“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46) Like the One who expressed His abandonment on the cross, many survivors of sexual violence utter a similar despair as they try to make sense of their lives in light of this trauma. For survivors in Indian Christian churches, this forsakenness is amplified by the mechanisms of shame that structure the interpersonal dynamics of the family and the social structures of the ethno-religious community. Shame is a powerful social force precisely because it encourages concealment, communal conformity, and the denial of trauma. It promotes the perception of exterior health rather than the truth of interior healing.
Recently, after hearing the brave testimonies of sexual abuse survivors at a church youth retreat, Jennifer Zachariah and Ashley Abraham launched Project SHHH7214 (She or He Has Hope, Psalms 72:14). Their website catalyzed important ecumenical discussions throughout the second generation of this immigrant community. By offering a platform where survivors could post their stories anonymously without fear of retaliation, survivors found a space to articulate their trauma and learn that they were not alone. With nearly fifty stories posted, these writers bear their souls as they discuss gender expectations, the shame of abuse within the family, and the secrecy expected to preserve family honor.
After reading many of these stories, however, I was left with questions. Why are these traumatic experiences so pervasive in my community? Why are we so ineffective in interrupting these cycles of violence that perpetuate themselves generationally? How might we become more like Simon of Cyrene and Veronica, who traditionally accompanied Jesus as he was being crucified, so that these survivors no longer bear this cross alone?
The Construction of Indian Femininity and Masculinity
Sexual and domestic violence dominates the concerns of Indian feminists. The pervasiveness of this theme suggests that this trauma is much more common than publicly acknowledged. One major reason for this omnipresence concerns the social norms that construct femininity and masculinity in Indian contexts.
From a young age, women are socialized into constructions of femininity that emphasize submissiveness, self-sacrifice, and social dependency. Before marriage, a woman is defined almost exclusively by her sexual purity. Any public awareness of the loss of this purity leads to shame, damage to family honor, and social ostracism. Open discussions of sexuality with parents and community elders are rare. Many young women are left with the stereotypes of popular culture, remaining largely clueless about how their sexuality can be integrated into a meaningful life with healthy relationships.
Masculinity, on the other hand, is defined by male dominance, virility, and the ability to control a woman’s sexuality as reflective of his honor, not hers. While sexual purity is viewed as a woman’s responsibility, the fulfillment of sexual needs is seen as fundamental to a man’s nature. He hardly faces the severity of social consequences suffered by a young woman for the loss of virginity. Because the taboo for healthy discussion also applies to him, many young men gain their sexual knowledge from pornography or through limited sexual encounters with individuals judged as exploitable. Such exploitability is often determined by age, caste/class status, or the perception of lower morality. Within this patriarchal system, sexually abused males are rendered even more invisible than females because they are socially conditioned to believe that the loss of masculinity is a greater shame then the loss of virginity.
The Silencing Mechanisms of Shame
Though not exclusive to Indian Christians, the construction of these gender norms combined with the silencing mechanisms of shame contribute to the prevalence of sexual violence in this community, both before and after marriage. As many of the anonymous stories from Project SHHH7412 reveal, sexual abusers are not deranged strangers or perverts roaming the streets seeking vulnerable targets. Most perpetrators belong within the family and community, taking advantage of the atmosphere of familiarity and trust.
Many of these perpetrators understand the value placed on family reputation, honor, and communal harmony and use the mechanisms of shame to their advantage. Older cousins, community elders, family friends, and religious figures among others know that the balance of power rests in their favor, especially when they interact with children or teenagers. They shame the victim into thinking that either no one will believe them or that it will cause a rupture in communal harmony. Other tactics include attacking the reputation of the abused by informing them that they will be forever labeled as “that girl [or boy],” “dirty,” or “sinful.”
Even if perpetrators are confronted, intervention can be difficult within the cultural scripts designed to protect them, particularly if they are men in positions of power. Not only might these offenders adamantly deny the abuse as a misunderstanding, but any confession might minimize the harm done or blame the victim for being a source of temptation. These silencing tactics are powerful precisely because they divert attention away from holding the perpetrator accountable.
The problems are multiplied when power-based violence enters into the context of marriage. In Indian communities, men are socialized to think they have a marital right to their wives’ bodies. Legal and cultural norms assume that consent to marriage obligates a woman to fulfill her husband’s needs, with her needs viewed as secondary or nonexistent. Especially when the sexual act is devoid of intimacy and tenderness, women are left feeling empty, objectified, and alone – unaware that they may have just experienced marital rape. Rather than enhancing the marital relationship, sex is reduced to an expression of male dominance and female reproductivity.
Raised to preserve family honor above her own, women feel pressure to keep their marriages together by masking issues of emotional, physical, and sexual violence. This pressure is particularly strong because marriage defines her social status within the Indian Christian community. Because shame arises from the internal judgment of how others may perceive her or her family, survivors are expected to maintain an image of domestic bliss. All experiences of abuse, within and outside of marriage, are regarded as a private family matter. Even if the issue is raised in public, many are advised to silently bear this cross for the salvation of their family. Such secrecy distorts the Christian message, internalizes shame, and perpetuates a cycle of violence as part of the next generation’s inheritance.
Interrupting Cycles of Violence: The Need for Political Theology
During the season of Lent, Christians of different denominations pray the Stations of the Cross, which use both Scripture and Tradition to meditate on the sequence of events that led from Jesus’ condemnation to his crucifixion. Because this prayer is meant to inspire Christian discipleship, those who reflect on these stations encounter figures such as Simon of Cyrene and Veronica. The fifth station describes how after Jesus stumbles, the Roman soldiers pull Simon from the crowd and force him to carry Jesus’ cross for some distance. Though initially reluctant, Simon is given the chance to accompany Jesus in His suffering, alleviating His pain for just a moment by participating in His cross. In the sixth station, Veronica courageously emerges from the crowd of passive bystanders to tenderly wipe the sweat and blood from Jesus’ face. In the battered and bruised face of Jesus, she sees the face of God.
According to political theologian Johann Baptist Metz, the memoria passionis, the memory of Christ’s passion, rebukes Christians who silence the cries of the poor, the forgotten, and the abused. If the mechanisms of shame prevalent in Indian churches conceal abuse as a private family matter, then the dangerous memory of Jesus’ passion reveals that this wound is a social, political, and theological matter. As such, these cries reveal the communal structures of sin that perpetuate these cycles of violence in every generation. To cover these acts of violence under the veil of secrecy distorts how the ripple effects of sin harm the relationships that form families and communities. Silenced by the mechanisms of shame, these wounds become a scandal and counter-witness to the Gospel.
The memory and presence of Christ crucified, however, offers the possibility of healing through solidarity, accountability, and a preferential option for the abused. This dangerous memory at the heart of the Christian narrative demands the socio-political response of solidarity. To be in solidarity is to risk stepping beyond the crowd of passive bystanders who are governed by social norms and to interrogate the status quo for its complicity in sin. Solidarity is the response of the bystander who recognizes the gaze of Christ crucified in the faces of the battered and the bruised and rushes to them with tenderness and mercy. It is a share in their cross, which risks taking on the shame of associating with “that girl [or boy],” the “dirty” one, and the “sinner” without fear.
Accountability is also important for communal healing. Christians must discern between those who have sinned and those who have been sinned against. Far too often, those who have experienced sexual violence believe they have sinned. Rather, they have been sinned against and their suffering is a physical and existential participation in Christ’s crucifixion. Perpetrators of sexual violence must be held accountable not only because they have sinned against individuals, but because they have wounded the bonds of trust that hold a family and community together. To hold perpetrators accountable is not to scapegoat them by the same mechanisms of shame that dominate the community, but to make them aware of how their humanity has been robbed of its fullest dignity the moment they rob another of theirs. Accountability is not the equivalent of revenge, but rather directed at the interior transformation of perpetrators, allowing the gaze of Christ crucified to permeate their hearts so that they too may discover the love of God in the faces of the battered and bruised.
Finally, a preferential option for the emotionally, physically, and sexually abused dismantles silencing mechanisms of shame because it resists concealment, communal conformity, and the denial of trauma. This preference assures survivors that they will not be retraumatized by their communities when they tell and retell their stories. Rather than dismissing them, they are heard and believed. This preference also resists internalized scripts of shame that prioritize reputation over person. It subverts communal conformity to prescribed roles so that relationships, both wounded and whole, may be foregrounded as the actual basis of community. Finally, it recognizes the reality of trauma and its impact on the lives of survivors, perpetrators, and all who become aware of this unjust evil.
As an academic discourse, political theologians can further contribute to this preferential option for the abused by allowing this dangerous memory to enter their writing, sensitizing them to the cries of those so often hidden. Such writing sheds light on the pain shared by many across different contexts, interrupting the appearance of health with the possibility of communal healing. Like Simon and Veronica, those in the pews and those in the academy are called to accompany those who are abused by sharing in their pain so that survivors no longer bear this cross alone.