From Yuri J. Koszarycz:
Re: Gospel of Matthew linked to bloody trail of self-mutilations (June 13): There are other passages within the Christian scriptures that also are linked to self-harm.
Mark 16:18 has that celebrated passage that believers “will be able to handle snakes with safety, and if they drink anything poisonous, it won’t hurt them”. Even last month there was a report of the death of a Pentecostal preacher from West Virginia after he was bitten by a venomous timber rattlesnake.
Unfortunately, many of these fundamentalist sects take such a literal approach in their biblical hermeneutics. They interpret each passage in the Scriptures as literal truth and do not see these scriptural instructions or admonitions in any metaphorical or symbolic sense. Consequently, the aberrations and mutilations your article describes are manifestations of misguided analysis and dangerous interpretations.
Indoctrinated members unquestioningly accept the rigid, inflexible and strict adherence to specific theological teachings and practices of fundamentalist religions who are usually led by strong “charismatic” leadership personalities. Historically, one only has to think of the mass suicides in Jonestown, Guyana, or the tragedy of the Waco siege, to see how mental instability can become contagious and manifest itself in violent destruction. There is a demonstrable continuum between coercive mind control exercised in religious groups, leading to the loss of individual identity, often to the psychological detriment of the persons being manipulated. Self-mutilation in such damaged individuals, particularly of a sexual nature, frequently focuses on religious obsession.
This is not a new phenomenon. Origen of Alexandria, a distinguished theologian of the Early Church, castrated himself based on a literal reading of Matthew 19:12 - “There are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.”
After the development of monasticism, excessive penances were often self-imposed by those who wished to gain spiritual growth. These were approved by the Church, where “bodily mortification” was seen as a sign of “other-worldliness” and a devotion to one’s salvation goal.
Self-mutilation, starvation, the wearing of heavy irons and chains, and bodily scarring were an expression of personal faith and was practiced by flagellant Christian cults from the eleventh century up to the 1960’s where Passionist novice monks were given a “flagellum” (a whip) as part of their habit and dress. Today, this extremist practice of religious self-harm can still be witnessed in several religious ceremonies in India, the Philippines, and some parts of Spain and South America.
Yuri J. Koszarycz
Retired Senior Lecturer in Theological Ethics
Australian Catholic University