MASOCHISM AND PIETY
by Robert M. Price
Surely one of the most bizarre and astonishing religious tracts to
appear in recent years is a little leaflet called The Whipping.
In summarizing The Whipping some rather startling historical and
literary parallels will become apparent. Then I will pose some
intriguing questions for Christian spirituality and sexuality that arise
The pamphlet opens with a boy's defensive words to his father, ''It
wasn't my fault, Dad. We got in a fight and that kid called me a liar. .
. and then he called my mother a bad name.” To this protestation of
familial honor, Dad's only response is an ominous one. "Bill's father
closed the bedroom door and began to take off his belt." The trouble
seems to be that in the heat of battle, Bill had used profanity.
Dad proceeds to inform Bill as to the real gravity of his crime. "When
the Son of God hung on the cross at Calvary, He was dying there because
you swore this morning... when the nails were driven into his hands, it
was because you swore." However, despite the fact of Christ's atonement,
Bill's parents had warned him he'd be punished if he swore again. Hadn't
his mom forced him to memorize, "Thou shalt not take the name of the
Lord thy God in vain"?
But instead of a punishment, Bill is about to receive a kinky object
lesson about the vicarious atonement:
“W. . . What are you going to do, Dad?"
"Here, take my belt, Bill. Don’t look so surprised. I want you to whip
Bill's father took off his shirt and kneeled by the bed.
"But your back is bare, " stammered Bill. "The belt would hurt. You
didn't do anything wrong, Dad. I can’t hit you.”
“You must be punished for swearing, Bill. And as you hit me I want you
to realize that you hurt Jesus more, more than you're hurting me. Raise
“I - I can't, Dad. Please, I'll never swear again. Please! "
"You must be punished, Son. And I'm going to bear the punishment
something like Jesus bore your punishment on the cross. Go ahead, Bill!"
The belt came down with a crack and a red welt appeared.
"Again!" Again the belt came down.
"Again!" Another red mark appeared on his back.
"I can't hurt you any more, Dad. I see what you've been trying to show
me, how Jesus suffered for me on the cross, even for my swearing. I
didn't know He loved me so. But I love Him now, and I love you too,
Though the prima facie intention of this leaflet is to
demonstrate the love of Jesus as it is expressed in the atonement, a
form-critical analysis reveals that something quite different is going
on here. In both structure and subject matter, The Whipping
resembles nothing so much as the genre of Victorian pornography known as
"flagellation literature." Indeed, the parallels are striking.
Steven Marcus devotes a whole chapter of his The Other Victorians
to the large mass of flagellation pornography. He points out that while
such material might be thinly veiled as medical monographs, lyric poems,
comic operettas, or historical treatises, "they regularly break down
into small, disconnected units, and the natural form, so to speak, of
the genre is the anecdote.”2
Precisely such an anecdote is embodied in The Whipping.
As to specifics, Marcus describes how "a person is accused of some
wrongdoing.. This person is most often a boy; sometimes he is a man
acting or impersonating a boy.”3
In The Whipping, Bill is accused by his father, and the roles are
reversed, whereupon Dad in effect impersonates the boy. "The accuser is
almost invariably some surrogate for [the boy's] mother.”4
In the leaflet, Dad is shown carrying out the punishment for Bill’s
violation of his mother's warning. While Marcus says that "an adult male
figure, father or schoolmaster, occurs very infrequently, " he also
shows how the accuser /disciplinarian is portrayed in masculine, even
phallic, terms.5 Latent homosexuality is thus implied. The Whipping,
as were some few of the Victorian works, is explicit about the male-male
After the accusation is made, the one to be whipped defends himself
(e.g., “No indeed, ma'am, I never insulted my momma, upon my honour, I
This protest soon turns to supplication for mercy, but to no avail. “The
accused is then seized. He is . . . tied down to a bed. . . . His
clothes are then lowered or raised. . . in order to expose his buttocks,
and the whipping takes place. It is invariably accompanied by talk,
All these elements, with merely idiomatic variations, are
present in The Whipping.
The only material departure from the standard flagellation format would
seem to be the fact of Dad's substituting himself for Bill. Of course,
the main point of this development is to serve the theological purpose
of the tract. It is after all an illustration of the vicarious atonement
of Christ. But the departure is not so great as it might first appear.
Marcus admits that, "In this literature, anybody can be or become
anybody else. . . . There is, in the first place, an enormous amount of
conscious acting or role playing throughout the literature; everyone is
impersonating someone else. 'She embraced me,’ runs a typical passage,
'and pressing my hand with transport, begged I would suffer her to
represent my niece.’ The playacting is frequently undertaken
simultaneously by both parties. 'She instantly, by desire, assumed the
character of Flirtilla's Governess."8
In the same way, Bill (albeit reluctantly) portrays Dad, while Dad (with
some apparent relish) plays the part of Bill.
No less revealing is the congruency of The Whipping with
another historical precedent- -that of the thirteenth- century
flagellant movements active across Europe. Bands of fifty to five
hundred penitents, specially uniformed and carrying whips and spikes,
would embark on a month-long pilgrimage of punishment. The goal of these
“self-immolating redeemers,” as Norman Cohn calls them, was to atone
with their blood for the sins of their countrymen. In this way they
hoped to fend off impending plagues and disasters. Cohn describes the
typical flagellant troupe, which “marched day and night, with banners
and burning candles, from town to town.” Upon arrival, “they would
arrange themselves in groups before the church and flog themselves for
hours on end.”9
Again the parallels cannot but arrest one's attention. Just as these
medieval ascetics sought to supplement Christ's blood atonement with
their own, so does Dad, who says “You must be punished, Son. And I’m
going to bear the punishment something like Jesus bore your punishment
on the cross.” Note that Dad is no longer simply illustrating Jesus'
vicarious atonement; now he himself is bearing Bill's punishment.
And what of the resuIts? “ The impact which [the flagellants’] public
penance made upon the general population was great. Criminals confessed,
robbers restored their loot and usurers the interest on their loans,
enemies were reconciled and feuds forgotten.”10
Likewise, Bill renounces his “crime” (“I'll never swear again!”), and he
and his father are reconciled (“I love you, too, Dad.”).
The "Humiliate Me” Cult
Now all these correspondences might simply be called coincidental,
perhaps unfortunate, perhaps amusing. But they are not simply
coincidental. Instead, The Whipping is just a particularly clear
instance of a trend long present in Fundamentalist piety- -what someone
has called the" 'Humiliate Me' Cult." According to this form of
spirituality, the believer takes a kind of morbid delight in suffering.
The key scriptural passage here is 2 Corinthians 12:10: "For the sake of
Christ, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in
persecutions, in difficulties." For the record, these "difficulties”
included the following: "Five times I received from the Jews the forty
one. Three times I was beaten with rods. . . ." (2 Corinthians 11:24-25)
Fundamentalist pietism has not balked at the path of
discipleship thus marked out. This fact may be illustrated with a few
quotes taken at random from the popular devotional booklet Our
Daily.Bread. “Sometimes in God’s great wisdom He allows us to feel the
sting and misery of our selfish, disobedient ways, that we may learn
through the pain and humiliation that the Lord knows what is best.”11
“He wisely scourges and chastens every wayward child that He may form in
him the character of the Crucified.”12
“Be sure you learn the lesson He is seeking to teach you, for His
‘smiting’ is always profitable if properly received.”13
“As we sometimes hold a crooked rod over the fire to
straighten it, so God often holds us over the fire of affliction to
straighten and temper us.”14
“If you have prayed to know God's will, do not be surprised if He prods
you with the thorns of trial and the rod of spiritual correction in
order to properly direct your steps.”15
God uses for His glory those people and things which are the most
perfectly broken. . . . Only if your evil pride is crushed and your
spirit is contrite can God save and use you. Even as the crushed grape
gives forth its liquid treasure, so only a broken and contrite heart can
yield the fragrant perfume of holiness.16
The sadistic character of God, and the masochism inculcated in the
believer, are made even plainer in these three analogies:
A piece of wood bitterly complained because its owner kept whittling,
cutting, and filling it with rifts and holes; but the master quietly
replied, "What I am doing may make you think I am destroying you, but
soon you will see it is the MAKING of you. I am changing you from a
worthless black stick of ebony into a lovely flute whose music will
charm the souls of men." So too, God the Master Craftsman uses the
knife, file, and drill of trial upon us.”17
I am told that occasionally [an apple] tree seems to give all of its
energy to growing wood and leaves, and consequently, bears little or no
fruit. When the owner notices this, he takes an axe and makes a deep
wound in its trunk close to the ground. Almost always that ugly gash
produces a change. The next year the tree presents the husband man with
an excellent yield.It is the fruit of suffering! Oftentimes God’s
“trees" . . . are like that. He puts to us the axe of trial and the
pruning knife of suffering.18
A lady visiting Switzerland came upon a sheepfold.... One poor sheep
[was] lying by the side of the road bleating in pain.... Its leg was
injured. She asked the shepherd how it happened. "I had to break it
myself," he answered sadly. "It was the only way I could keep the
wayward creature from straying into unsafe places. From past experience
I have found that a sheep will follow me once I have nursed it back to
health.” The woman replied thoughtfully, “Sometimes, we poor human sheep
also want our own stubborn way…until the Good Shepherd sends sorrow and
pain to arrest us.19
In all these cases, God expresses his love through drastically painful
means, and the believer's response is to love God all the more for the
suffering! Paul uses a sexual metaphor for the relationship between
Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5: 28- 33). Taking a leaf from his
book, what kind of sexual relationship is implied by all the above
examples? It is sadomasochism, and one suspects that it is no mere
Many have suggested that religious fervor is often repressed and
sublimated libido. Weston LaBarre points out the obvious eroticism
present in the writhing and moaning ecstasies of Holy-Roller
Pentecostalism, not to mention the plain phallicism of the
Philip M. Helfaer sees a zeal on the part of male Fundamentalists to
evangelize other male s as cloaking homosexual tendencies.21
An unintentionally humorous example of the same thing is provided in the
InterVarsity booklet Sexual Freedom. There, V. Mary Stewart describes
her progress in setting aside her former life style of sexual abandon.
"The need to be always in a sexual relationship with someone was the
best (or only) way I knew. . . to fill that ‘God- shaped void.’”22
One must at least wonder if the reverse were not really the case.
When Stewart advocates "doing spiritual calisthenics when it would be
easier to grab onto an immediate, pleasant fantasy,”23
isn't she really describing a sort of religious cold shower? Can she be
oblivious to the repressed sexuality seeping through between the lines
as she writes: "The Lord is a very gentle school master... He
never came down hard on me... He never withdrew his Spirit
capriciously or arbitrarily.”24
"Until we_can open our tightly clenched fists [or. . .?] he
cannot fill our hands full to overflowing.”25
If Fundamentalist fervor is to a noticeable degree the rechanneling of
that sexual drive forbidden expression elsewhere, one must ask if morbid
spirituality is not the rechanneling of a morbid sexuality.
To approach this issue from the other direction, one might consider not
religion in the light of perversion, but rather perversion in the light
of religion. Susan Sontag's essay "The Pornographic Imagination" makes
exactly this linkage. She treats that classic of French pornography the
Story of O in these terms. In the story, "0" becomes a "love
slave" of one man, then another, who abuse her to the point of total
submissiveness. One cannot help recalling the earlier illustrations of
God axing the tree, gouging the stick, breaking the sheep's leg, all in
order to "use" them, i.e., Christian believers.
“In the vision of the world presented by the Story of O the
highest good is the transcendence of personality. The plot's movement is
not horizontal, but a kind of ascent through degradation. [The heroine]
wants to reach the perfection of becoming an object.”26
One can almost hear the strains of "Vessels only, blessed Master."
Sontag herself sees the parallel in the self-abnegation required of
Zen and Jesuit novices.
Is pietism then to be denigrated in its comparison to pornography? Or is
pornography to be dignified in comparison to religion? To do the latter,
as Sontag does, implies that to "transcend one’s personality" through an
"ascent through degradation" does serve some good purpose. However, to
reject the masochistic piety of Fundamentalism as perverse stems from a
prior rejection of its sexual counterpart. This huge question is not to
be decided here, only defined. It is important to see that the
spirituality and the sexuality of The Whipping are kindred
expressions of the same instinct, and that they must stand or fall
1. The Whipping (Grand Rapids: Faith, Prayer & Tract League, n.d.).
2. Marcus, S., The Other Victorians, A Study of Sexuality and
Pornography in Mid-Nineteenth Century England (New York, New
.American Library, 1977), p. 253.
3. Ibid., p. 255.
5. Ibid., p. 258.
6. Ibid., p. 256.
8. Ibid., p. 257.
9. Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium (New York, Oxford
University Press, 1972), p. 128.
11. Our Daily Bread (Grand Rapids, Radio Bible Class), March
12. Our Daily Bread, October 1969.
13. Our Daily Bread, February 1970.
14. Our Daily Bread, November 1970.
15. Our Daily Bread, April 1972.
16. Our Daily Bread, June 1970.
17. Our Daily Bread, May 1970.
18. Our Daily Bread, May 1970.
19. Our Daily Bread, April 1972.
20. Weston LaBarre, They Shall Take Up Serpents (New York,
1974), p. 139.
21. Philp M. Hel£aer, The Psychology of Religious Doubt.
Boston, Beacon Press, 1972), p. 132.
22. V. Mary Stewart, Sexual Freedom (Downers Grove: InterVarsity
Press, 1974), p. 12.
23. Ibid., p. 18.
24. Ibid., p. 19.
25. Ibid., p. 20.
26. Susan Sontag, “The Pornographic Imagination,” in Sontag, Styles
of Radical Will (New York, Dell Publishing Company, 1978), p. 55.