Original Sin and Sadomasochism
the belief that physical punishment and sacrifice are pleasing to God:
a sexual perversion characterised by an addiction to cruelty
The recent horrific details published in The Daily Telegraph (6/2/17) about a barrister who beat a number of young men who had come to him for Christian counselling until they bled raise the whole subject of where the idea originated that God or Jesus would welcome the infliction of pain and suffering as expiation for ‘sin’. They also raise the question of why these young men were not able to resist this sadistic abuse of their body and their soul and report it immediately to their parents, school or other authority. Without the recent Channel Four Documentary about this abuse, which has just been exposed forty years after it happened, this heart-rending article might never have been written by the man who suffered atrociously from his encounter with an older man whom he trusted as a father to have his best interests at heart and who viciously betrayed that trust.
Having explored this subject at some depth in chapter seven of my book, The Dream of the Cosmos, I believe the origin of this kind of sadistic behaviour and the inability to resist it and reject it may be traced to the Myth of the Fall and the expulsion of our original parents, Adam and Eve, from the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve were punished because they had disobeyed God and eaten the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. God said to Eve, “I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children and thy desire shall be to thy husband and he shall rule over thee.” God said to Adam, “Because thou has hearkened unto the voice of thy wife and hast eaten of the tree, cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life.” (Gen: 3:6-17) What a fearful pattern of behaviour on the part of a Deity right at beginning of the human story! Even worse, Christians interpreted this primordial sinfulness as the reason why we needed a Saviour — no less than the Son of God — to accept a sacrificial death on our behalf, to redeem us from our sins and grant us entry into heaven. This myth was an open invitation to imprint a pattern of sadomasochism on the Christian psyche: the belief that as a species we were guilty of an original sin, right at the beginning of our appearance on earth, a sin that could never be got rid of since (thanks to St. Augustine) it was believed to be transmitted through sexual intercourse from generation to generation. And that we had somehow to expiate that sin by suffering. This would lead over the centuries of the Christian era to the inevitable result that people tried to offload the intolerable hair-shirt of sin and guilt by projecting these onto others, inflicting physical punishment and even torture and death on them.
This myth gave rise to the relentless persecution of women through the centuries of the Christian era. It gave and still unconsciously gives men and also women the right to beat and abuse their partners and to terrify their children into submission through emotional and physical violence. It gave rise to practices which subjected the body to pain, the wearing of hair shirts in penitence and other instruments of cruelty, even to the point of drawing blood — all this in the name of God and Christ. Not surprisingly, it also led ultimately to the torture and burning of heretics, to the armies that set out to bring ‘inferior’ heathen peoples to Christ, to the willingness to sacrifice millions to the religion that was supposed to uphold Jesus’ teaching about love and reconciliation.
Yet ‘Original Sin’ as something intrinsic to the human condition was never part of Jesus’ teaching. It was introduced into the doctrines of the Catholic Church in the early fifth century through the powerful influence of St. Augustine, shown in the painting above. In AD 418, at a Council of Carthage in North Africa, the Doctrine of Original Sin passed into Church Law. A disastrous obsession with sin and guilt, a distrust of sexuality and relationship with women and the fear of God’s judgement and punishment were, through his influence, deeply imprinted on the Christian soul. Augustine himself suffered from the sense of sin and guilt, particularly sexual ‘sin’. The Christian Fathers, without exception, were obsessed with the “sin of the Fall” and the fear of sexuality and women. As Charles Freeman writes in his book, AD 382 Heretics, Pagans and the Christian State, “Augustine bequeathed a tradition of fear to Christianity, fear that one’s speculations might be heretical and fear that, even if they were not, one might still go to hell as punishment for the sin of Adam.”
The literal interpretation of the myth and the belief that it was divinely revealed bequeathed to generations of Christians a legacy of sexual guilt, misogyny and fear of God’s anger and punishment. It also conditioned people to believe they had somehow deserved or merited the suffering they experienced since all were deemed inherently contaminated by original sin.
Matthew Fox writes in his book Original Blessing,
“A devastating corollary of the fall/redemption tradition is that religion with original sin as its starting point and religion built exclusively around sin and redemption does not teach trust. Such a religion does not teach trust of existence or of body or of society or of creativity or of cosmos. It teaches both consciously and unconsciously, verbally and non-verbally, fear; fear of damnation; fear of nature — beginning with one’s own; fear of others; fear of the cosmos. In fact it teaches distrust beginning with distrusting one’s own existence, one’s own originality, and one’s own glorious entrance into this world of glory and of pain.”
Until now, in this time of the cultural obsession with sex and pornography, this imprinting has not been given the attention it merits, least of all by the Christian Churches. The complex has never been exorcised, brought into the light of day, debated and laid to rest. Consequently, the Christian soul carries a deep wound that cannot be healed but persists, unrecognised, in the unconscious part of the psyche. It festers like the groin-wound of the Fisher King in the story of the Grail. The effects of its wounding are manifest in all forms of child abuse, in the beatings meted out to generations of wives and children; in the sexual compulsions and patterns of sadomasochistic behaviour, including pornography, that from time to time reach the notice of the press and the public; in the received belief, reiterated through the centuries, that inflicted pain is somehow acceptable to God, even welcomed by Him as a way of cleansing the soul of sin. The body has suffered atrociously through these beliefs and the soul has been traumatised and rendered crippled and mute.
So it is not difficult to understand how a man, distinguished in his professional legal career, could instil in vulnerable young men who trusted him as a Christian father figure, the belief in the victim’s words “that it wasn’t enough to repent your sins; that they needed to be purged by beatings. I had to bleed for Jesus.” It is more than likely that the man who inflicted these beatings suffered a similar experience in his own childhood at the hands of a sadistic adult, perhaps a priest: for the trauma inflicted on a child remains as a memory in the deep unconscious, often shut off from conscious awareness, manifesting decades later as an overwhelming urge to inflict the same experience of pain on a person as vulnerable as he himself had once been. In this article, printed in The Daily Telegraph on the 6th of February 2017, the man writing the article describes how he endured 8,000 strokes of the cane over a period of four years, “each and every stroke delivered with extraordinary ferocity”. “This man,” he writes, “was often naked and groaning in spiritual ecstasy while doing the beating.”
Possibly because of his sense of guilt and shame, he was unable to tell his parents about these beatings which culminated on his 21st birthday. As the appointed day drew near for the promised most severe beating he had ever endured, he contemplated suicide, convinced that these beatings would continue for the rest of his life and there was no escape from them. Hoping to avert it, he even tried to warn two different authorities about the beatings but they did not respond. Suffering depression and the inability to sleep for years afterwards and having made several attempts at suicide, this traumatised man was fortunately able to find solace in the love and support of his wife and children and eventually find a therapist who was able to identify the buried root of his trauma. Having seen the Channel Four news reports, he has been able to tell his story, as he did in this article. He has also been able to contact the police. As he writes, “I now have the confidence to recognise that the cycle of my abuse is completing. That it had a beginning and is moving towards an end. But it was only after seeing ----- on television in the past few days that I’ve really been able to think of him as an evil person for the first time.” He adds, “I am hoping that those institutions who have known mine and other victims’ stories for so many years, but merely stepped back and observed, will now reconsider their responsibilities and act in the best interests of the victims, not themselves and their reputations… It has taken most of my life to stop blaming myself for what happened.”
Christians place great emphasis on the need to forgive but the belief that we have to forgive this kind of behaviour in order to be ‘Good Christians’ can inflict a further degree of trauma. Following this appalling story further, I saw a man who had been abused by this same individual speak on Channel Four Television. Faltering over his words, deeply distressed, he said he could not find it in his heart to forgive what was done to him. As I listened to him, I felt the imposed Christian need to forgive and his inability to respond to it inflicted on him a further sense of unworthiness and guilt. I felt it was like beating the wounded child in him all over again. Perhaps we should forgive the inability to forgive.
What is not yet understood by the culture as a whole and by the Christian Churches is that when people are forced to endure something that is physically and emotionally unbearable, they can close off the memory of this experience, shut it away behind a closed door in their psyche. But in doing so, they shut off or cut off an essential part of their soul, what might be described as their creative, loving heart. They live as emotional cripples, unable to allow their true nature to live for fear that it may be re-traumatised; unable to trust relationships; unconsciously believing that they are somehow blameworthy, guilty, unworthy of love, defective in some way. They may compensate for these deeply imprinted beliefs in all kinds of ways: by withdrawing from life; by being sucked into addictions of all kinds; by inflicting emotional or physical violence on the people close to them; but above all, by becoming the victims of a relentless inner critic who blocks and sabotages their attempts to live life as they would love to live it — spontaneously, creatively, instinctively, to become the whole person they were truly meant to be.
The best books I know of to explain the effects and healing of emotional and physical trauma are The Inner World of Trauma (1996) and Trauma and the Soul (2013) by Donald Kalsched and a brilliant book of interviews with anthropologists, psychiatrists, psychotherapists and Jungian Analysts conducted by Daniela F. Sieff called Understanding and Healing Emotional Trauma (2015).