A modern-day crucifixion

This story appears in the Lent feature series. View the full series.

An image has haunted me since I first read it in an article about the atrocities taking place in South Sudan. It is very disturbing, and I'd rather move past it quickly, acknowledging this happens but not dwelling on it. However, as I read it, the image of Jesus on the cross appeared in my mind's eye and became a scrim through which I cannot help but continue to reflect on the image.

In the war-torn country of South Sudan, rape has proliferated. The article spoke of "survivors turning up in refugee camps giving harrowing accounts of women being tied against trees and gang-raped by armed combatants from both sides of the conflict."

Women tied against trees and gang-raped.

As I let that sink in, I am filled with tears and outrage. The image is so stark, and it cuts deep as I reflect on being a woman and how vulnerable my body is to those who see it as a spoil of war; who see it as an object which can be used and abused to satisfy some sick release of the sexual urge; or who can only be sexually satisfied by violent conquest.

We know South Sudan is not the only place where such crucifixions occur. It happens in countries not at war; it happens in cities; it happens in homes. Women and the life-giving power of our bodies continue to threaten men who do not understand mutuality and the beauty of sexuality rooted in love.

Although it is not an excuse, I'm afraid we as a people have yet to plumb the terrible toll war has on everyone involved. The U.N. Family Planning Agency conducted a survey in four camps of internally displaced people in South Sudan and found that about seven out of every 10 women had been raped by police officers, soldiers or armed rebels. Whose side you were on didn't matter. All of them saw the women as theirs to do with as they saw fit.

Something happens in war or wherever men are given weapons and given permission to kill. That kind of power must feed our reptilian brain in ways that we have yet to understand. In spite of our ignorance, however, we continue feeding wars with national budgets that provide billions for the military; by lining the pockets of private companies through arm sales; by choosing violence over diplomacy to bring an end to conflicts. Who loses in such choices? In South Sudan, it is the women and children. In our planetary community, it is all of us.

Women tied against trees and gang-raped.

As I read those words, the image of Jesus on the cross became visible. It was as if he could feel what was happening and wept again, suffered again. He lived his life the only way he knew how. He loved. He spoke as friends to those whom his culture, his society, his religion rejected. He had a vision which could include everyone and which could forgive. He got angry but he didn't hurt and he didn't maim and he didn't rape to prove his manhood. He didn't do anything to deserve such an ignominious death.

I imagine these women going about their day in the only way they knew how. Trying to keep their children safe from the ravages of war. Doing whatever they could to find food in a country where 100,000 people face famine. Caring for their sick as they face a cholera outbreak. Praying that their children would not be conscripted into the fighting as more than 17,000 child soldiers already have. They didn't do anything to deserve such violence that too often led to their death.

I saw that Jesus' head was down and tears streamed from his face. He couldn't "fix it." Not then and not now. It is as if in his surrender, in the absence of any guarantee that things would work out, redemption happened. Jesus trusted in spite of any evidence that transformation was happening.

This Holy Week I will keep these women in my heart. If I can, I will try to be with Jesus as he lets go and surrenders into radical trust. I hope the Welcoming Prayer will assist me to acknowledge how I feel about not being able to "fix it" and allow me to let it go. I will ponder whether I believe that regardless of the evil in our world transformation is happening. I will try to draw courage from Jesus and the women to deepen my belief that living from the center of my being is actively transformative.

I see the women of South Sudan, women everywhere, who have been brutalized and crucified, upon their crosses surrounding Jesus. Together their sufferings and deaths keep the heavens open raining down the grace, the energy, the love needed for our future transformation.

[Nancy Sylvester, IHM, is founder and director of the Institute for Communal Contemplation and Dialogue iccdinstitute.org since 2002. She served in leadership of her own religious community, the Sister Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Monroe, Michigan, as well as in the Presidency of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Prior to that she was National Coordinator of NETWORK, the national Catholic social justice lobby.]

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