Although the passion narratives of our Gospels are well known to us and bring all sorts of images to mind, they are in fact quite sketchy overall. We fill in each of the four narratives in various ways: with one another, with images from art and film, and even with insights from the contemporary world. Or better, what often takes place is a process of “mutual illumination” through the interaction of the Gospel texts and our contemporary world. That is, while the Gospels certainly illuminate the contemporary world, the contemporary world can also illuminate the Gospels, helping us to understand them better.
This process of “mutual illumination” is quite common in theological reflection, whether it is of the formal academic type or the reflection all Christians do, but it is especially present in most expressions of liberation theology. In light of recent discussions about sexual abuse in the church, I revisited an essay I read a few years ago in which British liberation theologian David Tombs explores the interconnections between torture, execution, state terror, and sexual abuse in Latin America during the 1970s and 80s and brings this analysis to his reading of the passion of Jesus (“Crucifixion, State Terror, and Sexual Abuse,” Union Seminary Quarterly Review 53, Nos. 1-2 : 89-109).
Like William Cavanaugh in his book Torture and Eucharist, Tombs describes how torture is a technology of state terror and dehumanization meant not only to punish an individual or to acquire information but as a means of terrorizing a whole population into submission. But Tombs examines more strongly the role of sexual humiliation (such as forced nudity and mocking) and sexual abuse (physical sexual violation) in the process of torture and state terror. He shows how sexual violence was a central aspect of torture as practiced in countries such as Argentina, Guatemala, and El Salvador. To anyone who has followed the exposure of the details of torture practices used by the united states military, the connection between torture and sexual abuse should not be surprising.
Tombs brings these analyses to the Gospels, bringing with them questions and insights that usually escape our view. Crucifixion, like contemporary torture, was an imperial practice of torture and execution designed not only to punish but to terrorize entire groups of occupied peoples. Using contemporary torture practices to illuminate the Gospel accounts of the passion, Tombs asks the disturbing question of whether it is possible that Jesus himself was a victim of sexual abuse during his torture and execution.
Read with the insights from contemporary torture in mind, Tombs sees in the Gospels clear evidence of at least sexual humiliation. In all accounts, Jesus is stripped of his clothes, sometimes multiple times, and mocked. In the Gospel accounts in which Jesus is flogged, it is entirely possible that Jesus was naked while he has beaten. And of course most assume that Jesus was naked as he hung on the cross. It is difficult to argue against the idea that there was an element of sexual humiliation in the torture Jesus went through.
Althouh it seems clear the Jesus underwent sexual humilation, there is no evidence in the Gospels one way or another about whether Jesus was the victim of sexual violence, but Tombs argues that there is a strong possibility. He cites ample extra-biblical evidence from Josephus and others of the kinds of sexual violence used in the ancient world both by the Romans and by other ancient cultures. In particular, he cites texts which show how sexual violence was often used in the context of crucifixion, the practice of which varied widely. Sexual domination of both men and women were common as a political tactic of terror, especially the practice of anal rape. Even castration was sometimes known to occur before crucifixion.
Such theological speculation is disturbing to our sensibilities. And it is important to ask why this is the case. We know Jesus underwent unbearably painful torture and death. We have no problem saying this year after year on Good Friday and Sunday after Sunday at Eucharist. Our knowledge of the depths of Jesus’ suffering moves us both emotionally and spiritually. But at the same time, we probably recoil from the suggestion that Jesus may have been raped. I think we are uncomfortable with this suggestion because ultimately we cannot stand a crucifixion that is too realistic. For all the ways that it reveals the “human” Jesus, one with us in suffering and death, the cross remains in many ways “otherworldly.” Crucifixion is hardly common in today’s world. We can safely imagine Jesus’ flogging, his crowning with thorns, and his death on the cross from a temporal and cultural distance. Even the crucifixion as portrayed in Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ, praised each and every year for its supposed “realism,” is ultimately more cartoonish than it is realistic. We simply do not want a cross that is too realistic, perhaps because we wish to preserve the uniqueness of Christ’ passion. We need to preserve that boundary because without it we would learn far too much about the “crucifixions” in today’s world and their “family resemblance” to the passion of Jesus.
Tombs says that reflection on the possibility of Jesus’ sexual abuse yields a number of profound theolgical and pastoral implications. First, it can “deepen Christian understanding of God’s solidarity with the powerless,” revealing the depths of evil that Jesus very well could have experienced in his life. In fact, Tombs says, refusal to consider the possibility that Jesus may have been the victim of sexual violence could indicate an inadequate christology that denies the fullness of the incarnation. Pastorally, this suggestion could contribute another facet of the liberating gospel to victims of sexual abuse by showing another way that Jesus shares in their human experience. This pastoral implication, he says, is true whether Jesus was sexually abused or “only” sexually humiliated, the latter of which is clearly seen in the Gospel texts.
Although he deals with sexual abuse in the context of political torture, Tombs’ analysis is striking to me this Holy Week as we are in the midst of a new wave of reports of sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests. As I previously argued, this Holy Week it is essential for us as a church to see Christ crucified in those who have suffered sexual abuse at the hands of religious officials and to bring these “crucifixions” explicitly into our Holy Week liturgies. Perhaps the connections between Christ’s crucifixion and contemporary violence are difficult for us to make. Tombs’ research can perhaps give us the nudge we need in making Christ’s passion a little more “real” and helping us to see Christ crucified in those who suffer sexual violence in today’s world and in today’s church.