“But I’ll tell you, the hardest part of the book for me to write was about the abuse as a child, to actually name things …. And I felt like, I really don’t want to say this. And so I probably should say it because I think there’s so many people out there.”
“And, again, I didn’t crumble. I mean, you just have to keep going. Disrespect is a weapon of the weak. And I was able to change laws for animals. And that was really important to me to kind of have some meaning along with this kind of silly, superficial career. I felt like I wasn’t able to really dig my teeth into anything of substance when it came to my career. So I thought, well, this is how I can create some meaning.”
—Pamela Anderson, in an interview with NPR about her new autobiography
Maybe you, like me, are surprised to see Pamela Anderson in a Christian education blog. I will confess that I have not yet read her new autobiography, but I must tell you that her interview is so compelling—hearing her reflect in such a heartfelt way about how to survive abuse, how to respond in good and bad ways, and how to be committed to seeing something good grow. I’ve been thinking all week about how Agatha of Sicily might hear Pamela Anderson’s story.
Most of what we know about Agatha of Sicily comes second or third hand, or even much later. Tradition teaches that, like many Christian women of her era, she saw in professed virginity a way to love God as a whole person. As a professed virgin, she could step outside of the roles assigned to her in the Roman Empire and instead teach, minister, and be judged on the merits of work. She could make a meaningful difference. She could be herself, freed by the good news of Christ.
The short version of her martyrdom is that, in a familiar but sickening story, a man in her life resented her being a whole person. Her story involves sexual assault and mutilation as a way to put her back in her place. She remained faithful to her call to Christ, and it ultimately cost her life.
We may not be surprised that Agatha proved one of the most popular saints into the premodern era. She knew what it was like to love God and want to be a whole person, and she knew what it was like to have her voice stolen from her. As a patron saint, she is intended to oversee victims of abuse and sexual assault, as well as those suffering from breast cancer. To celebrate her, there’s a Sicilian pastry shaped like a breast, which seems both a little demeaning and a bit hopeful—think of the ‘save the tatas’ as a reappropriation of breasts as a positive symbol of femininity, part joke and part empowerment.
So, what do we do with the serious and seemingly adult story of Agatha of Sicily on a Christian education blog? Well, of course, first we need to acknowledge the hard things—for some of our young people, more than we suspect, the experience of abuse is something known. We owe our young people a chance to speak, but also to know that in God and among God’s friends, we can find solidarity and support for what has happened. Abuse or assault often isolates, and as people inspired by Christ, we have a role to play in fostering connection, wholeness, and safe spaces.
In many of the classic paintings of Agatha, Peter the apostle (who was long dead at this point) appears to heal her wounds. In nearly all of the paintings, Peter is in the dark, and Agatha is in the light. The message isn’t subtle, but it might help nonetheless. The witness of a whole woman illuminates. As Christians, we have ministry to do not only in the healing of abuse, but in cultivating the kinds of communities where women are able to be whole human beings—leaders, teachers, illuminated and illuminating, shining the light of Christ on us all.