Should the stripping of Jesus be labelled sexual abuse?

A  #MeToo sign outside the Gustavus Adolphus Church in New York City. Photo: Supplied
A #MeToo sign outside the Gustavus Adolphus Church in New York City. Photo: Supplied
The Christian season of Lent began this week, writes David Tombs.

Starting on Ash Wednesday, and ending on Maundy Thursday, the weeks ahead offer Christians a period of 40  days (not counting Sundays) for preparation before Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday. During this time, churches find ways to remember Christ’s life and reflect on his death and resurrection. One of the events I am looking forward to during Lent this year is an opportunity to offer a Lenten lecture "When Did We See You Naked?" at St Paul’s Cathedral in Wellington.

The lecture will be an opportunity to address a theme  I have been working on for many years, but will approach in a new way in light of the #MeToo movement, which highlights the rise of sexual assault and harassment. #MeToo has made us more aware than ever of the prevalence of sexual assault and sexual abuses against women and girls in many different forms. The movement has raised important questions for the churches, and prompted a #ChurchToo discussion. The lecture title echoes a verse in Matthew 25, where the question ‘When did we see you naked?’ is asked of Jesus in the context of a parable. In the parable, Jesus takes the role of a king standing in judgement. The point of the parable is that the way people respond to Jesus cannot be separated from how they respond to other people, especially other people who are weak and vulnerable.

The most obvious reading of these verses in Matthew 25 is that it is other people who are seen to be naked, or hungry, or thirsty, or as strangers, not Jesus himself.

Jesus uses the parable to identify himself with the naked who need clothing, even though he himself has clothing. However, what makes this question especially significant is that this will change in Matthew 27. One of the most overlooked details of the crucifixion story is that Jesus himself is stripped and exposed naked. In fact, a careful reading of Matthew 27 suggests  Jesus was stripped three times. Or in the version presented by Mark, Mark is stripped three times in just nine verses (Mark 15.16-24).

Even though humiliating a captive in this way was a common Roman practice, it is very easy to pass over this part of the Easter story without noticing these moments. This part of Jesus’ suffering is rarely acknowledged, and its relationship to restoration and resurrection is never addressed.

The stripping and exposure of victims was not an accidental or incidental part of Roman crucifixion. It was a very deliberate action  the Romans used to humiliate and degrade those they wished to punish. It meant that the crucifixion was more than just physical punishment, it was also psychological punishment.

The idea that Jesus himself experienced sexual abuse may seem strange or shocking at first. Some might even see it as an offensive suggestion. The convention in Christian art of covering Christ’s nakedness on the cross with a loincloth is an understandable and appropriate response to the indignity of Roman crucifixion. It is what Jesus himself invites in Matthew 25. But this should not prevent us from recognising that the historical reality would have been very different. This is not just a matter of correcting 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 wider society. This could contribute significantly to positive change in New Zealand, and could be even more important in countries where the majority of people identify as Christian.

Some sceptics might respond that stripping a prisoner might be a form of abuse, but it is misleading to call this sexual abuse. But if the purpose was to humiliate the captive and expose him to mockery by others, and if the stripping is done against his will and as a way to shame him in public, then calling  it  a form of sexual assault or sexual abuse seems entirely appropriate.

It might not be helpful to dwell on this disturbing indignity for the whole year, but it is not right to forget about it completely either. Lent offers a period in which this stark reality of crucifixion might be recalled at an appropriate time, and in an appropriate way, and connected to the important questions  movements like #MeToo are raising for the churches and for wider society.

- Prof David Tombs is Howard Paterson Chair for Theology and Public Issues at the University of Otago.


Sexual abuse is about Power; The Romans, the patriarchy and masculine culture.