Preliminary Thoughts with Tombs and Bonhoeffer
27 Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters,l and they gathered the whole cohort around him. 28 They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, 29 and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head. They put a reed in his right hand and knelt before him and mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” 30 They spat on him, and took the reed and struck him on the head. 31 After mocking him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him.
l Gk the praetoriumThe Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition (Washington, DC: National Council of Churches of Christ, 1993), Mt 27:27–31.
A few years ago, I read David Tombs’s 1999 essay, “Crucifixion, State Terror, and Sexual Abuse,” in Union Seminary Quarterly Review, 53:1–2 (Autumn 1999), pp. 89–109. The essay suggests that “an understanding of how recent Latin American regimes used terror to create fear and promote fatalism provides a context to recognize Jesus’ crucifixion in similar terms to state terror. […] The use of sexual humiliation and violence in Latin American torture raises questions as to whether Jesus also suffered sexual abuse” (89-90). This year, Tombs, Rocio Figueroa, and James R. Reaves edited and published a volume, When Did We See You Naked?: Jesus as a Victim of Sexual Abuse. Tombs will be releasing a new book soon, The Crucifixion of Jesus: Torture, Sexual Abuse, and the Scandal of the Cross (London: Routledge, forthcoming).
Tombs contends that “biblical texts can be legitimately read with the social and political situation of contemporary cultures of oppression in mind” (95-96). By examining the case of Latin American torture practices in the 1970s and 80s, we can peer into “neglected aspects of crucifixion in Palestine” (96). I want to emphasize here Tombs’s discussion of the crucifixion humiliation.
The sexual element in Roman practices was part of their message of terror. Anyone who opposed the Romans would not only lose their life but also be stripped of all personal honor and human dignity. It was therefore not surprising that the Gospels themselves indicate that there was a high level of sexual humiliation in the way that Jesus was flogged, insulted, and then crucified. From evidence of the ancient world it seems that flogging the victim in public whilst naked was routine. Mark, Matthew, and John all imply that this was also the case with the flogging of Jesus. Likewise…crucifixion usually took place whilst the victim was naked and there is little reason to think that Jesus or other Jews would have been an exception to this. If the purpose were to humiliate the victim, full nakedness, would have been particularly shameful in the Jewish context. Furthermore, prior to the crucifixion, Jesus was handed over to a cohort of Roman soldiers to be further humiliated (Mark 15:16-20; Matt. 27:28-31; John 19:1-5). All the Gospels apart from Luke report that the Roman soldiers mocked Jesus by placing a crown of thorns on his head (Mark 15:17; Matt. 27:29; John 19:2) and clothing him in a purple (Mark 15:17; John 19:2) or scarlet (Matt. 27:28) garment. The texts also mention that the soldiers spat at Jesus (Mark 15:19; Matt. 27:30), struck him with a reed (Mark 15:19; Matt. 27:30), and mocked him with verbal taunts (calling him King; Mark 15:18; Matt. 27:29; John 19:3) and symbolic homage (kneeling before him; Mark 15″19; Matt. 27:29; John 19:2).Tombs, 102-104.
Tombs continues by noting that the Gospel texts may be as important for what they do not reveal as what they conspicuously note. He suggests that there “may have been a level of sexual abuse in the praetorium that none of the Gospels immediately discloses. This suspicion is prompted by the testimonies from Latin American [torture cases]. Whilst the testimonies from Latin America do nothing to establish directly the historical facts of crucifixion in Palestine, they are highly suggestive for what may have happened within the closed walls of the praetorium” (104).
In his Ethics, Bonhoeffer writes
The church confesses that it has witnessed the arbitrary use of brutal force, the suffering in body and soul of countless innocent people, that it has witnessed oppression, hatred, and murder without raising its voice for the victims and without finding ways of rushing to help them. It has become guilty of the lives of the weakest and most defenseless brothers and sisters of Jesus ChristDietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, ed. Ilse Tödt et al., trans. Reinhard Krauss, Charles C. West, and Douglas W. Stott, vol. 6, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2005), 139.
Moreover, beyond simply witnessing the use of arbitrary and brutal force, the church is guilty of committing grievous acts of harm against the dignity of the human person through the crime of sexual abuse.
In an essay by Michael Trainor in When Did we See You Naked?, the author writes
Much could be written about the [Mark’s] purpose in presenting such a Christological portrait – of a sexually abused, solitary and misunderstood figure, crying out to his God to comfort him. Perhaps it can be briefly stated […] that this speaks into the realia of Mark’s audience: their own experience of abuse, maltreatment, rejection, loneliness and isolation in a Roman urban context of the 70s CE. The apparent silence of God in a time when some might have experienced violent sexual abuse warranted such a portrait.
Trainor distinguishes between the exalted and refined Christology of Luke (which does not mention the humiliation of Jesus) with the lowly, forgotten, and abused Savior depicted in the Mark.
In the same volume, Mitzi J. Smith writes
As with many sexual assault victims, the authorities produced false witnesses who accused Jesus of crimes against the Temple and the state, to demonstrate that he deserved the abuse they hoped would be afflicted upon his body (Mark 14.56–59). Jesus is silent when the false witnesses speak; no one can defend him- or herself against lies (Mark 15.1–5). The crowds of people that Pilate desired to appease insisted that Jesus be crucified. Consequently, Jesus was flogged and delivered up for crucifixion. Mark does not explicitly mention that Jesus’ clothes were removed, but he implies that Jesus was stripped naked: Jesus was clothed in a purple cloak; later the purple cloak is stripped off Jesus’ body and his own clothes are put (back) on him. All this occurred in the presence of a Roman cohort, which is about 200–600 soldiers (Mark 15.16–17, 20). Lots are cast to determine who would take his clothing (as souvenirs of the state-sanctioned execution – Mark 15.24). François Bovon states that ‘The Roman soldiers … transformed this customary beating into a grotesque scene staged for their own amusement. No doubt imitating a carnival or circus game’, thereby entertaining themselves. The spectacle is what we would expect to be staged in a Roman amphitheatre during the gladiator games or at the crucifixion of a slave sentenced to die.
While we may never understand what specifically went on in the praetorium, as Tombs admits, it is troubling to see some theologians and lay people scoffing at the notion that Jesus was a victim of sexual humiliation. Jayme R. Reaves and Tombs, in their introduction, “Acknowledging Jesus as a Victim of Sexual Abuse,” write
At the heart of this book is a surprising, even scandalous, claim: that Jesus was a victim of sexual abuse. It may seem a strange and implausible idea at first. This initial puzzlement is to be expected; the starting point and central focus of the book is both unusual and confronting. As the following chapters will highlight, there is significant evidence that, at the very least, the forced stripping and naked exposure of Jesus on the cross should be acknowledged as sexual abuse. The acknowledgement of this truth has the potential for positive consequences, but we also acknowledge it is a difficult and disturbing subject to address. Sexual abuse points to what is speakable – and what is unspeakable – in the suffering Jesus experienced.
In his 1999 essay, Tombs writes that, “At the pastoral level, confronting the possibility of sexual abuse in the passion of Christ could provide practical help to contemporary victims of torture and sexual abuse. Recognition of sexual abuse in the treatment of Jesus could bring a liberating and healing message to the women, children, and men of Latin America and elsewhere who have also been abused. The acceptance that even Jesus may have suffered evil in this way can give new dignity and self-respect to those who continue to struggle with the stigma and other consequence of sexual abuse. A God who through Christ is to be identified with the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned (Matt. 25:31-46) is also to be identified with those suffering abuse and torture in the modern world. This is the case regardless of whether Jesus was “merely” sexually humiliated in public or also assaulted in private” (109).
My friend Henry Wallis has observed that the Christ event is the fulfillment of all redemptive history. The events of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19 are instructive for the experience of Christ during His passion.
The two angels came to Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gateway of Sodom. When Lot saw them, he rose to meet them, and bowed down with his face to the ground. 2 He said, “Please, my lords, turn aside to your servant’s house and spend the night, and wash your feet; then you can rise early and go on your way.” They said, “No; we will spend the night in the square.” 3 But he urged them strongly; so they turned aside to him and entered his house; and he made them a feast, and baked unleavened bread, and they ate. 4 But before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house; 5 and they called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may know them.” 6 Lot went out of the door to the men, shut the door after him, 7 and said, “I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. 8 Look, I have two daughters who have not known a man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof.” 9 But they replied, “Stand back!” And they said, “This fellow came here as an alien, and he would play the judge! Now we will deal worse with you than with them.” Then they pressed hard against the man Lot, and came near the door to break it down. 10 But the men inside reached out their hands and brought Lot into the house with them, and shut the door. 11 And they struck with blindness the men who were at the door of the house, both small and great, so that they were unable to find the door.The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition (Washington, DC: National Council of Churches of Christ, 1993), Ge 19:1–11.
While Lot’s family and the two angels managed to escape the surrounding throng of the city’s inhabitants (v. 11), Jesus, in Matthew 27, did not. For “the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters, and they gathered the whole cohort around him.” The humiliation of Christ in the praetorium stands in provocative contrast to the deliverance of Lot’s family in Genesis.
Bonhoeffer writes that that the
love of God for the world does not withdraw from reality into noble souls detached from the world, but experiences and suffers the reality of the world at its worst. The world exhausts its rage on the body of Jesus Christ. But the martyred one forgives the world its sins. Thus reconciliation takes place. Ecce homo.Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, ed. Ilse Tödt et al., trans. Reinhard Krauss, Charles C. West, and Douglas W. Stott, vol. 6, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2005), 83.
Victims of sexual humiliation and abuse likewise receive the exhaustion of the rage of the world in their bodies. Living day by day with the stigma and scars of their crisis, they suffer with the crucified one who truly knows their pain in a direct, visceral, and experiential way.