I am Gerald West, from Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. Since 1989 I have worked within the Ujamaa Centre for Community Development and Research, a project which facilitates collaboration for systemic change between socially engaged and contextually ‘converted’biblical scholars and theologians, community-based organic intellectuals, and their local communities of the poor and marginalized. The Bible resides in the intersections of these sectors as a site of struggle (both death dealing and life facilitating). As a biblical scholar, ‘by day’ (as we say here), much of my contribution is in forging potentially liberative community-based participatory resources from biblical scholarship.
Since 1996 we have worked explicitly in local African contexts on gender-based violence. Invited by a group of women to facilitate a series of ‘Contextual Bible Studies’ (CBS) on a range of gender-related contextual struggles, including gender-based violence, we began to develop a CBS on gender-based violence using the story of the rape of Tamar in 2 Samuel 13. We drew on the biblical studies work of Phyllis Trible, integrating it into the methodological processes of CBS. This ‘Tamar’ CBS has been used extensively ever since, within various South African contexts, across the African continent, and in many other contexts, wherever gender-based violence intersects with religious faith. This CBS also gave rise, again at the request of a local community, to the Tamar Campaign (in 2000), which in turn gave rise to a series of CBS on ‘Redemptive masculinities’. In 2007 the Ujamaa Centre began working with a version of the ‘Tamar’ CBS that focused on masculinity.
Allied to and generated by this gender-based violence CBS work have been an array of CBS on HIV and most recently sexuality. Just as the formative work of the Ujamaa Centre on race and class (in the context of the struggle against apartheid) generated systemic analysis and action in the context of gender-based violence, so our gender work in turn generated systemic analysis and action in the context of the intersections between economic and hetero-patriarchal systems that perpetrate HIV infection and discrimination against LGBTIQ sexualities. An analysis of systemic injustices shapes CBS work. We work within the intersectional entanglements of systemic injustice.
In was from within this trajectory of the Ujamaa Centre’s work that I became familiar with the Shiloh Project.
How do you think the Shiloh Project’s work on religion and rape culture can add to and enrich discussion and action on the topic of gender activism today? Is there more we can do? What else should we post?
An important contribution of the Shiloh project has been the notion of ‘rape culture’. Rape has always been systemic, but the prevailing individualized and moralized understandings of religious faith have tended to represent rape in these terms. Most legal systems tend to adopt the same orientation. The notion of ‘rape culture’ makes it clear that rape is a system. The rape of Tamar is a good example of this, with each of the male characters in the narrative constituting a ‘rape culture’. In our work on this narrative we offer resources that facilitate reflection on rape as systemic, so the Shiloh Project’s notion of ‘rape culture’ is a useful conceptual tool.
Significantly, the Ujamaa Centre has used the notion of ‘rape culture’ (though not this particular phrase) for our work on Genesis 19. This text is the primary biblical proof-text for condemning ‘homosexuality’ in many African contexts, and so we have done a series of CBS work on Genesis 18-19. An aspect of our CBS work recognizes the ‘rape culture’ of Sodom, in which strangers were subjected to violent assault by other men. By recognizing and naming the ‘rape culture’ of Sodom our CBS has enabled participants to construct a counter discourse in which ‘the story of Sodom’ is not about ‘homosexuality’ but about Sodom’s inhospitable attitude to strangers, violently expressed through the (heterosexual) rape culture of the men of Sodom.
In the year ahead, how will you contribute to advancing the aims and goals of The Shiloh Project?
The work of the Ujamaa Centre is forged from within our day-to-day work with particular organized formations of the poor and marginalized. We work ‘from below’, and so will come to the Shiloh Project from this perspective, collaborating with the Shiloh Project from the emerging contours of African local contexts in the year ahead.