Everyone gave me high fives as I swaggered down our elementary school hall. It was all a gargantuan act. My arm throbbed with every heartbeat and I wanted to sprint to the nurse and get some ice. I got myself into a contest at recess with the brilliant goal of taking the most punches before crying, “Uncle!” Apparently, I was the winner and everyone sang my praises for being tough. A couple of girls even smiled my way at the water fountains. I played the role, but the production seemed absolutely absurd. The next morning my entire shoulder was black and blue and I experienced intense pain with every move of my arm. Sure, I wanted to be cool and accepted, but now I was terrified to my core of what kind of mess that desire would get me into. The sources of approval change as we get older, but the general concept is still the same in our careers and social structures. Why do we play such ludicrous games? Valorized masochism is a strong concept within many interpretations of Christianity that “tells us that we (human beings) are not worthy of the things we are given; it tells us that suffering is not only ‘normal’ but is to be desired; it espouses humility; it beatifies submission; it glorifies pain”.
Christianity plays a prominent role in the widespread epidemic of valorized masochism. Teresa Hornsby argues, “Christianity consistently takes a leading role in constructing subservient bodies, normative desires born of masochism; indeed, a masochistic impulse lies at the heart of Pauline Christianity; idealized suffering, willful self- sacrifice, glorified humiliation, and romanticized slavery”. The creation of subservient bodies plays into imperialist forces of domination and aids in the accumulation of capital. Hornsby explains that in today’s capitalism there is less need for bodies due to technological advances but there is a greater need for “those bodies” to “serve selflessly”. Consequently, imperialist forces promote the masochistic idea that suffering and self-sacrifice are preferred. Hornsby maintains that the masochistic idea has become so ingrained in us that we gain “a sense of joy out of self-deprivation”. Neo-imperialistic forces promote scriptural interpretations that exude masochistic ideals, as in verses such as Phil 2:7-8: “but he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death-even death on a cross” (NRSV). Interpretations emphasize that the “crucifixion must be more than a single event of torture; it is a call to mimic the ideal, to suffer as Christ suffered, to participate in the pain”.
The promotion of valorized masochism through the means of Christianity is inherently clear in the film The Passion of the Christ. Hornsby calls it “Mel Gibson’s ode to Christian masochism”. Hornsby explains her “first suspicion about the film was that it was perhaps one in a long line of war-propaganda films espousing the value and necessity of self-sacrifice”. This quote importantly highlights the maintaining of imperialist governments through the use of valorized masochism to build military might. Overall, the “film and its receptors seem to say that to be a good Christian, to be worthy of forgiveness and of salvation, one must desire and willingly submit to the most brutal tortures”. The concept of valorized masochism is severely problematic within our world because it feeds the voracious appetite of the beast of hegemony instead of aiding to bring an end to oppression.
Many scholars in theological and religious study regard Christian masochism as problematic. For example, womanist theologian, Delores Williams, focuses on valorized masochism and its relation to oppression. She argues that notions of the redemptive nature of the crucifixion reinforce an idea that Jesus, in a form of surrogacy, suffers for our sins. Salvation, thus understood, is an oppressive concept. Williams then connects her critique to surrogacy because it was an immense source of suffering and pain for African American women. She explains: “God did not intend the defilement of their bodies as white men put them in the place of white women to provide sexual pleasure for white men during the slavocracy. This was rape.” She asserts that Jesus was “mocked and defiled” in the same way when his nakedness and private parts” were exposed and “the integrity of his divine mission” was mocked. Thus, to Williams, the cross is “an image of defilement, a gross manifestation of collective human sin”. The cross then cannot be redemptive; it instead furthers oppression. To Williams, the focus should be on Jesus’ ministerial life as being redemptive. Jesus came to “show humans a perfect vision of ministerial relation that humans had very little knowledge of”.
Another example for Christianity as furthering the problem of valorized masochism relates to LGBTQ people; it pertains to the idea of celibacy for them. Conservative Christians advocate celibacy to LGBTQ people by acknowledging it as a source of suffering while they affirm it as a grace-filled approach. Matthew Vines debunks the commonly held belief among conservative Christians that requiring celibacy for LGBTQ people holds biblical credibility. Vines critiques how conservative Christians point to the celibacy of Paul and Jesus and apply it to LGBTQ Christians today. Conservative Christians often highlight that suffering and sacrifice were part of Jesus and Paul’s ministries. Vines argues indeed that there is a problem with this kind of argument because “Christians throughout history have affirmed that lifelong celibacy is a spiritual gift and calling, not a path that should be forced upon someone.” Vines asserts that some heterosexual Christians may be involuntarily celibate, but they are not asked to relinquish any future hope of marriage. He articulates the fundamental difference in the following way: “For straight Christians, abstinence outside marriage affirms the goodness both of marriage and of sex within marriage. But for gay Christians, mandatory celibacy affirms something different: the sinfulness of every possible expression of their sexuality.” Vines further explains: “Such an absolute rejection of one’s sexuality might make sense if one’s sexual desires were oriented exclusively toward abusive or lustful practices. It makes considerably less sense when at least some of one’s desires are oriented toward a covenantal relationship of mutual love, care, and self-sacrifice.”
It is important to note that, according to Vines, required celibacy and its ensuing theology often “fuels despair to the point of suicide.” Vines defends his posits with Genesis 2:18. He underscores that God said that it is not good for “man” to be alone. Requiring celibacy, in turn, requires suffering. This masochistic idea is a gross abuse of theology and power. I adamantly emphasize that the level of absurdity one must achieve to require the agony of another in order to include them in your conception of a grace filled life should utterly appall us; likewise, the arrogance one must possess to declare suffering as the will of God should quake us to the foundation of our being. Valorized masochism lacks valor!
Teresa J. Hornsby, “Capitalism, Masochism, and Biblical Interpretation,” in Bible Trouble, eds. Teresa J. Hornsby, Ken Stone (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2011), 139.
 Delores S. Williams. Sisters in the Wilderness (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1993), 166.
Matthew Vines, God and the Gay Christian (New York: Convergent Books, 2014), 16.
Hornsby, Teresa J. “Capitalism, Masochism, and Biblical Interpretation.” In BibleTrouble, eds. Teresa J. Hornsby, and Ken Stone, 1-7. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2011.
Vines, Matthew. God and the Gay Christian, New York: Convergent Books, 2014.
Williams, Delores S.. Sisters in the Wilderness, Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1993.