Arguments for Easter: The cross must be a reproach to victim culture
Jesus might be seen as the perfect hero for an age obsessed with rape, sexual abuse and violence. But only by those who miss something vital, insists Angela Tilby
Friday 10 April 1998
The liturgy of Good Friday plays on the emotions, reminding us of breachings both suffered and inflicted. It is right that abused and abusers see some mirroring of their plight in the tortured Jesus. Yet there is also a problem with this so contemporary identification. The study of abuse shows that many victims become abusers themselves. Others are left with a habit of suffering which they use to exercise control over others. Of course, there is no moral parity between abuser and victim, but part of the horror of abuse is the way the victim experiences defilement, as though the perpetrator's guilt has become their own.
If the figure on the cross is perceived primarily as a victim, the contemplation of the cross becomes no more than a morbid exercise; a stirring up of shame and indignation without resolution. Nothing is restored or re-established; there is neither atonement for the sins of the body, nor cleansing for the brutalised soul.
Those whose natural boundaries have been breached sometimes have great difficult in establishing safe boundaries in subsequent relationships. There will always be an excess of need, a lack which no amount of security or affection can make up.
Christian devotion also can let the sufferings of Jesus manipulate our hearts to an excess of guilt. In the Reproaches of the Good Friday liturgy God speaks as our victim:
O my people, what have I done unto thee, or wherein have I wearied thee? . . . Because I brought thee forth from the land of Egypt thou preparedst a cross for thy saviour.
The working up of guilt on Good Friday is related to the Christian tendency to make cruel demands on human bodies and souls. If there are no boundaries in the sufferings of the cross, how can there be any limits to our response? Does the passion displayed there not "demand my soul, my life, my all"? And if that is so, if this body has been breached, for me, how can I withold my body - or yours - from neglect or torture in the service of the crucified?
The Good Friday liturgy intersperses the Reproaches with the ancient acclamation: "Holy God, Holy and strong, Holy and immortal, have mercy on us."
In the fifth century the habit grew up among Christians of the East of adding the words "crucified for us" before the final phrase. This caused controversy as many believed it was crucially important to maintain a strict distinction between the human and the divine natures in the one Christ. For them, the claim that the holy and immortal one was crucified for us was a paradox too far.
If there is hope in the breached body of Jesus it must be in the capacity of that body to open the horizons of divinity. The breached body can only heal if it is the body of the Word of God which holds all things in existence, establishing the boundaries of created being.
The saving power of the cross is that the body of Jesus comes between the abuser and the victim, absorbing both the uncontrolled invasiveness of the one while holding together the fractured self of the other so that there is a chance of restoration. Here is both judgement and mercy; a woundedness which has no limits joined to a powerfulness that has no end.
The cross need not be seen as a glorification of victimhood. Its consequences are a judgement on the abuser, an exorcism of repeated pain, and a re-establishment of proper human boundaries of respect.
The intimacy of relationship between our driven, vulnerable bodies and that of the crucified Lord implied by some of the old devotions is almost unbearable. And yet I know of no words which speak to the condition of the abuser and the victim within myself with such clarity as the rarely used words from the Holy Communion Service in the Book of Common Prayer:
Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body and our souls washed through his most precious blood and that we may ever more dwell in him and he in us.
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