On Good Friday, before Jesus Christ was crucified, the Romans stripped him naked (or at least nearly naked) in order to disgrace him. Two scholars claim that this act constitutes sexual abuse or sexual violence, and fits under the purview of the #MeToo movement.
“It seems especially appropriate to recall the stripping of Jesus — and to name it for what it was intended to be: a powerful display of humiliation and gender-based violence, which should be acknowledged as an act of sexual violence and abuse,” two scholars wrote for The Conversation.
Katie Edwards, director at the University of Sheffield’s Sheffield Institute for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies in Britain, and David Tombs, Howard Paterson chair of theology and public issues at the University of Otago in New Zealand, argued that modern gender conventions make it hard to understand the stripping of Jesus in its historic humiliating nature.
“The idea that Jesus himself experienced sexual abuse may seem strange or shocking at first, but crucifixion was a ‘supreme punishment’ and the stripping and exposure of victims was not an accidental or incidental element,” the scholars argued. “It was a deliberate action that the Romans used to humiliate and degrade those they wished to punish. It meant that the crucifixion was more than just physical, it was also a devastating emotional and psychological punishment.”
Edwards and Tombs pointed to the humiliation of Vercingetorix, king of the Arverni, as an example of the Roman practice of sexual abuse in humiliating the conquered. The HBO series Rome portrayed the historic humiliation well.
“The scene highlights the vulnerability of the naked prisoner who is stripped and exposed in front of the assembled ranks of hostile Roman soldiers,” they wrote. “The power and control of Roman power is contrasted with the vulnerability and forced submission of the prisoner.”
This is indeed a sexualized power dynamic familiar to the #MeToo stories of sexual assault. The allegations against actor Kevin Spacey — who has been accused of abusing younger men — suggest that sexual assault can indeed be perpetrated against men.
At the same time, many might chafe at the idea that Christ was a victim of sexual assault. The scholars even pointed to a Twitter user named Alex Bickel, who argued that such a claim is “insulting and demeaning to all Christians” and constitutes an attempt to “feminize Christ.”
There is 0 biblical or historocal evidence of Jesus beinf a victim of sexual assault. This is insulting and demeaning to all Christians. Instead of trying to feminize Christ, why not highlight his efforts to foster a lasting role for women in the church?
— AB (@AlexBickel16) December 19, 2017
“Jesus’ gender is central to readers’ seeming unwillingness to recognise the sexual abuse to which he is subjected,” Edwards and Tombs wrote. “Analysis of the gendering of nakedness by Margaret R. Miles demonstrates that we view male and female nakedness differently. In biblical art in the Christian West, Miles argues that the naked male body represents glorious athleticism representing spiritual as well as physical suffering.”
“Sexual abuse doesn’t form part of the narrative of masculinity inherent in representations of Jesus. Naked women, however, are immediately identified as sexual objects. Seeing a woman being forcibly stripped, then, might be more recognisable as sexual abuse than the stripping of Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark,” the scholars argued. “If Christ was a female figure we wouldn’t hesitate to recognise her ordeal as sexual abuse.”
Even from the context of Christian theology, the scholars are correct. Christians consider the Crucifixion of Christ to be a truly horrific act — nothing less than the execution of God by excruciating and humiliating means. More than that, they consider Jesus to have paid the penalty for all human sin — a penalty that involved suffering in every way that it is possible for humans to suffer.
In dying on the cross, Jesus suffered humiliation, pain, separation from other people, and separation from God the Father Himself. In doing so, He dignified every ounce of human pain felt by those who believe in Him. In a real sense, Christ felt each person’s pain upon the cross.
“Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted,” wrote the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 53:4).
Perhaps no prophecy captures the various kinds of agony Jesus felt on the cross more than Psalm 22. “Dogs surround me, a pack of villains encircles me; they pierce my hands and my feet. All my bones are on display; people stare and gloat over me. They divide my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment,” the Psalmist wrote (Psalm 22:16-18).
Jesus was stripped, and even if He wore a loincloth on the cross (a point of historical debate which Edwards and Tombs reject), he was subjected to humiliation and mockery.
Matthew 27 and Mark 15 record the events of this humiliation: He was stripped, Romans cast lots to see who would take home Jesus’ clothing, He was offered sour wine (a contrast to the joy of sweet wine Jesus provided at Cana), He was mockingly dubbed “King of the Jews,” He was crucified along with two rebels, and all kinds of people mocked him.
Matthew 27:43 records that some mocked Jesus in the very words of Psalm 22:8, “He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.'”
Jesus even felt an alienation that should be impossible. Christians consider Christ to be one with God the Father, part of the Trinity — one Substance but three Persons. Jesus’s close relationship with God the Father runs throughout the Gospels, as Christ goes away to pray frequently, and He emphasizes His oneness with the Father (John 17). On Golgotha, the very nature of God was ripped apart.
Some might think it offensive to suggest Jesus suffered sexual assault from the Romans during His crucifixion, but Christians should not object to this idea. Indeed, St. Paul in Philippians 2 emphasized Jesus’ humility in “becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” Due to this great humility, God the Father “highly exalted him, giving him the name that is above all names, so that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
It is no insult to say that Jesus died a humiliating death, and that part of that utter humiliation was to be stripped bare, so that the prophecy “all my bones are on display” might be fulfilled in Jesus. (Mel Gibson’s film “The Passion of the Christ,” whatever its flaws, portrays this idea flawlessly — and it is quite gruesome.)
Jesus suffered sexual assault, and all those victims of sexual assault today — male or female — can take comfort in knowing that God Himself knows their pain. Jesus was not raped or fondled, but He was stripped bare and then exposed for all to see, even as He died in a way so painful the very meaning of the English word “excruciating” derives from the pain “of the cross.”
Edwards and Tombs argued that identifying Jesus as a #MeToo victim “is not just a matter of combatting the historical record. If Jesus is named as a victim of sexual abuse it could make a huge difference to how the churches engage with movements like #MeToo, and how they promote change in a wider society.”
Indeed, Jesus’ humiliating death should make all Christians sensitive to the pains of the oppressed and victims everywhere. The difficulty with connecting it to #MeToo isn’t that Jesus wasn’t sexually abused, but that when someone comes forth with unproven allegations, those allegations need to be tested. Jesus’ abuse is a matter of historical record, and while allegations should be taken seriously, they also require proof.