Today’s post is by David Tombs, who is lay Anglican theologian and the Howard Paterson Chair Professor of Theology and Public Issues at the University of Otago, Aotearoa New Zealand. His work draws on liberation and contextual theologies to address public issues. His publications include When Did We See You Naked?’: Jesus as a Victim of Sexual Abuse co-edited with Jayme Reaves and Rocío Figueroa (SCM 2021), see here.
A strip search at a secondary school in Hackney in December 2020, the experience of an individual child (known as Child Q), and a system that permitted it to happen, have in recent weeks become the focus for widespread commentary. The strip search of a Black female child (aged just 15 in 2020) by two police officers in a school medical room without a parent, guardian or other support person present is a disturbing incident. It provides a troubling window into systemic inequalities of race, gender and age.
The City and Hackney Safeguarding Children Partnership (CHSCP) report released on 14 March 2022 includes the finding that racism ‘likely’ contributed to the decision to strip search Child Q. This finding is supported by the statistics on ‘further searches,’ the term used to cover different forms of strip searches by police.
The report describes two different types of strip search that are outlined under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) 1984. The first is referred to as a ‘more thorough search.’ This involves removal of clothing beyond external clothing: for example, the removal of a T-shirt, rather than only a jacket, hat, or gloves. The second, and the type of search that was wrongfully conducted on Child Q, is yet more intrusive and involves exposure of intimate body parts. This can include the removal of all clothing and a requirement on the person being stripped to bend over and spread their legs.
The report notes that during 2020/2021, there were 299 further searches conducted in Hackney. Over this period, ‘25 children under the age of 18 were subject of further searches. 19 were male and 18 were handcuffed during the process.’ Of these 25 searches, 15 involved Black children (60%), and 22 (88%) did not find anything illegal (e.g. weapons or drugs).
As Diana Abbot MP explains, the finding that racism was a factor should be clear already from the statistics. The events surrounding Child Q, therefore, require attention to a longer and sustained history and to a wider systemic context (see here). A recent freedom of information request made by Tom Kemp of Nottingham University, shows that for the period 2016-2021 the Metropolitan Police conducted over 170,000 strip searches. About one third of individuals searched were Black. There were about 9,000 strip searches of children, including over 2,000 searches of children under 16 (see here).
The Child Q case should not be viewed in isolation but in the context of systemic issues and inequalities. Concerns over the misuse of strip searches are not new. In 2014, The Guardian reported that from 2008 to 2013 more than 4,500 children, some as young as 10, were strip searched by members of the Metropolitan Police. In January 2015, a group of advocates for children’s rights wrote a joint letter to The Guardian which described strip searches as ‘humiliating, degrading, and frightening,’ calling on the government to launch an urgent review, to ensure that,
“… children are only strip-searched at the police station as a last resort and that when this happens it is subject to proper safeguarding and child protection measures, such as making sure a child’s parent or another appropriate adult is present. These changes are vital to protecting children’s human rights to be kept safe from harm” (see here).
This blog post discusses the Child Q safeguarding report in the light of the work of Motswana womanist biblical scholar Mmapula Kebaneilwe. Kebaneilwe discusses the forced stripping of a young woman at a taxi rank in Botswana in her recently published chapter ‘Jesus as a Victim of Sexual Abuse: A Womanist Critical Discourse Analysis of the Crucifixion.’ The chapter is found in the book When Did We See You Naked? Jesus as a Victim of Sexual Abuse (see here). Kebaneilwe’s approach is to examine the stripping of the young woman alongside the stripping of Jesus as told in the Gospel of Matthew. While these two contexts are very different from each other, she notes some common themes which can help to give a better understanding of both events. Following Kebaneilwe’s example, the final part of this post explores whether the disturbing events in Hackney might also offer useful insights for thinking about the stripping of Jesus.
One of the key findings in the safeguarding report is that the school should have ensured that Child Q had an appropriate adult with her in the room. The teachers should have been more curious about what might happen and should have ensured that Child Q was protected. I suggest that the reluctance—or readiness—to ‘step into the room’ is a helpful metaphor from the Child Q case for thinking about how the stripping of Jesus is read. The safeguarding failure in the Child Q case suggests how readers might approach the biblical passage with more curiosity for what might be happening within the praetorium. Readers should be willing to step, metaphorically, into the room to see what is going on.
The Strip Searching of Child Q
The school girl who was searched is referred to throughout the CHSCP report as ‘Child Q’ to preserve her anonymity. There are still some details that are unclear and/or contested. The outcome of a complaint to the Independent Office for Police Conduct is expected soon and should offer further information. However, the CHSCP report is clear in its conclusion that the search should not have happened and that ‘racism (whether deliberate or not) was likely to have been an influencing factor in the decision to undertake a strip search.’
On the day concerned, Child Q was due to take a mock exam. However, teachers at the school believed that Child Q smelled of cannabis and suspected that she might be carrying drugs. Child Q denied taking or possessing cannabis and school staff searched her bag, blazer, scarf and shoes. When they did not find anything, they consulted the Safer Schools Officer and were advised to ask for a female police officer to attend the school.
Two police officers came to the school (one male and one female) and were joined by an additional two officers (also one male and one female) a short time later. Following discussion between the police and the teacher(s), Child Q was taken to the school medical room and strip searched by the two female officers. Her mother was not contacted and so neither she, nor any other appropriate adult was present. While the search took place, the teacher(s) remained outside the room.
The search of Child Q involved the removal of all of her clothing, including her underwear, even though she was known to be menstruating. To check whether she was hiding anything, she was told to bend over, use her hands to spread her buttocks, and cough. She was also required to remove her sanitary towel. No drugs were found. After the search, Child Q was told to go back to continue with her exam. She said she requested permission to go first to a cloakroom to change her sanitary towel, but this was refused.
When Child Q got home, she told her mother what had happened. Because Child Q was so distressed, her mother took her to the family GP, who in turn referred her for psychological support through Hackney Children and Families Services (Hackney CFS). The City and Hackney Safeguarding Children Partnership (CHSCP) became aware of the case, and believed that the incident raised such serious safeguarding issues that it warranted a Rapid Review. The CHSCP Rapid Review report was initiated in early 2021 and the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel was notified. However, the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel apparently advised:
‘We noted your decision to carry out a local child safeguarding practice review (LCSPR) but would encourage you to think carefully about whether one is necessary as we felt that this case was not notifiable and did not meet the criteria for an LCSPR.’
Despite this advice, the CHSCP decided a local review was warranted. This took testimony from Child Q’s mother and her aunt on the traumatic impact of the event and the changes they saw in Child Q’s confidence, wellbeing and behaviour. It also included powerful testimony on her experience from Child Q herself.
The report raises many disturbing questions about both the treatment of Child Q and the wider use of strip searches by the Metropolitan Police. (For fuller analysis, see here.) A key finding in the report on the individual case is that teachers should have been more assertive in asking what the police intended to do and that, if indeed any legitimate reason had been ascertained, an appropriate adult should have been present during any strip search.
The report judged that the initial search of Child Q by staff was appropriate and showed ‘good curiosity’ on safeguarding in response to a potential indicator of risk (Finding 1). However, the decision to follow up the initial search with a strip search ‘was insufficiently attuned to her best interests or right to privacy.’ The school have said they were not aware of what the police officers planned to do (see here). The report accepts that the decision to undertake the more intimate form of strip search was a choice made by the police. However, it also concludes that teachers presumably expected some form of further search to take place and had contacted the police for this reason. It therefore faulted the school, because: ‘School staff deferred to the authority of the police on their arrival at school. They should have been more challenging to the police, seeking clarity about the actions they intended to take’ (Finding 3). It concludes ‘School staff had an insufficient focus on the safeguarding needs of Child Q when responding to concerns about suspected drug use’ (Finding 4). That is, if the teachers showed ‘good curiosity’ about the smell of cannabis, they failed to show adequate curiosity about how Child Q would be treated by police in the medical room. They should have done more to understand what was intended and what it involved. Instead, they accepted that their role was to stay on the outside of a closed door. Regardless of who suggested this arrangement, this failure to ensure an appropriate adult was present for a strip search was a serious failing in the school’s safeguarding duty. A member of the staff told the review, ‘In hindsight I put my trust in the law; I know now that I need to understand the law better… For example, insisting on staying with a student at all times…’.
When the report was released it attracted national media attention and prompted outrage and protest from the local community. A public demonstration included a protest march from Stoke Newington police station to Hackney Town Hall. The organisation Sistah Space, a community organisation offering support to African heritage women and girls who experience domestic abuse, described the strip search as a ‘sexual assault.’ Other commentators pointed to the humiliation associated with a strip search and suggested that a willingness to humiliate Black people was a feature of the racism involved. Other commentators pointed to the ‘adultification’ of Black teenagers and to the readiness of police to treat Black minors as adults rather than children.
Child Q’s family are suing both the school and the police. The school acknowledged failure to safeguard Child Q and apologised. The police say the search should ‘never have happened’, and have apologised to Child Q, describing the search as ‘truly regrettable.’
The Stripping of Women in Botswana
Mmapula Kebaneilwe’s context as a womanist theologian and biblical scholar in Botswana is very different to that of a school in Hackney, but her work can offer insight into the treatment of Child Q, especially on the humiliation of a forced stripping.
Kebaneilwe notes that statistics gathered by The Gender-Based Violence (GBV) Indicator Study: Botswana (2012), indicate that almost 70% of women in Botswana experience gender-based violence in their lifetime. Turning from the systemic to the more specific, Kebaneilwe then focusses attention on the forced public stripping of a young woman at a bus rank in Gaborone in 2017, which was reported in the English-language national newspaper Mmegi:
One Sunday, a young woman was stripped naked at the Gaborone Bus Rank by what appeared to be a crazed group of adult men old enough to be her father. She was insulted and mocked. Not a single member of the mob tried to protect the young woman. Not even the women who were clearly in the midst. They too laughed and apparently encouraged others to abuse the girl.
A video of the incident subsequently circulated on social media and was widely viewed and commented upon, with some comments criticising the mob and others criticising the victim. The newspaper cited similar previous incidents at taxi ranks in Zimbabwe and South Africa.
Kebaneilwe discusses the gendered power dynamics at play in this event. In keeping with the wider theme of the book in which her chapter features, Kebaneilwe then turns to the stripping of Jesus at the crucifixion, as depicted in Matthew 27:32-56, and asks how the stripping at the bus rank might offer new insight into the biblical text and vice-versa. She makes four astute connections between the two events, which can be summarised briefly.
First, she notes that the use of force, and threat of further force, is clear in both cases. This involves both domination and intimidation. The abusers’ initial display of force both allows them to carry out the violence involved and presents an intimidating threat of further violence should the victim resist.
Second, in both cases, the victim is falsely accused and blamed for provoking the violence used against them. In both cases, this victim-blaming is connected to a sense that the victim has offended against those in power and should therefore be made an example of, so that others might be taught a lesson.
Third, both cases of stripping involve a display of power over someone in a vulnerable situation and the stripping reinforces their vulnerability. The stripping off of clothing is at the same time a stripping off of dignity and an extension of enforced vulnerability.
Fourth, the impact of stripping is psychological not just physical. In both cases the physical act of stripping is linked to verbal insults and mockery. The threats and mockery increase the humiliation and reinforce the element of threat.
Kebaneilwe is well aware that hers is an unusual approach to the biblical text. Giving attention to the stripping of Jesus, and making connections to the stripping of young woman in contemporary Botswana, is likely to offend some in the churches. However, Kebaneilwe argues that there is some positive, even liberatory, outcome from this sort of contextual reading. She concludes:
Juxtaposing the crucifixion ordeal with issues of gender-based violence in Botswana has uncovered the liberating message embedded in the reading that views Jesus as having suffered one of the most humiliating crimes against humanity. The reading also brings to life Jesus’ own words when he said, ‘Truly I say to you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it for me’ (Matt. 25.40). (pp. 239-240)
Kebaneilwe argues that a focus on the stripping of Jesus can raise our awareness of the humiliation involved in crucifixion, and can help readers to think more deeply about those who ‘have been stripped naked in public, those who are less powerful, and those who, like Jesus, have been sexually humiliated and even murdered.’
Kebaneilwe’s reading shows how a thoughtful approach to reading a biblical text in the light of a specific contemporary context can open up fresh insights on familiar passages. The Ujamaa Centre at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa is well-known for its pioneering work in this type of contextual approach. One of its strengths is that it invites readers to enter more deeply into a text that resonates with everyday experience. Rather than assuming the events of the Bible and their meaning are self-evident, or tied to a historical situation, a contextual approach often opens up new discussions through slow and careful reading. It offers new ways to notice specific details and to think about their importance. Placing a biblical text in dialogue with a contemporary context thereby illuminates elements of the text which might otherwise be missed.
Stepping into the room
Kebaneilwe’s use of a newspaper article reporting on a violent public stripping in Botswana becomes an opportunity to think more deeply and critically about the stripping of Jesus. For me, Kebaneilwe’s inter-reading serves also as an invitation to think more deeply and critically about the safeguarding report. In this final section, I ask: how might the safeguarding report open new perspectives for reading Matthew 27:26-31?
Matthew 27: 26-31 describes the mockery of Jesus in the praetorium. These verses immediately precede the passage Kebaneilwe examines so insightfully. The systemic issues identified in the safeguarding report, I believe, should serve as an invitation to readers to look more closely at power relations and abuses more widely, including in the canonized texts of the Bible. Readers can think beyond the immediate individuals involved to notice also the systemic power relations that are part of the gospel story but rarely given sufficient attention in how Jesus’ stripping is understood (see more here).
In addition, perhaps because I started my career as a teacher at a school in the west London suburb of Hounslow, another part of the report that especially struck me was the role of the teachers. After the extraordinary failure by teachers to notify Child Q’s mother, so that she could be present, the teachers themselves failed to accompany Child Q into the medical room. They remained outside the room during the search, and showed insufficient curiosity as to what was happening within. They might not have intended to abandon Child Q but due to their actions Child Q was left in the medical room without an appropriate adult.
Returning to the verses in Matthew, recent work has raised questions about the repeated stripping presented in this passage. It is easy to read 27:26-31 without noticing repeated stripping.
26 So he released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified. 27 Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters,a and they gathered the whole cohort around him. 28 They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, 29 and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head. They put a reed in his right hand and knelt before him and mocked him, saying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ 30 They spat on him, and took the reed and struck him on the head. 31 After mocking him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him. (NRSV)
There are two strippings explicitly mentioned (v. 28 and v. 31a) plus a further implied stripping associated with flogging in v.26, giving three strippings in total in just six verses. A fourth when Jesus is crucified is implied in v. 31b.
The fact that these verses have not attracted more attention suggests that too many Christians have had little curiosity about this part of Jesus’ story. This lack of curiosity might be compared with the teachers who stayed outside the room at Child Q’s school. They did not do enough to inform themselves (let alone prevent) what was happening inside.
By contrast, the CHSCP showed determination to understand what happened. This commitment is even more impressive given the response they initially received from the Review Panel. Rather than affirming and welcoming their initiative, the Review Panel encouraged them to reconsider their intention to review the incident. They might have taken this message as a reason not to investigate any further. Instead, the CHSCP correctly decided that the issues were serious and that a safeguarding investigation was, therefore, warranted. Their willingness to undertake a proper investigation proved the right decision. Both the individual incident and the wider pattern require urgent attention and reform. The CHSCP were willing to step into the room and investigate what happened. This was an important public service. Kebaneilwe shows a similar willingness to investigate what happened in the stripping of Jesus at the cross.
Christians are called to ‘follow Jesus’ and this includes a willingness to follow Jesus into the praetorium to better understand the mockery and degradation which took place. Whilst it is impossible literally to step into the praetorium to see what transpired inside, it is possible to take steps to be more informed about what might have happened. This is important because it takes the text seriously and takes what happened to Jesus seriously. It also takes seriously the experiences of others who are subjected to stripping. Attention to the humiliation of stripping in both the ancient world and today can help Christians to take the text seriously. Kebaneilwe’s analysis of the young woman at the bus rank, therefore, can help readers figuratively step into the praetorium. Her reading helps others to consider more deeply what the stripping of Jesus meant at the time, and why this part of the story remains important and relevant today. That it does remain urgent and relevant up to today is all too clear from the injustice endured by Child Q.
 See especially the coverage in The Independent by Nadine White, here, here (16 March 200), and here (18 March 2022).
 A third category of search involves the searching of intimate body parts.
 In the New Testament, praetorium refers to the palace of Roman prefect of Judea Pontius Pilate.
 CHSCP, ‘Local Child Safeguarding Practice Review – Child Q’, p. 3.
 Mercy Machisa and Roos van Dorp, The Gender Based Violence Indicators Study: Botswana (Oxford: African Books Collective, 2012), p. 11. There is emerging evidence that this figure has risen further following COVID restrictions and lockdowns starting in 2020.
 Gerald O. West, ‘Jesus, Joseph, and Tamar Stripped: Trans-textual and Intertextual Resources for Engaging Sexual Violence Against Men,’ in Jayme R. Reaves, David Tombs and Rocio Figueroa (eds.), When Did We See You Naked?’: Jesus as a Victim of Sexual Abuse (London: SCM Press, 2021), pp. 110-128; David Tombs, ‘Reading Crucifixion Narratives as Texts of Terror,’ in Monica Melanchthon and Robyn Whitaker (eds.), Terror in the Bible: Rhetoric, Gender, and Violence (International Voices in Biblical Studies Series. Atlanta, GA: SBL Press, 2021), pp. 139-60. For the open access version of this book, see here.