Post Author: Sarah Lamming
For the past four years, I have been staring at this image of St. Margaret of Antioch. It hangs on the wall of a church called by her name, where I was the Associate Rector for Youth Formation until a few weeks ago. The image shows St. Margaret standing on the dragon that she is said to have defeated. Everyone in the church knows that part of her story. We even jokingly call ourselves “the church of the Dragon-slayer.” Yet until recently, very few of us knew much more about her than that, including me.
This summer, I was scheduled to preach the Sunday when the lectionary reading included the beheading of John the Baptist. I did not want to talk about beheading, so I suggested that we celebrate the Feast of St. Margaret that day, instead. It seemed the perfect way out of having to deal with the violence. But I had traded one terrible story for another.
About 1600 years ago, a dominant invading force in Syria was requiring individuals to renounce their Christian beliefs. If the individuals resisted, then it was certain death. In Antioch, there was a Christian girl called Margaret, who had left her home because she did not believe in the faith of her pagan priest father. She was surviving as a shepherdess. The Roman prefect, who was the enforcer in the city, saw Margaret’s beauty and wanted to save her life by adding her as either a wife or a concubine. When she resisted, she was thrown in jail. While she was in jail, the story goes, a dragon that represented the evil in the world tried to swallow her. However, she managed to overpower the dragon and defeat it. She then had to endure a series of public acts of torture as the Roman prefect tried to get her to denounce her faith. These reportedly included burning, attempted drowning, and being hung up in the air and beaten. Finally, she was beheaded with a number of other believers who would not renounce their Christian faith.
These atrocities might have been hard for us to imagine a few years ago. But now, we have heard and seen similar stories in our own time coming out of Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, and Kenya, to name only a few. In August 2014, approximately 150 unmarried girls and women who had been rounded up in the citadel of Tal Afar in Ninewa—predominantly from the Yezidi and Christian communities—were reportedly transported to Syria, either to be given to Islamic State fighters as a reward or to be sold as sex slaves.[i] In May, an estimated 91% of the hundreds of women and girls who were rescued from Boko Haram in Nigeria were pregnant or had given birth.[ii] And in April, 147 students were killed during the massacre at Garissa University College in Kenya.[iii]
I wanted to block out the pain in this world by ignoring the beheading of John, but the Spirit led me to lift up St. Margaret. Through her ancient story, I was able to name the reality and the hard truths of today. Naming these issues in church, from a pulpit, was a powerful act for healing. I put a “trigger warning” in the email newsletter the week before, and I printed another in the worship bulletin. That week, three women disclosed to me personal stories about rape before I even preached the sermon. Afterwards, more people told me they were survivors, and even more thanked me for speaking out from the pulpit.
The Episcopal Church and the Roman Catholic Church both dropped St. Margaret of Antioch as a feast day in 1969, because it was uncertain whether she truly existed or was compilation of a number of women’s stories from around the time of the Roman Emperor Diocletian in the third century. However, she is still remembered in the Church of England and in the eastern churches. Margaret is important because of what she endured, and the strength of her faith is an example to us all.
It is not unusual for women’s voices and stories to be questioned, downplayed, silenced, or forgotten in the church. Out of the 150 special feast days on the Episcopal Church calendar, the ratio of days celebrating men to those celebrating women is 5-to-1. Out of the four feast days given to women martyrs in particular, two of them honor groups of women, many without names: Perpetua and her Companions on March 7 and Constance and her Companions on September 9.[iv]
There are also some bible stories about women that we never hear in church: Lot’s older daughter, who had sex with her father in Genesis 19; the unnamed concubine in Judges 19, who was raped all night by a group of men until she died (her master then divided up her body into 12 pieces and sent one piece to each of the 12 tribes of Israel); young Tamar, who was raped by her half-brother in 2 Samuel 13.
It is hard to find hope from this horror. Can’t we do what history has done and not include the women’s voices? Can’t we take the hard stories out of the lectionary for Sunday? Can’t we remove from the calendar the female saints who were tortured?
It is hard to acknowledge the brokenness of our world, of our society, and of our humanity. But until we acknowledge the past and the present, it is impossible for us to get to the wholeness of tomorrow. We need to remember, as Lindsay Hardin Freeman says, that “Bible women suffer horrible loss, and at times are like pawns moved on a patriarchal chessboard, but they remain bright lights in sacred history.”[v]
For the sake of the 100 women who have likely suffered domestic abuse during the time it’s taken you to read this article, for the sake of the one in five women and the one in 71 men in the United States who have been raped in their lifetime,[vi] for the sake of the estimated 17,000 people trafficked in the United States this year, and for the families and friends of the missing, abused, and murdered girls and women in the world, especially in Nigeria, Syria, and Iraq:
No, we can’t keep silent.
Whether St. Margaret endured all of the acts of torture listed in the ancient texts, or whether she is a compilation of a number of women who suffered greatly for their faith, she or they were brave and strong women. They give hope for women and survivors of violence today: hope that healing is possible, hope that shattered and violated earthly bodies cannot separate anyone from the knowledge of the love of God, hope that the fragments of a person’s soul can be held by God until the point when they can be put back together. And hope that all people can be vulnerable and honest about the violence they’ve experienced without judgment or shame.
For this we honor them. For this we remember.
[ii] https://www.hrw.org/report/2014/10/27/those-terrible-weeks-their-camp/boko-haram-violence-against-women-and-girls and https://www.tvnz.co.nz/one-news/world/at-least-91-women-and-girls-rescued-from-boko-haram-are-pregnant-6309426
[v] Freeman, Lindsay Hardin. Bible Women: All Their Words and Why They Matter (Forward Movement: 2014), 18.
The Rev. Sarah Lamming is an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Maryland. She is working on a Doctor of Ministry in Congregational Development at Virginia Theological Seminary.
Image by: Sarah Lamming
Used with permission