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Domestic Abuse

Recent NCLS Research on Domestic and Family Violence

Today we’re profiling the research of NCLS, an organisation that conducts, facilitates, and promotes research on ‘Australian spirituality, church health, effective and resilient leadership, and the connections between church and community’ (see here). 

The name ‘NCLS’ comes from the organisation’s best known project, called ‘the National Church Life Survey’, which takes place five-yearly and has included millions of participants.

NCLS researcher Miriam Pepper, together with Ruth Powell, has just published a paper that may be of particular interest to Shiloh Project followers. The title is, ‘Domestic and Family Violence: Responses and Approaches across the Australian Churches’ (published in Religions 13/3, 2022).

In Miriam’s own words, ‘We have done this research with support from an Australian Research Theology Foundation Inc. grant, using data across denominations from the 2016 National Church Life Survey, to provide a robust empirical foundation to support those who are working to address issues of domestic and family violence in connection with the churches.’ 

The article is freely available here, and there are further results, broken down by denomination, gender and age, here.

The abstract of the article is:

Domestic and family violence (DFV) is a serious and widespread problem in Australia and across the world, including in faith communities. There are calls for research to assist churches to better recognize, respond to and prevent violence. This study draws on data from the 2016 Australian National Church Life Survey (n = 883 senior local church leaders, n = 1270 churchgoers) to provide the first Australia-wide cross-denominational statistics on Christian clergy responses to DFV. Two-thirds of leaders had previously dealt with DFV situations in their ministry, primarily responding to victims of abuse by referring them to specialist support services and by counselling them. The findings suggest a particular depth of experience with DFV situations and strength of awareness of the needs of victims for safety and specialist support among Salvationist leaders. While, overall, a substantial majority of churchgoers felt that they could approach their church for help if they were experiencing DFV, just half of Catholics felt that they could do so. Future research should explore responses to DFV in specific denominations and culturally and linguistic diverse contexts in more detail and seek to understand the practices used by the large minority of clergy who are dealing with perpetrators. 

Vigil for Domestic Violence, Greens MPs (Creative Commons, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

NCLS also offers a range of other resources, including free downloads. Some of these – e.g. on the views and experiences of children in churches, on indigenous and non-indigenous relations in churches, and the National Anglican Family Violence Research Report – are likely to be of considerable interest to Shiloh readers.

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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

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16 Days of Celebrating Activism… Resisting Domestic Violence and Abuse: A White Rose Collaboration

Today we celebrate the UK’s Domestic Abuse Act, which received Royal Assent in late April 2021–though we have some reservation (see below). This Act is likely to protect millions of victims and survivors of domestic violence and abuse (DVA) who are disproportionately female. Alongside this, we celebrate the significant contribution that nuanced understandings of spiritual abuse, and of religion and religious studies, can make in DVA prevention and safeguarding.

Small grants can make a big difference. We hope positive action will grow from a new collaboration funded by the White Rose Consortium. The White Rose Consortium is a group of three northern universities: the Universities of York, Sheffield, and Leeds. The consortium’s Collaboration Fund provides the means for researchers from all three universities to pool knowledge, expertise, resources, creativity, and energies, in a common cause.

From the White Rose University Consortium website (white rose.ac.uk)

The Shiloh Project has had earlier success with this scheme (see here and here). Earlier this year, White Rose funding has been awarded for a project with the title ‘Domestic Violence and Marginalised Communities’. Why? Because, while prevalence of DVA is fairly consistent across various groups (including different religious denominations), marginalised minority individuals and groups experience also additional inequalities, vulnerabilities, and risk factors. 

Black women and women from ethnic minorities, for example, frequently experience multiple additional barriers to escaping DVA and finding support. These barriers can arise, for instance, from systemic inequalities, economic dependency, cultural and religious expectations, and, in some cases, language barriers. The lockdowns and social isolation measures implemented in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, meanwhile, have exacerbated pressures, increasing stress, economic difficulties, disruption in social networks and to normal life, and, along with that, risk to those vulnerable to or experiencing DVA. (Refuge, the UK’s largest domestic abuse charity, has reported a huge 700%+ increase in calls, compared with pre-lockdown figures.) The impacts of DVA on those from marginalised groups, therefore, warrants particularly urgent attention in research, policy, and practice.

Unfortunately, the UK government, in passing the Domestic Violence Act, failed to adopt the amendment which would have explicitly secured protection for migrant DVA victims and survivors. Moreover, the Act failed to implement reforms to the payment of Universal Credit, thereby risking situations where perpetrators of DVA have total control over the income of an entire household. This, in turn, can enable economic abuse. (For a fuller description in a news release by Refuge, see here). These shortfalls, affecting women from migrant communities and from socio-economically deprived sectors particularly harshly, accentuate the significance of the focus aims of this White Rose Domestic Violence and Marginalised Communities project.

The project leads are Parveen Ali (Professor in Health Sciences) and Michaela Rogers (Senior Lecturer in Social Work), both of the University of Sheffield. They are supported by postgraduate intern, Moninuola Ifayomi. 

Michaela Rogers, Senior Lecturer in Social Work (University of Sheffield), Project Co-Lead

(There’s a podcast episode with Parveen here: it’s Episode 16 of the superb podcast series ‘Talking Research’, where Asmita Sood interviews academics across many disciplines who all research sexual violence. Parveen discusses gender-based violence and health inequalities, with particular focus on marginalised women.)

Parveen Ali, Professor of Nursing and Midwifery (University of Sheffield), Project Co-Lead

Given that DVA has many layers and contributory factors that intersect cultural, religious, gender and ethnic boundaries, solutions, too, need to be multifaceted. Hence, alongside Parveen and Michaela, other researchers involved in the project come from a diverse range of disciplines: Criminology and Criminal Justice, Social Policy and Social Work, Urban Studies and Planning, International Development, Management, Geography, Law, and Sociology. Emma Tomalin (one of our 2018 activists) and co-director Johanna Stiebert are contributing expertise from the area of religious studies. 

The collective working on this project will focus initially on two topics: first, the methodological complexities of addressing DVA alongside or within faith communities; and second, how to assist interpreters supporting victims of DVA. The aims of this are to highlight DVA experiences in marginalised communities, and to facilitate support through the exchange of knowledge and identification of gaps in current policy, practice, and research.

The collaboration has got off to an energetic start. We are motivated by our common purpose. DVA is a distressing social problem on a vast scale, but it has been fabulous to learn more from the other participants about other factors, reasons for and consequences of DVA, as well as to feel we are working towards something meaningful.

Great things can happen when good people work together – and that is worth celebrating. 

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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   

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Writing the History of Sexual Harassment: The Avisa Project

In recent days there has been a flurry of reports on the depressing ubiquity of sexual harassment and sexual and gender-based violence. In France there is a project, the Avisa Project, taking a look at the long and horrible history of sexual harassment.

Today’s post about this project, which is likely to be of interest to supporters of the Shiloh Project, is by Armel Dubois-Nayt of the Université de Versailles Saint Quentin en Yvelines.

We would especially like to congratulate Louise Piguet (whose presentation is mentioned below) for successfully defending her doctoral thesis. Wonderful news, Dr. Piguet!

The Avisa Project

Avisa is the eponymous female character of a sixteenth century narrative poem, Willobie his Avisa (1594), who successfully rebuffs a series of persistent and aggressive wooers. The Avisa Project is named after her and was launched in September 2020 by two French universities: the University of Evry and the University of Versailles-Saint-Quentin. One aim of the project is to identify, collect, and examine behaviours in times past that can be classified today as sexual harassment. What can we discern about how harassment was experienced, exposed and resisted by the women and men who endured it? How did they challenge sexual harassment, be that in in court, or through creative modes of expression?

The project is currently funded by the MSH-Paris Saclay and offers webinars, held every two months, giving scholars and PhD students from different disciplines (literature, history, the history of ideas and the sociology of film) the opportunity to present their findings and work in progress.

The first term has been dedicated to designing the bilingual French and English platform, which will continue to present collective research. It will contain a searchable glossary of the French and English terms and phrases used to identify, document and report this type of sexual violence. Alongside this, the platform will assemble information about all of historical, literary and filmic victims and survivors of such crimes. In time, the platform will develop into a corpus database of all works analysed, with up-to-date bibliographies, and other research information on the topic. The site will also advertise forthcoming events and summarise findings of prior project activities.

So far, the webinars since December, have focused on words (i.e. the vocabulary of sexual harassment) and images (i.e. the visual depiction of sexual harassment). Recurring in both focus areas are markers of masculine domination and female victims.

In the first webinar, Guillaume Peureux discussed Idylles (1605), poems by Jean Vauquelin de la Fresnaye (1536-1607), in which the terms harceler and harasser appear (both translate into English as “harass”). Peureux revisits Idylles in the light of a recent controversy in France (2018), which was initiated by the candidates for the agrégation (i.e. the high level competitive exams for teachers), and centred on how texts depicting sexual violence should be taught in class and whether focus on sexual harassment constitutes anachronistic reading of early modern literature.

Next, Chloe Tardivel presented  on two explicit cases of sexual harassment from 14th-century court records from Bologna: those of Margarita (in 1351) and Maria (in 1373). Neither case, however, was tried for the sexual violence involved but for the physical violence and injuries that followed the women’s resistance. This paper illustrated how historians can recover cases of sexual harassment even in the absence of a law that recognises the offence.



Archivio di Stato di Bologna, Comune, Curia del Podestà, Giudici ad maleficia, Libri inquisitionum et testium, boîte n° 219, registre 1, fol. 30.

Rejane Vallee discussed the corpus of films identified as dealing with sexual harassment on the IMDb.com website, the content of which is supplied by anonymous contributors. On this website, 750 films appear under the category “sexual harassment,” a figure far below the 5400 entries under the word “rape,” and the 1151 entries under the word “stalking.” It is, however, higher than the 661 films listed under the category “sexual assault.” The corpus covers films between the years 1899 and 2021, 40 different nationalities, and 16 different genres. It also raises a series of questions, starting with the criteria applied by contributors to categorise films as containing sexual harassment, which appears to have changed considerably over time.

Brigitte Gauthier looked at social fracture and harassment in South African cinema. Hence, sexual harassment in South African university contexts might be seen to be debunked in Steve Jacobs’s film Disgrace, adapted from J.M. Coetzee’s complex novel of the same name. The film portrays but does not resolve themes of sex and sexual violence cast against a background of racialised violence and territorial fights. Gauthier mentioned that South Africa has implemented new laws regarding sexual harassment in the film industry to fight the “embedded” harassment processes in an industry that capitalises and thrives on female beauty. Local filmmaker and member of Sisters Working in Film and Television (SWIFT), Tiny Mungwe, has encouraged people to take the pledge against sexual harassment by using the #Don’tLookAway Mzansi Facebook profile frame (Mzansi is another name for South Africa).

In the second webinar, Susan Baddeley looked at words used in 16th-century French and English to describe acts that we would today classify as sexual harassment. She showed that the words we use in the present – namely, (English) harass and (French) harceler – were not then generally used in the same way. They did, however, in the past, too, describe repeated and hostile attacks, which explains how these terms acquired the meaning they hold today. An intuitive search, from synonym to synonym, through various lexical databases (FRANTEXT, EEBO-TCP, LEME) yielded a few terms (such as attempt in English, attoucher in French) which could be construed as having this meaning, among other meanings. One term however, stood out, and referred to “sniffing around (a potential sexual conquest)”: this is the French verb mugueter. Although several dictionaries attempt to play down this meaning, the fact that others coyly include the word (but not the definition), and that translators tend to under-translate or even omit it, speaks volumes about the true meaning of the word at the time.


The Taymouth Hours, London, British Library MS Yates Thompson 13, fol. 177

Louise Piguet investigated the extent to which we can apply the present-day notion of sexual harassment to 17th-century French society. She took the case of Madame Guyon (1648-1717), and considered how the practice of “controlled anachronism” (Paul Veyne) can help us use her spiritual autobiography to shed some light on domestic abuse in late 17th-century high society. In her autobiography, Guyon recalls a violent past of constant surveillance, attacks, pressure and unwanted sexual intercourse with her husband. This would be labelled today as marital rape but, at the time, it was depicted by the victim as part of her conjugal duties. Piguet concluded that if self-sacrifice on the altar of wifely obedience was in this specific literary genre a major trope to demonstrate a woman’s forbearance and holiness, it can still prove useful material for present-day social history on sexual harassment.

Armel Dubois-Nayt analysed the historical case of sexual harassment of Elizabeth Tudor by Thomas Seymour between 1547 and 1548, which was placed in the limelight by a recent documentary on Channel 5 (2017). Dubois-Nayt examined the confessions of Elizabeth Tudor’s governess and treasurer, as well as a hand-written note on the back of a letter dated 9 June 1548, by the princess herself, on which the case is built. She then turned to and confronted the gender-prejudiced treatment of these texts by generations of historians, going on to propose an alternative philogynist version of events, underpinned by texts such as Willobie his Avisa (1594).

The next seminar will be held on 2 April 2021, and will welcome three speakers. Anne Rochebouet will survey courtesy in medieval fiction, with a view to determine how behaviours associated with courtly manners and courtliness fit with our assumed conceptions of medieval misogyny.

Line Cottegnies will discuss harassment and the battle of the sexes in Mary Astell’s philosophy.

Fanny Beure will talk about the ambiguities of the acts of loving conquest pictured in Hollywood musicals.

For more information about the project see: https://avisa.huma-num.fr/s/avisa/page/accueil

We look forward to Avisa and Shiloh collaborations.

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Opening Conversations about GBV with Visual Media

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

Visual media can be effective tools for teaching.  

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

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

Here are three quick examples.  

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

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

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

Resource from Episcopal Relief & Development

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

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

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The Bible Doesn’t Tell Me So: Book Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can order your copy here.

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