Session 2: Women in the Movement

From “The Last Week of Jesus Christ and the Last Year of Martin Luther King” Bible Study Series

Readings

Bible passage: John 12
Other references: excerpts from John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Final Days in Jerusalem (2007)
Poor People’s Campaign reference: excerpts from Nick Kotz & Mary Lynn Kotz, A Passion for Equality: George Wiley and the Movement (1977)

Discussion Questions

1. What role does Mary in this passage from John’s Gospel play in Jesus’ ministry? What is her relationship with Judas? Jesus? With the quote “the poor are with you always”?
2. Though women have always played a valuable role in political and religious movements, why do you think they are continually marginalized within movements?
3. What are the theological implications for Mary Magdalene’s role in the Jesus Movement being changed from that of an Apostle to that of a prostitute and temptress? What does this show us about sexism within social movements?
4. What roles do women play in the stories of the Jesus movement, the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO) and the Poor People’s Campaign, despite the sexism? How are these roles important for the success of these movements?

John 12: 1-11 (NIV)

Jesus Anointed at Bethany
1 Six days before the Passover, Jesus arrived at Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2 Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. 3 Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
4 But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, 5 “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” 6 He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.
7 “Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. 8 You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”
9 Meanwhile a large crowd of Jews found out that Jesus was there and came, not only because of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 10 So the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus as well, 11 for on account of him many of the Jews were going over to Jesus and putting their faith in him.

From Crossan and Borg, The Last Week (2007), pages 104-5, 151-2

“[The woman who anoints Jesus] is, for Mark, the first believer. She is, for us, the first Christian. And she believed from the word of Jesus before any discovery of an empty tomb. Furthermore, her action was a graphic demonstration of the paradoxical leadership cited by Jesus for himself and all his followers on the model of child, servant, and slave. …The unnamed woman is not only the first believer; she is also the model leader. …She was both one of those ‘many other women’ and the first and only one who believed what Jesus had been telling them repeatedly. …The unnamed woman represents the perfect disciple-leader and is contrasted with Judas, who represents the worst one possible.

…There were also women looking on from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. These used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem (Mark 15:40-41).

From what is said about Mary Magdalene in other gospels, she was the most important of Jesus’s women followers. About the other Mary, ‘the mother of James the younger and of Joses,’ we know nothing. About the third woman, we can say only that Salome was a common woman’s name in the first century. The presence of the women reminds us that Jesus’s men followers are not present. They have all fled. Perhaps it was safer for women to be nearby; they were less likely to be suspected by the authorities of being dangerous subversives.

Whatever the reason, in Mark (and all the gospels) women play a major role in the story of Good Friday and Easter. They witness Jesus’s death. They follow his body after his death and see where he is buried. In all the gospels, they are the first ones to go to the tomb on Sunday and experience the news of Easter. In Mark, as we shall see in our chapter on Easter Sunday, they are the only ones.

The role of women in Mark’s story of Good Friday raises an interesting question. Why would first-century Jewish women (and slightly later, gentile women) be attracted to Jesus? For the same reasons that first century men were, yes. But in addition it seems clear that Jesus and earliest Christianity gave to women an identity and status that they did not experience within the conventional wisdom of the time. Women in both Jewish and gentile cultures were subordinated in many ways. Jesus and the early Christian movement subverted the conventional wisdom about women among both Jews and gentiles. The subversion has been denied by much of Christian history, but it is right here, in a prominent place in the story of the climactic events of Jesus’s life: Good Friday and Easter.”

From Kotz and Kotz, A Passion for Equality: George Wiley and the Movement (1977), pages 248-9

“In early February, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr., was coming to Chicago to meet with [National Welfare Rights Organization founder George Wiley] and his executive board—at NWRO’s demand. It promised to be a showdown. King was planning a ‘Poor People’s Campaign’ for Washington, D.C.—a tactic born in desperation, as the Civil Rights Movement was in shreds. King had failed, during the previous two years, to solve the riddle of further effective action against northern racism and poverty. The new campaign called for thousands of the poor to encamp in Washington, dramatizing the issues for Congress and the country. The campaign needed foot soldiers. Wiley had them—ten thousand paying members in one hundred functioning chapters—and felt that King was trying to divert NWRO members to the Poor People’s Campaign without any recognition of NWRO and its own purposes, program, and strategy.

When King walked through the lobby of the downtown Chicago YMCA on February 3, 1968, he was immediately surrounded by admirers—a crowd seeking to glimpse or touch the famous, charismatic leader. He moved upstairs, with his lieutenants—Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, Bernard Lafayette, and Al Sampson—to a meeting-room where Wiley and his thirty-member committee sat waiting. There were place-cards around the big rectangular table so that Johnnie Tillmon would be seated in the center, with Wiley on her right and Dr. King on her left. King would be separated from his lieutenants, who were surrounded in each corner by the welfare-recipient leadership. Tim Sampson characterized Wiley’s seating arrangement as ‘a grand piece of psychological warfare.’

To the ladies, King and the SCLC’s Poor People’s Campaign was a threat. They were angry that King’s lieutenants had moved around the country contacting local welfare rights groups, asking them to join the banner at the cost of abandoning their own welfare-organizing efforts. ‘The women’s concern was that they had a major constituency organization,’ said Sampson. ‘They had created it with their blood, sweat, and tears, and it was something magnificent to them. Not to be recognized was an attack on their very being. And to have it taken away was unthinkable.’

While Johnnie Tillmon presided, holding her grandchild in her lap, King waited quietly until each woman introduced herself. He then began to describe the purposes of the forthcoming Washington campaign. ‘We need your support,’ he concluded.

Then Etta Horn opened the barrage: ‘How do you stand on P.L. 90-248?’ Puzzled, Dr. King looked toward the Reverend Andrew Young, his executive director. ‘She means the Anti-Welfare Bill, H.R. 12080, passed by the Congress on December 15, and signed into law by Lyndon Baines Johnson on January 2,’ interrupted Mrs. Tillmon. ‘Where were you last October, when we were down in Washington trying to get support for Senator Kennedy’s amendments?’ Beulah Sanders held up a copy of the NWRO pamphlet The Kennedy Welfare Amendments.
King was bewildered by the technical discussion of the new law as his staff tried to fend off the women’s hostile questions. Finally, Johnnie Tillmon said, ‘You know, Dr. King, if you don’t know about these questions, you should say you don’t know, and then we could go on with the meeting.’ ‘You’re right, Mrs. Tillmon,’ King replied. ‘We don’t know anything about welfare. We are here to learn.’ The NWRO members proceeded to bring Dr. King up to date on the history of what they saw as welfare repression in Congress and the nation.”

Session 3