#HimToo: The Crucifixion as Sexual Violence
Updated: Feb 12
We are delighted to have Rev Jonathan Abernethy guesting on the blog this week. Jonathan is an academic researcher, too, and gives us an incredibly interesting insight into his work here on the LSU blog.
#HimToo - The Crucifixion as an act of sexual violence & how the church can respond.
The Crucifixion of Jesus has been much debated by theologians. Within recent scholarship a debate has emerged exploring a reading of the crucifixion as an act of sexual violence in light of the #MeToo movement, which gained prominence stirring global consciousness to acts of historical sexual abuse and violence. The movement has grown and developed, and in October 2017 the secular met the sacred, with the hashtags #ChurchToo and #SilenceisNotSpiritual highlighting abuse occurring within religious communities.
People not statistics
The World Health Organization reports 1 in 3 women experience either physical or sexual intimate partner violence, or non-partner violence in their lifetime. US studies estimate that 570 people experience sexual violence per year, while other studies suggest 4 in 10 gay men, nearly half of bisexual men, and 1 in 5 heterosexual men have experienced sexual violence in their lifetime.
Historically speaking, there are a few facts about crucifixion that are incontestable. The most common cultural perception in the ancient world was that crucifixion was one of the cruelest forms of torture and execution. Crucifixion made the victim a public spectacle, degrading and abusing its victim. The entertainment this provided for onlookers, physical deformation, loss of bodily control, enlargement of the penis, breaking of limbs to hasten lingering death can not be understated.
Each Gospel account gives its own perspective, yet all presents us with the figure of the abused Jesus.
In Mark, readers observe Jesus death which is not just physical but sexual, focused with the casting lots for his clothes, implying that Jesus is crucified naked His genitals exposed.
In Matthew’s Gospel, in a ritual of status degradation, we see Jesus abused with his accusers spitting on him, and pummelling him. Jesus is a blasphemer and renegade who must be socially disgraced. Matthew’s essential difference from Mark is the double reference to Jesus’ stripping. As the narrative reaches a crescendo in Matthew the crucifixion proper now takes place. He is openly scorned, humiliated and finally crucified naked.
In Luke, the naked and overtly abused Jesus, screaming, abandoned and tortured is replaced by a more serene, dignified, Jesus who dies- almost gracefully. Ultimately, Luke’s emphasis reminds contemporary interpreters that abuse, though not always physical, is no less humiliating and assaulting in its verbal expression. Luke reminds us that whether physical or verbal, abuse is abuse.
John’s crucified Jesus is not the nude spectacle that we noted in Matthew and Mark. He is not stripped, the clothes for which die are cast are not the regal ceremonial dress that he continues to wear in these final moments but his original clothes. Jesus not only suffered appalling physical pain, but, he suffered it at the hands of others. Starkly, Jesus was abused.
Finally what the texts might conceal may also be significant. The Gospels, state that it was the whole cohort of Roman soldiers (six hundred to one thousand men) - assembled together to participate in the mockery. Anal rape of male captives was a practice notoriously rife in the ancient world. In view of this background it is important to ask whether the fraternal kiss in the garden of Gethsemane might have set events in motion that led to some form of sexual assault in the praetorium of Pilate.
A suggestion for further reading: Tombs, David. ‘Crucifixion, State Terror, and Sexual Abuse’, Union Seminary Quarterly Review, 53 (Autumn 1999), pp. 89-109.
During times of personal crisis individuals often turn to faith communities. This is not new and remains at the heart of the church’s calling.
While some studies indicate a relationship between religious belief and positive mental health, several have indicated that having been sexually abused is negatively associated with religious involvement. Sexually abused individuals often display great complexity when it comes to trust. If the individual is a member of a faith community the risk is a lack of trust which may be extended to their congregation and ultimately to God. Their sexual abuse may result in the individual experiencing a damaging effect on their beliefs and worldview. With questions about the nature and validity of their faith through a mixture of competing and compounding and destructive emotions. For example an understanding of God as a loving heavenly father can be tainted by the actions of an abusive father or Jesus ‘our elder brother’ may be tainted by the school bully or inveigling confidence trickster abuser. Sexual trauma, leading to religious trauma.
The 2011 Tearfund report Silent No More highlights three key points for the worldwide church to address. First, sexual violence is endemic but its scale and impact are largely hidden, second, many churches deepen the impact of the sexual violence crisis through silence. Thirdly, churches, have huge untapped potential to respond to the crisis , as they are a key part of community life.
How can the church respond?
Engage with The Text
Within religious circles there is a reluctance to talk about sexual violence and abuse. Perhaps due to lack of understanding or a heightened awareness that at times the church has played the role of facilitating or shielding offenders. Perhaps the starting point for the church would be wrestling with the Bible examining sexual violence in biblical passages would be a helpful starting point.
If preaching has the power to speak into individual lives and address topical themes then it follows that pastorally there are no ‘no go’ areas. The #MeToo Movement and sexual abuse cannot remain ‘no go’ areas for the church.
There are many men and women worshipping in churches, affected by sexual abuse. This provides a challenge for those engaged in preparing men and women for Christian ministry. Ministry involves dealing with the world its shortcomings, brokenness and misery as well as with its joys and blessings. Perhaps the curriculum needs to include some input on sexual abuse and violence, as is already the case with grief counselling and mental health.
Find a voice
In October 2017, Gustavus Adolphus Lutheran Church, New York, placed a sign outside the building making a deep theological connection which was shared widely on social media. The sign read ‘Jesus said, as you have done it to them you have done it to me #MeToo’. The sign paraphrased Matthew 25:40. While we can only guess at what the sign’s author intended, it is possible to suggest that the sign was suggesting that Christ stands in solidarity with, and shares the experiences of those, who say #MeToo.
The question should not be if the church should respond but rather, how and when.
Rev Jonathan Abernethy is a minister and PhD Candidate researching the relevance of faith to childhood sexual abuse.