She didn’t mean to be a feminist. She probably had no idea she was one. She was just focused on Jesus Christ. But in following Jesus, she defied society’s expectations for women and secured an important place in history.
Vibia Perpetua was a young woman in the North African city of Carthage. Around 203 AD, a government crackdown on Christianity put the (around) twenty-one year-old Perpetua, a new mother, and four other new believers in prison. Like thousands of Christians in the Roman Empire, Perpetua and her companions were given the choice to make a sacrifice to the Roman gods or die. All five, along with their mentor who later joined them, chose to give up the temporary for the eternal.
Unlike most others though, Perpetua left behind a firsthand account of her time in prison, a diary which is now one of the first known female-authored documents in history. In it, we read the story of a daughter who disobeyed her father’s pleas to reject her faith, a mother who chose to leave behind her infant son, a woman whose reasoned argument secured better treatment from male jailers, and a sister whose faith kept her brother strong.
The picture that emerges from reading Perpetua’s sparse and honest words, however, is not one of a superhuman saint or fearless freedom fighter, but one of a very normal, very feeling, very faithful woman—someone who was terrified of the darkness and roughness of prison, someone whose heart broke for her father’s sorrow, someone whose whole world was lit up by the presence of her new baby. She wasn’t deliberately trying to overturn society’s gender roles or change their views of women. In fact, her diary hardly talks about being a woman at all. She talks about being a Christian. It was just that in her case, being faithful to Jesus necessarily included breaking out of the world’s box for women.
I love this, and it seems God likes to work this way. At times, when we focus solely on an issue—be it women’s rights, workers’ rights, or animal rights—it is easy to allow our eyes to slip off of Jesus. And without Jesus, it won’t matter how much equality we achieve for women. All of that work, even the important work of gender justice, is part of this temporary world which will soon pass away.
When our all-consuming passion is Jesus, we end up fighting for issues like women’s rights. God cares about this world, and following him naturally leads us into contact with its needs. In other words, we end up caring about justice for women because God cares about justice for women.
This trend is perfectly exemplified by the ministry I lead, Still Small Theatre Troupe. We’re not a women’s rights organization; we don’t even have a statement identifying us as complementarian or egalitarian, and I don’t know where most of our team stands on that issue. But we are absolutely dedicated to helping people connect with Jesus Christ, and doing so has led us to some interesting places.
For the past year and a half, we have been telling Perpetua’s story onstage, and now that the show is in repertory (available year-round, long-term), it looks like we’ll be telling it for quite a while longer. The show has encouraged many in their faith, and also raises awareness and funds for the persecuted church. I am also hopeful that it offers an open door to a more secular audience. Because it shows that Christians care about women’s history, it may help break down barriers to the gospel for those who associate Christianity with patriarchy.
Our most recent stumble into women’s issues hit the streets of Salem, MA early this August: a female actor played the role of Jesus in the musical, Godspell. The casting choice came primarily because the director knew the actor well and liked how she would play the role. It was also, however, a consideration of the culture of Salem—a place that has been very wounded by religion over the years (and now attracts those who have been similarly wounded), and which associates religion with unhealthy power dynamics.
The closer we got to opening night, the more we recognized the importance of this casting. There are many in Salem who are too hurt by who they think Jesus is to be willing to consider the real him. The gentleness of Jesus, his humility, joy, and nurturing spirit, are obscured by baggage, including baggage about male dominance.
And so for some, a female-acted Jesus who breaks down their expectations may be that the only Jesus they can hear. Several women in our audiences told us how excited they were to see Jesus played by a woman, and the joy on their faces was tangible. Nor was it only women who expressed how blessed they were by the performance. Ironically, playing Jesus as a woman helped many people—including us—connect with the real Jesus.
We didn’t set out to make bold statements about women. But you can’t tell the story of the God who cares about women, the God whose image is “male and female,” without telling the stories of women.