A youth pastor in Pataskala, Ohio attempted to illustrate Christ’s suffering by allowing students in his program to spit in his face and slap him without repercussions. The church was forced to apologize to the students who watched and took part in the event, as it “failed at creating that safe, predictable environment.”
During Holy Week in Mexico, in the town of Taxco, dozens of people watched processions made by penitents who practice self-penitence. Some carry a cross that weighs over 100 pounds. They whip themselves on alternating sides of their back. The scene is repeated every night of Holy Week.
Why Self-Flagellation in Religious Rites?
It’s said that Martin Luther, the Father of the Reformation, practiced self-flagellation. Roman Catholics in the 13th century practiced flagellation. Some members of the Anglican community in the Middle Ages practiced it. Self-flagellation is used as a means of “mortification of the flesh.” It’s considered a discipline in some cults.
Today, most churches condemn the practice, but that hasn’t stopped devotees and devout believers from partaking in the ritual. During Holy Week, it is often symbolic, rather than penitential. Practitioners want to be reminded that Jesus was whipped and hurt before his crucifixion.
Hardcore practitioners believe that self-flagellation is a means of getting closer to God. By enduring the same suffering that Jesus went through, it brings the person into a new relationship with God. Self-flagellation is thought to purify the soul and redeem the person.
The Christian church does not have a monopoly on religious self-harm. Some Native American initiations used beatings in the ceremonies. The Spartans practiced ritual floggings. It’s also reported that some Shia communities have practiced self-flagellation in relationship to the Day of Ashura.
One BBC article reports that Pope John Paul II practiced self-flagellation. The article went on to say that the ritual is much less common today than it was even in the 1960s. You might remember seeing the practice in “The Da Vinci Code.” However, it’s really unknown how many people practice religious self-harm in the privacy of their own home. Given a lack of statistics, it’s hoped that the figure is very low.
The Practice Continues During Easter Week
Although most people don’t practice self-flagellation for most of the year, it’s very popular during Holy Week. Mexican officials have tried to ban the practice in Taxco, but it still occurs. Some of the penitents practice carrying the cross for a year before they undertake the procession. It is not easy to walk bent over with 100 pounds on your back. The penitents are anonymous, covered by a black hood that conceals their face.
The practice is also prevalent in the Philippines and other South American countries. The practice is thought to date back to the 16th century or farther, when the Conquistadores came to the Americas.
Do Onlookers Support the Practice?
It could be said that if people want to partake in this practice, that they certainly have a right to their beliefs. However, Jesus became the sacrificial lamb so that humankind wouldn’t have to suffer. Because it’s a practice that is questionable, it’s hard to believe that religious leaders would support the processions, but there are many reports of these processions around the world every year. What is instead of banning the practice, people stopped attending? Would these Easter events still occur without an audience?
As to the case in Ohio, the police were called. They investigated and determined that no crime had occurred, even though one student used a knife to cut the pastor. The incident was recorded on video and even posted to social media. Many parents were concerned about their students who were involved in the incident and those who watched.
The Ohio incident certainly demonstrates the power adults in leadership have over their students. The pastor offered to be cut with a knife by a student. What was a lesson in suffering for the Gospel quickly became a lesson in the power of suggestion. Students who clearly knew that it was wrong to hurt someone went ahead with harm. Fortunately, the church and the youth pastor realized that practicing such a ritual was inappropriate.
Addressing self-flagellation outside of Holy Week could be a start to thinking about how to handle it when it does happen. Why do believers think that they need to suffer like Jesus?