It is the start of Lent, a time when Christians reflect on the upcoming Passion of Jesus. Jesus is held up as an example of steadfastness in the face of oppression by malevolent forces. He shows strength through his silence, approaching his suffering willingly.
Throughout the ongoing #MeToo movement Jesus has been invoked by Christian communities as a co-sufferer and promoted as a model for redemptive suffering, particularly in the face of abuse. But is Jesus’s silence a troubling model for victims of sexual assault?
One of the hallmarks of Jesus’s portrayal in popular culture is his silence in the face of Pontius Pilate’s interrogation. This image of silence comes from the three Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke’s versions of Jesus’s trial.
When Jesus does speak, his words are brief, cryptic, and taken from the Gospel of John rather than the other three, where Jesus’s silence is emphasised.
In Matthew and in Mark, the entire trial scene takes place in four verses; in Luke, where there is slightly more input from “the multitudes” as well as a second trial in front of Herod, we are done in eight verses. Even so, in these gospels, Jesus makes no answer to the charges laid against him.
It’s likely that Matthew, Mark and Luke’s versions depict Jesus’s silence as a way of characterising him as the “Suffering Servant” of Isaiah 53:7. In each case, whether in these gospels or in Isaiah, the image portrayed is one of virtue in silence, and of a pious sacrifice in the face of an unjust world. It is that silence that ultimately kills him.
This contrasts with John’s depiction of the same scene, which takes place over ten verses, more than double the amount of text devoted to the trial in Mark and Matthew’s versions. In John, Jesus is clear about who he is and makes a direct response to accusations; he also corrects Pilate’s misunderstanding about his true identity. This is part of Jesus’ plan – he is clear about his death being the will of God his Father.
But whether he is silent as in Mark or whether he speaks in his own defence as in John, Jesus is sentenced to death and crucified. The end result – suffering, pain, and death – is the same.
Parallels have been drawn between Jesus’s response to his abuse during the Passion and the #MeToo movement. Not least because, like Jesus, the victims of Harvey Weinstein’s alleged abuse have been condemned whether they’ve spoken out or remained silent.
While the torture and crucifixion of Jesus in the Bible is widely accepted, the idea that his abuse included sexual assault is a less established aspect of the Passion narrative.
The work of David Tombs at the University of Otago shows that Jesus’s torture included a sexual element. According to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is stripped three times and his nakedness is part of his humiliation. Similarly, biblical scholar Wil Gafney has suggested that the crucifixion of Jesus is a form of sexual assault:
I consider … the full range of torture and humiliation to which Jesus of Nazareth was subjected, physical and sexual. The latter is so traumatising for the Church that we have covered it up – literally – covering Jesus’ genitals on our crucifixes … The mocking, taunting, forced stripping of Jesus was a sexual assault. He was, as so many of us are – women and men, children and adult – vulnerable to those who used physical force against him in whatever way they chose.
A troubling model of suffering
The more deeply the cross penetrates, the better; the more deprived of consolation that your suffering is, the purer it will be; the more creatures oppose us, the more closely shall we be united to God.
Silence in the face of abuse, sexual assault and violence, then, becomes glorified and dignified. Some Christian communities have recognised the problems in constructing silence in the face of abuse as virtuous and have taken steps to challenge it.
But the backlash to these hashtags, which promote the voices of those who’ve experienced sexual abuse and violence, has included some more troubling connections between Jesus and the #MeToo movement. Some social media commentators have presented Jesus as the perpetrator of sexual assault rather than as the victim.
By using sexual assault as a metaphor for Christ taking Christians by force, penetrating their sin with his righteousness, this view presents Jesus as a perpetrator of sexual assault, undermining the experience of survivors and victims of sexual violence and suggesting that sexual assault might be a potentially positive (or even necessary) experience.
The virtue of speaking out
The reaction to Jesus’s silence as well as his self-advocacy presents a troubling model for those who view Jesus as an exemplary victim of abuse, since both silence and speaking out lead to further pain and violence.