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Writing Gender Justice: Alternative Icons of Women

Today’s post is an interview with Hilary Willett (she/her) who fights for gender justice by writing icons and reclaiming the lives of biblical women.

Tell us about yourself: who are you and what do you do?

My name is Hilary. I’m from Christchurch, New Zealand and currently living in Auckland. I’m studying to be an Anglican priest in the Diocese of Auckland.

What have you been doing and what are you working on?

I completed a Masters of Theology in 2018, looking at feminism and the Bible. This was a pivotal point in my faith journey. Before doing this thesis, I had believed that both Christians and biblical texts had always generally been fairly supportive of women in positions of leadership. My thesis disrupted this belief and I began to realise the extent to which the Christian church has suppressed or marginalised female leadership.

After finishing my thesis, I felt a call to leadership in the Anglican Church. In 2019, I was discerned to begin training for ordination. I’m now doing a second Masters in Theology, part-time, to aid my leadership formation. In 2020, I did a course on writing icons with Libby Brookbanks, and I discovered that I loved it. So, in my spare time, I’ve been writing icons of women and have recently started selling them and accepting commissions.

Which aspects of your work might be particularly interesting for supporters of the Shiloh Project?

Icons are considered sacred images and used in devotional ways. They are also considered to be a way of communicating orthodox theology, so instead of being “painted” they are written. Every part of an icon has theological significance: the colours used, the gestures of the subject, the gold-leaf/gilding, even the primer used to prepare the surface that will be written on. Everything in an icon has a symbolic meaning.

Traditionally, however, only men are allowed to be iconographers. This means that men have been the only ones allowed to communicate theology about the women and men represented in icons. I feel uncomfortable with this, particularly the idea that in iconography women are only being written by men. So, I started to write icons of women.

How does your work connect to activism?

I came away from my thesis on feminism and Christianity acutely aware of just how many men write the theological narrative. This dominance prevents women from writing themselves and leads to significant theological bias. In icons, this is particularly noticeable. Women are often represented as white (even when the majority of saints depicted are not Caucasian) and delicate (rarely do women look strong or have strong gestures). Women are often dressed in white or have white head-coverings to symbolise their purity. It seems that writers of icons are very keen to uphold purity as a prime virtue in women, which then reinforces this value in individuals who use icons for prayer.

Complex biblical women, such as Jael, Hagar, Delilah, or the woman who bled for twelve years, are very rarely recorded as icons. The few icons I found of the “bleeding woman” (Matt 9:20-22; Mark 5: 25-34; Luke 8:43-38), for example, depicted her as grovelling on her knees before Christ. This representation makes this woman one-dimensional. There is little visual reference in the icon to this woman’s faith or her courage in approaching Christ, despite the customary purity taboos forbidding a woman in her position from touching a rabbi. Her active defiance of the rules and her determination to be healed demonstrate strength and conviction, but these qualities are not represented visually in the bleeding woman’s icon. This is in stark contrast to say, Peter or Paul who, despite their failings, are regularly and reliably represented in icons. They are depicted as standing upright and righteous and are often depicted in a variety of colours. For instance, in a traditional Orthodox church, there is a section of the church called the “Deisis” (prayer/supplication). Peter and Paul are almost always a part of this prominent section of the church. They are written in full colour, venerated as complex and well-rounded individuals. Mary, the pure, is often the only female regularly included in this important section of the church.

I try to correct this bias by writing women differently. I spend some time researching alternative narratives, sometimes going very much against traditional theological presentations of certain women. In writing icons, I include ‘difficult’ characters and characters that are not in scripture or “sainted” by the Church. I write women with different skin tones, different personalities, and different body shapes. I tend to avoid using white clothes for women, unless it is absolutely necessary. One occasion where I did find this necessary, was with Phoebe, the deacon. Her white alb was a part of her official, ceremonial robes that deacons wore in the church. It is necessary for a deacon to wear an alb in their leadership role. In this case, Phoebe’s white clothes felt to be more about her leadership role in the church, which I wanted to highlight, rather than about her purity as a woman.

Phoebe, the Deacon

I also try to bring out the complexity of the women who have been venerated as pure and the humanity of the women who have been marginalised. As noted above, for instance, the ‘bleeding woman’ is usually depicted grovelling before Christ. When I re-wrote her, however, she is standing upright. Christ was not in the icon, as I wanted her to stand in her own right. I re-named her the “Daughter of Faith”.

Daughter of Faith (the woman who bled for 12 years)

I try to find something commendable in each of the women I write, with the view that women are worthy of respect, even if they are complex characters and don’t live up to patriarchal stereotypes. Women do not all need to be the purest of the pure, or the fem-est of the fem, to be admirable.

Finally, I enjoy writing women in contexts that are meaningful to the person who will use the icon. When I wrote Mary as an icon, I placed her in Taranaki (Aotearoa New Zealand) because that where the person who was receiving the icon was from. It felt important that the caring presence of Mary was placed in this own person’s context, making it meaningful and relevant to the person using the icon.

Mary, Mother of God

What has been the response to your icons?

To be honest, it has been overwhelmingly positive; it really has been lovely to see how many people are connecting with these images. Occasionally, some people haven’t understood exactly what an icon is and wonder why I don’t just paint landscapes, but it has been fun explaining this to them. One thing I often try to do is explain the symbolic features of any new icon I write. I think this has helped with the response, as it gives people the tools to “read” exactly what I am “writing”. It has meant that even people who have not been all that interested in icons in the past, are really keen and interested now. It has been a great experience!

Find more of Hilary’s icons at Lumen Icons: https://lumenicons.tarotpoetry.nz/?fbclid=IwAR0IoK0FX-4No_qWeeDlUDHpv8YqUOUH_9Nbvb-64max8SIf–0ZS9ZkmN8

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Opening Conversations about GBV with Visual Media

Images can be very powerful and can communicate an abundance in an instant.  

Visual media can be effective tools for teaching.  

Because gender-based and sexual violence are distressing, images depicting or implying gender-based or sexual violence are highly likely to be distressing, too. It can be difficult to negotiate communicating a truth, being sensitive to and respectful of victims of violence, and avoiding voyeurism, all at the same time. 

Using images to open conversations and for teaching can be very effective in moving closer towards the elimination of gendered violence. 

Here are three quick examples.  

In an earlier post we presented the artwork of graphic designer Pia Alize. Her work depicts accounts of gender-based violence from the Bible. These images have now formed the focus of two well attended interactive workshops with ministerial candidates, both led by Dr Mark Aidoo of the Trinity Theological Seminary in Legon, Accra (Ghana). Church leaders are highly likely to be confronted with situations of gender-based violence in their parishes. Consequently, training in first response to disclosures of gender-based violence, and knowledge about how to facilitate support and protection for victims is crucial. Mark reports that the images generated lively engagement and that participants reported feeling transformed and reading the Bible with new sensitivities.  

Workshop with Dr Mark Aidoo of the Trinity Theological Seminary in Legon, Accra (Ghana) [2]
Workshop with Dr Mark Aidoo of the Trinity Theological Seminary in Legon, Accra (Ghana) [3]

Episcopal Relief & Development has produced a wide array of images to stimulate conversations about a range of difficult and complex topics – including about economic abuse and also gender-based violence. Each of these images tells a story. Episcopal Relief & Development leads group work on reflecting on the images, encouraging participants to associate the themes portrayed with events in their own lives, and exploring the repercussions of abusive actions. This then leads on to devising active strategies of resistance. 

Resource from Episcopal Relief & Development

Lastly, here are ‘Lent doodles’ by Charlotte Gibson. Charlotte is a Church of England ordinand and reads the Bible together with groups of women in the Women’s Theology Network. Their aim is to explore the continuing relevance of the Bible’s stories. This has included also discussion of stories of violence against women of the Bible, like Bilhah, Dinah, and Hagar, depicted here. 

‘Lent doodles’ by Charlotte Gibson [1]
‘Lent doodles’ by Charlotte Gibson [2]
‘Lent doodles’ by Charlotte Gibson [3]

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Writing and Reading to Survive in a Time of Trauma

Today’s blog post is by Prof Juliana Claassens, Professor of Old Testament and Head of the Gender Unit in the Faculty of Theology at Stellenbosch University, South Africa. After reading her new book, Writing and Reading to Survive (Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2020), the Shiloh editors invited her to write a piece about it for the website. Professor Claassens can be contacted at jclaassens@sun.ac.za.

At the recent book launch for my new book Writing and Reading to Survive: Biblical and Contemporary Trauma Narratives in Conversation (Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2020), the discussion leader, my colleague and good friend, Prof Alphonso Groenewald (University of Pretoria, South Africa), asked me about the genesis of this book and the fact that I already in 2008 was involved with the early buddings of what would become the field of trauma hermeneutics. I told him that this was such a good question as it helped me to reflect on the way this current book built on and morphed out of my previous work. For instance, my interest in lament and resistance came out of my work on a chapter that I wrote for my 2004 monograph The God who Provides (Abingdon) when I looked at the question of when God does not feed, which led to my work on God as a Wailing Woman in my 2012 monograph Mourner, Mother, Midwife (Westminster John Knox). Lament and resistance also featured in my 2016 monograph on Female Resistance in the Old Testament (Claiming Her Dignity, Liturgical Press) as I considered a number of trauma narratives in which women resist the violence of war and rape that all but destroyed body and soul, but also what I later would describe as the insidious trauma of patriarchy, and the slow violence of poverty.

It is, moreover, interesting how the original idea for this book on biblical and contemporary trauma narratives was sparked in an essay I wrote for a consultation between Stellenbosch University and PTHU in the Netherlands in which I brought the portrayal of sexual violence effected against Daughter Zion into conversation with the rape of Lucy Lurie in the South African novel, Disgrace, by the Nobel laureate JM Coetzee (Fragile Dignity, Semeia, 2013). For Writing and Reading to Survive, I revisited and completed reworked the original essay, which in itself was an interesting case study of how one’s thinking and writing mature over the span of a decade.

And yet, looking back, there is a clear sense of continuity that runs through my work. It can be summarised in the following declarations that go to the heart of my scholarship which informs my teaching and vice versa:

  • I believe in the importance of naming injustice both in the ancient Scriptures but also in contemporary contexts near and far – as the oft-cited slogan would have it, “breaking the silence on gender-based violence.”
  • I am interested in the role of narratives as an integral part of the meaning-making enterprise as victims and witnesses of trauma, long ago and more recently, engage in text production, thus in terms of the title of my book, “writing to survive.”
  • I have realized, from a very early age on, the liberating potential of books and films and art as we enter the story worlds of others, joining in their struggles, making sense of our own – hence, in an act of text reception, “reading to survive.”

Writing and Reading to Survive is deeply existential – for as we feminist interpreters know all too well, the personal is, and more often than not, becomes political. But given the fact that biblical and contemporary trauma narratives took on a life of their own, transcending the original contexts of pain and suffering that saw their origin, it also has become clear that the content and the approach of this book extends far beyond the context in which it was first written. As South African commentator Max du Preez has said about my fellow South Africans, but one could also make a similar argument about other members of our global village: There is a multitude of “multiple wounded, multiple traumatized” individuals and communities around us. Not only is it the “shocking occurrences,” of extreme trauma that as Kai Erickson has argued, result in “inner catastrophes” that impact individuals but also fester below the surface of a society’s collective consciousness, but also what Laura Brown has described as the many “secret,” “private” and “hidden” experiences of trauma that affect especially women near and far.

In Writing and Reading to Survive, I argue that the growing popularity of trauma hermeneutics for interpreting biblical texts may be rooted in its ability to open up new vistas, to offer novel answers to old questions, and to reframe experiences and texts in such a way that it rings true to a new generation of readers. By bringing biblical and contemporary trauma narratives into conversation, I argue that writers and readers in a world away, as also today, in an attempt to survive, are trying in the form of literature to make sense of the trauma that upended their world in significant ways. In this regard, one could say that the trauma narratives included in this volume, the biblical stories of Rachel and Leah and their handmaids Bilhah and Zilpah, the Daughters of Lot, Ruth and Naomi, Dinah, and Woman Zion in the Book of Lamentations, but also a number of contemporary novels including The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood), Disgrace (JM Coetzee), The Bookshop (Penelope Fitzgerald), The Light Between Oceans (ML Stedman), and Milkman (Anna Burns), serve as a type of community, a host of witnesses which collectively offers a space in which the traumatized individuals from different times and places may experience themselves as a little less alone. Indeed, in the safe space created by literature, trauma may be endured, comprehended, and ultimately mitigated.

Professor Juliana Claassens

Works Cited

Laura Brown, “Not Outside the Range: One Feminist Perspective on Psychic Trauma,” in Trauma: Explorations in Memory (ed. Cathy Caruth; Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 1995), pp. 100-112.

Max du Preez, “Who is to Blame for South Africa’s Failures,” in News24.com, viewed 1 February 2017, from http://www.news24.com/Columnists/MaxduPreez/who-is-to-blame-for-south-africas-failures-20160614.

Kai Erickson, “Notes on Trauma and Community,” in Trauma: Explorations in Memory (ed. Cathy Caruth; Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 1995), pp. 183-199.

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Is it a duty to be beautiful?

Today’s post is by Rev Dr Judith Gretton-Dann. Judith is a priest in the Church of England, based in Oxford. She has a PhD in Physics and has previously been involved in science research. She is currently working on a Theology DPhil, looking at the technology and crafts of the Hebrew Bible. This involves seeing how the archaeological evidence and anthropological research into the technology of Bible times sheds light on metaphors, to help open up our understanding of the texts.  

Judith is passionate about congregations engaging with scripture in its fullness. She believes that scripture is relevant and important for the whole of life, not just an interesting topic of conversation for Sundays. 

Judith’s contact email is: judith.gretton-dann@kellogg.ox.ac.uk  

Be Young and Beautiful?[1]

Within certain strands of Evangelical teaching, a premium is placed on women’s looks, and an equivalence drawn between outward appearance and spiritual condition. One lengthy response to what is considered the rise of feminism within Evangelical churches is by a group called The Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. Titled Recovering Biblical Manhood and Biblical Womanhood (RBMBW), the document seeks to make the expectations of behaviour for Christians bipartite, distinct and complementary, depending upon people’s gender (understood as being ‘male’ or ‘female’).  

In the course of saying that, “God gave each of us a desire for beauty… it is part of our desire for him, who is loveliness incarnate,”[2] it places the responsibility for creating beauty, both in their person and surroundings, on women.  

Beauty is described by (mostly male) preachers as something that should be aimed for, cultivated and desired by women. Whilst the preachers quite often claim to be talking about spiritual beauty, in their admonitions to women, their understanding is that physical beauty is a proof of spiritual beauty, that men will judge your spirituality by how physically beautiful you are.  

There is much advice about the right sort of clothing to wear – women must “dress attractively… but [not] dress to attract,” according to Joshua Harris.[3] And in the book Quiverful, Katherine Joyce says that single women are told they must wear feminine clothes to prove to their fathers that they are virtuous women worthy of protection. 

Harris suggests that beauty “will attract truly godly men to you,”[4] which, in turn, feeds into the idea that to be acceptable to the church, young women should be aiming for marriage. The corollary of this is that women who do not attract godly men, have somehow failed, and that their beauty is a measure of their worth before God. Additionally, these messages carry on once a woman is married: if a man has an affair, it is suggested that it is the wife’s fault for not being alluring enough.[5]

In Eve’s Revenge, Lilian Calles Barger talks about “the beauty cult” [6] and how the church has bought into this, telling women that “our duty as women is to show we care about our looks and to demonstrate this virtue by pursuing physical beauty.”[7] She states, “we’ve been so busy serving the demands of the beauty cult, we’ve muffled our more profound spiritual need,”[8] and goes on to make the important point that “how we view our bodies will affect what type of spirituality we will embrace.”[9]

It is striking, however, how the messages about beauty, and the methods of teaching on it, are at odds with most of the rest of Evangelical methodology. Generally, there is a high regard given to Scripture and to teaching being rooted within Scripture: to the importance of understanding it, explaining it, and applying it to our lives today. Yet this is not the case with messages regarding beauty. 

When it comes to female appearance, messages and injunctions about beauty are laid down as prescriptive without the same rigorous searching in or justification from Scripture. Instead, it is taken, too often, as a self-evident truth, which God would obviously ask of a woman. 

The problem with this is that there are no biblical injunctions that someone should aim to be beautiful, and indeed, the Bible is ambivalent about beauty. In Proverbs, there are comparisons between beauty, wisdom and industry, with the latter two being praised as far more worthwhile. Throughout the Old Testament, it can be seen that the consequences of possessing beauty are not unequivocally positive. 

Consider Tamar (2 Samuel 13) who is raped by her brother, and Sarai (Genesis 12 and 20), whose husband Abram is so scared for his safety on account of her desirability that he repeatedly lies and gives her away. Joseph’s beauty attracts the attention of a woman whose lies see him imprisoned (Genesis 39). Beauty cannot save Absalom (2 Samuel 14:25 and 18:14). Even David’s beauty doesn’t get him a free pass, or happy ending (from 2 Samuel 12).  

Aert de Gelder, ‘Judah and Tamar’ (c.1681), Creative Commons

The absence or presence of beauty in a person can lead to comparison, competition and division between women, rather than to building healthy relationships or community. With the story of Rachel and Leah (from Genesis 29), we see that the competition between two women, including on account of beauty, causes strife within a whole family, down the generations. The unbeautiful one is bundled off as worth less, needing to be married by trickery. Jacob cares less for Leah than he should, and shows favouritism and partiality towards Rachel, which leads to the women vying for Jacob’s attention, with more trickery and deceit, involving two more women, Bilhah and Zilpah, as slave-“wives”. The arrival of children brings more jostling for position, and the repetition of favouritism for a good-looking son, Joseph, creates yet more divisions.  

In the New Testament, meanwhile, we see that Jesus makes it clear to the Pharisees that concentrating on the outer self without doing anything on the inside is like being a whitewashed tomb (Matthew 23:27), and Paul tells women to stop fussing about their outward adornment and concentrate on the inner self instead (1 Timothy 2:9-10).  

Creative Commons image

Human beauty is not a virtue, it is a gift – and like other gifts, it can be used for good or ill, or result in good or ill consequences. It is not enough on its own and it is not the quality of greatest personal enrichment. Sometimes it is ephemeral; and, with its loss, all can be lost, if focus on beauty has been over-emphasized. There is nothing wrong with admiring or enjoying beauty – one’s own or that of others. But it should not be the reason for greater worth or privilege; it should not be regarded as a measure of inner qualities. Nor should its perceived lack become indicative of less worth, or of tardiness. 

Such assessments, moreover, have no firm biblical basis at all. Beauty is acknowledged in the Bible as desirable and insufficient in and of itself.  

The act of demanding that a woman aim to be beautiful to the exclusion or detriment of other qualities, constitutes an act of harm, even of violence, to her. Who is to decide whether any specific woman is beautiful, or beautiful enough? What are the consequences if she isn’t? What is neglected and lost when beauty becomes a preoccupation? If a woman’s social and spiritual standing, or her ethical goodness is judged by her appearance, she is set up to lose.  

Because humans are embodied, and because we interact with God in, through, and with our bodies, what we believe we are supposed to do with our bodies is a key root to understanding how we are to live as people of God. If the messages about body are different for each gender, then we have different Christianities and differently embodied expectations. And this fragments the notion that all humans – irrespective of beauty – are in the image of God.  

When the church decides that beauty is something to be considered as a goal, then extreme methods may be tried for achieving that goal, including such extreme methods as current technology will allow, without due consideration for the dangers and risks that might be involved.  

Our worth before God is not dependent upon our genes, our gifts, or our looks. We are each equally worthwhile to God, and the church messages should reflect this, rather than gendering our teaching to make us do violence to ourselves, either physically or emotionally, to fit in with other people’s notions of what we are “supposed” to look like.  

References 

L. C. Barger. Eve’s Revenge: Women and a Spirituality of the Body. Brazos Press, 2003. ISBN 9781587430404. 

J. Harris. Boy Meets Girl. Multnomah Publishers, 2005. ISBN 9781590521670. 

K. Joyce. Quiverful: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement. Beacon Press, 2009. ISBN 9780807010709. 

H. Peterson and D. McCormack, “Pat Robertson on cheating: Evangelist tells woman she should be grateful for husband.” Daily Mail Online, 2013. URL: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2325542/Pat-Robertson-cheating-Evangelist-tells-woman-grateful-husband.html (accessed 7 January 2021).

J. Piper and W. Grudem. RecoveringBiblical Manhood & Womanhood: A Response to EvangelicalFeminism.Crossway Books, [1991] 2006. 


[1] “Keep Young and Beautiful” is a catchy song with lyrics by Al Dubin and music by Harry Warren, which was performed in the 1933 film “Roman Scandals” by Eddie Cantor. It was repopularised in recent years by Annie Lennox. 

[2] Piper and Grudem, Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood, p.22. 

[3] Harris, Boy Meets Girl, p. 121.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Peterson and McCormack, “Pat Robertson on cheating.” 

[6] Barger, Eve’s Revenge, p.15.

[7] Ibid., 18.

[8] Ibid., 24.

[9] Ibid., 95.

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Graphic Artwork on Sexual Violence in the Bible by Pia Alize

Sexual Violence in the Bible

Here’s hoping 2021 brings positive action and results after what has been a difficult and challenging 2020, not least for groups already very vulnerable to and suffering from gender-based violence. 

Here’s a resource we hope many of you will find useful. This artwork is by Pia Alize, a graphic artist who has produced stunning images responding to gender-based violence and MeToo in India. You can see some of her other magnificent art, or contact Pia at: www.pigstudio.in

We hope these images, capturing references to gender-based and sexual violence in the Bible, will open up conversations that lead to social justice action in faith-based communities and beyond. We will be using them in workshops and teaching sessions. Our hope is they will appeal to a wide and inclusive audience.

If you require jpg files, please contact Johanna: j.stiebert@leeds.ac.uk

Funding for the production of these images was provided by the generous support of a grant from the AHRC UKRI, ‘Resisting Gender-Based Violence and Injustice Through Activism with Bible Texts and Images’. 

Sexual Violence in the Bible
Sexual Violence in the Bible
preliminary cartoon
an early sketch, by Pia Alize
Sexual Violence in the Bible
Sexual violence in the Bible
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The Bible Doesn’t Tell Me So: Book Review

Helen Paynter has written an important book, with the title The Bible Doesn’t Tell Me So: Why You Don’t Have to Submit to Domestic Abuse and Coercive Control (Abingdon: The Bible Reading Fellowship, 2020). Given the depressingly constant stream of findings of abuse in church-run settings (such as those published by IICSA, Independent Inquiry Child Sexual Abuse) and the alarming reports of sharp increases in incidents of domestic violence during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, as addressed in urgent appeals by Women’s Aid and Jewish Women’s Aid (#AMaskWontProtectHer), this book is especially timely. 

Helen is a biblical scholar, as well as director of the Bristol-based Centre for the Study of Bible and Violence. She is also a Baptist minister and a medical doctor. (The latter, while assigned to a past life, crops up in the book, including in some vivid analogies). She is, in short, very impressive and The Shiloh Project has been grateful for Helen’s support and participation over the past years.

This book is written with accessibility in mind. It is a slim volume, with fewer notes than Helen’s (also succinct – given its place in a Routledge Focus series) academic book on another violent theme: Telling Terror in Judges 19: Rape and Reparation for the Levite’s Wife (Abingdon/New York: Routledge, 2020, see here). Evoking a dialogue, Helen uses the direct address (‘you’) widely in this book and brings in her own experiences and encounters, too. After a succinct and thorough discussion on why, to her, the Bible is a tool and solace for the abused, not for abusers, Helen segues into practical advice: she recommends further readings and blogs, helplines and support organisations, resources for churches and for perpetrators, and she details a safety plan.

The book is both inspired by and for Christian women who have suffered, or who are suffering, domestic violence and coercive control, particularly at the hands of Christian abusers, such as their husbands, who use the Bible to justify or legitimate their actions (p.18). As Helen points out, ‘rates of abuse perpetration within church are about the same as rates in the general population’ (p.15). 

Space is given up to (sometimes lengthy) quotations from the Bible; these quotations make the case against abusers. Again and again, Helen illustrates that the Bible depicts God and Jesus as abhorring injustice and standing with the oppressed and the vulnerable. This is taken to mean that God and Jesus side with victims and survivors of abuse and abhor domestic violence and coercive control. Presumably, therefore, the primary audience is not just Christian women1 who have suffered domestic abuse but who also wish to remain in the church, or wish to reclaim the Bible that has been used against them. This book is for survivors who stay – if not in an abusive domestic sphere, or marriage – then in their faith. It is not so much for those survivors who reject and and leave their faith. When leaving their faith, they may well reject along with it the Bible, which they have come to associate with violence, coercion, humiliation and denigration. 

Helen acknowledges the church’s and some church leaders’ part both in active systemic abuse and in inaction in addressing abuse effectively (pp.88-96). She, too, remains committed to her faith, the Bible and the church, giving clear directives on how the church must change (pp.152-59). Like Ruth Everhart (whose book I have reviewed and extolled in an earlier post) Helen is determined to work with the Bible and from within the church to bring about justice.

I admire what both Ruth Everhart and Helen are doing. It is – no doubt about it – much harder to remain inside the church and make it better than to walk away. Both, moreover, don’t countenance the option of easy forgiveness. Helen makes it very clear that forgiveness, while it may be freely given, has its price (p.77-87). Also like Everhart, Helen refers to the impact of MeToo (p.142) and to church complicity in abuse and covering up abuse (pp.88-96); she, too, weaves in the words and experiences of those who have confided in her with considerable respectfulness, and she also addresses several audiences: women subjected to abuse and coercive control, people supporting them, church leaders, and perpetrators (pp.18-21, 150-162).

At various points, reading this book, I found myself enthusiastically agreeing with and admiring Helen. Foremost: her intention is, of course, entirely laudable. I can believe that this book will bring healing and comfort to many Christian women who have suffered spiritual abuse on top of other kinds of coercion, harm and violence at the hands of husbands or church leaders, weaponizing the Bible. That already makes the book worthwhile. Also, Helen’s point that atrocities described in the Bible are not ipso facto prescribed is an important one. Helen’s other book published this year, Telling Terror in Judges 19, makes this point very compellingly. With Telling Terror Helen has chosen to focus on one of the most horrifying stories in all of the Hebrew Bible. Her argument is that both the viciousness of events recounted and the outraged response to these events indicate that this brutal story is not condoning, let alone recommending, the abusiveness it depicts. In this book, too, Helen has no qualms about saying that even revered figures in the Bible sometimes do wrong – like Abraham, when he pimps out his wife (p.48). She also raises the probability that the violence done to Jesus included sexual assault (p.118). Given her audience, that’s gutsy. 

Other things piqued my admiration, too. I very much like the comparison of Hagar and Ishmael with Abraham and Isaac (pp.109-112): I had never picked up on the evident parallels. And Helen also convinced me on the point of why Jesus is persisting on writing on the ground in John 4, where the woman caught in adultery is brought before him: he is averting his gaze, so as not to shame the woman further (p.122)! Helen’s careful reading and imaginative engagement with the story world can transpire in illuminating and persuasive interpretations.

But I wasn’t persuaded by all of the book. Admittedly, this will be due in part to the book not being ‘my cup of tea’: because I’m not in the church and because I do not feel a need to redeem the Bible. I am not someone who feels that ‘Jesus understands’ (hurt, betrayal, suffering, etc pp.113-118). Don’t get me wrong: I’d rather have the Bible be used in Helen’s vein, to defend the vulnerable, than to procure abusers. But I do actually see the Bible as part of the problem. I am not certain at all, as Helen is, that ‘The Bible does not belong to abusers. And though you may hear echoes of their voices there occasionally, they are only found there to be contradicted, subverted and humbled’ (p.11). When I read John 8:31-47, I hear echoes of antisemitism, not righteous anger. To me, these words of Jesus are not ‘refreshing’ (p.98). When I read the metaphors of the early chapters in Hosea or of Ezekiel 16 and 23 (which Helen knows well, of course, but which do not feature in this book), I find God to appear very much like an abuser – as has been discussed fully by other biblical scholars.And when I read Numbers 5, where a woman suspected of adultery without any evidence, is subjected to a gruelling ritual at the Temple and where a jealous husband is explicitly exonerated of all guilt (5:31), I see an abuser who is legitimated by both God and Moses. I don’t see here that ‘women matter to God’ (p.109).

For Helen ‘The Bible can be made to say just about anything, if it is taken out of context’ (p.17). She attributes harmful readings to misinterpretation and misapplication of the Bible (p.26) and goes on to describe and detoxify widely applied texts from Paul in the light of their original setting (p.34). I consider the original context irretrievable and worry about the Bible’s impact in the present. I find the sheer range of the Bible’s contents and its possibilities for both healing and harm particularly disturbing and at the heart and centre of its enduring power and influence. I am wary of deeming this or that interpretation either ‘valid’ or ‘misapplied’: who is to say?

Helen does admit to the interpretation of the Bible being difficult. When she discusses passages of the New Testament, I have to confess to being out of my depth. Helen, too, however, who has studied these texts carefully, says, of 1 Corinthians 11:3-16, for instance, that there are ‘many opinions’ on this passage (p.44) and of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 that she ‘can’t give you a definite answer… there is enough ambiguity about the interpretation of these verses that it is frankly dangerous to pin a whole theology of gender roles on to them’ (p.64). Ambiguity is also admitted elsewhere (p.66), including of the passage on divorce in Malachi (p.72). I think it is great that Helen admits to the difficulty and ambiguity of the Bible and I, again, much prefer this to the interpretations of those who make strong claims and then apply these to exerting dominance and control. But an ambiguous passage does leave a door open for multiple interpretations, including harmful ones. That, I think, is why the Bible can be so harmful.

Helen argues of Ephesians 5:22 (‘wives, submit to your own husbands…’) that this applies only to husbands who are like the Lord – who is elsewhere characterised as gentle, kind to women, ‘non-toxic’ (p.113) – and of Malachi, that ‘God does appear to hate divorce, because he cares about the protection of vulnerable women and their children’ (p.70). Sometimes that just sounds too casuistic to me, while the biblical text sounds far less benign.

I suppose, what I’d like to have seen more in this book is a cry of ‘So What If the Bible Tells Me So?!’ – a cry of outrage and protest. Instead of just admitting to ambiguity, I’d like to have seen more of ‘if people use the text in this way, they are wrong – because abuse and exploitation are wrong.’ Helen says, ‘I take the responsibility of the interpretation of the Bible very seriously. I do not believe that we can twist it and bend it to suit our purpose. Nor can we throw out the bits we don’t like’ (p.23). I disagree. First, I think we probably all – consciously or not – twist and bend the Bible. And secondly, I would say some bits of the Bible ought to be thrown out. Passages where rapists are compelled to marry the women they have raped (Deuteronomy 22:28-29), or the ‘clobber texts’ (Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13) used against any man who in any circumstance has sexual relations with another male and – by extension – against all homosexuals and anyone genderqueer are passages I have no hesitation in calling wrong. I am not chopping them out of the Bible but if and when I teach about them, I do point to their harmful ideologies and the consequences on real lives. I guess I prefer the Jesus Helen describes who also rejects Scripture when it is harmful (pp.120-21), the Jesus depicted as sympathetic to the woman who breaks the law of Leviticus and touches him while suffering a discharge.

I like this book and I will readily recommend it and recommend it widely. I accept that it is not really aimed at me. It is aimed particularly at women in urgent situations. And in such urgent situations, women don’t need biblical scholarship and textual quibbling: they need support and help. Helen’s book provides spiritual support and gives practical advice for finding help. It also offers clear-cut suggestions for making church communities safer, better informed and more hospitable places.  

This book is part of a growing body of resources targeting reform of churches from within. I hope it is widely read and widely used. Much good will come of it if it is. 

You can order your copy here.

  1. Helen is well aware that women can be abusers and that victims can be of multiple genders. She herself draws attention to her use of gendered language and follows this up with a justification: ‘In the UK, cis and trans men and women are subjected to domestic abuse. Abuse is perpetrated in heterosexual and gay and lesbian relationships. I understand this. Nonetheless, the vast majority of abusers are male, and the vast majority of people who report abuse are female’ (p.21). 
  2. There has been a full debate about the ‘pornoprophetics’ of these passages. Their violent potential, including for actual women, has been explored by, among others, T. D. Setel, ‘Prophets and Pornography: Female Sexual Imagery in Hosea’ (in L. M. Russell, Feminist Interpretation of the Bible,Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985, 86-95) and Renita Weems, in Battered Love: Marriage, Sex, and Violence in the Hebrew Prophets (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 1995).
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The Sexual Humiliation Of Men – A Biblical Time Travel

Image of prisoners

Today’s post is by Dr. Mathias Winkler, who studied Catholic Theology and Jewish Studies in Tuebingen and Jerusalem (2008-2013), before receiving his Doctorate in Hebrew Bible/Old Testament from Tuebingen University in 2016. He taught at the Faculty of Theology in Trier and, since 2017, is Assistant Professor at the Department for Catholic Theology at Siegen University in Germany. (Twitter @the_winkler)

The Bible did not fall out from the blue sky. It is deeply rooted in its cultural environments dating back thousands of years, but it is still an important guide for many people today. I was astonished when I took a closer look at the story of Lot in Gen 19:30-38 getting raped by his two daughters. I was even more astonished when I browsed through the bookshelf, that almost no commentator (male or female), called it rape:[1] intoxication followed by rape, intentional and premeditated.

Why do so many scholars hesitate to call this rape? Maybe, there is still the notion that “real men” cannot be raped, especially not by women. Maybe, we still think of masculinity as a monolithic and clear-cut concept where a man penetrates but does not get penetrated or sexually abused. (The mindset would be: There is just one kind of masculinity and everything else is femininity.) Maybe, we are still complicit in upholding such a concept of masculinity. And when I say “we,” I mean theologians and scholars of the Bible, as well as teachers and preachers. Are we complicit by legitimating this image of “real men” with our readings of biblical texts?

Do we think that in ancient times and cultures, there was no such thing as sexual violence and humiliation directed against men – and, therefore, maybe we hesitate to call Lot the victim of rape? I want to take a short socio-historical view on masculinities, sexual humiliation and violence done to men in the Hebrew Bible and its cultural environment. Are there connections and if so, how can they be described? Did the ancients even think about that connection? Why did they and how? What can we learn about historical masculinities from ancient texts and pictures and what is the connection with sexual humiliation and violence experienced by men? To begin to grapple with such large and important questions, today, I want to share a small piece with you.

I want to take a look at a picture from the Ancient Near East which shows the connection between the rivalry of masculinities and sexual humiliation. Scholars of the Ancient Near East and the Hebrew Bible are familiar with the so-called “black obelisk,” which was erected under the Assyrian King Shalmaneser III, who reigned ca. 858-824 BCE. This obelisk (erected in 825 BCE) is today in the British Museum. A small part of it shows the Israelite King Jehu, depicted in the Hebrew Bible (2 Kings 9-10), as bowing to the ground before the Assyrian king, who stands tall and straight (see the picture, second register from the top). Around the two kings stand beardless men, eunuchs who serve at the Assyrian royal palace and in the administration. Two details are interesting, and both concern the connection of masculinities and sexual humiliation.

a picture from the Ancient Near East which shows the connection between the rivalry of masculinities and sexual humiliation

Picture: CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 © The Trustees of the British Museum

The first detail: Jehu touches the ground with his beard before the Assyrian king. He seems to brush and clean the floor in front of the upright Assyrian king. Beards are heavily laden with masculine associations. A beard is not just a bunch of facial hair but also a secondary male sexual characteristic. Therefore, Jehu is forced to humiliate himself with one of those parts of his body that make him a “masculine” man. Of course, his beard is shorter than the Assyrian king’s, showing the male hierarchy: “the more beard, the more man”. Cleaning the floor before the king with one’s beard is also attested in written records as a gesture of submission (Parpola, 1987, p. 6). The beardless eunuchs, who seem to represent a kind of third gender, stand up tall. The ones who don’t show male facial hair are in a superior position to the Israelite king. Is Jehu even less “male” than a eunuch?

The second detail: This bodily posture (cleaning the floor with his beard) forces the Israelite king to show and display his bottom in a way that is pronounced, even ostentatious. In the picture it is the highest point of his body. It seems to the spectator that he is offering his bottom to the other men around him – not only to the Assyrian king but also to the eunuchs, which seems quite odd, demeaning and bizarre. He is ready for penetration – even by eunuchs.

There are three kinds of men depicted on the obelisk (Assyrian King, Israelite King, eunuchs), all assuming different postures and offering different “presentations” of their “masculinities”. The masculinities displayed are not equal at all. The spectrum is hierarchical, and it works with attributes and properties of the male body, which are laden with sexual association (beard, bottom, upright position like an erect phallus). Foreign policies are mixed with a hierarchy of masculinities that is established via sexual humiliation and shaming.

This picture is not singular. There are many other images from the Ancient Near East and Egypt which show competing masculinities in contexts of sexual humiliation. The motif of naked male captives, their arms tied on their backs so their naked and exposed genitalia are visible, is very commonplace. A group of these tied up captives is sometimes led by a victorious soldier in uniform carrying his sword or bow (both esteemed symbols signifying a strong and powerful hegemonic masculinity, because both weapons penetrate the male enemy body). This motif is constant throughout centuries. Where wall reliefs show the conquest of a city, we often see naked male bodies impaled – a kind of visual penetration. Allusions to the sexual humiliation of other men seem to be a very “popular” and common iconographic theme, particularly in imperial contexts. It seems to be a “normal” part of foreign policy to humiliate other men sexually. Such humiliation forms part of military campaigns and of the propaganda in their aftermath.

In written records, too, threatening the other party’s masculinity and bodily integrity in a sexual way is part of imperial propaganda. Hence, in Assyrian Vassal Treaties, the vassal’s masculinity is threatened and slighted. The following quote is from a treaty between Assyrian King Aššur-Nerari V, who reigned from 754-745 BCE (he is setting the conditions) and Matiʼ-ilu, King of Arpad (who has nothing to say at all):

“If Matiʼ-ilu sins against this treaty with Aššur-Nerari, king of Assyria, may Matiʼ-ilu become a prostitute, his soldiers women, may they receive [a gift? salary?] in the square of their cities like any prostitute […]”  (Parpola and Watanbe, 1988, p.12)

This kind of rhetoric establishes a hierarchy of masculinities via sexual humiliation – as in the images discussed above. There is an example from the Hebrew Bible, too, in which King David curses the masculinity of the House of his former ally Joab (2 Sam 3:29): “It may fall on the head of Joab and his house. There shall not be one missing in the house of Joab who has a running sore or is struck with a skin disease or who holds the spindle or shall be struck down by the sword or who lacks food.” The men shall hold the spindle: this signifies femininity; the men of Joab’s house shall be turned into women. Similarly, defeated soldiers in battle are said to have become women (Jer 51:30).

The frequency of such iconographical and rhetorical motifs is astonishing. Furthermore, at that time it seems to have been “normal” (or acceptable) to display and utter these motifs – at least in imperial contexts and in royal propaganda. In those contexts, it was “normal” to portray the enemy or the other party as “less male”, sometimes as feminized or demasculinized (with a mindset in the background that we today call heteronormativity). It was “normal” and okay to sexually humiliate and to rape subjugated or enemy males (in texts, in pictures … also in real life?) because “we”, the superior party, are “more male”. The rape of a man in this scheme establishes the superior masculinity of the rapist. It also diminishes the masculinity of the raped man. Masculinity is zero-sum.

There is one more surprising thing: We see pictures of naked men, tied up in an exposing posture or impaled; we see humiliated men cleaning the floor with their beards. But where are the women? Women were kidnapped, humiliated and raped in ancient warfare (as in warfare still today).[2] But why are the ancient sources so silent about this? It seems to be “okay” to show sexual humiliation of men but not of women. Why is that? Is it more “normal” to picture and verbally describe sexual humiliation of men?

Cynthia Chapman describes another feature of hegemonic masculinity in the Ancient Near East: the ability to care for one’s family and household, especially for women and children. The superior party, which threatens and humiliates other men, does not threaten or humiliate women and children – at least in the virtual propaganda. This way, they show that they – again – are more “masculine”: because they can provide for and protect women and children – whereas the threatened and humiliated enemy “men” cannot and are therefore less “masculine”. The silence about humiliated or raped women is a means of communication between competing masculinities (Chapman, 2004, pp. 46-47.) The suffering of women and children is erased not because it does not take place but in order to establish a higher degree of “masculinity” by threatening and humiliating men. This is, essentially, a case of “taking it up a notch:” a very powerfully masculine man can even rape and feminize other men.

Texts, but especially pictures, are ways of communication that proliferate ideas and concepts in a short and abbreviated style. But who was the sender and who was the addressee? What kind of impact was envisaged? A superior party, who thought of itself as having superior masculinity showed its superiority towards another party, which might be regarded as a potential rival or as a possible threat, through sexual humiliation. Propaganda is necessary to keep dangerous parties quiet and under control: you don’t need propaganda to control the harmless. The media proliferating sexual humiliation and masculine contests aim to keep things clear: “We are more powerful and more masculine than you. If you try to rebel, we will show you that you are not men.” So, the foreign defeated king Jehu, prostrating himself before the Assyrian king, signals to the spectator an example of what could happen to him. The third party involved, the spectator, the recipient, poses a danger or threat to the sender’s superior masculinity and power.

But there is not just a communication “ad extra” but also “ad intra” in those texts and pictures. What did a victorious soldier think, when he saw a defeated, maybe tied up, enemy soldier in front of him? He was told: “Those are not real men.” Does the soldier think of his defeated enemy as someone whom he can humiliate and, perhaps, rape? Was it, therefore, “normal” for him to abuse captive male enemies?

One could say today that it was “just” propaganda in texts and pictures without any link to “real” life. On the one hand, it is still today a widespread phenomenon to sexually humiliate and to rape male and female enemies. On the other, there had to be a link to “real life” experiences of sexual humiliation or humiliating practices: otherwise, recipients would not understand the message. This could have been something experienced by both men and women. At the very least, there had to have been a notion of things one ought not to do to a “real man” in a sexual way. Furthermore, when we today say: “It was just propaganda” we are complicit in this propaganda. We do not take seriously the real outcomes of the propaganda and its basis in real life. We do not take seriously the suffering of victims of sexual violence and humiliation, aided and abetted by the propaganda rooted in hegemonic hypermasculinity.

The Hebrew Bible emerged in such a cultural environment. There are traces of hegemonic hypermasculinity in the Hebrew Bible, which is today a holy scripture and a guide to life for so many people. It also, sometimes, becomes a guide for “biblical manhood” or how to be a “real” man. It is therefore necessary to look for these traces that connect discourses about masculinities with sexual humiliation and to analyse them in their historical context.

We can see how different masculinities compete with each other in the Bible and what kinds of men and masculinities are suppressed, oppressed, suffer violence and are silenced. We can criticize masculine ideals in the Hebrew Bible when they are used to subjugate other men and their masculinities. We can see behind the curtains of power-related male gender hierarchies in the Bible. This helps us speak responsibly and sensitively about biblical masculinities, with the necessary caution not to be complicit with oppressive gender constructions. We can also recognize the broad spectrum of masculinities in antiquity, which helps us to break with a monolithic concept of masculinity in our own contemporary cultures. We see how holy scripture is still complicit today in keeping masculinity as a monolithic and unchangeable block that negates other kinds of lived masculinities. We can do something about it, starting with exposing these dangerous power structures and then resisting and dismantling them.

References

Chapman, Cynthia. 2004. The Gendered Language Of Warfare In The Israelite-Assyrian Encounter. Winona Lake: Harvard Semitic Museum Publications 62.

Parpola, Simo. 1987. The Correspondence of Sargon II, Part I Letters from Assyria and the West.  Helsinki University Press: The State Archives of Assyria.

Parpola, Simo, and Watanabe, Kazuko (eds.). 1988. Neo-Assyrian Treaties and Loyalty Oaths. Helsinki University Press: State Archives of Assyria (Vol. II).


[1] One prominent exception is Susanne Scholz, Sacred Witness: Rape in the Hebrew Bible (Fortress Press, 2010). Another is Rhiannon Graybill, ‘Focus on Teaching About Sexual Violence in the Hebrew Bible’, available online (see here).

[2] For a powerful recent discussion on this, see Christina Lamb, Our Bodies, Their Battlefield: What War Does to Women (William Collins, 2020).

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Looking at men looking at women

Symon Hill is a peace activist, a tutor for the Workers’ Educational Association and a postgraduate student at Luther King House. His book The Upside-Down Bible: What Jesus really said about money, sex and violence, is published by Darton, Longman and Todd. You can find Symon’s blog and read more about his book here.

It is often stated that Jesus said very little about sex and sexuality. I have always been a bit baffled by this statement, because it seems to me that he said quite a lot about them.

True, Jesus said less about sex than about poverty, power, wealth, violence, compassion, and forgiveness. But all these issues are relevant to sexuality. Take Jesus’ teaching that the two greatest commandments are to love God and to love our neighbours as ourselves. Jo Ind has used this principle to explore how we love God, others and ourselves through our sexuality. Jesus’ teachings about violence must surely be relevant to sexual violence. Many of Jesus’ teachings are relevant to sexuality because they are concerned with all areas of life.

Nonetheless, Jesus made comments that are specifically about sex and sexuality, or closely related questions about marriage and adultery. This is before we consider his attitude to family relationships more broadly, which were challenged by his very lifestyle: travelling round with his comrades, some of whom had left their families, instead of settling down and getting married.

I should add that I am talking about Jesus’ teachings as recorded in the New Testament. I don’t have space here to go into the many debates about which of the sayings attributed to Jesus are likely to be historically accurate; I am concerned with how we deal with Jesus’ words as they are presented to us.

Is Matthew 5:27-28 liberating or oppressive?

One of Jesus’ most well-known teachings about sexuality is found in the Sermon on the Mount. It is only two sentences long, yet it is a saying that I have been reflecting on, and wrestling with, for years.

The translation is itself controversial. Here’s the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV):

You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery”. But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

Other translations speak of a “married woman.” Some replace “lust” with “desire,” “a view to lusting” or “a hope of sex”. The main Greek word in question, epithymia, is used elsewhere in the New Testament to refer to desires in which no sexual element is involved.
This teaching raises questions that are relevant to many people, whatever their sexuality, religion or beliefs. How is it ethical to behave when you see a stranger whom you find attractive? Does it depend on whether you are single? What if you realise the stranger is married? Is this a question solely about your behaviour or about your feelings and thoughts as well?

These questions often come up when I lead workshops on sexual ethics, and on sexuality in the Bible. One of the first workshops at which I explored this passage was at BiCon, the UK’s Bisexual Convention. This two-sentence teaching of Jesus got people talking so much that there was barely time to discuss anything else. I was delighted by how many people had turned up. Very few were Christians, and most were unfamiliar with the Bible. This passage divided them immediately.

On the one hand were those who found it liberating. Somebody described it as “quite feminist”. They saw Jesus as telling men not to objectify women. To them, he seemed to be attacking sexism and sexual harassment. This seemed more progressive and encouraging than the homophobia and biphobia that some had experienced from religious groups.       

Then were those who found it judgemental. For them, it was about attempts to control people’s emotions and to “condemn sexual feelings.” Some saw it as similar to other judgemental attitudes that they associated with religion. 

I have since led discussions on this passage with both Christian and secular groups. Within the BiCon group, some who viewed the passage positively said that it wasn’t about judging a sexual feeling but about a decision to focus on such a feeling, which would show no respect for someone who did not reciprocate the attraction. In Christian groups, I have heard it said that Jesus was criticising “sexual fantasising.”

Many workshop participants – including people of varied sexualities and genders – have said that they find it hard not to feel sexual attraction to strangers, even when in monogamous relationships. Of course, there are some people who are asexual and unlikely to have such feelings, while others report that they don’t experience sexual feelings outside of relationships (some such people describe themselves as demisexual).

Dealing with desire

Sadly, there is one thing about which we can be sure. This passage has been used for centuries to make people feel bad about sex; not just bad about unethical or selfish sex, but negative about their bodies and sexuality altogether. This has often had little connection with the teachings of Jesus, and it has done immeasurable harm. Today, some stretch this passage to condemn all sorts of things that it does not mention. For example, Phil Moore discusses this passage in a chapter entitled “Jesus on pornography and masturbation.” He argues that Jesus’ teaching here means that Christians should not masturbate, despite the fact that Jesus does not explicitly (or implicitly) say anything about this.

Jesus’ teaching in vv. 27-28 appears just after he is reported to have said:

You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “Whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement. (Matthew 5:21-22; NRSV)

Anyone feeling smug because they have never broken the commandments was reminded that they could break them in their heart. They were in no position to judge others’ sins when they sometimes wanted to commit the same sins. It seems that part of Jesus’ purpose in these teachings is to encourage people not to be judgemental of others but to recognise their own limitations. It is ironic that these teachings are now used to judge and condemn others.

But what’s this about being angry? All the gospels present Jesus as angry on several occasions. In the light of this, it may well be that Jesus was referring to anger that was deliberately cultivated and maintained. If so then “desire” or “lust” may likewise be about deliberate intention; not an instinctive feeling but a developed desire.

Power and victim-blaming

Jesus, like all humans, was affected by his culture and context (he could not have been human if he were not). Some interpreters, understandably, want to dispense with some of the specifics of this passage and get to the general principles. In The Message, the reference to gender is taken out. There is reference instead to “another’s spouse” (see here). I can see the reasons for this, but it means that a crucial element is overlooked. Jesus was not talking only about sex. He was talking about power.

We know only too well that women are often blamed for the sexual sins of men. In our own culture, men are widely assumed to be more sexual than women. But there are also many cultures in which women are assumed to be the ones who are more sexual, enticing men into sex. Even in Britain today, as in many countries, rape victims are sometimes blamed for rape: for wearing revealing clothes, for being drunk, for acting in ways that are seen to reduce the seriousness of rape, or even to invite rape.

Victim-blaming happens frequently in cases of sexual violence. Usually, however, the victim has markedly less power than the perpetrator: on account of being female, or a child, a migrant, poor or less well respected than the abuser.

In this context, Jesus tells men that they are responsible for how they behave sexually towards women. They cannot blame the woman for tempting them, or for dressing seductively. If they develop adulterous feelings in their hearts, they have committed adultery.

When I became a Christian in my late teens, I heard people say that Christian women should dress modestly, so that Christian men would not be tempted. It seems to me now that such an argument might have received short shrift from the Jesus who told men to take responsibility for their attitudes towards women.

People and objects

Nadia Bolz-Weber argues that in this teaching, Jesus is basically saying, “Love your neighbour. People aren’t objects. Let’s not cause each other harm.”

But are we at risk of making Jesus sound suspiciously modern? In Jesus’ society (and in many others), adultery was to some extent a property crime – the theft of another man’s wife. Because of this, William Loader rejects the notion that Jesus was upholding women’s rights. He argues that Jesus’ comment “does not address the rights of women” but “has the effect of protecting male rights, the rights of the other man.”

It seems to me that this does not sit well with a key aspect of the rest of Jesus’ teaching: his generally dismissive attitude to property. As Jesus’ followers left their businesses behind, and he told them not to worry about what they would eat tomorrow, it is unlikely that they would expect him to uphold property rights in relation to either women or objects. For this reason as much as any other, I am inclined to reject Loader’s argument and agree with April DeConick when she writes that Jesus’ teachings reflect “an effort to improve the quality of women’s lives during his time.”        

Maybe we need to hold in tension the varied reactions that I encountered in the workshops looking at this passage. Perhaps we need to consider that Jesus’ teaching leads not only to an emphasis on consent and a rejection of sexual objectification but that it possibly takes this to a greater extreme than modern secular liberals are likely to go (for example, a queer Christian friend of mine believes he should not fantasise about someone while masturbating without their consent).

This is not an easy passage. I know I will continue to wrestle with it, and to appreciate different interpretations of it. But there is one thing of which I am convinced: this teaching of Jesus, which has been used to cause so much harm by condemning people’s sexuality, can be used so much more healthily – to promote sexual wholeness and to challenge sexual violence. To me, this is an illustration of why, if we want to engage in a healthy and helpful exploration of the ethics of sex and violence, Jesus’ teachings are a good place to start.

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Leaving a high-control faith behind – an auto-ethnographic account

by Heather Ransom

Heather Ransom is a PhD student at Edge Hill University. She is currently researching the effects of religious ostracism when leaving the Jehovah’s Witness religion. Specifically, she is exploring the impact on identity, self-esteem and belonging, as well as wider detriments to mental health and wellbeing.

Leaving a high-control faith behind – An auto-ethnographic account

Note: All scriptures quoted are from the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures, as used by Jehovah’s Witnesses (the JW version of the Bible)

My relationship with the Bible started in infancy. My mother, a perfect example of Jehovah’s Witness (JWs) recruitment, was a doorstep convert when she was 22 years old. Consequently, myself and my siblings were raised in a strict, Bible-based religious environment, with ‘the meetings’ (church) three times a week. We also had an active preaching schedule every Saturday morning (door knocking). My father did not convert, despite my mother’s dominant personality, which meant we came from what was described as a ‘divided household’.

My early life of ‘inculcation’ (Deuteronomy 6:6,7) into the JW faith included a plethora of images of paradise (Psalms 37:10,11), interspersed with those of death and destruction as described in the Bible. Zechariah 14:12 remains dominant in my mind. Here, the destruction of the ungodly is described:

their flesh will rot away while they stand on their feet, their eyes will rot away in their sockets, and their tongues will rot away in their mouths.

Scriptures such as this one, and the powerful imagery used in the literature to convey Armageddon, had a significant impact on my young mind, and kept me in fear for many years. Interestingly, the only mention of Armageddon in the Bible is in Revelation 16:16, yet it forms one of the main tenets of the JW faith. Believing that the world was full of wickedness, and that the JWs are the one true faith, I was taught that soon ‘Jehovah’ (the vocalisation of the Hebrew tetragrammaton YHWH together with the vowels of the Hebrew word for ‘LORD’ that is pronounced) would annihilate all those who do not believe, and as long as I stayed faithful, I would live forever in paradise.

After decades of devout membership, and for many reasons, I decided to leave the JWs. The maltreatment I experienced from the elders (church leaders), which felt both spiritually and psychologically abusive, made me start to question the love that is supposed to mark true Christians (John 13:34,35). I started to analyse critically, the shunning doctrine, and could not align this with the tenets of scripture regarding love (Love never fails – 1 Corinthians 13:8), judging (Stop judging, that you may not be judged – Matthew 7:1-5), forgiveness (If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly father will also forgive you – Matthew 6: 14,15) and imperfection (We all stumble many times – James 3:2). It seemed to me that when a ‘brother’ or ‘sister’ is at their lowest ebb, disfellowshipping them (being forced to leave – similar to excommunication) for their ‘sins’ and, in doing so, depriving them of the assistance they need is akin to depriving a sick person of their medication

Described as a loving arrangement, JWs are required to shun those who have been disfellowshipped. This has a two-fold purpose: (1) to protect the congregation from the influence of the defector, and (2) to motivate the ex-member to return to the fold. However, more recently, former JWs who had left voluntarily (as I did), have also reported experiencing shunning from their family and friends.

Consequently, JWs are considered a high-cost group  (Scheitle & Adamczyk, 2010) as exiting, whether forced (disfellowshipped) or voluntary, typically has negative consequences. These might include, amongst others, loss of supportive ties, challenges to self-perceptions and psychological distress. The adverse effects of ostracism are well-established within the wider psychological literature (Case & Williams, 2004; Wesselmann & Williams, 2017; Williams, 2001; Williams, 2007). Although there has been diminutive research amongst former JWs, leaving religiously exclusive groups generally has been associated with diminished wellbeing; in addition, ostracism (religious shunning), amongst other things, has been identified as a barrier to exit (Scheitle & Adamczyk, 2010).

As I traversed my own journey upon leaving the JWs, it became apparent that leaving experiences and outcomes were not the same. I wanted to explore if there were differences in wellbeing between those who had been disfellowshipped compared to those who had left voluntarily. I also aimed to examine the impact of forming alternative social support following religious exit. For example, social media groups set up by former JWs may act as a buffer against the effects of shunning, by allowing former members to build new relationships. Finally, I wanted to assess whether earlier socialisation into the JWs (being born and raised JW), as opposed to adult conversion, may differentially affect the process of identity transition post-exit.

Leaving the Jehovah’s Witnesses

The Bible retains a significant influence within Christian religions, and although modernity has meant that some Christian faiths have adopted modern concepts, such as female priests/vicars, more fundamentalist Christian religions have not. This is perhaps, in part, due to scriptures such as 1 Timothy 2:11, 12 where the apostle Paul states:

Let a woman learn in silence with full submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man, but she is to remain silent.

Similarly, other Bible verses paint the woman as inferior in intellect. For example, 1 Corinthians 14:34,35 states that if a woman wants to learn something, she must ask her husband at home, as it would be a disgraceful thing for a woman to speak in the congregation. Further, submission to the male is encouraged in passages which urge women to have deep respect, a quiet and mild spirit, and to be subject to their husbands. Indeed, the scriptures relate that Sarah referred to her husband Abraham as ‘Lord’ (1 Peter 3:6), and although there are some positive female references in the Bible (for example, the prophetess Deborah), derogatory figures are often portrayed as female. The great harlot of Revelation 18:1 for example, and the nation of Israel, referred to as an unfaithful wife in Ezekiel 16, with the entire chapter peppered with references to prostitution. Similarly, the book of Jeremiah chapters 2-5 describes Israel as a woman trained in wickedness, stained with the blood of the innocent (2:33, 34), and having the brazen look of a wife who commits prostitution (3:3).

In light of this less-than-positive view of women often portrayed in the Bible, it could be postulated that attitudes in some fundamentalist-style religions who adhere closely to the scriptures remain archaic in nature. Indeed, the qualitative data I have recorded as part of my doctoral thesis offers some support for the notion that fundamentalist organisations, such as the JWs, may mean women are not taken seriously when it comes to issues such as domestic violence and misogyny. For example, one participant was prevented from reporting domestic violence to the authorities, because of the ‘reproach it would bring upon Jehovah’s name, and to the congregation’. This respondent was ‘disfellowshipped’ from the congregation for talking about the abuse, rather than keeping silent, and thus cut off from all her social support.

Being disfellowshipped from the JWs is a serious matter. Congregants are not permitted to talk to disfellowshipped ones; therefore, anyone disfellowshipped is effectively silenced. There are many reasons for which a JW can be disfellowshipped, these include, but are not limited to: sex before marriage (fornication), sex outside of marriage (adultery), all forms of homosexuality, viewing pornography, smoking tobacco, drug taking and gambling. Other JWs leave the religion of their own free will because they find the way of life restrictive, or have experienced what they perceive as unjust treatment. Nevertheless, despite the method of exit, former JWs typically report religious ostracism from their family, friends and the congregation in general.

In conclusion, although ostracism is well-researched, religious ostracism remains a harmful phenomenon in contemporary society, the effects of which are under-explored. By studying religious ostracism, and recognising its harmful effects, including exploring the factors which may affect outcomes, attempts may be made to offer further support to those who transition out of high cost religions such as the JWs.

References

Case, T. I., & Williams, K. D. (2004). Ostracism : A metaphor for death. New York : Guilford Press.

Scheitle, C. P., & Adamczyk, A. (2010). High-cost religion, religious switching, and health. Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications. doi:10.1177/0022146510378236

Wesselmann, E. D., & Williams, K. D. (2017). ‘Social life and social death: Inclusion, ostracism, and rejection in groups’. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 20(5), 693-706. doi:10.1177/1368430217708861

Williams, K. D. (2001a). Ostracism : The power of silence. New York: Guilford Press.

Williams, K. D. (2007). ‘Ostracism: The kiss of social death’. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 1(1), 236-247. doi:10.1111/j.1751-9004.2007.00004.x

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