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‘And They Stripped Him’

The Gospel narrative places on Christians a moral burden to not turn away from the sexual vulnerability of incarcerated people today.


And they stripped him

—Matthew 27:28

Through bars, seen and unseen, I reached toward his trembling hands. Upon his arrival at Rikers, they had taken everything. His belongings, his shirt, his pants, and even his shoelaces. Then they came to take his body. Stripping him. After they finished administering the sacred rite of intake, removing more layers than clothes, he was naked. He requested that the prison chaplain visit him. Yet when I arrived he flinched at my touch. Even as we prayed, he kept his eyes open lest he become prey again. We labored. As soon as I said the name I had been taught was above all other names, I froze. Hadn’t Jesus been stripped too? When I pulled my hands away, now no longer separated in any way that mattered to us or God, I was trembling.

The question haunted me like a shadow in a valley of death: Wasn’t He stripped too?

Ancient Roman crucifixion was a shameful and grotesque exhibition of power. Like all state-sponsored rituals of execution, crucifixion was not solely about the death of the one who had transgressed the boundaries of society but was designed to send a message to others who might consider transgressing. The goal was not just to kill the body but to crush the spirit—of the crucified and of the witnesses. It was a death of cruel humiliation and a signal to others that the state possessed the authority to enforce its order. Another person was crushed under the boot of the throne. The empire had won again.

This violence is scandalous enough. But for those who find value in the Christian story, it possesses heightened meaning because the body that was imprisoned, marked, scarred, and finally crucified was God in human flesh. The history of Christianity has, in many senses, been a wrestling with this religious mystery. Yet, despite having spent more than 2,000 years thinking (or intentionally not thinking) on the crucifixion, there remains an aspect of it that scholars of faith have not reckoned with fully: as a gratuitous form of state-sponsored murder, a central part of the violence of the crucifixion was its intentional and intensely sexual nature. And any consideration of the sexual vulnerability of Jesus as a prisoner must address the moral demand this places on Christians to not turn away from the sexual vulnerability of incarcerated people today.

I pursue two related arguments in this article. First, if there is to be a genuinely anti-rape movement, it must also be an abolitionist movement, given how central rape is to the experience of incarceration. Second, specifically within the realm of Christian ethics, I argue that if the modern church is to play a role in ending sexual violence in our society, it must begin with the prison, the place in which Jesus, too, was stripped.

Sexual assault, abuse, violence, and violation are complex concepts, each with its own definition and distinctive features. For the sake of this essay, I group them together under the term disordered touch. I employ this term not to subsume their differences, but to speak to how, within the context of captivity—in which the absolute power of the captor is set against the absolute submission demanded of (even if not necessarily granted by) the captive—they work similarly to strip an incarcerated subject’s will, agency, and autonomy.

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To be incarcerated is to be always susceptible to touch—touch that is, without limitation nor exception, disordered. As Hortense Spillers reminds us, the hinge between “captive and liberated subject positions” is the ability to “ward off another’s touch” or to limit one’s vulnerability. But in today’s carceral state, the absence of the ability to ward off touch is intrinsic to the punishment itself. The modern U.S. prison is a place of sexual domination with impunity, a place where such violations are routine, legal, and administrative in nature.

Thus, one is left with the moral crisis that the prison itself is a structural relationship of coercive sexual power. Many scholars of incarceration have further outlined this position through examples such as forced abstinence, refusal of sexual contraceptives, lack of treatment and testing for sexually transmitted diseases, mandated genital exposure, circumcision, misgendering, the forced maintenance of gender normativity, and forced birthing and abortions, among many others.

In what follows, I focus on the primal confinement event, stripping. I begin by considering the role that it played in Jesus’ crucifixion, and then turn to its place in contemporary prison settings.

To be stripped is not simply to undress. The act strips not only clothing but dignity, identity, and humanity. It occurs in the context of having lost the ability to “ward off another’s touch,” to use the words of Hortense Spillers. It marks a dividing line between life and social death.

The Greco-Roman world in which Jesus lived understood stripping as a symbol of totalizing dehumanization. It was practiced as both a sign of conquest over defeated enemies and as punitive judgment. Crucifixion, as both a mundane judicial punishment and as a spectacle of state power, foregrounded this kind of sexual abuse. Like the nails that forcefully penetrated the flesh, stripping was integral to the process. It was intended as a sexually terrorizing message about the vulnerability of the captive, and the captive’s community, in contrast to the power of the Roman Empire.

Ancient historians such as Josephus and Tacitus make it clear that the deployment of insulting displays of the body, and deliberate humiliation utilizing genital exposure, were specifically utilized against Jewish communities because of their high view of the privacy and sanctity of the body. It is reasonable to conclude that Jesus’ crucifixion was intended to be experienced by its witnesses within this context.

Anglican theologian David Tombs offers a pointed summation: The only alternative to reading the biblical text as a scene of sexual subjection is to refuse to read it altogether. The Gospels are consistent in the story they present. An adult man is stripped naked for flogging, then dressed in an insulting way to be mocked, struck, and spat at by a multitude of soldiers before being stripped again (Mark 15:20 and Matthew 27:31) and reclothed for his journey through the city—already too weak to carry his own cross—only to be stripped (a third time) and displayed to die whilst naked to a mocking crowd. When the textual presentation is stated like this, the sexual element of the abuse is unavoidable.

The multiple acts of stripping are both common and uncommon. Common, in that criminals were punitively stripped to be flogged and then made to carry their wooden beams naked. Uncommon, in that, in multiple places, Jesus is stripped again. Biblical scholars Wil Gaffney and Raymond Brown clarify that Christ’s numerous unclothings can only be contextualized as sexual mockery: Jesus is clothed only to intensify each act of stripping. In contrast to understanding sexual abuse as primarily motivated by individual physical pleasure, this scene portrays a perverse pleasure manufactured via a joint collaboration between the state, the soldiers, and the crowd. Likewise, Tombs concludes that the crucifixion as a “message of sexual domination” was inescapably intertwined with the crucifixion as a “message of terror.” It was a clear and resounding message that any subject of the empire was available to be touched, without limitation, rationale, or recourse, by those in power.

Anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells spoke of what she called the “old threadbare lie,” the myth of Black sexual deviance and bestiality. It was weaponized to justify lynchings and other forms of racialized sexual punishment, and continues to serve that purpose in the current U.S. carceral state. It is a lie that plays a role in allowing the public to ignore the crisis that prisons are spaces of routine, banalized sexual violation performed by agents of the state. To be clear, this essay does not engage in an inquiry into whether individual incarcerated people commit actions of sexual violence; rather, it is a condemnation of an environment that is itself sexually violent. Prison is a rape sentence.

The federal Bureau of Prisons training video on stripping entitled “The Correct Procedure for a Visual Search” makes clear the daily, ordinary quality of sexual violation in prison. As the training begins at the two-minute mark, the narrator states: “Remember this is a most vulnerable moment. You have just asked someone to undress in front of you.” At the three-minute mark, after the instructions for searching the mouth, gums, and lips, the trainee is reminded, “Keep in mind you are ordering a naked person to obey you.” At the four-minute mark, after the explicit instructions governing the probing of the penis, testicles, and foreskin, the trainee is again reminded, “Remember, the inmate is feeling very vulnerable.” At the six-minute mark, after the instructions on properly examining the rectal area, the narrator ends the video with a final harrowing piece of advice: “Most importantly, take your time and keep alert. Your life depends on it.”

Whenever a vulnerability is acknowledged, a violation is marked. Whenever a violation is acknowledged, vulnerability is marked. Each violation strips another layer of beingness, agency, and humanity. Such violation is no respecter of person nor gender. In fact, Assata Shakur writes of how one may feel stripped of gender itself, specifically its supposed protection:

‘you mean they really put their hands inside you, to search you?’ i had asked. ‘Uh-huh,’ they had answered. . . . The women call it ‘getting the finger’ or, more vulgarly, ‘getting finger-fucked.’

In most prison contexts, these kinds of searches occur frequently: when first taken into custody, before and after entering the court, before and after conjugal and legal visits, and any time there is “reasonable suspicion.” Standing between incarcerated people and spaces of comfort (such as visiting rooms) or so-called justice (such as courtrooms) stands this ritual of sexualized domination.

Under this perverted regime, for the incarcerated there is no agency to resist, no control over exposure, no protection against display of their nakedness, and no right to bodily autonomy. To attempt to refuse means to submit to stripping of another kind, namely, punishment in the form of a deprivation of human rights such as contact with loved ones and legal aid. Thus, even the most radical narratives of refusal are laid bare.

This arrangement produces what Jessi Lee Jackson, a psychotherapist specializing in care in prison settings, describes as a death-dealing environment of “sexual necropolitics.” Jackson argues that understanding the prison as separate from sexual punishment is impossible: “Sexual violence is central to the operation of the prison regime.” When the prison is correctly situated as an inherent and administrative site of sexual violence, the only solution to end said violence is prison abolition. Decarceral activist Stephen Donaldson, one of the first to bring attention to the fact that rape is endemic to prisons, made clear through his own accounts of being repeatedly raped in prison that the prison rape issue is the prison itself. Said simply, sexual violence is not what happens when prison goes wrong. Sexual violence is the quotidian product of a properly functioning prison.

Isn’t it odd that Christendom . . . claims to pray to and adore a being who was a prisoner of Roman power, an inmate of the empire’s death row . . . [yet] the majority of its adherents strenuously support the state’s execution of thousands of imprisoned citizens? That the overwhelming majority of its judges, prosecutors, and lawyers—those who condemn, prosecute, and sell out the condemned—claim to be followers of the fettered, spat-upon, naked God?

—Mumia Abu-Jamal

Whoever says “Jesus” says stripped prisoner-slave. Afropessimist theorist Frank B. Wilderson III writes of a figure he calls the “prisoner-slave,” a figure he reads as coterminous and continuous with the United States’ long history of racial domination. But I write as one who follows a Palestinian Jew who was arrested, stripped, and made slave as well. The naked Jesus bears witness to the violence we see—or choose not to see—today. Stripping is the cathartic scene of initiation into the formal institution of incarceration, unveiling the broader relation of sexual domination that is fundamental to its operation. But if Mumia Abu-Jamal and Frank Wilderson and Patrice Douglass and George Jackson, Assata Shakur, Martin Sostre, Angela Davis, and Malcolm X are right that the relation of the prison reflects the relations of the country, then all of the United States is a prison—and, if so, what else can we be stripped of? What else is there? If this strange place exists on our forebears’ scorched bones and is united by nothing else but our captivity, what else is there? What else can they strip us of?

Whoever says “end prison violence” or “end mass incarceration” or says “end the carceral state” says end the United States. I do not say this easily or jovially, but I do spitefully. I write as one who has felt the cold embrace of the carceral system before and who has felt unwelcomed hands treat his Black body as contraband. I write as a brother, nephew, cousin, and grandson of loved ones who have been chained, confined, and stripped. I write with a deep resentment filled with four consecutive generations of missed birthdays, halfway Christmases, and empty Thanksgiving chairs. I write because our Friday came, and we did not resurrect. I’m not sharing this story because I think of it as remarkable. Remarkable, as in, you have not heard something like it. I’m sharing it because its remarkability lies in its familiarity. I do not write this alone. We must all remove the garments of redemption and exchange one stripping for another. For the first stripping was ours, but the second and the greatest will be of this world.

Image: SALEM./Unsplash