close

Bible

Silencing, Shiloh, and the story of David Oluwale

Today’s post is by Tasia Scrutton who is Associate Professor at the University of Leeds. Her research interests include philosophy of religion, philosophy of emotion, and philosophy of psychiatry, as well as theology, and social epistemology.

Special thanks to Lucy Moore and her wonderful contributions to Leeds Civic Trust and Wikipedia.

Just hours after the Leeds Civic Trust installed the blue plaque commemorating the distressing and suspicious death of David Oluwale in 1969, the plaque was stolen. This occurred on the night of 25th April 2022 and is being treated as a hate crime.

At the time of his death in May 1969, David Oluwale, who had come to England from Nigeria in 1949, in search for a better life, was homeless and living in Leeds. He had already experienced ongoing ‘systemic, varied and brutal’ abuse by individual police officers. This was witnessed by other members of the police, who made no effort to prevent it (Sim 2010 159). Ultimately, Oluwale drowned in the local river, aged 39. 

Independent witnesses testified to seeing two uniformed police officers chasing Oluwale along the river on the night he drowned. Two police officers were eventually convicted of grievous bodily harm, though not of manslaughter. Activists have documented the way in which the court case was whitewashed through the portrayal of Oluwale as dirty, an animal, and a burden and menace to society; the judge instructed the jury to find the police officers not guilty (see Aspden, 2008).

David Oluwale (image with thanks to Yorkshire Post and Wikipedia)

The theft of the blue plaque, 53 years after Oluwale died, is another attempt to deny the existence of Oluwale, or, alternatively, to protest against the commemoration of Oluwale’s wrongful death. It both seeks to silence structural, including police, racism, while also demonstrating that such racism is alive and well in the UK today.

Silencing people’s stories – and especially the stories of disadvantaged and disempowered groups – is a familiar theme also to perceptive readers of the Bible. A comical Easter cartoon depicts Jesus’ male disciplines, just after the female disciples tell them they have seen the risen Jesus, saying to the women, ‘thank you ladies, we’ll take it from here’. The cartoon is apt, since, while it is clear from the Gospels that women were among Jesus’ disciples, Christian Scriptures were written and interpreted largely by men, with male interests and experiences in mind (see e.g. the important work of Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza). 

The story in Judges 21 after which the Shiloh Project is named is a particularly sinister example of the silencing of women’s stories in the Hebrew Bible. (For the full account of the origins of the Shiloh Project and its name, including the story of Judges 21, see here.)

Silencing can be deliberate or inadvertent, even unconscious; it can be performed by individuals, or groups, or it can be systemic. The philosopher Miranda Fricker draws attention to two kinds of ‘epistemic injustice’ (that is, injustice relating to people as knowers) (see Fricker, 2007). These forms of epistemic injustice relate closely to silencing and shed further light upon it. 

The first of these is ‘testimonial injustice’, which happens when someone is not believed because of the type of person they are. An example Fricker gives of this is of a Black man who is not believed by the police, precisely because he is Black. The example is relevant to the case of Oluwale because, while the violence against him was not a mere case of testimonial injustice, the fact that he could be abused by police officers without them having to fear he could press charges against them, certainly is. Of course, Oluwale would more likely be disbelieved not only because he was Black in a systemically racist wider setting, but also because he was homeless. This shows how different aspects of a person’s identity (being Black; being a migrant; being homeless) intersect, so that the person is even more likely to be a victim of testimonial injustice. The police officers, in contrast, had what is called ‘a credibility surplus’: this means, their testimony was likely to be believed. 

Indeed, Oluwale’s case was highly unusual, in that his death ‘resulted in the first successful prosecution of British police officers for involvement in the death of a black person’ (see here). The reason was that there were other witnesses deemed reliable, as well as other evidence of gross misconduct concerning one of the police officers sentenced for grievous bodily harm. 

The second kind of epistemic injustice Fricker discusses is called ‘hermeneutical injustice’. This is where disadvantaged groups of people do not have access to concepts that help them make sense of their experience, or to communicate their experience to others. Hermeneutical injustice often results from the reality that disadvantaged groups do not get to have input into formulating the concepts that are supposed to reflect human experience: precisely because, as a group, they are not considered, or not considered consequential enough for their experiences to be taken seriously – or even just acknowledged. 

An example Fricker gives of hermeneutical injustice is of a (real life) woman who experienced sexual harassment at work but before the concept ‘sexual harassment’ was named, or talked about, or better understood. As a result, the woman was unable to explain why she felt miserable at work, became depressed, and ultimately left her job. She was unable to get another job (since her reason for leaving her previous job, without any reference, was mystifying) and was also unable to claim unemployment benefits (because she was understood as having left her job without good reason). The lack of a concept, such as ‘sexual harassment’ in this case, not only affected others’ opinions of her and of her material circumstances, but also her own self-esteem: she was unable to explain her unhappiness and her reasons for leaving her job not only to others, but also to herself.     

The example of hermeneutical injustice is strikingly relevant to the case of the women of Shiloh. The mass rape of the women is not called a mass rape in the biblical text, because the word ‘rape’ (today meaning, to be penetrated against one’s consent with the perpetrator knowing consent to be absent) was not understood in those terms when the biblical narrative was written. While rape (i.e. what the word now signifies) certainly existed (and hurt and harmed just as much), the experience of women – the group most often depicted as victims of rape in biblical and other ancient texts – was not considered important enough for there to be a concept that expressed the world from their point of view.

One might imagine the women in the Shiloh story, like the woman who suffered sexual harassment, wondering why they felt distressed, violated, depressed, but without the resources or language to make sense of their experience. Alternatively, perhaps they did have some concept that described their experience, but since their perspective was never written down, it was not conveyed in the biblical story – thereby enabling the story to perpetuate rather than challenge sexual violence against women.

Silencing, then, can be blatant and crass, as when the plaque telling Oluwale’s story is stolen; or, it can be more subtle, as when particular people do not get input into the concepts used by the rest of their society. It can be individual, as when a police officer refuses to believe a person who is Black, but more often it has a systemic dimension, too, as when police officers in general are less likely to believe persons who are Black, or homeless, or when an entire group lacks or is denied certain concepts or hermeneutical resources. In every one of these cases, silencing is brutal and destructive. Silencing is also deep-rooted, insidious, and pernicious; it works in different, often invisible, but extremely harmful, ways. Because of this, it is easy to feel hopeless: because it is not clear what we can do in response to something that is both subtle and systemic.

One thing we can do is to keep the stories of people like Oluwale and the women of Shiloh alive.

References

Aspden, Kester (2008). The Hounding of David Oluwale. London: VintageISBN 978-0-099-50617-1

Fricker, Miranda (2007). Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Sim, Joe (January 2010). The Hounding of David Oluwale by K. Aspden. The British Journal of Criminology50 (1): 158–161. doi:10.1093/bjc/azp073

read more

Legitimising Sexual Violence: Contesting Toxic Theologies that Valorise Suffering as Redemptive

George Zachariah is a lay theologian of the Mar Thoma Church. He has been working as a theological educator for the last two decades in India and in other countries. Currently, he is serving Trinity Methodist Theological College as Wesley Lecturer in Theological Studies. In this article, George reflects on toxic atonement theologies that valorise suffering as redemptive. His theological perspectives are informed by his long-standing association with different social movements. He has published several articles and books on ecotheology, climate justice, and human sexuality, including Decolonizing Ecotheology: Indigenous and Subaltern Challenge (Wipf and Stock, 2022), coedited with Lily Mendoza.

George Zachariah

“I went to my pastor twenty years ago. I’ve been trying to follow his advice. The priest said, I should rejoice in my suffering because they bring me closer to Jesus. He said, ‘Jesus suffered because he loved us.’ He said, ‘If you love Jesus, accept the beatings and bear them gladly, as Jesus bore the cross.’ I’ve tried, but I’m not sure anymore. My husband is turning on the kids now. Tell me, is what the priest told me true?”[1]

“Go back to him… Learn how to adjust to his moods…don’t do anything that would provoke his anger…Christ suffered and died for you on the Cross…Can’t you bear some suffering too? This is the voice of the church—the words of a priest counseling a woman who was being battered by her husband every single day of her married life. She went to the church for refuge and for moral and spiritual support. What she received instead was advice to learn submissiveness and obedience in a distorted relationship and abusive marriage.”[2]

Sexual harm in general, and intimate violence in particular, are not just heinous crimes that some “bad people” commit out of lust and anger. These are eruptions of male privilege and heteropatriarchal notions of sexuality, internalized by both men and women, mediated through social institutions such as family, religion, media, and education. People internalize these hegemonic worldviews as “normal,” and “sacred” thanks to the theological legitimations provided by religious traditions through their scriptures, doctrines, ethics, and pastoral counseling.

Suffering, sacrifice, and selfless love are foundational to Christian faith and Christian living. Invoking the memory of the crucified Christ is always an invitation to imitate Christ by walking in the way of the cross. Paul’s call to participate in the suffering of Christ makes suffering a virtue and a sacred duty: “I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh, I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col. 1:24). In traditional Christian understanding, suffering that we undergo in our lives is intended by God, and we need to endure those sufferings as Christ did and sacrifice ourselves through selfless love for the glory of God. Any attempt to question and abstain from suffering is therefore considered as an expression of self-love, the desire of the flesh.

The quotes above from survivors of sexual harm expose the toxicity inherent in mainstream biblical, theological, and pastoral responses to intimate partner violence. These responses categorically proclaim that imposed torture and suffering are redemptive. They substantiate their arguments with the help of a distorted understanding of the Christ event and abusive interpretations of the Scripture. The dominant expressions of Christianity thus become an ideological apparatus of heteropatriarchy. Eradication of sexual harm and intimate partner violence from our faith communities thus require from us the courage and creativity to engage in counter-hegemonic biblical interpretations and doctrinal reformulations, informed by the body-mediated knowledges of survivors.  

The dominant expressions of Christianity thus become an ideological apparatus of heteropatriarchy.

Scriptural Legitimation of Sexual Harm

It is important here to explore how the Bible has been used to propagate the toxic valorisation of imposed suffering. Mel Gibson’s 2004 movie, The Passion of the Christ begins with Isaiah 53: 5: “But he was wounded for our transgression, crushed for our iniquities, upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruise we are healed.” Gibson then invites us to watch the last 12 hours of Jesus’ life in a highly graphic way. The gospel according to Mel Gibson proclaims that imposed torture is redemptive, and it is the bruises of that torure that heal us.

Here, it is important for us to understand the Isaiah text in its context. This text is part of four texts (42.1-4; 49.1-6; 50.4-11; 52.13-53.12) generally known as “servant songs.” The way Isaiah 53:5 has been interpreted by isolating it from its larger context and identifying Jesus as the servant is a highly disputed issue. That said, the early church identified Jesus as the servant (Acts 8.32-35; Phil 2. 6-11; 1 Pet 2. 22-25), and the Markan narratives of Jesus’ foretelling of his imminent death (Mk 8. 31; 9.30-32; 10; 33-34) have also been interpreted to ‘prove’ that Jesus was the servant figure in Isaiah. The original historical context of the text, however, indicates that the metaphor of the “servant” stands for Israel in exile. The question here is whether Jesus perceived his death as an atoning sacrifice. As we know, none of the gospels quote from the “servant songs” to interpret Jesus’ death as atoning sacrifice, and the quotations in Mathew (8.17; and 27.57-60) do not discuss atonement. So, we need to ponder how this theology of “a passive victim as the saviour of the world” emerged and dominated our understanding of salvation.

Atonement Theology and Legitimation of Sexual Harm

Atonement theology is central to the Christian faith, and Sunday after Sunday we celebrate the memory of the atoning sacrifice of Christ. But “What happens when violent realities are transubstantiated into spiritual teachings?” This pertinent question posed by Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker should invite us to critically engage with atonement theology in the context of intimate partner violence. According to Brock and Parker, “atonement theology takes an act of state violence and redefines it as intimate violence, a private spiritual transaction between God the Father and God the Son. Atonement theology then says that this intimate violence saves life. This redefinition replaces state violence with intimate violence and makes intimate violence holy and salvific.”[3] Atonement theology is thus lethal as it legitimizes terror and torture in the name of God.

Atonement theology is thus lethal as it legitimizes terror and torture in the name of God.

To understand the toxicity of atonement theology, we need to evaluate critically the atonement theories. The Christus Victor model is the first model of atonement to gain popularity in the early church. This objective model of atonement combines the motifs of ransom and victory. In the cosmic battle between God and Satan, Jesus died, but through his resurrection Satan was defeated. Human beings are in bondage to Satan, and Jesus is the ransom that is paid for our redemption.

Anselm of Canterbury developed the satisfaction model of atonement as a corrective to the Christus Victor model. Based on God’s justice, in order to forgive sin God needed satisfaction. Who can pay more than what was taken? Only God can pay such a price. But since the payer must be a human, God sent his son to pay the price. So, for Anselm, Jesus’ death was a divine plan to satisfy divine justice in order to save humanity. This theory not only argues that God requires a sacrifice for reconciliation, but also God derives satisfaction from sacrifice. Sacrifice is theologically prescribed here as a religious practice that tests the loyalty of the faithful. In the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac, sacrifice is valorised as an act of responsibility and selfless love.

The third model of atonement is known as the moral influence theory developed by Peter Abelard. This is a subjective model focused on human conversion toward God. Jesus’ death is the manifestation of God’s love for us, and hence his death leads us to conversion.

All these models of atonement focus on the objective reality of Jesus’ death on the cross as the salvific event. Such an understanding of atonement reduces the person and work of Jesus into the magical value of his blood and legitimizes and romanticizes imposed suffering and torture. This is precisely what we see in The Passion of the Christ. By portraying the graphic visuals of flogging and torture as redemptive, Gibson’s gospel becomes religious pornography. The movie provides spiritual pleasure by experiencing the redemption that we received through inflicting pain and torture on Jesus’ body. Atonement theology is sadomasochistic.

Atonement theology is sadomasochistic.

Meditations on the cross informed by atonement theology reiterate imposed suffering and torture as redemptive. Such a faith affirmation compels women to accept passively unjust wounds, hurts, and abuses inflicted on them by their husbands, fathers, lovers, and others. As Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker rightly observe,

“Christianity has been a primary—in many women’s lives the primary—force in shaping our acceptance of abuse. The central image of Christ on the cross as the savior of the world communicates the message that suffering is redemptive. …Divine child abuse is paraded as salvific and the child who suffers ‘without even raising a voice’ is lauded as the hope of the world. Those whose lives have been deeply shaped by the Christian tradition feel that self-sacrifice and obedience are not only virtues but the definition of a faithful identity.”[4]

Women who experience the violence of abuse in their homes come to the sanctuary of the Church in search of solace, comfort, courage, and empowerment. But instead they are indoctrinated by the Church to endure the violence as Christ has done on the cross. 

How do we theologically and pastorally engage with these sisters and mothers who have been brutally abused within the intimate Christian institution of family, and treacherously betrayed by the church? Can our theology and pastoral care provide them healing and wholeness?  How can we promise them healing when our central message is the glorification and valorization of self-sacrifice and imposed torture?

“Christian theology presents Jesus as the model of self-sacrificing love and persuades us to believe that sexism is divinely sanctioned. We are tied to the virtue of self-sacrifice, often by hidden social threats of punishment. We keep silent about rape, we deny when we are being abused, and we allow our lives to be consumed by the trivial and by our preoccupation with others. We never claim our lives as our own. We live as though we were not present in our bodies.”[5]

Women and other marginalized communities have contested the Christology of atonement theologies that romanticize sacrifice and suffering. For Rosemary Radford Reuther, Jesus’s vocation was not “to suffer and die.” Rather, “redemption happens through resistance to the sway of evil, and in the experiences of conversion and healing by which communities of well-being are created.”[6] According to Carter Heyward, “We need to say no to a tradition of violent punishment and to a God who would crucify…an innocent brother in our place—rather than hang with us, struggle with us, and grieve with us….Jesus’s mission was not to die but to live.”[7] In other words, the Christ event does not invite women to suffer willingly for anyone’s sake. Rather, the Christ event challenges women to struggle together against the injustice of all human sacrifice, including their own.

What is the theological significance of the tortured and mutilated bodies of victims and survivors of sexual harm as we strive together to create a world devoid of ideologies and practices of domination, exclusion and violence? Dangerous memories, according to Johann Baptist Metz, are “memories which make demands on us. These are memories in which earlier experiences break through to the center-point of our lives and reveal new and dangerous insights for the present.”[8] Dangerous memories are subversive memories. Remembrance of those who have been abused is thus a political, spiritual, and subversive practice, inviting and inspiring us to engage in active resistance against all manifestations of sexual harm and their theological legitimations.

Mark Lewis Taylor’s concept of “anamnestic solidarity” of the victims is instructive here. Anamnestic solidarity, “as a remembrance of the dead constitutes an effect of the dead in the present that re-members, re-constitutes, living communities.”[9] For Taylor, this solidarity with the dead and the tortured affirms that they are co-present in our contemporary struggles for survival and dignity. Their co-presence strengthens those who experience sexual harm today and fight against it. The Eucharist can be understood as an anamnestic celebration of solidarity, which we practise in remembrance of the tortured and abused One. Remembrance of these dangerous memories is a celebration for all who undergo abuse and torture because “every rebellion against suffering is fed by the subversive power of remembered suffering.”[10] The meaning of history lies in the remembrance of those who are crushed by toxic ideologies and social practices. Remembrance of their dangerous memories “anticipates the future as a future of those who are oppressed, without hope and doomed to fail. It is therefore a dangerous and at the same time liberating memory that questions the present,”[11] and empowers all who are destined to live under regimes of abusive power to reclaim their agency and become midwives of a new utopia of hope.        


[1] Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker, Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves us, Boston: Beacon Press, 2001, 21.

[2] Aruna Gnanadason, No Longer a Secret: The Church and Violence against Women, Geneva: WCC Publications, 1993, 1

[3] Brock and Parker. Proverbs of Ashes,

[4] Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker: “For God So Loved the World?” in Violence against Women and Children: A Christian Theological Source Book, ed., Carol J. Adams and Marie M. Fortune, New York: Continuum, 1998, 37.

[5] Brock and Parker. Proverbs of Ashes, 36.

[6] Rosemary Radford Reuther, Introducing Redemption in Christian Feminism (Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998), 104–105.Cited in Weaver, Nonviolent Atonement, 125.

[7] Carter Heyward, Saving Jesus from Those Who Are Right: Rethinking What It Means to Be Christian (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999), 175.

[8] Johann Baptist Metz, Faith in History and Society: Toward a Practical Fundamental Theology, New York: A Crossroad Book, 1980, 109.

[9] [9] Mark Lewis Taylor, The Theological and the Political: On the Weight of the World, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011, 203.

[10] Metz. Faith in History and Society, 110.

[11] Ibid., 90.

Image: “The Passion of the Christ” by six steps  Alex S. Leung is marked with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. To view the terms, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd-nc/2.0/jp/?ref=openverse

read more

Theology in a Divided World: Five Poems

Today’s post is written by Hannah Buckley, a third-year Theology and Religious Studies student at the University of Aberdeen.  In the post, Hannah reflects on the topic of sexual violence and the murder of Sarah Everard from a Christian theological perspective.

As part of my course, “Theology in a Divided World,” I was asked to produce a creative case study that explores a topic related to theology, division, power, and conflict/conflict transformation. Violence against women is a topic I am passionate about but find difficult to express in standard academic prose, so I decided to use poetry. I chose to focus on Sarah Everard’s murder – it is a topic that’s quite literally close to home for me (Sarah lived 15 miles away from my family home in London). Through my poetry, I explore theological responses to Sarah’s murder in ways that capture raw and sometimes uncomfortable realities. Each of the poems is followed with a commentary on individual verses that offers further explanation and scholarly engagement with the themes raised. Some of the verses speak for themselves, so no commentary is required. The aim of these poems is to introduce my understandings of God’s intentions for women as witnessed in creation. Women has a salvific role for the man, and they rule in harmony until Genesis 3. I also dwell on the ways that humanity has failed to honour God’s intention through Sarah Everard’s murder and the police response at her vigil. Finally, these poems introduce a theological response that explores how the theology of the cross must be embraced by the church, but also by women through forgiveness. True forgiveness is not viewed as giving the perpetrator the upper hand but liberating the victim so they can heal. It is not simply, ‘forgive and forget;’ there is no demand to forget. Instead, it releases the victim from a prison of trauma so they can experience God’s healing, and trust in his justice.

Poem 1: God’s intention for creation

God’s intention for creation

1. The Hebrew phrase ‘ezer kenegdo illustrates equality,and Freedman suggests that this title signifies a “power (or strength) that can save” (cited in McCant 1999, p11). This suggests that the woman is defined equal to the man to be his helper but not his inferior.

2. God’s omniscience demonstrates that sequential creation was deliberate. The process of naming the animals enhanced the man’s loneliness and desire for companionship (Groothius 2005, 86). So the purpose was not to establish a hierarchy, but to emphasise companionship.

3. The woman was created from the man’s rib, a body part located in the centre to represent her literal equality (Groothius 2005, 86).  

5. Relationships are defined using the theory of fusion. The man and woman were psychologically and intellectually fused together with God (Hégy and Marios 2016, 191). Their lack of comprehension, however, caused them to fuse with the snake and abandon harmony.

6. This refers to the doctrine of original sin, how our nature was contaminated, and so I have used the imagery of decomposition.

7. Jerome’s mistranslation of Genesis 3:16 removes the man from temptation and places responsibility on the women (Parker 2013, 737).

8. This refers to Tertullian who says, “you are the one who opened to the door to the Devil” (cited in Parker 2013, 732). This shows how theologians, such as Jerome and Tertullian, have misused Scripture to oppress women.

10. This illustrates the issue of gendercide. The writers summarise the crisis by pointing out that in the twentieth century, the slaughter of females outnumbers that of males in war (Gerhardt 2014, 16).

11. Introduction of Sarah Everard’s murder.

12. Psalms will convey problems before focusing on God to change perspective towards the remedy – God.

13-15.The first section of the book of Psalms (Psalms 1-41) ends with a doxology and amen: ““Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,  from everlasting to everlasting. Amen and Amen” (Psalm 41:13). See Lawson (2014, 85).

Poem 2: Ruin and “redemption”

Ruin and “redemption”

Verses 1-9 present the events that led up to Sarah Everard’s murder (BBC News, 30 September 2021).

6. This is a quotation from Sarah’s mother’s statement, “I go through the sequence of events. I wonder when she realised, she was in mortal danger” (BBC News, 30 September 2021).

9. This verse is a description of a photo of mourners paying tribute to Sarah Everard (see Sinclair 2021). This relates to peacebuilding because it emphasises the absence of peace that women presently experience. Sarah’s murder sparked the “Reclaim These Streets” movement, members of which planned Everard’s vigil, and strives to make the streets safer for women. This protest movement is concerned with liberation, so women aren’t afraid to walk outside at night; it isn’t about forgiveness but reform.

10. This links to the previous poem, which shows that God’s will in creation was for harmony and equality, not for division and gendercide.

11. The emphasis in the second section of Psalms (Psalms 42-72) is on redemption. Sarah Everard, on the other hand, was not redeemed, and women are still victims of abuse. Asking for redemption through prayer is the only alternative.

12. This links to the theology of the cross that will be discussed in the next poem.  

13-15. The second section of Psalms (Psalms 42-72) finishes with the doxology included in these the verses: “Praise be to the Lord God, the God of Israel, who alone does marvellous deeds. Praise be to his glorious name forever; may the whole earth be filled with his glory. Amen and Amen” (Psalm 72:18-19). See Lawson (2014, 86)..

Poem 3: The “sanctuary” of Christian theology

The “sanctuary” of Christian theology

1. Quotation from Sarah Everard’s family (BBC News 29 September 2021).

2. The church does not believe that this violence is a theological issue that requires a unified response (Gerhardt 2014, 5). Biblical interventions are thwarted because sexual violence is perceived as a secular problem that does not happen inside the church.

3. Despite this misogynistic root, the church response is passive and sexual violence remains trapped in a secular bubble.

5. The church denies that violence against women exists. For example, they preach sexual purity yet fail to recognise that 25% of the girls in their flock have been sexually assaulted. This is detrimental, as no response is given to those who had their “sacred purity” taken away through sexual violence (Gerhardt 2014, 6).

6. One method the church employs is to compartmentalise violence, making it a problem that only women can solve (Gerhardt 2014, 17).

7. A change in perspective is paramount for anything to happen. Despite manipulative teachings, involuntary suffering is not redemptive but opposes God’s intention (Gerhardt 2014, 91).

8. The continuity between poems is established by this numbing truth.

9. Changing the church’s perspective on this violence will enlighten the church to the fact that it is a sin because it deviates from God’s intention.

11. Changing language from violence against women being wrong to being a sin is not enough. The church must embrace their confession of faith to end gendercide.

12. By embracing a theology of the cross and Christ-centred actions, churches can remove their pride and devote themselves to helping their hurting neighbour.

13. If the church resists and actively opposes this evil, women will be restored as equals, and other misogynist beliefs will be challenged.

15. Because of the church’s silence, it is a bystander that allows this evil to continue.

16. This is a reference to Ravi Zacharias’s scandal of sexual abuse as a direct result of the church’s lack of accountability and care (Silliman and Sellnutt 2021).

18. When confronted with his victim, Zacharias manipulated her by shifting the responsibility of his ministry and those who follow his teaching onto her, instead of reconciling or allowing justice (Silliman and Sellnutt 2021).

19. Zacharias’s victim saw his ministry destroyed as an answer to [her] prayer (Silliman and Sellnutt 2021).

20-21. The third section of the Psalms (Psalms 73-89) concludes with a doxology.: “Praise be to the Lord forever! Amen and Amen” (Psalm 89:52). See Lawson (2014, 86).

Poem 4: The vigil as relapse

The vigil as relapse

The first 12 verses of this poem are presenting the events that occurred during the vigil (see BBC News 15 March 2021a).

1. Although public gatherings were prohibited during lockdown, COVID guidelines did allow some exceptions in cases where there was a “reasonable excuse” to gather, but it was unclear if the circumstances surrounding the vigil met this criterion (see BBC News 15 March 2021b).

8. Couzens was accused of indecent exposure in 2015, and this was not adequately investigated at the time. So, if the police force had proper accountability, Sarah’s murder should have been avoided. Instead, women were arrested and given a fine for breaking COVID guidelines as seen in the vigil.  

10. This refers to the photo of Patsy Stevenson being arrested at the vigil for Sarah Everard. Her face covered the front page of many newspapers, highlighting police brutality and the continual oppression of women (BBC News 15 March 2021b).

14. The church has been noticeably absent in discussions about Sarah’s vigil and her murder. This suggests that the church did not see this as a theological issue, and therefore did not respond.

15. This response reflects the theme of recovery and longing for the Promised Land in section 4 of the Psalms (Psalms 90-106).

16. There is a continuous reference to prayer, and this is seen as the primary step to defeat gendercide.

17-20. Section 4 of the book of Psalms ends with a doxology: “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting. Let all the people say, ‘Amen!’ Praise the Lord!” (Psalm 106: 48). See Lawson (2014, 87)..

Poem 5: The perfection of God’s word

The perfection of God’s word

2. The main challenge for the church is to look upon the cross so it can understand that the task is to help women and not oppress them.

3. Although the church’s primary concern is the gospel, when accepts the mission of protecting women, it is presenting the gospel through its actions. More people will appreciate Christianity when the church becomes Christ for the hurting.

4. This refers to Luke 9:23 (NRSV, 1989). So, to be a disciple is to do what Jesus did and help women even if it results in your death instead of theirs.

5. In Luke 23:34, Jesus asks his father to forgive his murderers. Throughout the gospels, Jesus teaches us to forgive our enemies. This poses an opportunity for women who have experienced violence to offer forgiveness as a gift of liberation to themselves and the perpetrator (Tutu 1999, 16).

6. To ask for the church to draw their attention to the theology of the cross also encourages women to begin the process of forgiving the perpetrator. There are no boundaries to forgiveness because, as Demond Tutu says, “we may not always reach to that ideal but that is the standard.” Therefore, for one to experience healing, it is beneficial to begin on the path of forgiveness. However, this is a choice and a long process, but with their eyes on the cross, survivors know that with God it is possible.

7. Desmond Tutu’s ability to forgive others is an example for this crisis, as he was able to do the impossible and encourages us to work for reconciliation and peace.

8. Tutu took apartheid as an opportunity to mend division so there is an opportunity to allow Everards’s legacy to likewise mend division through reform by means of reconciliation.

9. This ties back to the first poem that shows gendercide was not God’s intention. God created harmony in the garden as a template of how we should interact with the world and each other (Tutu 1999, 200). So, Christians should strive to display God’s intention through forgiveness.

10. This refers to Tutu’s teaching that emphasises that true forgiveness takes away the sting and allows peace (Tutu 1999, 207). This suggests that women can achieve peace, but it is unclear whether this will make the streets safer or only provide therapeutic benefits.

11. Tutu speaks about clinging onto unforgiveness can place us in a prison of trauma where we relieve the memories of tragedy instead of living in liberation (Tutu 1999, 200).

12. Forgiveness shows it liberates and reflects God’s intention to heal the broken through reconciliation (Tutu 1999, 206).

13. The emphasis on God’s perfection is supported by Revelation 21:4, which promotes comfort to those who are suffering because God’s intention for the future is to remove our suffering and pain.

14-15. The last section of the book of Psalms (Psalms 107-150) ends with a doxology: “Praise the Lord. Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty heavens.  Praise him for his acts of power; praise him for his surpassing greatness. Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet, praise him with the harp and lyre, praise him with timbrel and dancing, praise him with the strings and pipe, praise him with the clash of cymbals, praise him with resounding cymbals. Let everything that has breath praise the Lord. Praise the Lord!” (Psalm 150). See Lawson (2014, 88).

References

BBC News (15 March 2021a). ‘Sarah Everard vigil: ‘All I wanted was to stand with other women.’” https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-56402418

BBC News (15 March 2021b). “Sarah Everard vigil: Boris Johnson ‘deeply concerned by footage.’ https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-56396960

BBC News (29 September 2021). “Sarah Everard murder: ‘Our lives will never be the same again.’” https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-london-58739421

BBC News (30 September 2021). “Sarah Everard: How Wayne Couzens planned her murder.” https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-58746108

Gerhardt, Elizabeth (2014). The Cross and Gendercide: A Theological Response to Global Violence Against Women and Girls. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.

Groothuis, Rebecca Merrill (2005). Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.

Hégy, Pierre, and Joseph Marios (2016). “Understanding the Dynamics of Gender Roles: Towards the Abolition of Sexism in Christianity.”In Equal at the Creation, edited by Joseph Martos and Pierre Hégy, pp. 181-202. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016.

Lawson, Steven J. (2014). Preaching the Psalms: Unlocking the Unsearchable Riches of David’s Treasury. Darlington: Ep Books. 

McCant, Jerry W. (1999). “Inclusive Language and the Gospel.” Religious Education 94 (2): 172-87.

Parker, Julie Faith. (2013). “Blaming Eve Alone: Translation, Omission, and Implications of ‘mh in Genesis 3:6b.” Journal of Biblical Literature 132 (4): 729-47.

Silliman, Daniel, and Kate Shellnutt (2021). “Ravi Zacharias hid hundreds of pictures of women, abuse during massage, and a rape allegation.” Christianity Today, 11 February 2021. https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2021/february/ravi-zacharias-rzim-investigation-sexual-abuse-sexting-rape.html

 Sinclair, Leah (2021). “Tearful mourners gather at Clapham Common Bandstand to pay tribute to Sarah Everard.” Evening Standard, 13 March 2021.  https://www.standard.co.uk/news/uk/sarah-everard-vigil-mourners-clapham-bandstand-b923948.html

Tutu, Desmond. (1999). No Future Without Forgiveness. London: Rider.

read more

Remembering Sarah Everard and Reflecting on Violation of Boundaries, Sexual Violence, and Victim Blaming Through the Song of Songs

Today’s post is by Karina Atudosie and Katherine Gwyther

Karina Atudosie recently completed her MA by Research at the University of Birmingham (UK) with a thesis exploring hegemonic power in the Song of Songs. She is currently examining how queenship, gender, and power are constructed and imagined in the Hebrew Bible. Her Twitter handle is: @KAtudosie 

Katherine Gwyther is a third-year PhD at the University of Leeds (UK) researching utopia and the book of Exodus. She can be found on Twitter: @katgwyther

______________________________________________________________________

This month marks the one-year anniversary of the kidnap, rape, and murder of Sarah Everard by Wayne Couzens, then a serving police officer. Sarah’s murder sparked a wave of grief, outrage, and public protest, and debate around women’s safety and the prevalence of gendered violence and abuse of male power throughout the UK.[i]

Only a week after Sarah’s murder first appeared in the news media, came the results of a UN Women survey, which confirmed that sexual harassment, one form of gendered violence, is endemic in UK society. 80% of women of all ages had recently experienced some form of sexual harassment. 86% of women aged 18–24 reported experiencing sexual harassment in public spaces; 76% of women of all ages recognised this experience. Only a shockingly small minority of a mere 3% of women did not recall ever experiencing any sort of sexual harassment. In the year since, multiple reports about other abuses of power and the rape culture underlying them, both inside the police and within our wider culture, have emerged.

But gendered sexual violence is not, of course, a modern phenomenon or a sign of just our times; we find it abundantly in our ancient and religious texts, too. Within the Hebrew Bible, we can call attention to Dinah’s rape in Genesis (34:2), to the ‘taking’ of captive Midianite girls for rape in Numbers (31:18), to the women offered as a sexual sacrifice in Judges (19:24), and to the mass rape ‘marriages’ of the women at Shiloh in Judges (21:21–24). These are just a few examples to be found in the biblical corpus. 

It may come as a surprise that the Song of Songs provides a further example of gendered sexualised violence. After all, many readers of the Bible regard this biblical book as benign love poetry. But that evaluation is deceptive and ignores the text’s traces of horror. We will read Song of Songs to reflect on Sarah Everard’s murder and on how we can use biblical texts to contemplate issues of power, boundaries, and victim blaming in situations of gendered violence perpetrated by men who have and who abuse authority. One aim of ours is to point out how important it is to recognise and to detoxify such situations even when – as in Song of Songs – they are all too rarely acknowledged and confronted. Sarah’s murder was shocking and widely mourned for its violence and for taking the life of a young woman with so much life to live. But such extreme sexual violence – in the police force as elsewhere – is underpinned by other forms of sexual violence, down to microaggressions. We advocate that these, too, must be called out – in our own time and place, including in sacred texts.

The Song of Songs is a series of sensual poems centred around two unnamed lovers who move in the landscapes of the city and nature to be with each other, overcoming obstacles along the way. The Song’s cyclical nature allows the lovers to continually part ways and reunite in different settings. We will focus on the two instances where the female lover encounters the city’s watchmen, or sentinels, as she wanders in the city at night. 

The female lover’s first search for her lover appears in 3:2-3: ‘“I will rise now and go about the city, in the streets and in the squares; I will seek him whom my soul loves.” I sought him, but found him not. The sentinels found me, as they went about in the city. “Have you seen him whom my soul loves?”’ 

The description of the watchmen invokes contemporary experiences of police officers patrolling cities by night to ensure that citizens are safe and protected. Both the watchmen and modern police officers are in positions of authority to enforce the law, and, as these verses demonstrate, the watchmen and their vigilant gaze are believed to have their uses: they are relied upon to provide information that could help the female lover find her beloved. In short, 3:2-3 implies that interactions with watchmen, as so often with police officers or other authority figures in our communities today, are not expected to end in harm or violence. Instead, there is an assumption of trust and an expectation of reliability.

But the female lover’s second time wandering around the city at night describes a rather different experience. And this one is also all too familiar for very many women. This time when the female lover searches for her beloved (5:6-7), she is met with a completely different reaction from the watchmen. Describing her experience of wandering in the city on the second occasion, the female lover recounts the following: ‘I sought him, but did not find him; I called him, but he gave no answer. Making their rounds in the city, the sentinels found me; they beat me, they wounded me, they took away my mantle, those sentinels of the walls.’ 

‘The Watchman that went about the City’ (courtesy of Birmingham Museum).

The watchmen’s actions stand in stark contrast to their earlier interaction with the female lover. Earlier on, their role was passive. This time the watchmen do not only keep watch – they act violently. As well as physically assaulting the female lover (‘they beat me’), it is also implied that they sexually assault her: this is hinted at through the removal of an unidentifiable garment which is here translated as ‘mantle’. Stripping or exposing can be a euphemism or a prelude for sexual assault. 

Some scholars speculate whether the watchmen’s sudden and decisive reaction in 5:7 is in response to the female lover being dressed provocatively while wandering around alone at night, deducing from this that she is a sex worker. This, moreover, carries the implication that a sex worker invites and deserves the watchmen’s violence, or that their violent action is somehow defensible or ‘understandable’.[ii] This a very dangerous implication that legitimates violence, and demeans sex workers, erasing their human dignity and agency over their bodies and sexual encounters. Focus on the female lover’s removed clothing is quite prevalent in scholarship on the Song, and its depiction in the biblical text, without any criticism, let alone outrage, of the watchmen is indicative of victim-blaming. It serves an apologetic function, explaining, even excusing, the watchmen’s actions. Effectively, this echoes the well-known refrain from our own times: ‘she was asking for it.’ 

Such accusations might be launched at the female lover for walking alone at night searching for her lover: ‘She is looking for sex… She is asking for sex… No wonder people assume she is after sex’ – with the word ‘sex’ all too often actually pertaining to ‘rape’. As it happens, the female lover is looking for her beloved – not for sex. And if she is looking for sex, it is for sex with her lover, not sex with anyone or everyone. To imply or argue otherwise is rape suggestive. 

In chapter 3 we saw the female lover’s first search for her beloved; here she wanders by night and encounters the watchmen without any violent consequences. So, what happens in chapter 5 that results in such violence? Apparently, nothing about the female lover’s behaviour has changed; rather, it is the watchmen’s behaviour that has changed: this time they transgress boundaries and abuse their authority. They cross a corporeal boundary by physically and sexually assaulting the woman and inflicting pain on her. But they also cross a boundary in their role as watchmen, by digressing from keeping watch over the city and perpetrating an act of violence against a citizen. In their assault of the female lover, the watchmen go from those who are at the city walls, protecting its citizens, to abusers who use their authority to commit outrageous acts instead of guarding and protecting. In a vicious reversal, the watchmen, who should be protecting the city’s inhabitants, become the ones that women need to be protected from. 

The Song, composed over two thousand years ago, contains a violent motif that is eerily reminiscent of events in our own times, and which speaks to the tragic fate of Sarah Everard, and to that of many other women who have suffered at the hands of men or authorities who should have protected them. Moreover, with these contemporary stories, too, we still often find the same problematic questions being asked: What was she wearing? Why was she out at night? Why was she walking alone? Why did she not see this coming? Such questions reinforce a system where people in safeguarding roles or positions of power can abuse their authority by blaming the actions of the victim rather than the actions of the perpetrator. 

Asking such questions facilitates victim-blaming; at its worst, it conveys that certain lives matter more than others – for instance, that sex workers matter less than ‘respectable’ persons. It says that a woman walking alone at night can expect, in some cases deserves, to be kidnapped, raped, or killed; her clothing and behaviour can become a justification for such horrors. Victim-blaming takes the focus away from perpetrators, from those who cross boundaries and who should be held accountable. 

In both the Song and in Sarah Everard’s case, accountability should be with those who abuse their authority and positions of trust – the watchmen and Wayne Couzens. Whereas the fact that Wayne Couzens was a serving police officer who violated and violently abused his authority added to the horror and outrage of the kidnap, rape and murder of Sarah Everard, the actions of the watchmen are often passed over. Similarly, many less grave infringements of authority by police officers and other authority figures in our own times are also passed over. It is only in very recent times and in response to the emergence of multiple cases that so-called ‘banter’ between police officers on WhatsApp and other media is finally beginning to be taken as seriously as it deserves to be.

Allegations and concrete examples of police malpractice and abuse of power are, unfortunately, neither rare nor isolated. The Sarah Everard case is tragic and has elicited outrage, heartache, outpourings of grief and calls for investigations. All indications are that while Sarah’s kidnap, rape and murder are particularly brutal examples of fatal violence executed by a police officer, Couzens was not a case of ‘one bad apple’. Instead, investigations and tip-offs have shown the scale and depth of both racialized and misogynist abuses of power within the police to be far greater.[iii]

The Song might lull us into thinking about all kinds of sensualities, but we should remain alert to its abusive elements, no matter how fleeting these are. By drawing attention to the actions of the watchmen we can and should reflect also on sexual violence and on the abuse of power in our own contemporary society. 

The anonymity of the female lover in the Song makes it easier to see her as everywoman. Her encounters with the watchmen show us how an ordinary and everyday experience might turn into a nightmare for any one of us when those in power decide to transgress their boundaries and abuse their position. 

We mourn for Sarah Everard and for the many, many women who have suffered violence and lost their lives at the hands of abusers.

References

Davis, Ellen F. Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000.

Exum, J. Cheryl. Song of Songs: A Commentary. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005.

Fox, Michael V. The Song of Songs and the Ancient Egyptian Love Songs. Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.

LaCocque, André. Romance, She Wrote: A Hermeneutical Essay on Song of Songs. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 1998.

Longman III, Tremper. Song of Songs. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 2001.

Smith, Mitzi. Womanist Sass and Talk Back. Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2018.


[i] The rallying cry of public protests, ‘she was just walking home’, is now the name of a movement seeking change.

[ii] Davis (p.278) and LaCocque (pp.119–120) argue that the guards assume that the woman is a sex worker. Fox (p.146) offers a sexual, and arguably inappropriate reading of the text, noting that the description of the lover’s mantle invites the audience to ‘imagine the Shulammite running about the city hastily dressed and half-naked.’ Longman (p.169) and Exum (p.197–199) reject this designation. 

[iii] For just a few of distressingly many examples from the UK, see herehere, and here. The last example pertains to revelations of police misogyny and racism following the brutal murder of sisters Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman. Alongside appalling WhatsApp messages there are also examples of police officers charged with rape (e.g. see here and here). There are also very many examples from beyond the UK, with the US case of Daniel Holtzclaw constituting a particularly shocking example (see here). Womanist biblical scholar Mitzi Smith has discussed this case alongside the book of Susanna (pp.118–140). 

read more

Terror in the Bible: Rhetoric, Gender, and Violence

Dr Robyn Whitaker is Coordinator of Studies – New Testament at Pilgrim Theological College and Senior Lecturer within the University of Divinity. She specialises in the Book of Revelation with particular attention to the visual culture in which the text emerged and the visual rhetoric of biblical literature. Robyn frequently writes on issues relating to gender, sexuality, politics, and the Bible in popular and mainstream media outlets. Here she discusses her new book, which she has co-edited with Dr Monica Melanchthon.

We are thrilled to have Terror in the Bible: Rhetoric, Gender, and Violence out in print with SBL press. This volume of essays builds upon the iconic world of Phyllis Trible, whose Texts of Terror was ground-breaking for naming the terror of gendered violence in the biblical text and reclaiming women’s voices and perspectives in the text.

Our volume emerged from a conference organised by the Australian Collaborators in Feminist Theologies in 2018. We asked speakers to reflect on the state of biblical scholarship and what has changed in the almost 40 years since Texts of Terror was published. Some presented readings of texts not covered in Trible’s book including passages from the New Testament. Others re-examined some of the passages she addressed but with new perspectives. To those conference papers we added further essays from those unable to be present that day.

What has emerged is a wonderfully diverse collection of essays that engages intersectionally with the issues of gendered violence in the biblical text. These intersectional lenses bring economic concerns, caste, ethnicity, domestic violence, and queer perspectives, to name a few, into conversation with more traditional feminist hermeneutics. For example, Jione Havea writes letters that explore Pasifika perspectives when it comes to daughters’ land rights;  Karen Eller reads Numbers as a queer Australian; Gerald West draws upon African women’s experiences; and Monica Melanchthon reads Judges from the perspective of the Indian caste system. Others take more historical approaches. Adela Yarbro Collins traces the evidence for women’s leadership in early Christianity and describes the silencing of such women and evidence for them as a kind of terror.  Several essays also give attention to the roles men play in these stories as either perpetrators, bystanders, or allies with implications for contemporary men to consider.

As the volume took shape, we asked Phyllis Trible if she would consider writing a foreword. I will be forever grateful she said yes as her work informs so much of the book and many of us feel indebted to her.

As one of the editors, it was a rewarding experience to work with both well-established scholars and to incorporate the work of emerging scholars.  Not only do these essays demonstrate the kind of insights that can emerge from being intersectional, they also break down the divide between biblical scholarship and justice-making by reading the text with an eye to contemporary issues that plague society, such as domestic violence or economic slavery.

My hope is that those who often find themselves on the margins of “traditional” biblical scholarship or the church may find something of their experience reflected in these essays. No volume is ever perfect though. I’m conscious that we do not have the voices of indigenous Australians nor those who work in the area of disability. Both would add enormous value.

I end with a quote from the introduction to the book:

“This book challenges readers to recognize how the Bible and its interpretations can reinforce the structures that underlie and renew systems of violence – systems that marginalize, dehumanize, and subjugate. While it seeks to raise awareness and engender resistance among those who are victims of violence, it also, on normative grounds, questions those who perpetrate  and perpetuate violence. In doing so, this book is a modest but critical endeavor that seeks to assign political participation and agency to biblical studies and interpretation, rarely recognized or allowed an interventionalist role in everyday life.”

Please note, you can order paperback and hardcopies of the book from SBL press (there is currently a discount for SBL members).  The ebook is available for free download to make it as accessible as possible.

Terror in the Bible: Rhetoric, Gender, and Violence, ed. M. Melanchthon and R. Whitaker  (Atlanta: SBL Press, 2021)

read more

Margin. Meeting. Mirror. Shifting perspective to read Rahab, the Levite’s wife, and the necromancer of En-Dor

Today’s post is by Alexiana Fry. Alexiana is a recent Hebrew Bible/Old Testament PhD graduate of Stellenbosch University. Her dissertation is on the sin of Gibeah, focusing on Judges 19 alongside Hosea through the lenses of trauma, migration, and feminism. She is currently working on her first book, under contract with Lexington Press, which explores the intersections of speech act theory and trauma hermeneutics. 

When not reading or writing, you can find Alexiana playing with her two pugs, or on Twitter: @alexianadlou

Today’s post looks at three biblical women characters on the margins (or are they?) of eventful stories of invasion and war. Each of these stories is violent; in each of these stories a woman is in danger. But is a straight-out rejection of such stories helpful? Is there another way to read and learn from them?

Dr. Alexiana Fry, PhD.

Margin. Meeting. Mirror.

Rahab in Joshua 2-6, the nameless Levite’s wife in Judges 19, the necromancer of En-Dor in 1 Samuel 28: all three characters have things in common. All of them feature in stories of hospitality and violence. All are considered “other” – inhabiting marginalized places. Each of these women’s bodies constitutes a “meeting place” for men. 

But maybe the biblical author is also through these women stating something rather subversive and calling on us to read responsibly. In what follows, I attempt to read these women for “the dignity of all” and in so doing, seek the God within these stories.

Introduction

I grew up in a white, evangelical church and heard almost no biblical stories in which women played anything other than supporting roles at best. I remember a cute, PG version of Esther,[1] done as a musical play and put on by the children in my church–but that rendition, with Esther in the starring role, was an exception. Biblical women and actual women were mostly on the sidelines. Hence, women were mostly relegated to roles in the home and abstained from anything that could be interpreted as asserting themselves over against the dominance that was “rightfully” men’s. This, inevitably, erased girls’ and women’s visible presence and representation.

Rebecca Solnit, in her memoir Recollections of My Non-Existence, says this about her love for literature, and about lack of representation and its effects:

“You should be yourself some of the time. You should be with people who are like you, who are facing what you’re facing, who dream your dreams and fight your battles, who recognize you. And then, other times, you should be like people unlike yourself. Because there is a problem as well with those who spend too little time being anyone else; it stunts the imagination in which empathy takes root, that empathy that is a capacity to shape-shift and roam out of your sole self. One of the convenient afflictions of power is a lack of this imaginative extension. For many men it begins in early childhood, with almost exclusively being given stories with male protagonists… And the task of finding one’s own way must be immeasurably harder when all the heroes, all the protagonists, are not only another gender but another race, or another sexual orientation, and when you find that you yourself are described as the savages or the servants or the people who don’t matter. There are so many forms of annihilation.”[2]

In pursuit of representations of women in the Hebrew Bible, I notice patterns in some of the stories of my foremothers. I look closely at Rahab, at the Levite’s nameless wife, and at the necromancer at En-Dor. Each depiction is riddled with and even defined by problematic binaries, yet those binaries are also confronted and refuted by the women themselves. In each story, we see borne out what Solnit says: “there are so many forms of annihilation.” But I also see God herself speaking through and imaged in these women.[3] Let me explain this tension.

Margins

The women in these stories are located at the margins—both socially and spatially/geographically. Rahab initially resides in the town of Jericho, one of the first cities in Canaan encroached on by the Israelites as they leave the wilderness. Rahab is “foreign” in relation to the Israelite normative, indigenous to the land that is being stolen. She is a sex worker by occupation, and a woman. Even when she is spared by and joins the invaders, she remains at the outer margin of their encampment (Jos. 6:23).

The nameless Levite’s wife is rendered marginal by the lack of a name and by her designation as a pilegesh, probably a secondary wife (although this word is still debated in scholarship). Some scholars propose she is little more than a sex-toy to the Levite.[4] There is no mention of another wife, primary or otherwise, and no mention of children. Being from Bethlehem, she is an outsider to those of Gibeah or Ephraim. She is, again, a woman. Following her brutal and sustained abuse, her hands reach for the threshold—the liminal, or transitional, space at the border between private and public spheres—showing starkly that neither space, to either side, is safe for her. 

The necromancer (or diviner) resides in En-Dor, which is possibly another marginal location, a town on a border. This place of residence may be significant: only here can she perform her illegal (though highly effective, apparently) occupation of divining. She may belong to a persecuted guild, or ancestor-worshipping religion, and may have to be ready to move at short notice across borders. While, seemingly, well known for her excellent divining, she, too, is nameless, and again, a woman. 

These three women, consequently, in a number of ways all exist at intersection(s), or rather, at borderlands. 

Namelessness can convey precarity. Rahab has a name; the other two women discussed here have not. In the Judges 19 story in particular, namelessness is much discussed; after all, all the characters in Judges 19 are nameless. For Laura Smit and Stephen Fowl namelessness here holds theological significance. They argue that anonymity in this chapter signifies one way to show how far the characters have “fallen from God”: “the loss of a name is a symptom of the slide backward from the creation into which we have been called toward nonbeing.”[5] J. Cheryl Exum argues that the concubine’s anonymity, “encourages readers not to view her as a person in her own right.”[6] Another way to view the story is, like Adele Reinhartz, to see nameless characters of the Hebrew Bible as becoming “types.” In one sense, types are non-specific, but in another, they are representative of the general thing they are designated as: thus, in the story of Judges 19 each of Levite, pilegesh, servant, old man, father, virgin daughter, men of wickedness represents, if not a specific individual, this named category.[7]

In this way, anonymity can be seen to be given a greater place, because it fulfils a rhetorical function and a “universalizing purpose.”[8] Havilah Dharamraj gives an example of how this can be implemented in a reading that emphasizes anonymity as type: “the narrator seems to be saying that every Levite was capable of the horrendous acts described. Every host was potentially helpless against the mistreatment of his guests, and every woman could become a victim of rape until death.”[9]

Similarly, Mieke Bal suggests that:

“The powerlessness of the victims [in Judges (the nameless wives of the Levite and Samson and Jephthah’s daughter),] is the first element of the counter coherence. It is not a mindless subordination. All three young women show, at some point of their stories, some autonomy of action. It is not a lack of initiative or capacity that condemns them, but the ‘might’ of the men, the gibborim, who are socially entitled to exercise power over them. The powerlessness of their situation is reflected on the literary level by their namelessness.”[10]

In some ways, too, the namelessness of both the Levite’s wife and the necromancer of En-Dor leaves us as readers denied of, as Rhiannon Graybill expresses it, “the experience of closure and catharsis.” Namelessness leaves us at a loss as to how to “rescue” or reclaim the women in these stories from what comes next. We may long to save or at least to remember these women and to prevent further marginalization, or silencing.[11] Their namelessness makes this harder.

Moving on from this topic, another commonality is that each of these stories is written from a male perspective, or suggests a male gaze. Male characters are at the center; masculine concerns (invasion, war) and actors drive the plot. The implied gaze is male and heteronormative. This, in turn, contributes to casting the female as “other” in these stories. It is striking that they still have any place in the sacred text at all! Moreover, in her story, Rahab is even granted survival and safety, though she and her family remain on the outside of the camp, not truly brought into the fold (Josh. 6:23). The story of the Levite’s nameless wife, however, ends in her violent dismemberment and dehumanization. While it seems that the necromancer gets a pass, the Chronicler later attributes the fault and fall of Saul to his action of seeking out a medium. In so doing, the narrator blames the woman (1 Chron. 10:13). Not only are the female characters marginalized and harmed in a multitude of ways in the story world; they are also, to use J. Cheryl Exum’s expression, “raped by the pen”: that is, the very way the narrative is constructed violates the female characters.

One weapon widely used in these stories to violate the literarily marginalized women is stereotyping. Stereotyping a person or character makes it easier to depersonalize and to dismiss them. Johnny Miles, who writes on the concept of othering both in the context of ancient Israel and in the contemporary United States, says this in conversation with Michael Pickering: 

“stereotyping is more rigid and inflexible when thinking in terms of categories, and the evaluative ordering produced by stereotyping comes at a cost for those stereotyped who ‘are then fixed into a marginal position or subordinate status and judged accordingly.’ Though often found to be erroneous, simplistic, and rigid, stereotypes nonetheless perform their damage discriminating on the basis of stunted features characterizing them, and they ‘form the basis for negative or hostile judgments, the rationale for exploitative, unjust treatment, or the justification for aggressive behavior.’”[12]

Aggressive behavior often follows when stereotypes are weaponized. Sometimes stereotyping serves to excuse such aggression. Labeling certain women as “witches” and using the label to justify their ill-treatment, is a gendered stereotype. Notably, the necromancer at En-Dor is in some translations called a “witch.” Kimberly Stratton points out how in times past “witch-hunting constituted the hunting of women who refused to conform to societal expectations about proper (submissive) female behavior.”[13] There are other pervasive stereotypes that follow and harm women right up to the present: like those pertaining to sex-workers, migrants, and women of color, who are all disproportionately targeted by physical aggression and sexual violence. It would be remiss not to mention the stereotypes that haunt those in the Hebrew Bible called zonah, widely translated “prostitute” or “harlot” in English bibles. Zonah, sometimes denoting a sex worker, also refers sometimes to “playing the whore,” or “unfaithfulness,” especially with reference to idolatry. While Rahab may be deemed a “good” sex worker, including by those who consider themselves objective interpreters of the biblical text, the affect many readers first assume when reading of her profession is disapproval, even the judgment that this woman deserves what is about to befall the city of Jericho. An action from the same semantic root as zonah is also attributed to the Levite’s wife in Judges 19:2 and this is sometimes pointed to as justification for her gang-rape and dismemberment. In other words, her performance of zonah is interpreted as a crime befitting severe and sadistic punishment. This is disturbing and dangerous.

Meetings

Not only are all three women at intersections, but each operates as a bridge of sorts, as a meeting place for the men in the story. The women work specifically as conduits, in order for the men to progress to the next place in their privileged his-stories. The women’s bodies become primarily functional, even as they lay claim to agency and voice. 

Rahab is the meeting point for the spies and a conduit between resident Canaanites and invading Israelites. She fits in the category of the model minority, or the exception to the rule, in that she aids the “right” side, in spite of belonging to the “wrong” people. She also does sex work, which might compromise her “right”-ness. It is a matter of debate whether Rahab was sought out for the work she does. Did the spies encounter Rahab because they were seeking sex? Seemingly, activities designated זנה (z-n-h) bring less condemnation to the men who seek sex work than to the persons (usually women) who perform it. Words from this root are repeated multiple times and make Rahab’s sex work her prominent characteristic. Is Rahab opportunistically grasping at anything that allows her and her family to survive? Who can blame her? Because Rahab concedes to the invaders’ notions and beliefs about conquest and domination (which is hardly a choice or option for her), she is saved. 

The Levite’s nameless wife is the meeting place for multiple men. She connects the Levite and her father; later, she is seized and thrown out from the house in Gibeah to the wicked men to save the men inside; finally, her dismembered body is the call to war that brings the men of the tribes of Israel together. 

The necromancer of En-Dor is persecuted for her profession. Yet she becomes the meeting point and medium enabling communication and encounter between YHWH, King Saul, and the dead prophet (or rather, “god”) Samuel. The men in each of these stories reach a precarious spot and, regardless of the cost and risk befalling them, use women to escape danger.

Rahab holds the power over the spies’ lives, as well as over the lives of the members of her community. Her actions save her life and the lives of members of her immediate family, but then she quickly relinquishes agency once more. The Levite’s wife starts the story with considerable agency, leaving the Levite. As the story continues, the Levite’s power grows, and her agency diminishes. Every male in her story completely and utterly fails her. In death, however, her body still has the power to bring together tribes for war. The necromancer of En-Dor has the power to raise the dead but her role is short-lived and she recedes again to the margins from which she, briefly, emerged.

Being the meeting place and conduit for men, the women in these stories, while not devoid of agency, are, above all, acted upon. While each finds herself in the borderlands, their bodies act as bridges. Susan Niditch writes of Judges 19, “the tale as told also emphasizes the ways in which women, the mediating gender, provide doorways in and out of war.”[14] Beyond the lens of private and public spheres and the gendered roles assigned them, the in-between nature of the three women renders them dispensable following their use for men’s advancement. In each story, the power these women have is recognized by the men, used instrumentally, and, once they have been used as a bridge from a dangerous place and to garner more power, the women all fade from the story. 

Gloria Anzaldúa writes as a woman caught in the crossroads: “blocked, immobilized, we can’t move forward, can’t move backwards.”[15] Anzaldúa writes this from her perspective as someone on the margins in terms of her sexuality, race, and gender. She remarks on the desire of others to find her on one or other side of dichotomies; but these dichotomies are disrupted in her existence. She writes in a poem, “you are the battleground”[16] and this speaks also to the three biblical women who are my focus here.

The notion of a battleground becomes actual in all three stories. In Rahab’s story, the Israelites invade; in Judges 19, the brutal rape and killing transpire in more war; in the story of the necromancer battle soon ensues. And maybe, as Graybill writes, “we should stay with this trouble.”[17] Maybe we should linger with the stories’ unknowns, complexities, and difficulties. Consequently, I am not advocating a rewriting, or an attempt to make these passages more acceptable to our tastes or liking. Instead, maybe there is a piece (and peace) where we can feel the affect and how it acts upon us, the reader. Maybe, too, if we linger, the deity, also at the margins in these stories, can be found where one wasn’t looking for her.

Mirrors

Isabelle Hamley writes that, “women work as the fixed reference points, the mirrors of male constructions of subjectivity. As such, they cannot have their own representations, discourse, or desires, as this would threaten male totalitarian constructs.”[18] And, as has been demonstrated, each of the women in these stories functions in a situation of threat, and helps men through a situation of threat. Mirroring also entails negative space, projection, and a “reverse image,” or inverse reflection. Analogously, even as the text is a product of the male elite of the time, is there still yet a way to re-imag(in)e without rewriting, to “refuse salvation” as Graybill puts it?[19] Can the mirroring that occurs in these texts function also to capture a glimpse of the deity, mirrored in these women’s bodies?

Yes, the texts can be seen and interpreted in ways that reflect and serve the status quo but maybe they can (and should) also be interpreted in other, even subversive ways. Jeremiah Cataldo writes, “in facing the Other we are judged by her, called into an ethical relationship by her.”[20] Confrontation with the Other can incite critique of the very power structures that are held up and reflected in the narratives. Might such confrontation also change behaviors, so that the future and upcoming “afters” might be different? There may not be repair in these stories, even if YHWH is mirrored therein, but they might hold a mirror up to our own time and bring repair long after they were written and first transmitted. 

While stereotypes and binaries in these stories have contributed to some interpreters placing criticism and blame on the women – Rahab, the Levite’s wife, the necromancer – the texts can also point to other, restorative, readings. God can be imaged into each of these women. Each woman holds something that signifies divine knowledge. Rahab gives what some call a testimony or even “conversion” (Josh. 2:9-13); the necromancer is herself a skilled prophet who successfully conjures up Samuel (literally “god”); the Levite’s wife with her body bears witness and demands justice. In each story, it could be said, YHWH sides with the Other, with the women. Fault lies with the spies, Joshua and Canaanites, with Saul, with the wicked men of Gibeah, and the Levite. The usual binaries do not hold up, the women refuse to fit neatly inside them; binaries disintegrate. As Anzaldúa writes of crossroads that break down dualities: answers are equivocal, found in the between spaces, by “a conscious rupture with all oppressive traditions of all cultures and religions, communicating that rupture, documenting the struggle.”[21]

This account of mine has itself moved from sensation to perception, from margin to meeting. But both of these must be moved through, into a place where we can receive the Other. As Hamley writes, “when one voice has sought to dominate and tell the whole from the point of view of the One, then deconstruction—but not destruction—is needed.”[22] The aim and of this piece, similarly, has been not destruction of difficult and violent texts but deconstruction and a willingness to meet, reflect and mirror.

Conclusion

The personal is indeed political. My attempt at personal encounter with the women in these stories – imagining them as embodied, seeking their affect and mirror image – has proven political. Judith Butler, writing on whose lives are mournable in the face of violence, states that, 

“when we consider the ordinary ways that we think about humanization and dehumanization, we find the assumption that those who gain representation, especially self-representation, have a better chance of being humanized, and those who have no chance to represent themselves run a greater risk of being treated as less than human, regarded as less than human, or indeed, not regarded at all.”[23]

Butler alerts us to resisting stereotypes and dehumanization. Similarly, Cataldo calls us to the performative responsibility of acknowledging the Other. As biblical scholars, we have a choice, indeed a responsibility, to read for liberation, and to refuse to read the marginalized as flattened, dispensable objects. Because, as Miles writes, “stories of the past become in actuality reflections of the present,”[24] responsibility is our duty. As the proverbial saying goes, “may the bridges we burn light the way.”

Bibliography

Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute, 1987.

Bal, Mieke. Death and Dissymmetry: The Politics of Coherence in the Book of Judges. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Butler, Judith. Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. New York: Verso, 2004.

Cataldo, Jeremiah. “The Other: Sociological Perspectives in a Postcolonial Age.” Imagining the Other and Constructing Israelite Identity in the Early Second Temple Period. Ehud Ben Zvi and Diana Edelman eds. New York: Bloomsbury, 2016.

Dharamraj, Havilah. “Judges,” in South Asia Bible Commentary: A One-Volume Commentary on the Whole Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015, 296-334.

Exum, J. Cheryl. Fragmented Women: Feminist (Sub)Versions of Biblical Narratives. New York: T&T Clark, 2015.

Graybill, Rhiannon. Texts After Terror: Rape, Sexual Violence, and the Hebrew Bible. London: Oxford University Press, 2021.

Hamley, Isabelle M. Unspeakable Things Unspoken: An Irigarayan Reading of Otherness and Victimization in Judges 19-21. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2019.

Klein, Lillian R. The Triumph of Irony in the Book of Judges. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1988.

Miles, Johnny. Constructing the Other in Ancient Israel and the USA. The Bible and Modern World, 32. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2011.

Niditch, Susan. Judges: A Commentary. Old Testament Library. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008.

Paynter, Helen. Telling Terror in Judges 19: Rape and Reparation for the Levite’s Wife. London: Routledge, 2020.

Pickering, Michael. Stereotyping: The Politics of Representation. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2001.

Reinhartz, Adele. ‘Why Ask My Name?’: Anonymity and Identity in Biblical Narrative. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Smit, Laura and Stephen Fowl. Judges & Ruth. Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible. Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing, 2018.

Solnit, Rebecca. Recollections of My Non-Existence. New York: Penguin Books, 2021.

Stratton, Kimberly and Dayna Kalleres, eds. Daughters of Hecate: Women and Magic in the Ancient World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.


[1] For a non-PG reading of Esther, see the recent publication by Ericka Dunbar. For more information, see here.

[2] See Solnit (2020: 110-113).

[3] This includes those who identify as women. Taking a lead from trans activists, I move away from “womxn,” because trans women are women: full stop.

[4] This is taken from Lillian R. Klein: “Given these conditions, the Levite seems to have brought the girl for purposes of sexual gratification or housekeeping (or both), possibly because he could not afford the bride price of a wife. The narrative supports this conjecture: the Levite pretends to be more affluent than he really is; and although he pursues his concubine to bring her back, he ignores her in every respect but one: in presenting her to the Gibeaites for abuse, he acknowledges her as a sexual object” (1988: 162-63).

[5] Smit and Fowl (2018: 180).

[6] Exum (2015: 176).

[7] Reinhartz (1998: 6).

[8] Paynter (2020: 32). See more information, here.

[9] Dharamraj (2015: 325).

[10] Bal (1988: 23).

[11] Graybill (2021: 168-69).

[12] Miles (2011) and Pickering (2001: 31).

[13] Stratton (2014: 9).

[14] Niditch (2008: 193).

[15] Anzaldúa (1987: 43).

[16] Ibid. (1987: 52-53, 216).

[17] Graybill (2021: 168).

[18] Hamley (2019: 10).

[19] Graybill (2021: 169).

[20] Cataldo (2016: 19).

[21] Anzaldúa (1987: 103-04).

[22] Hamley (2019: 25).

[23] Butler (2006: 141).

[24] Miles, (2011: 44).

read more

Christmas, Mary, and the new Nationality and Borders Bill

Today’s post is by Tasia Scrutton, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion at the University of Leeds. Tasia’s research lies in the intersection between religion and human experience, including experiences of mental illness, bereavement, and displacement. Her most recent book, Christianity and depression: interpretation, meaning, and the shaping of experience came out with SCM Press in 2020 and you can find out more about it here. Outside of her academic work, she enjoys walking her dog Lola. She also volunteers with an asylum seeker charity, BEACON, whose work you can find out more about here: Bradford Ecumenical Asylum Concern (beaconbradford.org)   

Kelly Latimore, Our Lady of the Journey (jpg purchased from the artist and reproduced with kind permission: kellylatimoreicons.com)

Kelly Latimore’s icon, Our Lady of the Journey, depicts the episode early in Matthew’s Gospel in which Mary, Joseph and the newborn Jesus flee to Egypt to escape the persecution of an oppressive government (Matthew 2:13-23). While many paintings have depicted the ‘Flight into Egypt’ in relation to the plight of refugees, one of the most striking features of this icon for me is the way it highlights the experience of Mary, and especially her fear.

In this respect the icon is realistic, since the fear of asylum seekers who are women and girls is very real, and very well-founded. Women who attempt to flee their country of origin in hope of better, safer prospects are at risk from the same very-real threats to life that men experience, as was devastatingly laid bare with the recent Channel crossing drownings (see here). But women who flee their countries of origin are also vulnerable to additional dangers: to rape, to sexual trafficking, and to other forms of sexual exploitation, both on their journey, and in the place where they seek refugee status. In the words of one woman, who fled from Cameroon, where homosexuality is illegal:

“I came to the UK because I was raped, beaten and locked up in my country because of my sexuality. When I arrived, I didn’t know where to go or what to do and I had never heard of asylum. I thought I was coming to a country where I would be accepted for who I am but that was not the case.

Being a refugee in a new country, you don’t trust people easily, especially if you have been through so much hatred, so much abuse. It took me a while to trust people who told me about the asylum process. When I applied, it was a very long journey of stress and struggle. The Home Office said they didn’t believe my story and refused my asylum claim. I was depressed and had nowhere to go for support. I had to sleep on the bus and the only way to survive was to have sex to get food. It was traumatic and degrading.” 

(‘Anna’, quoted in Women for Refugee Women : Legal Opinion: The Nationality and Borders Bill will harm women)

Detail from Kelly Latimore’s Our Lady of the Journey

In addition to the sexual violence and exploitation they face, women are also more likely to be travelling with children, whose presence makes the journey harder, and the stakes even higher – since women asylum seekers are risking not only their own lives, but also the lives of their children. And especially if the children are girls, they too are vulnerable to violence and hardship, including sexual violence and exploitation.

These dangers might make one wonder, why would any woman take these terrible risks? The answer, of course, as ‘Anna’s’ story highlights, is that the things that make women risk all these things are yet more terrible and fearful still.   

The way in which female asylum seekers are especially vulnerable – what we might call the ‘gendered aspect’ of asylum seeking – makes the UK government’s Nationality and Border Bill, passed by the House of Commons last week, all the more cruel and unjust. Briefly, the Bill allows the government to deprive a person of citizenship, without even notifying them. This can be done, either if the Home Office does not have the person’s contact details, or if notifying them is ‘not reasonably practical’ (see here).

In addition, the same Bill criminalises anyone taking part in the rescue missions in the English Channel. To put this another way, it means that the people we regard as heroes for helping persecuted people escape torture and death (for example, people who smuggled Jewish children to the UK during the Nazi regime), would be regarded as criminals in the UK, according to the new law.

Although it doesn’t explicitly target women, the new Bill is, in practice, misogynistic, since it will disadvantage women and girls especially. This is for a number of reasons, but I will highlight just three here. First, the new Bill will introduce a ‘two-tier system’ that discriminates especially against asylum seekers who arrive in the UK via what the Home Office considers illegal means, such as in small boats. People coming from Afghanistan are among those asylum seekers especially likely to arrive in small boats – and women and girls from Afghanistan are highly likely to be fleeing, because of the newly-installed Taliban regime, which has, since the 2021 offensive, severely constrained women’s and girls’ movements, including access to education. In other words, the new Bill won’t discriminate against women explicitly and directly, but by virtue of discriminating against people who come via ‘illegal routes’ on small boats, it will effectively discriminate against people who are forced to flee from places such as Afghanistan, for gender-based reasons. 

Second, the new Bill will mean that there is a ‘heightened standard of proof’ expected of asylum seekers, and that cases will be considered at a more rapid rate (see here for the Executive Summary).  But women and girls who have frequently experienced rape and other forms of sexual torture are often traumatised to the extent that they do not have a coherent narrative about what has happened to them. Narratives of trauma often emerge only long after the traumatic event itself, because victims of sexual violence and exploitation experience guilt and shame, because being a victim of sexual violence is still a cause of stigma in many cultures, including our own. The asylum process is stacked against them. And asylum seekers are oftentimes interrogated without sensitivity about the violence and torture they have experienced.

Third, as human rights lawyers have pointed out, the new Bill’s clauses about modern slavery and trafficking will make it harder for women and girls who are victims of trafficking and modern slavery to be identified and protected. This is contrary to the UK’s obligations according to international law. In addition to that, the much swifter process that will lead a woman or girl to be deported may well mean that there is not enough time for trafficking claims to be determined (see here, for the Executive Summary).

I could go on about the other ways in which the new Nationality and Borders Bill will harm female asylum seekers, not just because they are asylum seekers, but (additionally) because they are women and girls. But those who are interested can read more about the reasons here.

So instead, I want to return to where we started – to the Bible – and provide just a few passages for reflection about the way the Scriptures encourage us to show solidarity with the oppressed, and hospitality to asylum seekers in particular. At the very end, I suggest four  ways in which we can help.

You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt (Exodus 22:21).

The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God (Leviticus 19:34).

You shall have one law for the alien and for the citizen: for I am the Lord your God (Leviticus 24:22).

Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and she will repay her for her deed (Proverbs 19:17).

Give justice to the weak and the orphan;
maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute (Psalm 82:3).

 Learn to do good;
 Seek justice,
 Rescue the oppressed,
 Defend the orphan,
 Plead for the widow. (Isaiah 1:17)

Thus says the Lord of hosts: Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another (Zechariah 7: 9-10)

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)

Let justice roll down like waters,
    and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:24).

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me. (Matthew 25:34-40)

Four ways you can help:

  1. Join, donate, or volunteer for Women for Refugee Women: Women for Refugee Women
  2. If you are in the UK, write to your MP and oppose the Nationality and Borders Bill. You can find out who your MP is, and how to write to them, here: Find out who your MP is / mySociety . If you’re stuck for what to write, you can copy or adapt the template here: #antirefugeebill (asylummatters.org)
  3. Sign up to receive campaigning news and opportunities from Asylum MattersHome | Asylum Matters
  4. Encourage your church and any other organisations with which you may be involved to join the Together with Refugees coalition: Join the coalition – Together With Refugees
read more

Meet Erin Sessions

Our post today is an interview with Erin Martine Sessions, the Quality and Inclusion Officer at the Australian College of Theology, and a PhD candidate working on violence and the Song of Songs.

Tell us about yourself and about how your work is compatible with the aims of the Shiloh Project? 

The first thing to know about me is I do things in the wrong order. Breakfast is my favourite meal of the day; if it’s not at breakfast time. I make trees out of old books (see the picture!). And I haven’t had a “traditional career trajectory.” That last one might resonate with a few of you. My Doktorvater jokes I’m not keeping balls in the air, I’m juggling chainsaws. And they’re on fire. The complete chaos of single parenting, sessional lecturing, fitting my thesis into the interstices, going for ordination, and harbouring not-so-secret desires to be poet laureate (even though Australia doesn’t have one), makes for the opposite of order. But actually, it’s less “things in the wrong order” and more gatekeeping, middle-aged white men telling me I do things in the wrong order…

This year I found myself in possession of the holy grail of higher education employment (especially for the disordered* with unfinished PhDs): a permanent full-time job! Thankfully, the thesis and the job intersect, and both align with the objectives of the Shiloh Project. I’m currently working on a training module for students and staff which targets first, the prevention of sexual assault and sexual harassment (SASH) and, second, when it does occur, a response that is appropriate and effective. Preventing SASH looks a lot like preventing domestic and family violence (DFV), and that’s what my thesis is devoted to (but more on that later). For now, I want to unequivocally say that I am committed to dismantling rape culture—that is, dismantling gendered power structures that sideline and discredit women and minority groups, dismantling societal systems that foster and perpetuate inequality, and calling out the blaming of women and minorities for the very systems and structures that victimise and disempower them. 

*pun intended, I’m neurodivergent.

Can you tell us more about rape culture and religion in the context of Australia?

Allow me to give you some context by (briefly!) answering this question in two parts: first, addressing rape culture in Australia more broadly, and then looking at the relationship between rape culture and religion, particularly Christianity, in Australia. 

We know that rape culture exists the world over: beliefs and practices which regulate and shame women and gender-diverse people, that promote, accept, minimise, or ignore violence, and then trivialise the resulting trauma. This violence is perpetrated against women and girls regardless of age, dis/ability, ethnicity, level of education, location, religion, sexuality, or socioeconomic status. Australia is no different. Yet, we also know that along with the gendered drivers of violence come reinforcing factors which make certain minoritised people groups—like Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander women—more likely to experience abuse. 

Rape culture in Australia is particularly pernicious with its potent combination of: high rates of violence, shocking inaction, our history of (colonial) violence, and a lack of data and research. Australia has significantly higher prevalence rates of intimate partner violence and sexual violence than western Europe or North America. It’s a well-worn statistic that one woman a week is killed by a current or former partner, and we’ve become complacent. Even though DFV is a national crisis, and even though each egregious act of violence is followed by vigils, intense discussions, and calls for reform and further research, there is little change. 

Early on in my research journey, my psychologist gave me a fittingly crass (and memorable!) lesson: “Abusers have the same toolkit, but their choice of tools varies, and the way each victim-survivor gets screwed is personal.” The same can be said of rape culture. Instructing us women to change the way we dress, speak, and walk home at night, with no equivalent instructions for men (to take responsibility for their behaviour) can be observed almost universally, but each context, community, and individual will have their own unique experiences.

Much like my disordered career (chaotic calling?) might be similar to yours in some ways, I’m willing to bet you also recognise these all-too-familiar failings of (Christian) faith communities: wives being told to submit to their husbands—irrespective of abuse and with no mention of mutual submission; women being urged to forgive their abusers—often at the expense of their safety and without corresponding compunction for the perpetrator to stop abusing; and victim-survivors being re-traumatised by (male) leadership who do not understand the dynamics of, or what constitutes abuse and are ill-equipped to refer women at risk to specialist services. This Lausanne piece (July 2021) has the title “Gender-Based Violence and the Church.” One thing that makes it so poignant is that it has global relevance and urgency.

So, what makes the relationship between rape culture and religion unique in Australia? Up until recently, I would have (again) cited shocking (church) inaction and a lack of research (into religion and violence), especially when compared to similarly developed nations. The tide is slowly turning as more research is being done in, with, and by religious organisations, and as they work to redress the damage done, and to prevent further violence. But there is still a long way to go. Recent studies suggest that the incidence of DFV is higher in the Anglican church than in the general population. And, devastatingly, we (Australians and the church) have not reckoned with Australia’s violent history and church culpability in violence. The racist, heteropatriarchal cultural legacy—as Gender Violence in Australia: Historical Perspectives makes clear—is a country that has rationalised violent behaviours over time and allowed rape culture to flourish.

Why and how do you read the Song of Songs alongside gender-based violence?

I love this question! Churches don’t include the Song of Songs in their services too often, and the Australian church is none too fond of talking constructively about gender-based violence. So, as you can imagine, my invitations to write and speak on the Song and violence aren’t exactly bursting through my door like letters from Hogwarts. The long story short is victim-survivors stated that using religious texts to promote gender equality will prevent gender-based violence in faith communities. What better text to use than the Song of Songs, where the poetic protagonist is a woman of colour, who knows what she wants and isn’t afraid to speak truth to power? 

This topic is at the heart of my ongoing PhD research. I have published an article on this question, too, with the title “Watching the Watchmen: How Does the Violence in Song of Songs 5:7 Speak to Australia’s Problem with Violence against Women and vice versa?” Journal for the Academic Study of Religion 34/1 (2021), a special issue on Religion and Violence.

You can read more of Erin Martine Sessions’ work on the Song and violence here and you can email her: esessions@actheology.edu.au   

read more

New Book!

We are thrilled to announce the imminent publication of a new book in the Routledge Focus series ‘Rape Culture, Religion and the Bible’, a series inspired by the Shiloh Project. The author is Ericka Shawndricka Dunbar and her book has the title Trafficking Hadassah: Collective Trauma, Cultural Memory, and Identity in the Book of Esther and in the African Diaspora. 

This is a searing book, that turns its direct and unwavering gaze to some of the most pressing and distressing gendered and racialized atrocities of our time. Moreover, it roots these atrocities in both ancient and more recent history and urges us to break harmful cycles that inflict disproportionate suffering on African(a) girls and women. (The word ‘African(a)’ refers to both African persons and persons who are African-descended.)

Trafficking Hadassah is available for pre-order and is shipped from 12 November 2021. The book is available in hardback and eBook versions. (Find out more here.)

We also have an interview with Ericka and a sneak-peek at an excerpt from the book.

Tell us about yourself, Ericka. 

I’m Ericka Shawndricka Dunbar, Visiting Professor of Hebrew Bible at Payne Theological Seminary, Wilberforce, Ohio, in the USA.

How does your book relate to your work as a whole and how did this book come about?

The book sheds light on sexualized and gender-based violence, specifically against African(a) girls and women across ancient and contemporary contexts. This project is an expansion of my scholarly-activist work of children’s advocacy and activism to dismantle intersectional violence and oppression. 

This book is a condensed version of my doctoral dissertation.   

What are the key arguments of your book?

I interpret the first two chapters of the biblical book of Esther through a contemporary lens of sex trafficking. I argue that sexualized and gender-based violence are initiated in the first chapter with the treatment and abuse of Queen Vashti. This systematic abuse is expanded to include large-scale legalized sexual trafficking of young virgin girls who are gathered from locales across the Persian Empire, which spans from India to Ethiopia. I then put this interpretation into dialogue with the sexual abuse and enslavement of African(a) girls and women during and after the Maafa,* identifying the abuse as a collective, cultural trauma. I identify and critique social and cultural attitudes that have been embraced and asserted to justify such abuse and outline physical and psychological consequences of sexual trafficking on individual and collective bodies and identities. Additionally, I challenge biblical readers to engage in morally and ethically responsible biblical interpretation by giving attention to intersectionality, polyvocality and the euphemisms and silences often embedded in both texts and traditional interpretations of texts. 

*The word ‘Maafa’ is derived from a Swahili word meaning something like ‘Great Calamity’. It refers to the atrocities of the slave trade and slavery.

What do you hope your readers will take from this book?

I hope that readers will begin to apply intersectionality and polyvocality as frameworks for reading and interpreting biblical texts like the book of Esther, so that their analyses of what is depicted can be deepened and expanded. I hope that readers will wrestle with discerning meaning for those who are embedded within but not often considered in interpretations of this story. I hope they will come to consider how minoritized identities are impacted by the story and by subsequent interpretations of it. I truly hope that people will wrestle with the portrayal and meaning of such widespread and largely uncontested sexualized and gender-based violence in the ancient context and allow this wrestling to inspire action to dismantle and eradicate it in contemporary contexts.

Give us one quotation from the book that you think will make a reader go and read the rest.

“When the treatment of the virgin girls depicted in the second chapter [of the book of Esther] is assessed alongside the treatment of Vashti, it becomes clear that gender and ethnicity intersect and play a major role in othering foreign, minoritized females. Othered, these girls are rendered exploitable and consequently trafficked. Accordingly, the king’s dismissal of Vashti is only a first step in a more elaborate process of imperially sanctioned patriarchy that also feeds sexual trafficking. By this process, the seeking out of girls is legitimated, as is their transport, custody, subjection to a year-long beautification process, and sexual abuse and exploitation by the king (2:1–9). The Persian king and his imperial team target African and other virgin girls for sexual trafficking. In its deployment of this political strategy, the text depicts Africana girls and women as expendable, commodifiable, and rapable. Such intentional displacement, colonization, and sexual exploitation of Africana girls and women are not, however, restricted to the pages of this biblical text, but have been practiced throughout much of history, leading to collective cultural trauma.”

_______________________________________________________________________________________

Thank you, Ericka. We hope your book will find many readers and much acclaim and lead on to inspire effective resistance to the multiple and widespread oppressions and exploitations to which you draw attention. 

Please help us spread the word about this important publication and please order a copy for your library.

Picture update (10 December 2021)

Ericka S. Dunbar with her new book – hot off the press. (Images courtesy of Ericka)

read more

Clemency and Privilege and Abusers: Another Response

The Shiloh Project logo.

In June of last year, shortly after the public revelations about the conviction of Jan Joosten, then Regius Professor of Hebrew at the University of Oxford, for possession of staggering amounts of child pornography, I published a post with the title ‘Privilege Beyond Bounds’ (see here). This is a follow-up, in the light of Joosten’s publication of a statement on academia.edu (see here).

Exhibit A: IICSA, the Independent Inquiry Child Sexual Abuse, has demonstrated that religious actors, factors, and institutions have been and continue to be in deep when it comes to sexual abuse, including of children. The evidence is overwhelming (see here) and has recently been widely reported in the mainstream press.

Exhibit B: Reliable statistics are difficult to obtain but all indications are that crimes of sexual violence, including crimes related to what is called ‘extreme pornography’, are rampant. Conviction rates are, of course, much lower than incidence. The harm caused and the social cost of such crimes, for victims in particular, but also for many others, including those who work with perpetrators and victims, are profound, far-reaching, and long-term.

Exhibit C: When I was 13, I saw the film Death Wish II, with Charles Bronson. I wish I hadn’t seen it. It was an R16 film (I think) and so I shouldn’t have seen it at my age. The rape scene early in the film has etched itself into my memory. It was traumatising. I am not suggesting it was anything like the trauma of abuse. I’m saying shocking images stay with us.

Exhibit D: Like everyone else who has wide-ranging networks of family, friends, colleagues, and acquaintances, I have encountered many addicts with various addictions (most common being alcoholism). Most of these addicts do not describe themselves as cured. Many describe themselves as struggling with their addiction, sometimes as managing their addiction. Many do not (or for a long time did not) acknowledge or admit to their addiction, or to the damage it causes.

Into this line-up of exhibits comes the statement from Jan Joosten. Apparently, it was posted on the day of Yom Kippur, the Great Day of Atonement. This will have been deliberate and strategic.

A few quick and important qualifications before turning to Joosten’s statement.

  1. Yes, the ‘exhibits’ above allude both to reports and statistics and to personal observations. All of these are kinds of data. The so-called ‘objective’ and the so-called ‘subjective’ both yield data. Indeed, the sexual abuse of children is a topic that makes me respond emotionally – with horror and outrage and despair. I make no apology for this. I do not believe an emotional response, or a response informed by personal experience, is any less valid.
  2. A post like this serves to give Joosten a platform. I have misgivings about that. I much prefer to champion the incredible research and publications of people like Gordon Lynch, Monica Rey, Gerald West, Ericka Dunbar, and the many others who have, including on forums like The Shiloh Project, shown how research can advance social justice and positive change. I do think, however, it is important to respond to Joosten’s statement. It is another step in our pushback series.
  3. Following on from Point 2, there is so much more to be said on what this post only brushes on – especially concerning the many, many systemic and intersectional ways and means by which members of minoritized and oppressed groups (the socio-economically deprived, citizens of The Two Thirds world, refugees, LGBTQ+ persons, to name just a few) are disproportionately vulnerable to violence, including to sexual violence and trafficking, while those with privilege, even when caught in criminal activity, seem rather impervious, often barely breaking their stride.

Joosten’s statement is as follows:

“After having been sentenced to one year in June 2020, I was released on 11 September 2021. I will never stop feeling remorse for what I did—offending the honor of children and participating in a process that harmed them severely. I also deeply regret the suffering I brought to my family, to friends, colleagues, and students. I cannot set things right. But I do try, in a modest way, to make amends. One good thing that has come out of all this is that I have been able to break with an addiction that had held me for years.

Taking my inspiration from Ezekiel 33:11, ‘I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live,’ I wish to make a fresh start. I have changed, but my professional interests, training and abilities are still with me. I plan to go back to work, researching, perhaps publishing, and—who knows?—teaching in the field of Hebrew and biblical studies. I appeal to the clemency of the scholarly world—researchers, students, and publishers. Jan Joosten”

Here is someone who was caught and convicted for possession of some 28,000 images and videos of child pornography. According to newspaper reports, these offences spanned at least six years. There was no mention of Joosten seeking any therapy or clemency until after he was caught and his conviction imminent. This was so despite knowing his actions to be both wrong and illegal.

Joosten’s sentence was light given the scale of his criminal activity. Moreover, he remained, research active in some capacity, albeit with a low profile. According to Wikipedia, ‘Joosten still holds a role at the University of Strasbourg’. Moreover, his academia.edu profile remained up and he has corresponded with other scholars (see the comments section here).

In his statement, Joosten acknowledges ‘remorse’ for ‘offending the honor of children’ (a strange choice of expression to my ears) and for ‘participating in a process that harmed them severely’. He also acknowledges the suffering he brought to persons in his family, social, and work circles. True, he cannot go back in time and undo any of what he did; but this statement is still a long way off from persuading (me at least) that Joosten really ‘gets’ how he comes across, which is as glossing over his crimes and as arrogant.

Granted, academia.edu is not the ideal forum for it – but this statement is not anything like the victim-focused ‘full disclosure’ required at the Truth and Reconciliation hearings in South Africa, for instance, or the earnest reflection, leading to amends at the heart of Yom Kippur (e.g. see here).

What is this ‘modest way’ in which Joosten is making amends? Is he working with law enforcement agencies to identify and bring to trial other sex offenders? Is he helping with grant applications to address and prevent spiritual and sexual abuse? Is he doing voluntary work to benefit communities vulnerable to sex trafficking and other exploitations? Is he finding ways to help widening participation students and emerging scholars from under-represented groups? Is he trying to be mindful of his privilege and of his entitlement?

Rather miraculously, Joosten claims to have broken with his addiction. This addiction held him – like some monstrous jailer (again, responsibility seems to be being pushed away a bit here). If – unlike the vast majority of addicts in my experience – Joosten has found a way to cast off in a mere year an addiction that made him for at least six years ‘particate in a severely harmful process’, a process, or better scandal, that is costing and blighting the lives, prospects, potential, and capacity for joy and fulfilment of thousands upon thousands of children, it would be good to know how this works. I find it hard to believe that Joosten is no longer seeing in his mind’s eye the images he pored over for so many weeks and years. I find it hard to believe that an addiction that enabled him to lead a double life, regularly visiting what he (ickily) called his ‘secret garden’, which he claimed he knew to be wrongful, has been so easily cast off.

Joosten now wishes ‘to make a fresh start’ because he has ‘changed’. He plans to go back to work. It’s rather as though he’s had a ‘time out’ or a dip into another career that wasn’t enough to his liking. It feels a bit like damage limitation before ‘back to business as usual’. But that just doesn’t feel right in this case. For good measure, the Bible is quoted: If the Bible says the wicked can turn from their ways, then why shouldn’t ‘the scholarly world’ give ‘changed’ Joosten the clemency he wants? It’s almost as if refusal of clemency would now be unreasonable, un-biblical.

I know there are very many paedophiles and sex offenders across the world. Even if we take just the ones who have been tried and convicted, it is impossible to keep all of them under surveillance, let alone locked up. I am not suggesting that Joosten be imprisoned forevermore. I’m also not crying for blood – literally, or metaphorically.

I accept that he cannot undo the past and that he is sorry he was caught, sorry that he lost his prestige, and sorry that he brought distress to his family members. I find all of that emotionally plausible. I am less persuaded that he truly understands the magnitude of the crimes for which he was convicted, that he has embarked on making amends, that he has changed, and moved on from addiction. I find all of those implausible, based on the albeit succinct statement, earlier exchanges (see my previous post), and experience of addicts.

Clemency… that is, the quality or disposition of showing compassion, leniency, mercy, or forgiveness, in judging or in punishing. I don’t see myself as representative of, or as representing, ‘the scholarly world’ and I don’t think that as someone who wasn’t anywhere near the frontlines of the grave harm Joosten wrought it’s mine to give.

But I don’t buy this.

read more
1 2 3 16
Page 1 of 16