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Church and abuse

Abuse, engraved 

Today’s post is by Bradley and Maya. Both are second-year undergraduate students at the University of Leeds and enrolled in a module where they take an active part in a research project. Johanna has got them involved in the ‘Abuse in Religious Contexts’ project and the group (which also includes Joey and Annelise) has taken the initiative to explore rape culture manifestations on campus (the topic of this post), to interview churches about safeguarding practices, and run a Bible study on a text with potential to cause harm at the University’s Chaplaincy Centre.

Bradley (she/her) is a second-year Liberal Arts student majoring in English with career aspirations in the film industry. She’s always been driven by matters concerning social justice, with particular passions for queer and women’s issues.

Maya is also a second-year student at the University of Leeds studying Liberal Arts with a major in English Lit. Home for her is the Isle of Wight in the south of England, where she lives right on the coastline. Although she is not sure where her degree will take her, she has close family friends who run a non-profit that provides housing/has initiated controlled drug use in Vancouver, Canada. She hopes to gain some work experience in harm reduction alongside them after University. 

Pedophile’s sculpture on display at the University of Leeds – and nobody bats an eyelid?!

Every day hundreds of students on Leeds University campus cross paths with Eric Gill’s stone frieze, Christ Driving the Moneychangers from the Temple. To the average university goer, this sculpture – situated centrally in the entrance of the Michael Sadler building – depicts a well-known Bible story. Yet very few are aware of the artist’s sexual abuse of his wife and daughters, exposed 50 years after his death in his personal diaries. This artwork represents a biblical story but also the deeply ubiquitous nature of rape culture and its intersection with the world of religion and spirituality.   

Rape culture is embedded in our everyday lives, manifested in microaggressions and cultural products which vary across communities, countries and social and spiritual groups. Any normalisation of harmful sexual behaviour contributes to rape culture, ranging from the abstract (such as sexist attitudes or jokes) to the concrete (such as sexual violence and rape). Common perpetrators include (particularly violent) pornography, any unsolicited sexual attention, and even our own language. Art is a less common but equally impactful facilitator.  

Although rape culture is everywhere, often the willingness to talk about it is nowhere. This very contradiction is what fuels all different sorts of abuse, in which abuse goes unsaid, abusers go unseen, and survivors go unheard. Despite nationwide vandalism of Gill’s statues there is no disclaimer next to the frieze that warns of its harmful effect in a public education setting. Of course, pointing out Gill’s abuse could be triggering for survivors of sexual abuse. But can ignorance be the optimal alternative? What good can come from acting like it never happened, and stigmatising and silencing survivors even more? 

In our project Addressing Sexual Abuse Scandals in Church Settings, we first approached rape culture, as guided by our mentor Johanna Stiebert, and its intersection with spirituality in so-called spiritual abuse. Springboarding from research into Gill, we delved into other forms of spiritual abuse, and realised it manifests itself in so many different variations – from excusing violence to manipulating spiritual teachings (Spiritual abuse | 1800RESPECT).  

Thus, spiritual abuse is best understood as an umbrella term for the many ways in which people manipulate the power and authority of the church as well as the vulnerability and openness of its followers; perhaps it is best seen as ‘any attempt to exert power and control over someone using religion, faith or beliefs’ (Spiritual Abuse: How to Identify It and Find Help (webmd.com)).  

With this in mind, we continued to look at the context of biblical stories and their place in contemporary society. The focus of this blog is a reminder of the strong influence historical texts can have, and their ongoing effects today. Needless to say, the extent of social change that has occurred between the then of certain religious texts and the now of today highlights the importance of context; various injustices found in biblical stories can never justify structures of abuse seen today.  

Being critical of the past does not negate the importance of religion and spirituality today, and we hope to direct this energy towards aspects of spirituality which facilitate rape culture without undermining the positive impact of faith and the Church.  

Moving forward, our project aims to increase awareness and decrease stigma surrounding spiritual abuse. This begins with collecting first-hand research in the form of interviews in Christian churches in Leeds: All-Hallows church, is our first. Here we met with Revd. Heston Groenewald and Safeguarding Lead Penny Brown. We aim to explore how churches seek to understand, and prevent spiritual abuse among their congregations.  

In opening this conversation on spiritual abuse in this blog, we hope to encourage difficult and necessary conversations on how religious institutions and contexts can permit but also resist rape culture. By having these conversations openly we aim to change the discourse for survivors of religious abuse and give them a platform to express themselves, hopefully taking small steps towards a bigger and brighter picture of change. After all, the subtle microaggressions that foster rape culture are best attacked through small and subtle acts, like simply talking about it. Boosting awareness is the beginning to a road of empowerment and change.  

[The image shows: Penny, Heston, Joey, Maya, Annelise and Bradley, at All Hallows’ Rainbow Junktion in Leeds].

So when you next look at art – religious or otherwise – we hope you feel inclined to investigate its context, and consider its place in society today.   

To read more on the controversy of Gill, click the following links:  

The Michael Sadler sculpture was designed by a known paedophile (thetab.com)  

Eric Gill: can we separate the artist from the abuser? | Eric Gill | The Guardian  

Can Art Created by a Sexual Abuser Ever Be Meaningfully Reframed? – ArtReview  

Written in stone | Art | The Guardian  

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Support to Survive

Support to Survive is a space which acts as a survival kit for those doing feminist, queer, decolonial, and trauma informed church work. In this post, Rosie Clare Shorter reflects with Tracy McEwan, Steff Fenton, and Erin Martine Hutton on why they started the Support to Survive community.  

When you begin a research degree, people throw all sorts of ideas and tips in your direction. ‘Keep your notes in a systematic manner,’ they say, at a university induction, as though no-one has ever recommended this before. And you nod diligently, and then go home to a hundred multicoloured Post-it notes scattered over your desk. ‘Write drunk, edit sober,’ suggests a parishioner during an online church service in the middle of Covid-19 lockdowns. ‘Research is lonely; find your people,’ was a common piece of advice at academic conferences.

Research certainly can be lonely, but it doesn’t have to be.

As we each worked on our respective research and wrote about gendered, racist, and sexist exclusion and harm in Christianity, we realised that our work was sometimes isolating. At times, it even felt alienating and risky. You can feel incredibly small when you stand up and call out heterosexist ideology. When you name sexism and racism within long-standing and well-resourced institutions. When you name it as harmful and violent. When you say that church teaching and culture can be a contributing factor in disaffiliation, intimate partner violence, homophobic, and transphobic harm and violence. Even when you know that there is a growing body of research behind you.

It can feel lonely, too, because this work can be not only theoretical and academic for us. It can be personal, and lived, too. For some of us doing this work, we have direct experiences of gendered, sexist, and racist harm within Christianity. We carry our own experiences with us as we research. As we hear the stories of others. It is also almost impossible to research and write about gendered, racist, and sexist exclusion and harm in Christianity without being impacted by what we read, hear, and learn.

Yet, our research also brought us together.  The more we did this work, and discussed it with each other we realised we weren’t alone, and we weren’t the only ones saying these things. We quickly realised that similar projects were happening across different faith traditions, from different angles, and in different disciplines; sociology, studies of religion, theology and biblical studies.

That’s part of why we started Support to Survive.

We started Support to Survive because we didn’t want to stand on our own, and we wanted a way to stay connected. We wanted to know we had someone to hold our hand when we didn’t feel brave. Someone to read our drafts when we felt unsure. We wanted peers to stand with, collaborate with and celebrate with. We wanted to cultivate health and healing together.  We wanted to slowly build a network, so that together we could have support to survive.

On our blog you’ll see the claim, ‘survival is a team sport.’ When you engage in feminist, queer, and decolonial work, having the support of others can be what keeps you afloat. Community keeps you going.  Sara Ahmed (2017, 235) contends that: survival ‘refers not only to living on, but to keeping going in the more profound sense of keeping going with one’s commitments. … Survival can be about keeping one’s hope’s alive; holding on to the projects that are projects insofar as they have yet to be realized. … Survival can thus be what we do for others, with others. We need each other to survive; we need to be part of each other’s survival’.

We’re not 100% sure what this space will look like as it grows. When we first discussed setting up some sort of network we had Ahmed’s depiction of a feminist killjoy survival kit in mind, and thought about how we could become part of each other’s survival kits. How we could help assemble a survival kit for others doing similar work. We firmly believe that if we are to keep on being committed to finding ways for religious institutions, organisations and communities to be safer and more inclusive, we need each other to survive. We might even find a way to thrive in this work as well.

In Complaint! Ahmed talks about how we chip away at institutional sexism, racism and violence. This work is slow, especially if you are chipping away on your own. We started Support to Survive because we wanted company while we chipped. We wanted to know we were chipping in the right places. We wanted support to keep on chipping away. We wanted to know someone else would carry on chipping when we were tired and needed a break. We wanted others to reassure us its ok to stop chipping when we need a break. We needed friends to encourage us to let go of the work when we were too close to it to realise. Working collectively matters. On our own, our voices are small, our chipping is minimal, but as Ahmed (2021, 277) reminds us, ‘we are not alone. We sound louder when we are heard together; we are louder’.

Doing this work in community is central to surviving.


We first imagined Support to Survive as a survival kit for people doing feminist, queer, decolonial and trauma-informed work and research within Christian organisations and communities. However, it is our hope that in time, Support to Survive will be an interdisciplinary and multi-religious space where many people share ideas and resources, and find a community of hope and healing. We want to create space for ‘coalitional thinking’ (Butler 2004, 11) – one of us might be particularly focused on how the religious institutions can contribute to primary prevention in Domestic and Family violence, while another is focused on how Christian churches can read the Bible to promote more expansive understandings of gender. Together, we can see how our specific projects contribute to broader conversations. Together, we can chip away at the walls of cisheterosexism and racism that are maintained by the harmful (mis)use of theologies and doctrines. Together, we can feel less alone. Together we are part of a movement of change.

We can support one another, even if the particular focus of our work is different. We want to collectively build a toolkit that contains a range of resources –  ideas, conversations, events, resources, friendships – that help us to do what we do. We’re hoping that our website can be a place where we can platform each other’s work, share new ideas on our blog and recommend existing resources. To get going, we’re hosting an online gathering on July 26 which will be a chance to think about what care and compassion looks like in our work and research practices.

Come join us as we slowly build a network and continue to chip away at sexism, queer exclusion, racism and violence in religious and faith-based settings.

Rosie Clare Shorter (She/her) is a feminist researcher interested in religion, gender and sexuality. She works in research and teaching roles at Deakin University, the University of Melbourne and Western Sydney University.

Tracy McEwan (PhD) (she/her)  is a theologian and sociologist of religion and gender at the University of Newcastle. Her research interests include women in Catholicism; domestic and family violence; and sexual and spiritual abuse

Steff Fenton (they/them) completed their Master of Divinity at the University of Divinity in 2021. They are a trans Christian speaker, writer, educator, and advocate who publicly shares the intersections of being queer and Christian. 

Erin Marine Hutton (She/her) is an award-winning scholar and poet whose interdisciplinary research is aimed at preventing violence.

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The Bible and Violence Project: Meet Sébastien Doane 

Bible picture with a 'warning' sign.

Sébastien Doane is a tenured professor at Université Laval in Québec, Canada. His thesis (Analyse de la réponse du lecteur aux origines de Jésus en Mt 1-2, Peeters 2019) was on the first two chapters of Matthew’s Gospel applying a reader-response methodology. His research focuses on the relation between biblical texts and real readers with regards to gender, affect, and trauma. To find out more, see his recent articles: « Affective Resistance to Sirach’s Androcentric Presentation of a Daughter’s Body » (Journal for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies)« Echoes of Rachel’s Weeping: Intertextuality and Trauma in Jer. 31:15 » (Biblical Interpretation), « Masculinities of the Husbands in the Genealogy of Jesus (Matt. 1:2–16)» (Biblical Interpretation), and « An Ass in a Lion’s Skin: The Subversion of Judah’s Hegemonic Masculinity in Gen 38 » (Postscripts). He is a member of the SBL Hermeneutics of Trauma unit.

Sébastien Doane

I became a feminist in my mid thirties and was invited to speak at a National Women Studies Association Annual Meeting. I met great people and realised that as a man, I have a role to play to strive for gender equality. And as a biblical scholar, I must work towards meaningful work, such as this Bible and Violence project. It was only a year ago, in my mid forties, that I truly became aware that I am a descendant of French and English colonisers. My ancestors have lived in North America for the last 300 years. The first American Doane was a deacon in the first New England colony.  He came to America Bible in hand and the good book was used to legitimise a violent enterprise. In my chapter, I will focus on Matthew’s version of Jesus’ genealogy. This biblical text does not seem to be violent. However, its interpretations have engendered violence against women and members of first nations. It is important for religious and academic biblical commentators to become aware of the ethical implications of our work. 


If you are involved in the Bible and Violence Project and want to be featured on this blog, please contact Johanna (j.stiebert@leeds.ac.uk)

If you have questions about the project, or suggestions for our next workshop, please be in touch.

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Updates!

There are a few updates from The Shiloh Project. (We’ve been so busy we haven’t got around to writing a post recently.)

The Shiloh Project AHRC grant is drawing to an end. It has been a really productive collaboration and some of the outputs will be coming out for a while yet. Our recent public engagement event in Otley, West Yorkshire (on 30 January 2023), ‘What You Always Wanted to Know About the Bible But Were Afraid To Ask’ was a big success and was covered by the local press (see here). It is also the subject of a mini audio-documentary (Episode 12 of The Shiloh Podcast), which gives a vivid snapshot of the event. 

We also hosted an international day conference on Bible and Activism (University of Leeds, 31 January 2023), with presentations by Richard Newton (University of Alabama), Katherine Southwood (University of Oxford), Yannis Ng (University of Leeds), Robert Kuloba Wabyanga (Kyambogo University), David Tombs (University of Otago) and Jayme Reaves (Sarum College), and Mmapula Kebaneilwe (University of Botswana). Richard Newton, interviewed by Rosie Dawson, features in Episode 13 of the Shiloh Podcast. Please see the slideshow of images of events in Leeds. 

Look out for more episodes (in production!) of The Bloody Bible podcast, with Emily Colgan and Caroline Blyth.

The ongoing Abuse in Religious Contexts AHRC grant, led by Gordon Lynch is in full swing. Co-director Johanna Stiebert has begun to host a series of workshops. The first (led by Ellie Thwaites and Laura Wallace, University of Leeds, see here) brought together postgraduates and early career researchers exploring topics at the intersection of religion and trauma or abuse. The second (led by Ann Gleig and Amy Langenberg, see here) explored abuse in Buddhist settings and is the focus of Episode 15 of the Shiloh Podcast. The third was held with postgraduates of Trinity College (Bristol) and Bristol Baptist College, exploring secondary violations in biblical texts. More workshops are in the planning stages. 

Episode 14 of the Shiloh Podcast features highlights of a project webinar with Linda Woodhead and Gordon Lynch. 

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Introducing Contributors to The Bible & Violence: Rosie Clare Shorter and Kirsi Cobb

Bible picture with a 'warning' sign.

Rosie Clare Shorter is a feminist researcher interested in sociology of religion and genders and sexualities studies. She completed her PhD at Western Sydney University in Australia. Her doctoral thesis explores Sydney Anglicanism as a lived religion, focusing on the social consequences of complementarianism. She is currently a sessional academic and you might catch her teaching or doing research assistant work at The University of Melbourne, Deakin University, or Western Sydney University (the latter online only, the commute is too far!). She is the executive officer for the Australian Association for the Study of Religion. Rosie is writing on the violent consequence of complementarian language.

To read more about Rosie and her work, see:
https://rosieclareshorter.com/  and https://supporttosurvive.com/

Shorter, R. 2021. ‘Rethinking Complementarianism: Sydney Anglicans, Orthodoxy and Gendered Inequality’, Religion and Gender 11/2 (doi: 10.1163/18785417-bja10005).

Shorter, R., E. Sessions & E. Hamence. 2021. ‘Taking Women At Their Word: How to Respond Well’, Eternity New (see here). 


Rosie Clare Shorter


My chapter will look at how the language of complementarianism, which is derived from the Bible, maintains gendered hierarchies and inequalities that scaffold gendered violence in evangelical Anglican communities. My focus is on the Anglican church in Sydney, Australia.  We know that Anglicans experience gendered violence at rates which are at least equal to, if not higher than, their non-Anglican counterparts (Powell and Pepper, 2021). Aspects of church teaching, particularly complementarian ideas to do with headship and submission, as well as misuse of Scripture, contribute to this. It is important to look closely at the language of complementarianism. Changing our language is key to changing cultures of gendered inequality and violence. My chapter will emphasise this.

Kirsi Cobb is a lecturer in biblical studies at Cliff College in Derbyshire, UK. She wrote her PhD dissertation on the biblical figure of Miriam and the multiple ways her story can be read when using different methods of hermeneutics. Her current research focuses on women in the Hebrew Bible with a special interest in biblical interpretation, including feminist, deconstructive and trauma studies. Her recent projects include two papers (one open access with De Gruyter and one with JSOT) which focus on the story of Lot’s daughters in Genesis 19 in the light of trauma theory. Her forthcoming publications include a book chapter on Woman Wisdom and Dame Folly in Proverbs (for The Oxford Handbook of the Hebrew Bible, Gender, and Sexuality) and a study on gender and sexual violence in Hosea (for The Oxford Handbook of the Book of Hosea). Kirsi is co-founder of the Bible, Gender and Church Research Centre, with Dr Holly Morse (University of Manchester). Together they work on an AHRC (Arts and Humanities Research Council) funded research network around the topic Abusing God: Reading the Bible in the #MeToo AgeTo date they have hosted one colloquium focused on coercive control, with another on hypermasculinity due to take place in April 2023. Kirsi is writing the chapter on Spiritual Abuse.  

Dr Kirsi Cobb, Cliff College (UK)

Several years ago, I was visiting friends on holiday with my then-boyfriend. We were supposed to stay for a few weeks but after about five days my boyfriend wanted to leave. I wanted to stay but he informed me that complying with his wish would be good practice for marriage where he would be my head and I would need to submit to his wishes. As an obedient Christian (and to the great upset of my friends) I left with him. A couple of decades later I was marking a student essay. She was evaluating her recent experience in a church, where the pastor had used the Bible to brow-beat his congregants into submission. Not touching the ‘Lord’s anointed’ was held up as an ideal that shut down any questioning over decisions made. Both this student and I had experienced something for which at the time we had no name: spiritual abuse.

Spiritual abuse is a relatively new and a contested term, and some see research into the topic as threatening religious freedom. As Lisa Oakley and Justin Humphreys  (2019: 18-20) have noted, however, these qualms should not prevent us from acknowledging people’s experiences of spiritual abuse or listening to survivors’ voices. In their monograph, they use the term ‘spiritual abuse’ to describe a range of experiences. Darby Strickland (2020: 346) has defined spiritual abuse as ‘[a]buse that occurs when an oppressor establishes control and domination by using Scripture, doctrine, or their “leadership role” as weapons. Spiritual abuse may mask itself as religious practice and may be used to shame or punish. For example, 

  • using Bible verses to shame or control 
  • demanding unconditional obedience 
  • using biblical texts or beliefs to minimize or rationalize abusive behaviors.’ 

In the experiences mentioned, some of these behaviours can be clearly seen. In my case, my boyfriend took a passage about male headship and wifely submission in Ephesians 5:22-23 and with some creative interpreting turned it into a manifesto about girlfriends, boyfriends, and unquestioned female obedience to male dominance. In the experience of the student, the pastor used his position of power and a misreading of Scripture (Psalm 105:15; 1 Samuel 24:6, see Helen Paynter 2020:90-92) to enforce his authority. Scripture, doctrine, and leadership roles can all be forces for the good in the world, but they can also be used to harm fellow believers. This demands our attention and requires a response. In my chapter I will explore the different forms of spiritual abuse and what the Church can do to become a safe space for survivors.  

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Accompanying Survivors of Sexual Harm: A Toolkit for Churches 

The Shiloh Project is pleased to announce the launch of a new toolkit called Accompanying Survivors of Sexual Harm. The toolkit has been developed as an educational resource for church leaders, inviting them to reflect on ways that churches can become spaces where sexual harm survivors feel safe and supported. This resource can be downloaded by following the link to the “Accompanying Survivors Toolkit” page on this website.

Below, Emily Colgan (one of the creators and editors of the toolkit) explains more about the toolkit’s development and its goals.

Accompanying Survivors of Sexual Harm: A Toolkit for Churches 

Accompanying Survivors of Sexual Harm is a trauma-informed resource that offers education and support of Christian clergy and lay leaders as they respond to sexual harm in their communities.  The resource is the collaborate effort of seven academics, all of whom work broadly at the intersection of sexual harm and Christian faith traditions in Aotearoa New Zealand. Through our work in this area, we have long been aware of the distressingly high rates of sexual harm in our communities, and we believe it is important for churches to recognise that the trends we see in society more generally are reflected in church communities as well. Moreover, churches need to acknowledge that sexual harm is perpetrated within these communities—at times by those in positions of authority—and the primary response of church leaders has far too often been one of self-preservation and concealment. For the most part, churches in Aotearoa have not yet found a voice to adequately address the issue of sexual harm, which is endemic in faith communities and in society at large. We (as a country, generally) have a problem with sexual harm and, for the most part, churches keep silent on this issue. 

This situation has come into sharper focus since February 2018, when the New Zealand government announced a Royal Commission of Inquiry into abuse in state care. In November of the same year, the inquiry expanded its scope to include abuse of those in the care of religious institutions. The harrowing testimonies of victims and survivors who experienced horrific sexual harm while in the care of religious institutions reveal that, for many people, churches have not been places of welcome and safety; they have not been places of good news. Churches have failed in their duty of care for the most vulnerable in their midst. The Commission’s work is still ongoing. But it has highlighted the urgent need for churches to be proactive in their support of victims and survivors, as well as in their efforts to ensure that church communities are no longer spaces where sexual harm can flourish. This resource is our – the contributor’s – response to this need. 

Over a number of years, we have canvassed stakeholders from within the Anglican, Methodist, and Roman Catholic traditions, seeking feedback about the educative needs of these churches for confronting the issue of sexual harm. We have also piloted this resource material with various church groups, seeking comment on the relevance and usefulness of its content for those in ministry. It reflects scholarship by experts in their respective fields, consultation with church leaders and those in frontline ministry positions, and insights and input from victims and survivors of sexual harm. It is by no means exhaustive, nor does it claim to be the full and final word on an appropriate Christian response to the issue of sexual harm. Instead, it enables workshop-based sessions which aim to educate clergy and lay leaders about

  • Understanding the nature of sexual harm and its prevalence in New Zealand society. 
  • Being alert to and responding in a pastorally sensitive manner to people within their community who have experienced/are experiencing sexual harm.  
  • Identifying and articulating some of the scriptural and theological foundations that work to justify/legitimise/enable sexual harm while silencing the voices of victims/survivors. 
  • Identifying and articulating some of the scriptural and theological foundations that work to challenge and resist sexual harm. 
  • Exploring how their church might work to create a safe space for victims/survivors of sexual harm. 

The toolkit will be of value to anyone in a church leadership position, including those training for Christian ministry and  those who have extensive ministry/leadership experience. It is intentionally ecumenical in nature and does not require knowledge of any one denominational tradition. While the format of the resource requires reflection and discussion in an “intellectual” sense, the aim of this work is to enable tangible, practical action in our communities that will support victims and survivors, and to make our churches spaces that are welcoming and safe. 

While some of the content relates specifically to the context of Aotearoa New Zealand, most of the material can be adapted and used further afield. There is space offered throughout the sessions for participants to discuss how issues pertaining to sexual harm relate to their own communities. Participants also have opportunities to consider how their own cultures, contexts, traditions, and languages will help shape their role of accompanying victims and survivors. 

The toolkit is free for anyone to download and use. It can be accessed here on the Shiloh Project website. If you have any queries about the use of the toolkit, please contact us at assh.toolkit@gmail.com

We hope this resource is a useful and meaningful tool for all those who accompany victims and survivors on their journey.

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Introducing the Contributors to “The Bible and Violence” – Susannah Cornwall and Victor Moulder

Bible picture with a 'warning' sign.

Today, let’s meet two more of our many fabulous contributors. We are delighted to introduce Susannah Cornwall and Victor Moulder. (For our earlier post about the Bible and Violence Project, see here.)

Susannah Cornwall is Professor of Constructive Theologies at the University of Exeter, and Director of EXCEPT, the Exeter Centre for Ethics and Practical Theology. Her latest monograph is Constructive Theology and Gender Variance: Transformative Creatures (Cambridge University Press, 2022), which focuses on gender transition and gender diversity in relation to Christian doctrines of creation, Christology, theological anthropology, and eschatology. Her current research focuses on structural sin and institutions. Susannah is writing the chapter on Bible, Intersex Being and Biomedical Violence.

In some of my earlier work, including my first book, Sex and Uncertainty in the Body of Christ: Intersex Condition and Christian Theology (Routledge, 2010) and my 2011–2013 research project ‘Intersex, Identity, Disability: Public Policy, Healthcare and the Church’ at the University of Manchester, I problematized the early corrective surgery paradigm for people born with intersex characteristics. In the last decade there has come to be increased legal protection for intersex people in various countries in Europe and beyond.

It’s also less common now than it used to be for conservative Christian theologians to hold that early corrective surgery is an appropriate social response to the birth of people with intersex characteristics, not least because of the crucial work done in these communities by evangelical scholars and activists such as Megan DeFranza and Lianne Simon in the Intersex and Faith Education Project. 

My chapter for this volume, however, focuses on the Bible, intersex being, and biomedical violence. I will show that the continuing invocation by many conservative theologians of the Genesis ‘creation mandates’ that uphold the idea that intersex is a particularly and peculiarly fallen state, which should prompt compassion and will be erased in the world to come, is damaging and undermines the good of intersex people’s bodies and experiences today. 

I’ll also show that such accounts continue to inform the biomedical logics within which non-consensual ‘corrective’ surgery on people with intersex characteristics remain thinkable in some medical contexts. Furthermore, I’ll suggest that the conservative move away from calling for such surgeries stems in part from increased conservative theological desire to cast suspicion on trans identity and so-called ‘gender ideology,’ and is therefore not unproblematic. 

You can find out more about Susannah and her research here

_________________________________________________________________________________________

Victor Moulder is an emerging scholar based in Wales. Victor graduated recently from Cardiff University with a BA (2021) and MA (2022) in Religion and Theology. His research has focused on eschatology, apocalyptic literature, and violence, and his 2021 dissertation explored violent and non-violent intertextualities between apocalyptic texts. Alongside such topics he also has passion for queer theology, gender-based hermeneutics, and angelology. Victor’s aim as a fledgling academic is to explore the harmful narratives and imagery of Scripture without resorting to apologia or excision. Victor is contributing the chapter on Violence in Daniel.

It is my aim with this chapter to explore the multifaceted nature and role of violence in the Book of Daniel. This will include contextualising the book as both (post)exilic and apocalyptic literature, born of war, mourning, displacement, and imperialism. But I will also spotlight the bodily violence faced by some characters in the narrative portions, and the symbolic violence of Daniel’s frightening dreams. I will explore the violent potential of accepting this book as a text where violence is divinely ordained or justified, and explore God’s role as violator, redeemer, liberator, and comforter, harming but also suffering, and ending systems of oppression. 

In a world where peril, the notion of end-times, and imperial domination – all prevalent in Daniel – still hold sway, navigating this text and its violence remains a challenge.

You can find out more about Victor and his work on Twitter: @VictorMoulder.

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Reading with self-care when reading in vulnerability

Today’s post is by Rebecca Parnaby-Rooke, Co-Leader at The Ordinary Office

Twitter: @Dechurching

Email: rebecca@deconstructingchurch.com

In this piece, Christian, activist and survivor Rebecca Parnaby-Rooke reflects on her experience of reading the new book by David Tombs, The Crucifixion of Jesus: Torture, Sexual Abuse, and the Scandal of the Cross, which is the latest volume to appear in the Routledge Focus Series, “Rape Culture, Religion and the Bible” (see here).

The book is out today and open access! Please see here.

As its title already flags up, the content of David Tombs’ book is difficult. It deals with suffering, infliction of torture and sexualised abuse – but also with the horror of suppressing and denying such violence. Rebecca offers advice to fellow Christians about reading the book with an eye towards self-care. 

Reading With Self-Care When Reading In Vulnerability

Silence and violence. Key ideas throughout this book, and, as a package, something a person often doesn’t understand fully unless it touches their own life. Through their work, through anecdotal evidence. Through lived experience of a traumatic event. I’d go so far as to say silencing is an act of violence: from repeated neglect and dismissal of the same one’s voice every time a meeting is held, to the outright threats of “Don’t tell anyone!” which can follow a sexual assault. 

Rebecca Parnaby-Rooke, courtesy of the author.

My understanding of silence and violence is shaped by my own experience as a rape survivor. If we have the capacity (and only if), those of us who understand the complexities and repercussions of silence and violence have an opportunity to speak up, speak out and educate. We don’t have to agree on the ins and outs, the hows and whys, the extent to which we advocate. We don’t have to find the conversations comfortable or agree on the same premises. But neither can we dismiss very real possibilities and discussions which may prove revelatory, thought-provoking and immensely helpful to others.

Those of us working in and around Trauma Theology do this work not because we “enjoy” it, but out of a deep sense of justice, a calling even. Many in this area of work start from a place of lived experience, drawing from the well of those memories and the journeys back from their own trauma to speak into better practices for the future. Protecting the next “them,” when they could not be protected themselves. Others understand the societal and structural importance of safeguarding, protecting vulnerable people and supporting victims within a society that calls itself civilized and caring. Others still do it from a deep sense of conviction, that the work is right and important, and must be spoken out into the world whatever the cost. Professor David Tombs is absolutely part of this latter group.

This book gives careful attention to parts of the biblical text that have been ignored or overlooked or skated over. It invites the reader to confront these disturbing details. But one question is, how do we find out if something will be helpful or harmful to us before we choose to read a book? How can we know if it will harm us when the first of it we know is finding out it already has? How do we read difficult texts with self-care when we also want to inform our own healing journeys, in both vulnerability and faith?

Self-care as an active practice is vital when engaging in any form of study, activism or work on issues of violence. This is not an “airport book,” or something to be enjoyed by the pool with a Pina Colada. It will challenge you, shock you, upset you. It did all of those things to me. Unsurprisingly. The crucifixion of Jesus was, after all, a shocking and upsetting event, which has sometimes been sanitized. Over the years we have even come to wear crucifixes as jewellery and display their representations on our church walls. But nobody would contemplate admiringly or for long a true representation of the naked, exposed, beaten, bloodied and abused Jesus, not on the walls of the Sistine Chapel or anywhere else. Yet still, for all the brutalities confronted in this book, I encourage you to read it if you can.

Treat this book gently. As a rich, high percentage dark chocolate bar. It has much to offer and you can be nourished by it. But it may also bring a bitterness you will have to make a choice about. You can wrinkle your nose in disgust and push the remainder away. Or, you can reflect, let the taste linger and actually, as a whole, see there is more than just the sharpness which gave you cause to pause.

Treat yourself gently. You are a beloved child of God. You are treasured, and blessed. The themes explored in this book are painful. If you are not ready to explore them, then please, don’t. Those involved in the creation of this book do not want to cause distress or harm; that is the exact opposite of the intent. If you wish to try, why not set aside a period of time with a comforting drink and a scented candle, calming music, in a familiar space, with someone you trust on standby in a nearby room or at the end of the telephone. Try one chapter. Connect with the premise of the book in Chapter 1, understand what the book is looking to explore. Then put the book down, and give yourself some time to reflect. From there you can make your decision about proceeding, in discussion with your trusted friend if you need to. 

You may find you devour this book page after page with keen interest, reaching the end feeling like you have completed a sprint. Feeling deeply heard, represented and understood on a level never before reached. Feeling free. On the other hand, you may need to take a chapter, a section, a page at a time, as you would a devotional, establishing a safe space within which to contain your reading, process your thoughts and let them settle before re-entering the world. 

You could start a journal, either writing your responses or channelling them through art, helping you express what arises through your engagement with the book. You may want to consider reaching out to your church pastoral team if you have one, a spiritual director or a therapist should you require. Honouring yourself and your responses is vital. However you respond to this book, listen to what your body is telling you and give yourself what you need to remain well.

For that is the root of all of this. Central to Christianity is the belief Jesus came, lived, and died for us, so we may be made well. In all his ways, he taught us. Through the brutal shame of his sexual assault and murder, followed by the subtle beauty of his resurrected life, he taught us how to live again too. How to be in our own violated, traumatized body-minds. To have simple conversations with trusted friends. Breaking bread. Sharing vulnerabilities. Just being with your favourite people in safe places, by the waters, on long walks, reconnecting with yourself and them as you discover who you are in light of what has happened to you. I often wonder if what Jesus went through, and indeed what the disciples went through in witnessing, was just so brutal, that a soft period between resurrection and ascension was a necessary journey of healing and recovery for all of them, creating the space for the Holy Spirit to subsequently descend.

I pray this book gives you this gift. By journeying through and learning just how much Jesus suffered, you may see just how much he can, and has, walked with us through our suffering. That there is nothing we can experience which is too shameful, too awful, too degrading or horrific, that God would turn away. When we feel the worst has been done to us, our worth has been destroyed and our personhood diminished forever. No, my siblings. God has been through it too. 

In Chapter 4 David Tombs explores how, in recognising the full extent of the crucifixion pain, we too can also realise the full extent of the resurrection’s power. Know that Jesus will walk with each and every one of us for as long as our resurrection journey takes. So, if you can read this book, in a safe, measured and supported way, I wholeheartedly encourage you to do so. 

So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. (John 8:36)

Rebecca Parnaby-Rooke

Content Warning. This book by David Tombs includes graphic descriptions and examples of sexual assaults. If you are a survivor who is still early in your recovery, I would suggest you exercise caution in reading Chapters 2 and 3 in particular, making sure your support network is on hand. Please be aware that the content might trigger traumatic memories, cause you undue distress, or put your mental wellbeing at risk.

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Q&A with Joachim Kügler about his new book

There is a new volume in the Routledge Focus series ‘Rape Culture, Religion and the Bible’! The title is Zeus Syndrome: A Very Short History of Religion-Based Masculine Domination, and the author is Joachim Kügler, who has featured earlier on the blog as one of our 2019 activists (see here).

Tell us about yourself. How does this book fit into your work more widely and how did you come to write this book?

I am a professor of New Testament studies with particular interest in religious history and topics of gender. Alongside this, I am also an ordained priest of the Catholic Church, and I am upset and outraged about the many scandals of clerical sexual abuse. This book has grown out of a decision to use my academic skills to find some answers to how such abuse happens – not only in the Church but in multiple social spheres. My first step was to go to the Egyptian and biblical source materials that I knew and to investigate the intersections of masculine domination, sexuality, and religion. I try to inform readers beyond the inner circle of academia to better understand what is going on and why. 

What is the key argument of your book?

The key argument is that we have to overcome masculine supremacy if we want to create a new kind of sexuality that serves as a language of love. As long as sexual activities and symbolisms primarily reflect and promote dominant masculine power and the submissiveness and subordination of women and of men who are symbolically feminized, we will continue to see rape culture phenomena at the core of our social interactions.

Please give us a quotation from the book that will make readers want to go and read the rest.

My quotation is on the perils associated with sexuality: “Penetration in particular is often deployed as a body-sacrament of masculine domination, and as a means to subjugate women (and men). But the generalized demonization of sexuality cultivated by Christianity under Platonist influence is no solution; it is even part of the problem.”

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Announcing the first colloquium of two: Coercive Control

Broken Glass

Kirsi Cobb and Holly Morse recently posted about their important project, “Abusing God: Reading the Bible in the #MeToo Age” (see here).

The first colloquium will take place both in person and online and is hosted by the University of Manchester on 10 September 2022 (10am to 4pm). It features a line-up of terrific speakers, presenting and co-producing in pairs. The event is designed to foster collaboration, co-learning, and research-based positive action.

Registration is now open! Registration is free. Please find the Eventbrite link here.

(There will be a second colloquium in due course. The focus of the second colloquium will be hypermasculinity.)

For more information, please email: abusinggodahrc@gmail.com

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