Throughout history, bullies, dictators, sexual predators and torturers of all kind, whether small or great, whether on school playgrounds or on presidential podiums, know that their power and impunity depend not so much on the threat to inflict physical pain, but on expert, casual, relentless mockery and gaslighting.
I am still reeling from the mixture of disbelief and indignation that I experienced reading Ronan Farrow’s book Catch and Kill and seeing Jay Roach’s movie Bombshell. Both depict the systemic commodification of women’ bodies in the corporate news world. Women are routinely procured, groomed, soiled, threatened, silenced, humiliated, disposed of, denied justice. And all the while they have to keep acquiescing, smiling, performing.
The image of glamour, popularity, and success surrounding them adds insult to injury. How to pity characters who end up being dismissed with 6 or 7 digit bonuses.
Both the book and the film however reveal a different reality. Sexual harassment, even when it does not reach the level of rape, can break a human person, especially when it is compounded by a derision that normalizes the abuse and downplays its emotional toll.
During his passion Jesus was arrested, imprisoned, slapped on the face, flogged, nailed on a piece of wood and died three hours later from exhaustion asphyxia. The aim of his enemies however was not simply his physical elimination. It was not enough.
What had to be destroyed was his credibility and there was no better way of achieving this aim than by breaking him, making him doubt of himself through bullying, mockery and especially gaslighting. All the ingredients are there: Judas betraying Jesus with a kiss; the bad cop / good cop play role between Caiaphas and Pilate; the way Pilate alternates between feigned interest and dismissive rejoinders. Jesus is clothed in a purple robe with a crown of thorns, hailed as king, given illusory hope with a fake trial which turns instead into searing public degradation. When he is at his weakest, hanging on the cross, hardly able to breathe, he is vilified, humiliated, ridiculed by bystanders, elders, even the robbers crucified with him.
He had to be broken. And he was. He did cry “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Traumatic experiences like bullying, sexual harassment and abuse shatter victims into pieces. Skills, worthwhile ambitions, and sense of purpose start to leak away, insecurity settles in, they are drained of their vital energy, unable to put the pieces together again. Most of the time bullies and predators win. Those who broke and killed Jesus won – they were never held accountable for this crime and spent the rest of their lives unrepentant and unpunished.
We need to take Good Friday seriously. We should not gloss over the uncomfortable reality of a failed, dead preacher utterly crushed by the unjust and corrupt political and religious systems he dared to challenge and hoped to change.
Those who broke and killed Jesus won.
Those who bully, torture, abuse women, children, trans people win. Those who sell arms, bomb civilians, speculate on human trafficking win. For any one perpetrator brought to justice, countless others remain unpunished. For any one victim rescued and who slowly, painfully, bravely manages to piece her life together, innumerable others die just like Jesus: broken, alone, exhausted, drained.
This is the meaning of our veneration of the cross on Good Friday: for a little while, together, as church, we expose ourselves to the naked, unmanageable, unheeded
suffering of our fellow human beings all over the world.
No Easter will ever be meaningful for us unless tonight we accept that the damage is irreparable – and that right now, many, too many are ending their lives exactly like our God: broken, forsaken, in despair.