The Cross and Male Violence

I’m doing some reading for a discussion on different ways in which the masculinity of Jesus is or has been constructed and presented in various Christian contexts.  A couple of the articles I’m reading are about how depictions of Jesus in popular art and other media have been read as gendered, and how Christians have read such depictions as being either in line or in opposition to their understandings of Jesus’s gender, and particularly his masculinity.  It’s really fascinating stuff, and I hope to say more about it in future posts.

The other article I’m reading is James Poling’s “The Cross and Male Violence,”* which is about how interpretations of the crucifixion of Jesus can either support authoritarian patriarchy and male violence against women, or oppose them.   I’m loving this article – it neatly encapsulates how abuse in patriarchal churches and families is, in general, is a product of a patriarchal theology which is inherently and fundamentally problematic:

The cross of Jesus Christ was a violent event and its interpretation over the centuries has been ambiguous.  For men who live in patriarchal societies, the cross gives mixed messages.  On the one hand, the cross is a symbol that legitimizes male dominance in human community.  For many centuries, the cross has been symbolic of the church’s authority as a patriarchal institution.  Jesus died as a man of the cross and brought salvation for humankind.  Therefore, most churches have argued, only men can serve as governors and ritual leaders in the church, modeling a form of governance for all society, including the family.  Theologians have taught that male headship over women is established by God the Father and his only Son, Jesus, and any challenge to male dominance is a challenge to God himself One can see the cross as a symbol of a natural patriarchal order that must be supported by the interactions of men and women. – Poling, p. 474, my emphases

Poling shows how cultures of abuse in patriarchal churches develop out of theologies that:
– understand the nature of God the Father and God the Son (Jesus) to be essentially masculine
– understand God’s the Father’s nature to be essentially authoritarian, defined by the exercise of total power and the use of violent acts as punishment for human disobedience.
– understand Jesus’s crucifixion as a moment in which God the Father – the angry Father God – inflicted the violence rightfully due to humanity on his obedient, submissive Son.

If God is male, and God the “Father” is defined by possessing and exercising authority, then human males must share in his masculine nature, and men, especially in marriage and parenthood, must also be defined by the exercise of power, dominance, and violence.  Given the patriarchal assumption of binary gender, the corollary of this must be that females are defined by lacking power, submitting to male dominance, and being the targets of male violence.

Under these theologies the cross becomes “a symbol that legitimizes male violence against women” by casting such violence as

“[replicating] the drama between a patriarchal God and an obedient, self-sacrificing Jesus standing in for a sinful humanity . . . the [man] has taken the place of God who is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving, and the [woman] has taken the place of Jesus who take on the sins of humanity and submits her will to God’s, and sacrifices her life unto death on the cross for the sake of the relationship.

In family violence, a similar drama is enacted.  Given the negative and conflicting images of women in many churches and their responsibility to be obedient to an all-loving Father God and his Son Jesus, Christian faith means that men are closer to God than women, that the proper relationship of women to men is subservience, and that the traditional values of submission and obedience are the essence of Christian faith. –  Poling, p. 476-477, my emphases.

Just a few days before reading Poling’s article I jotted down some notes for the blog:  Not every marriage where submission is supposedly followed is an abusive one. But submission theology is an abusive theology.  It’s an abusive framework. When I read the article I found that my notes were echoing a point Poling also makes:

Certain interpretations of the cross clearly create the occasion for sexual and physical abuse of women and children because of their images of the Trinitarian God in relation to families.  Survivors of abuse** are saying that an abusive God and abusive clergymen do not contradict the church’s theology.  The images of abuse are inherent in the symbols themselves. A church that preaches God’s love but projects the evil of the world onto women and other marginalized groups is preaching an abusive God. – Poling, 47, my emphases.

A culture of male violence against women is therefore not incidental to patriarchal theological assumptions, but is rather a natural product of them. The abusive husband and father, the abusive male pastor or priest, thus becomes a reflection of an abusive and angry God, and the victim of abuse becomes a reflection of Christ – if they endure their suffering obediently, and submissively.  This might seem like a very unfair description of complementarian and other patriarchal theologies, but as we’ll see in coming posts on Joshua Harris’s sermons on submission, this is precisely what he tells married women – that suffering silently makes them more like Christ.


*James Newton Poling, “The Cross and Male Violence” in ed. Bjorn Krondorfer Men and Masculinities in Christianity and Judaism: A Critical Reader (2009)
**Poling quotes female survivors of incest in Christian homes recounting what they took form their Christian upbringing – I’ll post these in a separate post tomorrow.

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3 Comments on “The Cross and Male Violence”

  1. Grace says:

    Just want to be clear that the focus of this post on male violence against women is not meant to imply that only males can be abusers or that only females can be survivors of abuse. People of all genders can inflict violence, or be the targets of violence.

  2. prairienymph says:

    True, but the stats are telling, aren’t they.
    I’ve heard people explain the high number of males as abusers and the high number of females as abused on essentialism.
    “Men are more aggressive. Men have needs that must be met or they have no choice but to be violent. Women are more passive. Women don’t have the drive.”
    I used to believe it. Now I don’t.

    Yes, men can be abused by women. However, the majority of the most violent cases are the other way around.
    And a lot of the abuse done by women is targeted at other women.

    I’ve been thinking about racism. I have encountered racism as a white person. Mostly being sterotyped as promiscuous based on my skin colour – not my actions. Or as being labelled as racist because “only white people are racist”.
    And while that is not fair, it still doesn’t compare to someone not getting a job they are qualified for, or being unfairly treated by police, or having their home vandalized.
    None of it is right, but the power dynamic ensures that certain people based on their skin colour are even more vulnerable to violence than others. Even though racism can occur by and against anyone, the bulk of the violence is skewed.

  3. […] by Grace James Poling’s “The Cross and Male Violence,” (earlier referenced here and here), addresses the concept of “practical theology,” a branch of academic theology […]


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