Dear Olympia: Womanhood, Shame, and the Kingdom of God

Photo by Josh Willink on

She was called Eve, the mother of all the living.  Our mother was handcrafted by God, set in the center of paradise. In the mornings, she tended the garden and ate of its fruit.  When the sun sighed, sinking below the tree line, and when the day grew cool and welcomed night’s rest, our mother walked with God.

Dear Olympia,

Last week we celebrated your second birthday. When I arrived, you said “Hi, Auntie Amy!” with a smile.  We sang to you and you sat, pleased and unsure, your big blue eyes surveying the collection of people that had come to celebrate you.

Later, I lifted you out of your chair and followed you across the lawn. You gathered fallen leaves, brittle and brown and barely intact. They were beautiful to you, and you made a pile for your mother, wondering at each one. We walked together to the bonfire, and you stood cautious and transfixed in the presence of the flames. You directed our play with all the unconscious confidence of a baby girl who knows her mind. You wanted to see what would happen when we threw in a handful of stones, and another, and another. Your little hands scooped pebbles and sand. It escaped through your fingers so that you never even tossed most of it, but you were satisfied.

And then, “Did God really say?” That voice in the garden, the deceiving words. “Did God really say you must not eat of the fruit of the tree? You surely will not die if you do…”

So Eve took some of the forbidden fruit and gave some to her husband. That night, she did not walk in the cool evening air, but rather hid from God, ashamed. And the process of death began. Eve the tempted. Eve the shamed. Eve the cursed.

They say the curse signifies loss of relationship—the brokenness those primordial parents felt in their relatedness toward God, one another, the land, and their very own selves. But no matter how you tell the story, that curse falls hardest on our mother.

Cursed in childbirth, cursed to yearn for a husband who cast all the blame on her, cursed to walk a cursed ground outside of the garden and away from the God she once knew, bruising her feet on this rocky soil that now fights back.

The youth pastor sported a polo tucked into pleated khakis. His graying hair was parted to the side. He had somehow been appointed the leader of the middle school youth group, a collective of 12 or so adolescent girls. God’s ways are mysterious, it seems.

“I did an awesome activity with the youth the other day,” he explained to me. “They really need activities and games that help them understand God’s love.”

He recounted how he took all the girls outside, giving them each a stone and a lollipop. “Put the stone in your shoe,” he instructed, “and the lollipop in your mouth.”

The girls were to walk around the building and report back about what their short journey was like. Each girl, predictably, came back complaining of the pain the rock had caused—how hard it was to walk with such an impairment.

“Here’s the thing,” he said to me, his tone hinting at a theological gotcha moment. “Not one of them mentioned the lollipop. Nobody thanked me for the treat or talked about enjoying it. So I sat them all down right there on the grass and reminded them that I’d given the candy as well as the stone. I explained to them that God always gives us good gifts, and it’s our duty as Christians to be thankful, no matter how much pain we’re in. When God looks at you, I told them, make sure he always sees a smile.”

I imagined those girls with lollipops in their mouths and bruises on their feet, receiving their primer on Christian womanhood from a man who doled out pleasure and pain as if he were God. I imagine them steeling themselves for a lifetime of measured, cheerful words.

Our mother, wandering the rocky soil of this world. And we, her children, with bruised feet of our own, believing this is what we deserve.

The principal’s office had a bowl of smooth stones, the kind Lara used to collect when she was little.  Each stone had a fruit of the spirit painted on it in colorful letters: Love, Joy, Peace, Patience. She read softly to herself. The distraction calmed her breath, and she swallowed against the knot in her throat.

She hadn’t been back to school since before the incident, which was the previous Friday night. The spaces within these walls were the same—of course they were—but it was a mild shock. These thick cinder block walls bore no mark of the way her life had changed. She strained to remember the days when focus came easily, and she had control of her own memories. These days, her thoughts tended to implode in on her, unbidden.

She did not want to be here, but she had to be. The SATs were coming up, and she needed to get her mind focused more on studies. Her whole future was at stake. Lara steeled herself as she began to tell the story she never imagined having to tell, in every humiliating detail:

A date gone wrong with the boy from her class. Yes, she was sure she wanted to use the word assault.  Yes, she’d agreed to kiss him. No, she hadn’t welcomed anything more. She studied the face of the man before her, searching for traces of empathy or shock. Nonplussed. An SAT word, meaning unfazed or unaffected.

It was almost as if he’d heard these complaints before.

Was she sure she hadn’t welcomed anything? Could there have been a look, or a phrase, or a clothing choice? Could it possibly be her fault—something she unintentionally communicated, rather than something he intentionally chose?

Forgiveness. It wasn’t even a fruit of the Spirit, but the principal fished through that bowl of stones anyway, painted in cheerful script. He gave it to her, laying it cold and weighty in her hand.

“You have to understand,” he told her, “we are a Christian school. We believe in grace.”

He dismissed her with the suggestion that Lara agree to a conversation with the boy, alone, in a room of the school. They would talk until they had “aired their differences,” and then she would extend forgiveness. His punishment would be that conversation. More than that would be unfair, the principal said. After all, the SATs were coming up. His whole future was at stake. Lara realized with a wave of nausea that he was seated in front of her in homeroom. They would be taking that test two feet apart, while she stared at the back of his head.

Nonplussed.  Secondary meaning: bewildered or unsure.

She wrapped her hand around that stone and squeezed until she could feel her own pulse against its smooth surface. The walls were closing in around her like her hand around that stone. She took a breath; the air was thick and sweet. The grace in that place was suffocating.

Olympia, a few months ago, your mama and I went with a few other friends to a girls’ weekend in the mountains. We’ve been friends for years, having crafted our bonds through the common work of being women in this world. We held vigil for one another during the years of early adulthood, midwifing one another as we moved through the rushed waters of becoming. Together, we emerged pastors and teachers and farmers and doctors and mothers.

You were new to our number then, just over a year old. At breakfast, over steaming cups of coffee, we wondered aloud how to raise a little girl. We had you in mind, with your inquisitive gaze and your eyes like blue porcelain. It’s not easy to be a girl in this world, we all know.

“Shame sells,” Nikki Raye said simply. We did not respond—we knew it to be true. We all knew the voices that have come after women for decades. They suggest that perhaps you are too much, and somehow also not enough. Their story would have you question everything you thought you knew about yourself. Did anyone really say that I was beautiful? That I was smart? That I was good? And then, when you’re trying to get your bearings, the same voices will turn around with that thing that could be your salvation. They would have you erase yourself away, just to purchase a self back again. Shame sells, and it’s meant to sell to us. It’s marketed masterfully.

Olympia, each of us found our own ways to respond to these voices. I myself spent years of my life trying to mold to the correct form. I denied myself, confusing restriction with righteousness. I took up less space on purpose and called it improvement. I was just opening back up to the world when I met your mama and our friends. They shepherded me toward a fullness I hadn’t experienced in many years. We shepherded one another—they all had their own fullnesses to remember.

It breaks my heart to know that one day you will face those voices. You will face them alone, the way we all do. My hope is that when you turn to the church to help you navigate your life, we will have come up with some helpful things to say to you. But the truth is, Olympia, that the church’s story of Eve’s shame too often commingles with those other voices in our world that make us question ourselves. Our church wants what is best for youI believe thatbut often it doesn’t know how to help its women walk through the story about ourselves that we receive from all angles, because its most overarching story about women is itself based in shame. I fear that, if you ever need consolation from the church in the form of empowerment, you may not find it.

Some suppose the story of Eve is the exact retelling of events that happened at the beginning—the story of her sin and of her curse is documented historical fact. Others suggest that, in accordance with other faiths at the time, the people of God wrote a myth—an allegory that points to a deeper truth about who God is and who we are. If our guiding story is written as a myth, why add Eve’s curse? Is it possible that the story of Eve was written as an attempt to explain a pre-existing pattern? Did the treatment of women during the beginning of Abrahamic tradition require that severe an explanation?

Whether myth or historical nonfiction, what we know for sure is that the story of Eve and her shame have often been prescriptive rather than descriptive for the women of God. It is not a story that tells us how we got here. It is a story that determines what our own stories can become. We have known the story of Eve in our bodies and in our lives for centuries. Our mother and her children, with bruises from walking this stony ground.

It is spring now, Olympia. The sun sighs, sinking below the tree line, a bit later every day. We, the people of God, look for traces of light after the long darkness of winter. We hope for God to be made known among us.  If we listen to the stillness of these dark nights, we might hear the faint echoes of an ancient song:

My soul magnifies the LORD

My spirit rejoices in God my savior

A young girl, walking the road to her cousin Elizabeth’s. Her steps soon to be weighed down by the One growing within her. This is a story we often only think about during Advent, but I always think of Mary in the spring. This is the time of year that angel’s visit would have happened–nine months from now, we will be celebrating the birth of Jesus.

“May it be to me as you have said,” she told the angel. This is how a young Jewish girl living under Roman rule came to nurture a revolution. Had anyone been paying attention, they would have noticed the careful, satisfied step of a woman with purpose. Had they listened closely, they may have heard the song of her heart:

From now on all generations will call me blessed

The Almighty has done great things for me

In her body, she sheltered the growing hope of the world. Even as she walked, her self expanded, making room to give birth to the kingdom of God on Earth. God-with-us was first God-within-her. Did she move with the weightiness of that burden?

My God takes down the mighty from their thrones,

but lifts up the lowly

My God satisfies the hungry with good things,

but the rich are sent away empty

Mary pondered these great mysteries and treasured them in her heart, we are told. What mysteries to ponder—a virgin birth of a timeless God to an impoverished girl. How did Mary know that the One who was to be called Jesus would upend the powers of the world, turning weakness into strength and prioritizing the ones who had been forgotten?

Maybe she just knew, the way a mother always knows. But maybe the angel’s first visit was a cue that this God was doing things differently.

May it be to me as you have said, our Mother said to the angel. A wonder in itself. God had consulted with her—had let her choose this path. Mary was obedient; she was also empowered. In a culture and a time when women had no voice, Mary encountered a God who gave her a say and a song.

God has remembered the lowly estate of this servant

This God, the God of Israel, came to save the world. And this saving God first enlisted the women.

Mary, mother of God, welcomed a new life into her own life—she made space for the Lord to be formed within her. She journeyed along this rocky path while hope was given flesh and bone in her body, and she wondered at the mystery of it all. Then, when the time came, she birthed this New Life into the world, offering the body and blood of Jesus to the earth for the first time.

Mary—the mother of our Lord—a pilgrim and a priestess to the world.

Olympia, if I’m honest, I struggle with the church that you and I call home. I don’t know what to do with a church that allows the stories of its women to play out with such alarming disregard for the women themselves. Sometimes I want to walk away from all of it, fearful that the church has so emphasized meekness and sacrifice, forgiveness and shame for women that we will not recover an understanding of how to be Christian outside of that. In those times, the church’s tradition looks to me like a means for the powerful to remain in power, and that will always put women at a disadvantage.

But then I remember the song of our mother Mary. It is the song of a woman who knows everything has changed. It is a song of revolution.

My soul magnifies the Lord

My spirit rejoices in God my Savior

From now on all generations will call me blessed

The Almighty One has done great things for me

Before the angel’s visit on that favored day, there was nothing particularly blessed about Mary’s young life.  She did not have the security money or status could buy, nor the power within her culture that was offered to young men. Her people had been subjugated by the Romans. In every way, Mary was intended to play the part of the reactor—the acted upon. Others made decisions for her life and she was meant to respond.

My God brings down the mighty from their thrones

But lifts up the lowly

My God satisfies the hungry with good things

But the rich are sent away empty

Mary is harboring a secret. The world is being made new within her. The birth of her child will mean the rebirth of the world. “May it be to me as you have said”—her words to the angel are also our first indication that Mary’s God is doing something very different. This is a God who cares about those who are at the bottom. This God is re-creating an upended kingdom in which the last are first and those who have been disregarded are honored.

From now on all generations will call me blessed.

With the birth of that baby, we know, the world was changed. With his birth, the world was reborn; we, too, have been reborn. We have a new mother, and her life is ringing not with curse, but with blessing. We no longer walk that rocky soil filled with the curse of sin. That is not our heritage as women of God. Rather, we have been born into the lineage of New Creation. We are part of the line of women who have made space within ourselves to nurture God, and then birthed God into the world. We are like Elizabeth, the woman whose miraculous child allowed her to be a safe haven for Mary. She sang the harmony to Mary’s song. We are like Mary and Martha, disciples of Jesus who followed and supported his ministry. We are like the woman who anointed Jesus as King, pouring perfume on his feet and wiping it with her hair. We are like the women who kept watch over him in his dying moments, present to the tragedy before them when all the men had fled. We are like Mary Magdalene, the apostle to the apostles, the first person Jesus appeared to after his resurrection. We, the daughters of Mary, have become ourselves mothers and midwives and prophets and priestesses. 

To focus on Eve, to retell that tired story of curse and shame, is to literally deny the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. It is to deny his ministry and the New Kingdom he came to proclaim. It is to deny our mother Mary, blessed among women.

My soul magnifies the Lord

Olympia, I don’t think the church will change its ways tomorrow. It might not even change its approach to womanhood before you are old enough to read this. But I do have hope in the women themselves. They have the courage to make room for the kingdom of God to be born again within them and have the wisdom to midwife one another through the process.

We know the secret that has always been hiding in plain sight in Mary’s song—the true kingdom of God rests in the upending of powers. It gives voice to the voiceless and strength to the weary. It transforms curse into blessing through the power of God.

Olympia, I pray that you would know the beauty and power that lives in you. I pray that you would find your Elizabeths—the ones who will see the way you have been called to bring the kingdom of God to the world and will midwife you through those rushed waters. I pray that you will become a young woman who knows herself, not as shamed and cursed, but as empowered and blessed. And I pray that, if ever the church tells you that your burden to bear is rocky soil and bruised feet, you will resist.

Remember who you were at two years old—possessing an unconscious confidence and a willingness to throw those stones right in the fire, just to see what will happen.

Amy Curran

Amy is a graduate of Duke Divinity School who now manages a community garden for a Durham nonprofit.  In her free time, she enjoys writing, going for long walks, and playing on her banjo (albeit rather badly).

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