PETA wants to promote breastfeeding in Mississippi with billboards showing the Baby Jesus suckling at the Virgin Mary’s nipple. This is a bit like the Beef Advisory Council promoting their product by placing a burger in each of the many hands of Shiva. You could chalk it up to miscalculation and ignorance, but it’s PETA, whose grand plan to promote their cause in the United States seems to boil down to “enrage meat eaters to such a degree that they choke on their steaks.” Miscalculation isn’t part of the plan.
Were I a meat-bearing animal (and unless I’m schlepping groceries, I’m not), the folks at PETA are just about the last people on Earth I’d want promoting my cause, since the short-term result of this sort of intentionally antagonistic marketing approach is that someone’s likely to have protest grill-a-thon right under the billboard. You can see it now: Eat a sausage for Jesus. Clearly, this wouldn’t help. Someone needs to do a study to see whether meat sales go up after every PETA stunt; I think we all might be surprised at the results. I don’t think PETAs cause is unjust in the least, I just think the end result of their tactics is likely to be higher bacon consumption.
However, PETA is correct on two points. The first is that human breast milk is far better for infants than cow’s milk (which is the point of the billboard) and in fact cow’s milk can be bad for very young babies: Far too much sodium, for one thing (you can do a number on a baby’s kidneys). There are also too many nutrients at too many different levels relative to the mix a newborn needs. I remember that while Athena was being born, a very good (childless) friend of ours who was feeding our pets also bought us two gallons of whole milk so we could be prepared. I certainly appreciated the thought (and still do), but I’d have been about as likely to pop open a can of Sprite and put that in our newborn’s bottle as I would be to give her milk from the store.
PETA’s billboard is fatuous to the extent that any pediatrician or ob/gyn who did not get a medical degree from a box of Trix already knows all this and will have communicated this information to their expectant mothers (as will have the instructors of their birthing classes, who comprise a veritable La Leche League mafia). So its only true value is to piss off religious conservatives, which is entirely why PETA did it anyway. But technically, it’s not wrong.
The second point where PETA is correct is that the baby Jesus did breastfeed off the Virgin Mary. It was 2000 years ago, baby formula had not yet made inroads into the parenting market, and while there almost certainly was a cow around (Jesus was camping out in the animal’s food bin, after all), chances are very good Mary guided Jesus to her breast instead. That’s what breasts are for. Mary may have been a virgin, but she wasn’t stupid.
The real question is why religious conservatives are so incensed by the portrayal. I don’t mean this in the entirely fake way PETA officials are pretending to be shocked, shocked that anyone could see something as natural as a mother suckling her child as offensive, since if it hadn’t have been offensive, PETA simply wouldn’t have done it. They would picked some other outrageous image; this being the South, I imagine a billboard of General Sherman torching Atlanta, with the tagline underneath: Haven’t You Had Enough of Barbeque? That’d get them going down in Dixie (Note to PETA: Steal this, and you’ll get a call from my lawyers. They’re carnivores).
PETA counted on it being offensive, but, fundamentally, why should it be offensive? Jesus was divine, but also human. He was a baby, he had to eat. Mary was the Mother of God but also a mother; she gave birth, her body pumped out milk so she could feed her baby. Mary suckled the Baby Jesus. Deal with it.
The response: We know she did it, we just don’t want to see it or think about it. And of course, the answer here is: Why on Earth not? Well, for one thing, it’s a breast – and we all know that looking at boobs arouses thoughts of sex. Sex leads to sin, sin leads to fear, fear leads to hate, hate leads to suffering. So we just can’t have the Virgin Mary going topless. The kids will riot.
As you can imagine, this line of reasoning makes me giggle. For one thing, there’s undoubtedly a special seating area in Hell for people who have lustful thoughts about the Virgin Mary (excluding, possibly, Joseph). Everybody knows this, so anyone who glances at the picture and thinks “Huh huh huh — the Virgin Mary is totally hot” is already feeling Satan’s tines sticking his ass and has other problems to worry about.
For another thing, breasts used for breastfeeding are unsexy in almost exactly the same way a vagina being used for birth is unsexy — indeed, it’s a vivid reminder that God, in His wisdom, evolved dual uses for just about every fun-providing part of the human anatomy, and that second use is definitely not about having a good time. So I think we can shelve the “Boobs = sex” line of reasoning here. The Virgin Mary suckling the Baby Jesus is about as far from sex as we’re likely to get, even without throwing in the nature of Mary’s impregnation.
The other issue may simply be that Christians don’t like dwelling on the human aspect of Jesus and Mary — just as any person prefers not to dwell on the grosser (in every meaning of the word) aspects of the humanity of their idols. But I have to say this doesn’t make much sense to me. Christian theology is built on Jesus’ dual nature as divine and human: Toss out one half, and the other half doesn’t work. Jesus’ suffering was rooted in his divinity — he was called on to redeem the sins of the world — but the actual suffering part was predicated upon his human nature. Being nailed to a cross to die doesn’t work if He Who is Nailed doesn’t have the humanity required to suffer.
Aside from Jesus, other major Christian figures relied on their humanity to confirm their divinity as well. You can’t throw a rock in a room full of early Christian saints without hitting one martyred for his faith (depending on who you hit, in fact, the rock throwing bit is nothing new to him). Martyrdom is physical and painful, a reflection of Jesus’ human pain on the cross. And of course there’s Mary herself, chosen to carry Jesus for her essential humanity.
Dwelling on the humanity of Jesus and Mary doesn’t weaken their divinity, it strengthens it. Showing a picture of the Blessed Mother and Child as the latter is breastfeeding off the former shouldn’t been seen as sacrilege or blasphemy, but an acknowledgement of part of what makes them special, loved and revered. I think that people who are enraged by the picture should take a few moments and reflect on that fact. Jesus was human as much as divine, and it’s simply wrong to deny His humanity, and the things that come with it.
It doesn’t mean you have to walk around with a picture in your wallet of Jesus suckling from the Virgin Mary, mind you (or of Jesus performing any other human functions you might not care to think about on an everyday basis, because, you know, Jesus did those things too). But this way, when someone shoves a picture like this in your face as a cheap way to piss you off, you can laugh it away. And then you can have a nice slab of pork round. See who’s more pissed off then.