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Wives' tales

Traditional Christmas cribs have shepherds, angels, kings and a variety of animals in the bit parts. Trendy cribs change the cast of extras to cowboys, media commentators, and a selection of kangaroos, wallabies and wombats. This Christmas, you could make a strong case for including doctors’ wives.

Doctors’ wives became notorious during the federal election campaign. It had become evident that many regular Coalition voters in safe Liberal seats intended to vote against it. They held Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers and participation in the war on Iraq to be morally abhorrent. These people were then characterised as doctors’ wives.

Once labelled, they were marginalised. Doctors’ wives, it was implied, spent their idle hours driving hubby’s Mercs through leafy suburbs, sipping chardonnay, chattering incessantly about issues that only blokes could understand, contracting acute cardial bleeding, betraying their class and embarrassing their neighbours. How else could you explain anyone failing to move on from Tampa and Iraq?

It is a disconcerting fact of life that people who take unpopular moral positions are marginalised. But after we recover from the disconcertment, the interesting question is what we make of being marginalised. Or, for religious people, what God makes of it.

That is where the bit players in the Christmas story, and particularly women–those perennial extras–are interesting. Matthew and Luke both include women. But whereas Luke puts Elizabeth and Anna prominently in the story as ideal versions of Jewish piety, Matthew includes four women, almost by stealth, in the genealogy of Jesus. Rahab, Bathsheba–referred to by Matthew only as Uriah’s wife–Ruth and, of course, Mary are all dodgy by the standards of their society, all are marginal.

Rahab was a prostitute in Jericho who had read the polls. She could see that her side would lose, and so offered hospitality and a safe house to Israelite spies. After the town was razed, her life was spared and she lived, an outsider in Israel. Bathsheba, wife of David’s general, Uriah, was raped and made pregnant by King David who, to cover his tracks, had Uriah killed. Ruth, another foreigner, went back to Judea with her impoverished Jewish mother. And we first meet Mary when Joseph has to deal with her pregnancy.

Biblical genealogies offer a map of God’s way of working. Conventionally, the prominent features through which God’s path runs are all male and respectable. That Matthew includes women on this path already says something surprising about God. That he includes only women who are dodgy because of their race or birth is shocking. At the centre of God’s plan for humanity are strong women whom responsible men marginalise.

Later Christians softened this message. They saw female martyrs as central features on God’s path. But they now described them as weak women who were given extraordinary grace by God. True enough, but the observers lost sight of the heart of the matter, that these were strong women humiliated by their society.

Cribs can be cosy, too. Shepherds neither drink nor swear, angels don’t inspire terror, nor do the animals stink. So doctors’ wives have a disruptive place there. They might remind us that God’s way for Australia lies through their strength and humiliation, not their domestication.

Andrew Hamilton sj teaches at the United Faculty of Theology.

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