Monday, December 11, 2017

Margaret of Antioch & the Dragon of Sexual Harassment

In the Cathedral of St. Paul the Apostle, Fond du Lac, we have a statue of St. Margaret of Antioch. It is a beautiful, award-winning work of art. St Margaret is not well known these days. It is possible she never actually existed. But, her legend was very popular in the Middle Ages (legends, actually, since there are multiple versions with varying details).

I've been thinking about Margaret in light of the proliferation of stories of women sexually harassed, assaulted, and abused by powerful men. Hers is a story a woman's courageous and powerful resistance to the unwanted sexual advances, and eventual violence, of a powerful man (and the demonic character of his behavior).

Here is a version of the legend.

Margaret was born near Antioch of Pisidia located in what is now, Turkey. Her father was a leading priest of a pagan cult. Her mother died in childbirth and Margaret was raised by a nurse. Her nurse was a Christian and under her care, Margaret became a Christian. With that, her father disowned her. Margaret continued to live with her nurse and tended her sheep.

When she was fifteen, Margaret was noticed by Olybrius, the pagan magistrate of Antioch and the surrounding area. He was infatuated with her beauty. He made sexual advances toward her which she rejected. Unable to have his way with her, he had her arrested and charged with being a Christian which was illegal. She was threatened with death if she did not renounce her faith in Christ (or submit to Olybrius' sexual demands). She refused to either recant or submit. He then had her tortured. Still, she stood firm, even through grievous torment. Finally, he sentenced her to death.

The night before her beheading, Margaret prayed for strength and courage. An angel was sent to encourage her and gave her a wooden cross to hold onto. The angel left and, clinging to the cross, she continued to pray. Then, demon appeared to her in the form of a dragon. The dragon attacked and attempted to swallow her. Standing firm, Margaret held up the cross as the dragon demon tries to consume her. The beast choked on the cross, spit her out, and died. Then, Satan, himself, appeared to Margaret saying he had done all he could to defeat her, but her faith and courage had defeated him. With that he disappeared.

The next morning, Margaret of Antioch strode to her martyrdom as a victor with her head held high, singing and praying.

As I said there are many versions of the story. This is my retelling. And there are many similar stories in the Church of women who refused unwelcome sexual advances. It is almost a genre unto itself (see 11 Saints Who Endured Sexual Abuse). In each of them, a woman is pressured sexually or attacked by a powerful man or men. In each the woman resists.

There might be problematic elements to these stories. But, like other stories of female saints, they do extol female agency in ways that were not common in their wider cultural context. Margaret would decide for herself whether and with whom she would have sex. She resisted the sexual harassment of a powerful man. For the sake of classic Christian virtue. For the sake of her own integrity.

What of Margaret’s tormentor? His behavior is not excused or explained away.  We might interpret the vision of the dragon as reflecting his beastly behavior. If he, himself, is not inherently a dragon-demon, he has surrendered himself to a beastly abuse of sex and power. In classic Christianity, we all need to resist the dragon of lust. And faithful Christians have historically, through honest self-examination, guarded against it in thought, word, and action. But, when that dragon is combined with the dragons of other deadly sins like pride, malice, envy, etc., particularly in those with power; it becomes something worse. 

Lately, we have been made aware of just how common that is. Some powerful and famous men have been revealed to be very much like the dragon that tried to consume Margaret in their sexual ‘consumption’ of women. Some of them have paid a price in loss of job and reputation. Others have yet to. Stories like that of St. Margaret remind us of classic Christian virtues and remind us whose side we should be on when women are sexually harassed or assaulted by men – however famous or powerful the man is, however inconvenient it might be politically or personally for us. Men, especially, need to examine our own collusion and be prepared to call other men out when when their words and behavior is degrading or harassing or worse. And we need to support women when, like St. Margaret, they speak out and resist.
If you would like to read a poetic version of St. Margaret's story, here is one from the 13th century

1 comment:

  1. And, mutatis mutandis, some of us would consider ourselves to be one of those "queer" works of grace.