Born in a Manger, Giving Birth in a Barn

Although Easter has recently passed, it is Christmas I have been thinking about lately and the mother of that baby who was so famously “away in a manger.” I, like millions before me, have fallen under the enchantment of the cozy homeyness of the stable where Jesus was born, the soft golden light cast by a lantern or perhaps emanating from the Lord Jesus himself, the warmth of the animal bodies, the softness of their breath stirring the straw of the manger , caressing the baby lying within.

The loving domesticity of the scene is so charming that one forgets that being born in a manger means giving birth in a barn. And who or what traditionally gives birth in a barn? Well, to put it bluntly, breeding stock. Is placing Christ’s birth in a barn a way of signalling that within Christianity women — even the mother of their god — are nothing more or less than breeding stock.

Well, given the current insanity going on over giving a woman power over her own body, I would say yes. According to right wing Christian teaching — both Protestant and Catholic — we all should abstain from any sexual activity outside of marriage, and within marriage, although sex is required as a part of the marriage contract, and sex has its consequences, contraceptives are still forbidden. Therefore, to use or provide contraceptive products or information to anyone is against God’s will. Abortion — such an ugly word — is beyond the pale. For life is sacred, except of course, the lives of women.

All over the world, people are marrying later and later — delaying marriage until their late twenties or early thirties. This trend is a good thing, meaning that once people do marry and have a family they will be mature and financially stable enough to provide a good home and be good parents. However, this trend means that people are remaining single at a time of life when all other things being equal, they should be most sexually active. Which poses a dilemma. Does the church or society really believe that there is any healthy man alive on this planet who is willing to abstain from sex until he is almost too old to enjoy it? Or that healthy women in their twenties when they are most beautiful and desirable should really remain virginal — obeying some wrong-headed rules made by impotent old men? Not that I am promoting promiscuity. I am just trying to be realistic. I see nothing wrong with young people forming serious relationships before they are ready to settle down and marry, relationships which are formed for the purpose of mutual enjoyment and are based on mutual affection, relationships which enable young people to grow and mature and find their paths in life before they take on the responsibility of children, relationships which are enhanced by the use of contraceptives.

But the church doesn�t see it that way. For the church, it�s all or nothin — or at least that�s what they say. In truth, no one — not even the church — expects men to take this teaching seriously. Why should they? Men can have sex as much as they want and walk away, leaving women to deal with the consequences. And, as far as the church is concerned it is not the sexual activity, but the contraceptive activity which is the greater sin.

For women, however, unprotected sex can have serious, life-changing, even life-threatening, consequences. Consequences they cannot walk away from. Good Christian girls and women are placed by their religion in a perilous position — as well as terrible external and internal conflict.

First, a woman is under attack from the man — or men — who pressures her to have sex. And good Christian men are the worst. For they are going to pressure women to have unprotected sex outside of a committed relationship, since Christianity condemns condoms and doesn’t recognize a relationship outside of marriage. And a good Christian man is more likely to walk away, since he will have no respect for a woman who would have sex outside of marriage.

Secondly, she is under attack from the biological needs of her own body.

Third she is under attack from her own psyche, because at some level, she knows that in our society the only value she has is in a man’s eyes — and, because her religion teaches her that in marriage the husband is to be obeyed, outside of marriage she feels it is somehow wrong to resist him — to be disobedient.

Fourth, she feels the pressures of loneliness and the longing for closeness with another person.

On the other hand, her religious values tell her that if she has sex she is somehow unclean, not worthy. If she happens to get pregnant, it can be a disaster. For in our society, pregnancy at the wrong time in the wrong circumstances may mean the beginning of a child’s life, but it often means the end of the mother’s — socially, financially, educationally — if not literally. In her Christian circles, she loses whatever value she had, she’s damaged goods. In society in general, she loses any hope of getting an education, a good job or a career. She even loses any hope of enjoying motherhood — of being a good and happy mother which she would have been and could have been given access to and acceptance of contraception.

But the church refuses to face the reality of women’s lives; it refuses to allow her to protect herself. And because of the power of the church, all women are put at risk. Because pharmacists are now refusing to fill prescriptions for birth control pills on “moral” grounds — in addition to the fact that women’s clinics are, as we know, dangerous places to work, and states are finding more and more ways to get around Roe v. Wade.

The result is, if a women has sex outside of marriage, she must run the risk and pay the price. For, according the the church, it is woman’s number one task in life to bear children — it is a duty she cannot shirk regardless of the consequences for her life.

Inside of marriage, she is not much better off. For, if she follows the teachings of the church and if she and her husband are healthy young people with healthy sexual appetites, she faces a life of continous pregnancy, childbirth, and childcare, leaving precious little time or energy to pursue other interests. My great grandmother, a woman of great stamina, without the benefit of birth control, had ten children — one every other year for 20 years, until her husband died. Other, less strong women of that period were worn out with childbearing and themselves died an early death. Is this what right-wing Christianity really wants? Apparently, so.

If one follows the logic of right-wing Christian teaching to its logical conclusion, the church gives a woman only two choices — a nunlike existence of absolute abstinence, which would free her to pursue her own “selfish” desires, such as education and a career but which would deny her the most basic pleasures available to every other female animal on the planet, including motherhood, or she can take up the yoke of neverending motherhood and become breeding stock — another way of taking the joy out of her life.

The church often talks about “personhood” — about the importance for everyone of becoming fully human and being treated and valued as fully human. But as long as the church denies women the right to control their reproductive lives and condemns them to endless maternity, the church is denying women full personhood and revealing that, in its eyes, woman has only one task in life — to breed.

To make matters worse, the church refuses to recognize the dangers of forbidding condom use in a time when AIDs is such a threat — especially in developing countries. The danger is greatest to good Christian wives — who, although they have no control over their husband’s extramarital activities, are required to have sex and are forbidden to protect themselves. As a result, African wives and mothers, obeying husband and church, are dying like flies and passing the disease on to their infants.

But ours is not to question why, ours is just to breed and die.

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