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Toxic Theologies

Legitimising Sexual Violence: Contesting Toxic Theologies that Valorise Suffering as Redemptive

George Zachariah is a lay theologian of the Mar Thoma Church. He has been working as a theological educator for the last two decades in India and in other countries. Currently, he is serving Trinity Methodist Theological College as Wesley Lecturer in Theological Studies. In this article, George reflects on toxic atonement theologies that valorise suffering as redemptive. His theological perspectives are informed by his long-standing association with different social movements. He has published several articles and books on ecotheology, climate justice, and human sexuality, including Decolonizing Ecotheology: Indigenous and Subaltern Challenge (Wipf and Stock, 2022), coedited with Lily Mendoza.

George Zachariah

“I went to my pastor twenty years ago. I’ve been trying to follow his advice. The priest said, I should rejoice in my suffering because they bring me closer to Jesus. He said, ‘Jesus suffered because he loved us.’ He said, ‘If you love Jesus, accept the beatings and bear them gladly, as Jesus bore the cross.’ I’ve tried, but I’m not sure anymore. My husband is turning on the kids now. Tell me, is what the priest told me true?”[1]

“Go back to him… Learn how to adjust to his moods…don’t do anything that would provoke his anger…Christ suffered and died for you on the Cross…Can’t you bear some suffering too? This is the voice of the church—the words of a priest counseling a woman who was being battered by her husband every single day of her married life. She went to the church for refuge and for moral and spiritual support. What she received instead was advice to learn submissiveness and obedience in a distorted relationship and abusive marriage.”[2]

Sexual harm in general, and intimate violence in particular, are not just heinous crimes that some “bad people” commit out of lust and anger. These are eruptions of male privilege and heteropatriarchal notions of sexuality, internalized by both men and women, mediated through social institutions such as family, religion, media, and education. People internalize these hegemonic worldviews as “normal,” and “sacred” thanks to the theological legitimations provided by religious traditions through their scriptures, doctrines, ethics, and pastoral counseling.

Suffering, sacrifice, and selfless love are foundational to Christian faith and Christian living. Invoking the memory of the crucified Christ is always an invitation to imitate Christ by walking in the way of the cross. Paul’s call to participate in the suffering of Christ makes suffering a virtue and a sacred duty: “I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh, I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col. 1:24). In traditional Christian understanding, suffering that we undergo in our lives is intended by God, and we need to endure those sufferings as Christ did and sacrifice ourselves through selfless love for the glory of God. Any attempt to question and abstain from suffering is therefore considered as an expression of self-love, the desire of the flesh.

The quotes above from survivors of sexual harm expose the toxicity inherent in mainstream biblical, theological, and pastoral responses to intimate partner violence. These responses categorically proclaim that imposed torture and suffering are redemptive. They substantiate their arguments with the help of a distorted understanding of the Christ event and abusive interpretations of the Scripture. The dominant expressions of Christianity thus become an ideological apparatus of heteropatriarchy. Eradication of sexual harm and intimate partner violence from our faith communities thus require from us the courage and creativity to engage in counter-hegemonic biblical interpretations and doctrinal reformulations, informed by the body-mediated knowledges of survivors.  

The dominant expressions of Christianity thus become an ideological apparatus of heteropatriarchy.

Scriptural Legitimation of Sexual Harm

It is important here to explore how the Bible has been used to propagate the toxic valorisation of imposed suffering. Mel Gibson’s 2004 movie, The Passion of the Christ begins with Isaiah 53: 5: “But he was wounded for our transgression, crushed for our iniquities, upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruise we are healed.” Gibson then invites us to watch the last 12 hours of Jesus’ life in a highly graphic way. The gospel according to Mel Gibson proclaims that imposed torture is redemptive, and it is the bruises of that torure that heal us.

Here, it is important for us to understand the Isaiah text in its context. This text is part of four texts (42.1-4; 49.1-6; 50.4-11; 52.13-53.12) generally known as “servant songs.” The way Isaiah 53:5 has been interpreted by isolating it from its larger context and identifying Jesus as the servant is a highly disputed issue. That said, the early church identified Jesus as the servant (Acts 8.32-35; Phil 2. 6-11; 1 Pet 2. 22-25), and the Markan narratives of Jesus’ foretelling of his imminent death (Mk 8. 31; 9.30-32; 10; 33-34) have also been interpreted to ‘prove’ that Jesus was the servant figure in Isaiah. The original historical context of the text, however, indicates that the metaphor of the “servant” stands for Israel in exile. The question here is whether Jesus perceived his death as an atoning sacrifice. As we know, none of the gospels quote from the “servant songs” to interpret Jesus’ death as atoning sacrifice, and the quotations in Mathew (8.17; and 27.57-60) do not discuss atonement. So, we need to ponder how this theology of “a passive victim as the saviour of the world” emerged and dominated our understanding of salvation.

Atonement Theology and Legitimation of Sexual Harm

Atonement theology is central to the Christian faith, and Sunday after Sunday we celebrate the memory of the atoning sacrifice of Christ. But “What happens when violent realities are transubstantiated into spiritual teachings?” This pertinent question posed by Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker should invite us to critically engage with atonement theology in the context of intimate partner violence. According to Brock and Parker, “atonement theology takes an act of state violence and redefines it as intimate violence, a private spiritual transaction between God the Father and God the Son. Atonement theology then says that this intimate violence saves life. This redefinition replaces state violence with intimate violence and makes intimate violence holy and salvific.”[3] Atonement theology is thus lethal as it legitimizes terror and torture in the name of God.

Atonement theology is thus lethal as it legitimizes terror and torture in the name of God.

To understand the toxicity of atonement theology, we need to evaluate critically the atonement theories. The Christus Victor model is the first model of atonement to gain popularity in the early church. This objective model of atonement combines the motifs of ransom and victory. In the cosmic battle between God and Satan, Jesus died, but through his resurrection Satan was defeated. Human beings are in bondage to Satan, and Jesus is the ransom that is paid for our redemption.

Anselm of Canterbury developed the satisfaction model of atonement as a corrective to the Christus Victor model. Based on God’s justice, in order to forgive sin God needed satisfaction. Who can pay more than what was taken? Only God can pay such a price. But since the payer must be a human, God sent his son to pay the price. So, for Anselm, Jesus’ death was a divine plan to satisfy divine justice in order to save humanity. This theory not only argues that God requires a sacrifice for reconciliation, but also God derives satisfaction from sacrifice. Sacrifice is theologically prescribed here as a religious practice that tests the loyalty of the faithful. In the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac, sacrifice is valorised as an act of responsibility and selfless love.

The third model of atonement is known as the moral influence theory developed by Peter Abelard. This is a subjective model focused on human conversion toward God. Jesus’ death is the manifestation of God’s love for us, and hence his death leads us to conversion.

All these models of atonement focus on the objective reality of Jesus’ death on the cross as the salvific event. Such an understanding of atonement reduces the person and work of Jesus into the magical value of his blood and legitimizes and romanticizes imposed suffering and torture. This is precisely what we see in The Passion of the Christ. By portraying the graphic visuals of flogging and torture as redemptive, Gibson’s gospel becomes religious pornography. The movie provides spiritual pleasure by experiencing the redemption that we received through inflicting pain and torture on Jesus’ body. Atonement theology is sadomasochistic.

Atonement theology is sadomasochistic.

Meditations on the cross informed by atonement theology reiterate imposed suffering and torture as redemptive. Such a faith affirmation compels women to accept passively unjust wounds, hurts, and abuses inflicted on them by their husbands, fathers, lovers, and others. As Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker rightly observe,

“Christianity has been a primary—in many women’s lives the primary—force in shaping our acceptance of abuse. The central image of Christ on the cross as the savior of the world communicates the message that suffering is redemptive. …Divine child abuse is paraded as salvific and the child who suffers ‘without even raising a voice’ is lauded as the hope of the world. Those whose lives have been deeply shaped by the Christian tradition feel that self-sacrifice and obedience are not only virtues but the definition of a faithful identity.”[4]

Women who experience the violence of abuse in their homes come to the sanctuary of the Church in search of solace, comfort, courage, and empowerment. But instead they are indoctrinated by the Church to endure the violence as Christ has done on the cross. 

How do we theologically and pastorally engage with these sisters and mothers who have been brutally abused within the intimate Christian institution of family, and treacherously betrayed by the church? Can our theology and pastoral care provide them healing and wholeness?  How can we promise them healing when our central message is the glorification and valorization of self-sacrifice and imposed torture?

“Christian theology presents Jesus as the model of self-sacrificing love and persuades us to believe that sexism is divinely sanctioned. We are tied to the virtue of self-sacrifice, often by hidden social threats of punishment. We keep silent about rape, we deny when we are being abused, and we allow our lives to be consumed by the trivial and by our preoccupation with others. We never claim our lives as our own. We live as though we were not present in our bodies.”[5]

Women and other marginalized communities have contested the Christology of atonement theologies that romanticize sacrifice and suffering. For Rosemary Radford Reuther, Jesus’s vocation was not “to suffer and die.” Rather, “redemption happens through resistance to the sway of evil, and in the experiences of conversion and healing by which communities of well-being are created.”[6] According to Carter Heyward, “We need to say no to a tradition of violent punishment and to a God who would crucify…an innocent brother in our place—rather than hang with us, struggle with us, and grieve with us….Jesus’s mission was not to die but to live.”[7] In other words, the Christ event does not invite women to suffer willingly for anyone’s sake. Rather, the Christ event challenges women to struggle together against the injustice of all human sacrifice, including their own.

What is the theological significance of the tortured and mutilated bodies of victims and survivors of sexual harm as we strive together to create a world devoid of ideologies and practices of domination, exclusion and violence? Dangerous memories, according to Johann Baptist Metz, are “memories which make demands on us. These are memories in which earlier experiences break through to the center-point of our lives and reveal new and dangerous insights for the present.”[8] Dangerous memories are subversive memories. Remembrance of those who have been abused is thus a political, spiritual, and subversive practice, inviting and inspiring us to engage in active resistance against all manifestations of sexual harm and their theological legitimations.

Mark Lewis Taylor’s concept of “anamnestic solidarity” of the victims is instructive here. Anamnestic solidarity, “as a remembrance of the dead constitutes an effect of the dead in the present that re-members, re-constitutes, living communities.”[9] For Taylor, this solidarity with the dead and the tortured affirms that they are co-present in our contemporary struggles for survival and dignity. Their co-presence strengthens those who experience sexual harm today and fight against it. The Eucharist can be understood as an anamnestic celebration of solidarity, which we practise in remembrance of the tortured and abused One. Remembrance of these dangerous memories is a celebration for all who undergo abuse and torture because “every rebellion against suffering is fed by the subversive power of remembered suffering.”[10] The meaning of history lies in the remembrance of those who are crushed by toxic ideologies and social practices. Remembrance of their dangerous memories “anticipates the future as a future of those who are oppressed, without hope and doomed to fail. It is therefore a dangerous and at the same time liberating memory that questions the present,”[11] and empowers all who are destined to live under regimes of abusive power to reclaim their agency and become midwives of a new utopia of hope.        


[1] Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker, Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves us, Boston: Beacon Press, 2001, 21.

[2] Aruna Gnanadason, No Longer a Secret: The Church and Violence against Women, Geneva: WCC Publications, 1993, 1

[3] Brock and Parker. Proverbs of Ashes,

[4] Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker: “For God So Loved the World?” in Violence against Women and Children: A Christian Theological Source Book, ed., Carol J. Adams and Marie M. Fortune, New York: Continuum, 1998, 37.

[5] Brock and Parker. Proverbs of Ashes, 36.

[6] Rosemary Radford Reuther, Introducing Redemption in Christian Feminism (Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998), 104–105.Cited in Weaver, Nonviolent Atonement, 125.

[7] Carter Heyward, Saving Jesus from Those Who Are Right: Rethinking What It Means to Be Christian (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999), 175.

[8] Johann Baptist Metz, Faith in History and Society: Toward a Practical Fundamental Theology, New York: A Crossroad Book, 1980, 109.

[9] [9] Mark Lewis Taylor, The Theological and the Political: On the Weight of the World, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011, 203.

[10] Metz. Faith in History and Society, 110.

[11] Ibid., 90.

Image: “The Passion of the Christ” by six steps  Alex S. Leung is marked with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. To view the terms, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd-nc/2.0/jp/?ref=openverse

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