When Did We See You Naked? Jesus as a Victim of Sexual Abuse, edited by Jayme R. Reaves, David Tombs and Rocío Figueroa (London: SCM Press, 2021).

In recent years, the #MeToo movement and its counterpart #ChurchToo have helped to expose an epidemic of sexual abuse in Christian churches and institutions. Regardless of denomination, churches have overwhelmingly tended to harbour and protect perpetrators of sexual violence, while simultaneously dismissing, silencing, and shunning survivors. Thankfully, this urgent issue is starting to garner more attention in Christian scholarship and publishing: #ChurchToo by Emily Joy Allison, Redeeming Power by Diane Langberg, A Church Called Tov by Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer, Something’s Not Right by Wade Mullen, and Touched by Shanell T. Smith are all noteworthy titles that have been released in the past year and a half.

When Did We See You Naked? Jesus as a Victim of Sexual Abuse offers a truly unique and valuable scholarly contribution to this emerging literature. David Tombs’ groundbreaking work on sexual abuse depicted in the accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion acts as the cornerstone for the volume, and an abridged version of Tombs’ 1999 article “Crucifixion, State Terror, and Sexual Abuse” is included. In this essay, Tombs reads the crucifixion narratives in light of both historical information about Roman crucifixion practices and contemporary analyses of the use of sexual humiliation as a form of state terror. The Gospel writers tell us that Jesus was stripped naked publicly, a form of sexual abuse by any standards. It is also possible, if not likely, that he suffered further abuse at the hands of the Roman soldiers who stripped him. Building from this basic premise, the other contributors to the volume explore what it might mean to understand Jesus as having experienced sexual abuse.

The book is divided into four sections. The first section is comprised of studies of relevant biblical texts, not only the passion narratives in the Gospels, but also a study of humiliation in the Pauline epistles, an intertextual reading of the rape of Tamar with the crucifixion accounts, and so on. A gorgeous set of Stations of the Cross poems by Pádraig Ó Tuama (part two) acts as a hinge to parts three and four, which focus on contextual analyses of the idea of Jesus as a survivor of sexual abuse (part three) and its potential meanings for survivors (part four). These categories break down somewhat, as all four parts incorporate reflections on the biblical text with considerations of how the text is received contextually and its potential impact on survivors. A particular strength of the volume is the diversity of contexts from which the contributors write; at least eleven different countries are represented, and a number of the scholars are persons of colour. Also significant is that a number of contributors identify themselves as survivors of sexual abuse.   

In their introduction, the editors note that many people feel “resistance” (2) to the idea of Jesus as a victim of sexual abuse. Rather than shutting down these feelings, the editors invite us to thoughtfully examine whatever resistance we might feel, as the “[u]nspoken reasons behind the reluctance to notice and name Jesus’ experience as sexual abuse need to be recognized” (3). Writing from her experience of working with sexual violence survivors in a variety of countries in Africa and South America, Elisabet Le Roux comments, “Sexual violence and survivors are vilified to such an extent that seeing Jesus as a survivor can be perceived as the ultimate blasphemy” (187). Throughout the volume, contributors consider whether recognizing Jesus’ experiences as sexual abuse might not help to uncover and challenge the stigma and victim-blaming that are so often placed on survivors of sexual abuse, and, indeed, the editors identify “stigma and shame” as “one of the central concerns” of the book (3). In the final essay of the volume, Rocío Figueroa and David Tombs describe a survivor who, encountering the idea of Jesus as a fellow survivor of sexual violence for the first time, comments, “Seeing his innocence, I see my innocence” (290). Victim-blaming, stigma, and shame might be helpfully countered by acknowledging Jesus’ experiences of sexual abuse as such.

Yet the volume is also attentive to the differing ways that survivors of sexual abuse might receive and respond to this idea, recognizing that it will not be a healing or helpful notion for all and that it carries risks of misuse. In a powerful essay, womanist scholar Shanell T. Smith considers Jesus’ experiences through the lens of her own sexual abuse, saying, “I cannot look to Jesus in this regard. I do not want to ‘see’ him on the way to the cross. It is triggering for me. It causes me to remember” (280). Mitzi J. Smith, also a womanist scholar identifying herself from the outset as a survivor of sexual violence, interrogates the harm caused when traditions of a silently suffering Jesus are held up as normative in order to discourage survivors of sexual violence from speaking out. She challenges this tradition, arguing that the Gospel accounts themselves do not depict Jesus as silent, and closes her essay with the compelling statement, “I am a survivor. And Jesus would say, #MeToo” (61).  

In the struggle to make our churches and institutions safer spaces, recognizing that the one we worship is himself a survivor of sexual abuse may help to expose and challenge harmful attitudes to survivors. Alluding in its title to the well-known passage about “the sheep and the goats” in Matthew 25, When Did We See You Naked? powerfully reminds us that our response to Jesus is inextricably linked with our response to contemporary survivors of sexual violence. Wherever two or three are gathered together in the name of Jesus, there is a survivor of sexual abuse in the midst of them. This volume thoughtfully and carefully examines the ramifications of that truth.

2 thoughts

    1. Thanks, Ada! It definitely is a challenging and sensitive subject. I didn’t really touch on this in the review, but this book is careful not to assume more than we can know from the biblical text. It focuses on careful study of the Gospel texts that refer to Jesus being stripped, as well as historical and contextual study of sexual humiliation as a component of crucifixion. I just thought I would mention that, as the risk of wild conjectures seems to be a concern in the blog post you refer to, and When Did We See You Naked? is careful not to fall into that.

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