1:38 with Mary’s consent: “be it done to me according to thy word.” Fun fact: Latin doesn’t have a word for yes, so instead the Church uses fiat, “let it be done.”
  • Students at my school are joining students across the country to push for adoption of a “yes means yes” policy. Under this model, sexual consent should be clear, unpressured, sober, and enthusiastic (although the enthusiastic bit might complicate mixed ace-allo relationships).
  • Some people I know were asked by their super if they would volunteer to do extra work on a day they weren’t scheduled for (“no pressure”). Of course they all said yes, because that’s how power works. But that yes can’t exactly have been consensual, because by virtue of the power imbalance it can’t have been unpressured.

These last two kinds of yes have given me pause about the first kind. Mary was asked by God — you know, your local omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent divine powerhouse — to donate herself to an eternal commitment to birthing, raising, and attending to God. And to be fair to Gabe, the gospel account didn’t even really involve asking Mary how she felt about this whole Mother-of-God thing and if she was down with it; the angel was the messenger for how God’s will was going to work out in the next nine months plus. This is exactly not how a “yes means yes” policy would work. Those who are in a position of significant power can’t expect true consent from those that power affects. If God were a dean and Mary a student, he’d be courting sexual harassment charges at minimum.

To put it into context as a good scholar should, though, extreme humility has a long history as a key to salvation. Although Mary’s circumstances are complicated by gender, her fiat is not the only one in the gospels. Before he gave himself over to crucifixion, Christ found himself in the Garden of Gethsemane imploring God to figure out a way to make human salvation happen without his being tortured and killed in the process — and he begged not once, but twice: “My Father, if it be possible, let this chalice pass from me. Nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt. … My Father, if this chalice may not pass away, but I must drink it, thy will be done” (Matt. 26:39, 42 DRV). Of course, he likewise assented in the end. The Imitatio Christi was a big deal for Christian devotion in the medieval and early modern periods; meekness, selflessness, emotional impressionability, and of course humility were core virtues for Christian men and women alike. Given this heritage, it’s not surprising that homilies and devotional texts continue to uphold Mary’s fiat as a model for imitation.

Not surprising, but still worth interrogating. A good priest won’t let the “wives, be subordinate to your husbands” reading from Colossians 2 go by on Feast of the Holy Family without some contextualizing commentary. If I ever get to be a deacon, I would do the responsible thing and make it a priority to use this reading for a conversation about consent.

Because I think a redeeming quality of that problematic gospel verse is the very fact that Mary gave consent even though she wasn’t invited to consent. Gabriel came to tell Mary what was going to happen to her; she didn’t have to agree about what would happen — the text doesn’t imply that it would have happened anyway, but it doesn’t rule that out either — and she didn’t have to agree so immediately and unquestioningly (well, unquestioningly once the question of biological possibility was solved). The Incarnation is no Leda story. If Mary’s ready “bring it” is anything to judge by, enthusiasm definitely belongs to the humble.

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