Jun 152006

After thinking about the Jesus courted by the Christian soul narrative, I’m leaning towards the idea that there is something specific about Christianity that fostered sadomasochism.

I didn’t get to read all of it, but Lisa Silverman’s Tortured Subjects : Pain, Truth, and the Body in Early Modern France supported this idea. Christianity has two contradictory ways of thinking about physical punishment.

The first is the idea that physical punishment is a necessary means of disciplining a subordinate, be it a wife, slave, apprentice, etc. This is not just a self-serving means of insuring that your orders are carried out. Physical discipline is actually supposed to be good for the subordinate, spiritually. This recurs all through Proverbs in the Bible: E.g. “For whom the Lord loveth he correcteth; even as a father the son in whom you delighteth.” (Proverbs 3:12) “He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.” (Proverbs 13:24) “Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell.” (Proverbs 23:14)

The second idea is attaining spiritual advancement by voluntarily accepting pain, in imitation of the Passion of Christ. This hinged on the argument that Christ allowed himself to be beaten and crucified, so this must be spiritually significant. This was the rationale for the flagellants, who whipped themselves to emulate Christ and to take some of Christ’s spiritual burden. Flagellant lay worshippers organized into confraternities, which accepted men from all social classes. Women were accepted into some confraternities, but didn’t flagellate themselves in public. For one reason, women already had their burden of pain, menstruation and child-birth, so they didn’t need additional self-inflicted pain.

So, in late Rennaissance France, you had judges who were members of self-flagellating confraternities and who would also sentence prisoners to be tortured judicially. These prisoners were not tortured to force them to tell the truth, as in, “Tell us the truth or we will continue torturing you.” They were tortured in order to put them in a mental/spiritual state in which they could only tell the truth. Human nature, being essentially sinful, would make people (particularly lower class people) lie instinctively.

Again, I’ve just started to look into religion on this issue, but I wonder if that particular, contradictory way of looking at pain makes BDSM unique to Christian society.

OTOH, I’m wondering if I’m not getting in over my head with this particular issue. I could be grossly oversimplfying the issue by categorically saying that other religions don’t have this trait, and I’m even less a religious scholar than I am a historian.

There’s also the problem is that I’ve amended my working definition of BDSM to specify that it is a secular practice, not a religiously-mandated practice. Maybe what happened was, when organized religion stopped viewing self-inflicted pain as a means to divinity, pain became linked to personal pleasure.

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