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New Publication: Marriage, Bible, Violence: Intersections and Impacts

Marriage, Bible, Violence - book cover

In this post, we feature the bookMarriage, Bible, Violence: Intersections and Impacts (Routledge, 2023), by Saima Afzal and Johanna Stiebert, which is out this week! We caught up with them both for an interview.

How did the book come about?

The two of us have been friends for some years. We first met at the University of Leeds when Saima was completing her MA in Religion and Public Life, and we have collaborated on a variety of campaigns focused around preventing gender-based violence.

The book, while succinct, took longer to write than we had anticipated – not least, because of the Covid-19 pandemic. But the harder it was for us to find time for writing, the clearer the importance of this book became. We could see the harm and damage caused by instrumentalising sacred texts to afflict real people, with women and girls disproportionately represented among victims and survivors. This was exacerbated by the pandemic. Resisting such violence on multiple fronts, including with research-based arguments, drove us on.

Tell us about your collaboration – how you met, what work you do. 

Like we said, we met at the University of Leeds where Johanna works, and Saima completed an MA. Saima has a wealth of practitioner experience from working in local government, child protection, and as National Crime Agency-registered expert witness and Independent Member of the Lancashire (UK) Police Authority, with a national Equality, Diversity, and Human Rights portfolio. Johanna is a biblical scholar with particular interest in topics of gender and gender-based violence. She co-founded and co-directs The Shiloh Project.

Together we co-direct (together with researchers Mmapula Kebaneilwe and Emma Tomalin) a Community Interest Company (CIC) founded by Saima, called SAS Rights. This CIC is the primary vehicle for much of our activist work. The book is our co-production and an attempt to combine our perspectives as researchers and as activists to explore the multiple ways the topics of ‘marriage’ and ‘violence’ are enmeshed. We use the Bible as our focus for demonstrating some of these intersections and the impact they have on real lives.

Johanna and Saima

What does ‘activism’ mean to you, and how does this relate to religion and gender-based violence?

Activism is central to much of what we do. Religion is central to our research and central to the lives of many in the communities we work in. Each of us identifies as both scholar and activist, even if in our working lives, these carry different emphases. We share a conviction that activism benefits from a basis in research and research benefits from having impact on positive social change.

The book is based on research and analysis of biblical texts, yes. But in the course of this, we are mindful of and remind readers why these matter: that is, because recourse to the authority and ‘plain meaning’ of the Bible has had and continues to have impact on real people’s lives. Sometimes, this impact is violent and traumatic, notably when the Bible is weaponised to justify intimate partner violence. As such, the book explores aspects of family violence and domestic abuse and the role of religion within this. These discussions are increasingly in the public domain, which is a welcome development.

What are the main themes of the book?

‘Marriage’ and ‘the Bible’ are both prominent themes in day-to-day contexts, including in popular culture. One ideology very prominent in claims about ‘biblical marriage’ is complementarianism. One purpose of this book is to explore the disjuncture between, on the one hand, complementarian accounts of biblical marriage and, on the other, intersections of marriage and violence in texts from Jewish and Christian Scriptures.

We challenge authoritative complementarian claims to the Bible’s allegedly clear and unequivocal directions on marriage, and we refute these claims with analysis of the muddled and often violent depictions of marriage in the Bible itself. We focus on the influential pronouncements on ‘biblical marriage’ by the US Family Research Council and Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and analyse such key texts as Genesis 1–3, Malachi 2, and Ephesians 5.

Who would benefit from the book?

This book will, we hope, appeal to students of biblical studies and theology, as well as anyone interested in research-based activism and in how sacred texts are directed towards modern day-to-day life. 

Saima and Johanna [2]

Give us a quote from the book you are most pleased with and why!

Can we have two? (We are two authors, after all!)

“[In Genesis 2–3] one woman (Eve) is created to be the companion of one man (Adam), and prior to this humanity is told to be fruitful and multiply (Gen 1:28). Extraordinarily, this story is used to justify all of monogamy; heteronormativity; heterosexual, monogamous, sexually exclusive marriage to the exclusion of all other kinds of marriage; female submission to male headship; and procreation. It is also used to condemn homosexuality, non-binary gender, transgender, polygamy, feminism, abortion, divorce, and, though less often, single life, elective childlessness, and women’s ordination. Wow. For a short mythological story, featuring an anthropomorphic deity, a talking serpent, and magical fruit, in a biblical book that makes no claims to divine authorship or inspiration, a story which never makes any explicit reference to marriage, let alone feminism, or homosexuality, this is quite something…”

This quote shows up some of the brazenness of claims regularly made about the clarity of the Bible’s claims on ‘marriage’ – yet there is not even a word that captures ‘marriage’ in the whole of the Hebrew Bible!

“Often laws are characterised as ‘secular’, with religious law overriding secular law. Adherence to religious law over secular law is even seen as a proof of faithfulness to God. One woman I am working with acknowledged her husband’s abuse and abandonment. But he had made her swear on her sacred book that she would not report him to the police. She will not budge from this oath, and I know that if I suggested it I would lose her trust.”

This quote is a reflection by Saima on some of the hands-on work she does. It is a reminder of why we wrote this book. 

Saima and Johanna

The book is in the Routledge Focus series Rape Culture, Religion and the Bible, edited by Emily Colgan, Johanna Stiebert, and Barbara Thiede. Books in the series are concise (between 25,000 and 50,000 words – all inclusive) and explore some aspect of rape culture (e.g., sexualised microaggressions, sexual violence) alongside some aspect of religion and/or the Bible. We are very interested in proposals exploring religions other than those associated with the Bible. If you would like to find out more, discuss this, or propose a volume, please contact Johanna: j.stiebert@leeds.ac.uk.

If you are interested in the topic of marriage, Bible, and violence, you might also like Helen Paynter’s book, The Bible Doesn’t Tell Me So. It is reviewed on our blog, here.

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Update on the Bible & Violence Project

The Bible and Violence Project is up and running!

We now have over 120 contributors signed up. Many of them are busy forming and working together in writing groups; others are receiving or providing mentoring. If you are a contributor and find yourself in need of support or motivation, please be in touch if we can help.

The publication emerging from this project aims to be the most comprehensive and inclusive on the topic of the Bible and violence to date. Alongside chapters on every text of the Hebrew Bible and Christian Greek Bible, there will also be chapters on the Bible and…:

Its role and impact in diverse geographical settings

Incel cultures and the manosphere

The ethics of citing violent scholars

HIV/AIDS

Liberative readings in violent settings

Environmental violence

Colonialism

Trafficking

Intimate partner violence

Genocide

Gender-based violence

Rape and rape culture

Violence aimed at children, at animals, and at the deceased

Violence in the family

Divine violence

Supersessionism

Antisemitism, as well as Islamophobia

Martyrdom

War

Crime fiction

Abortion activism

Transphobia

Zionism

Fat shaming…

… and that is not all. Alongside yet more exciting topics, there will also be some chapters on select rabbinical texts and Dead Sea Scrolls, gnostic and deuterocanonical texts.

We have already received contributions ahead of the first deadline of 2 October 2023 by Katherine SouthwoodSébastien DoaneAlison JackBarbara Thiede and Alexiana Fry, with more in the pipeline.

Two of the editors – Chris and Johanna – recently visited Manchester to present at the United Reformed Church research conference on both The Shiloh Project and Bible and Violence Project. While there, we enjoyed hearing Megan Warner’s paper on her topic for the project. 

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Comfort or Cajole: Reading Elkanah’s Response to Hannah with the Awareness of Coercive Control 

by Yannis Ng (University of Leeds, UK)  

Yannis Ng is PhD candidate at the University of Leeds. Formerly, she studied Bible and theology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Her PhD research focuses on Hebrew Bible wisdom literature (primarily, Ecclesiastes and Job) and trauma-informed and bystander approaches. 

A version of this paper was presented at the annual conference of the Society for the Study of Theology on Wednesday, 19 April 2023. 

Yannis Ng, presenting in Leeds in January 2023.

INTRODUCTION 

The story of Elkanah and his wives Peninnah and Hannah is in 1 Samuel 1. Here Peninnah, a mother, provokes Hannah, who has no child and yearns for one, year by year when the household go to an annual sacrifice. Upon such provocation, Hannah weeps and will not eat. Elkanah then asks Hannah four questions in response to her pain. He asks: ‘Why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not better to you than ten sons?’ 

This paper focuses on how Elkanah and Hannah are described, and on how these descriptions are disputable. After that, I introduce controlling and coercive behaviour. Then I re-read the story and illustrate how Elkanah’s questions relate to tactics of coercive control. Finally, I talk about how Hannah’s response demonstrates self-empowerment in the face of coercive control.  

ELKANAH AND HANNAH 

The relationship between Elkanah and Hannah is regularly described by commentators as sweet and supportive. Elkanah gives a (double) portion to Hannah because he loves her ‘even though’ she is ‘barren’ (1:5). (The word ‘barren’ occurs in many English translations. It is a harsh word referring to the pain that is involuntary childlessness.) Elkanah, so it is widely accepted, loves Hannah. Then, Elkanah’s response to Hannah is appreciated as one of comfort and acceptance. He is described as a caring and compassionate husband. Hannah’s silence is sometimes criticised for being ungrateful towards Elkanah’s comfort. This couple presents an intimate partnership.  

HOWEVER, THERE IS MORE TO IT THAN THAT… 

  1. Doesn’t Elkanah know why Hannah weeps and refuses to eat? 

The text tells us that Peninnah provokes Hannah severely year by year (vv.6–7). If Elkanah knows the reason, he seems to accept, even to justify Peninnah’s bullying behaviour and overlooks or mitigates the harm done to Hannah. 

  • He finds her heart is ‘sad’, or rather, ‘bad’ 

Though this question velameh yera levavekh is commonly translated as asking why Hannah has a sad, or aggrieved mood, the Hebrew text states her heart is yera (bad). This is contrasted with Elkanah himself who is tov (good) to Hannah in the consecutive question.  

In verses 17–18, Eli answers Hannah that the God of Israel will grant her petition. Then, the English translation has, ‘her countenance was sad no longer’. This seems to support that Hannah’s heart was sad; however, the meaning of the Hebrew is uncertain here. There are no words descriptive of sadness; the Hebrew reads, literally, ‘her face was not anymore’—with no mood adjective.  

McCarter, in his commentary, interprets Elkanah’s question differently as, ‘why are you so wretched?’,i because, in Deuteronomy 15:10, yera levavekh refers to a grudging heart (NRSV, ESV). In this case, Elkanah’s question does not show regard for Hannah’s sadness. Moreover, the Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament suggests a translation for yera in this verse of ‘discontented’.ii The question would be, ‘why is your heart discontented?’. 

  • The final question is a trick question, or maybe a rhetorical question.  

After three why-questions, Elkanah asks ‘Am I not better to you than ten sons?’ He offers Hannah two options: either, to opt for him; or, for ten sons. But she does not have ten sons; she does not have even one. Having ten sons is probably an unachievable target. Between Elkanah and ten sons, her only choice is Elkanah.  

  • He is not prepared to listen to her answers. 

Elkanah asks multiple questions without leaving time for her to answer. This is unlikely to be an expression of caring or comfort, but rather, exposes his annoyance at Hannah’s weeping, and her ‘bad’ mood.  

Therefore, Elkanah’s response maybe does not reflect any comfort or acceptance of Hannah’s infertility. Instead, he blames Hannah’s heart and is not taking care of her or showing compassion. The partnership between this couple may be complicated and not one of reciprocal love and care.   

CONTROLLING AND COERCIVE BEHAVIOURS 

Before re-reading the story, let me introduce the concept of controlling and coercive behaviour. This is a well-documented and common type of domestic abuse. 

According to the Statutory guidance framework: controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship from Home Office,  

Controlling behaviour is: a range of acts designed to make a person subordinate and/or dependent by isolating them from sources of support, exploiting their resources and capacities for personal gain, depriving them of the means needed for independence, resistance and escape, and regulating their everyday behaviour.  

Coercive behaviour is: a continuing act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim.iii 

Since this guidance is aimed at police and criminal justice agencies involved in the investigation of offences, the descriptions are legalistic.  

A description from the perspective of psychiatry tells us more practically about a feature of coercive control:  

[…] it is a self-perpetuating form of abuse because so much of the controlling behaviour is about preparing and maintaining the internal environment of the relationship so that the controlee has no power to question it and/or feels he or she has no credibility in order to reach out to outsiders for help.iv 

This description tells us of the controlling and coercive behaviours situated in and maintaining an intimate partnership. Here the perpetrator and the victim are confined, and the victim has no agency to seek help.  

An expert in coercive control studies, Evan Stark, highlights that the aim of coercive control is, ‘to usurp and master a partner’s subjectivity’.v  

RE-READING ELKANAH’S BEHAVIOURS WITH CONTROL AND COERCIVE BEHAVIOUR 

Let us now re-read Elkanah’s questions with the perspective of controlling or coercive behaviours. I am not going to prove that Elkanah is a coercive perpetrator, but I would like to sensitise readers to consider the possibility and to note the tactics that coercive perpetrators use to control and confuse their partners. According to the Controlling or Coercive Behaviour: Statutory Guidance Framework recently published by the Home Office, perpetrator tactics can be categorised into four categories: 1) Threats and intimidation, 2) manipulation, 3) exploitation, and 4) sabotage.vi The categorisations may vary across different disciplines. I adopt this categorisation from the Statutory Guidance Framework because it aims to provide information for identifying offences and reducing risk to victims.vii I position myself and readers among the general public, who may or may not have experienced coercive control (consciously or otherwise). 

Questions 1 and 2: Threats and Intimidation 

  • Before Elkanah asks, ‘Why do you weep? Why do you not eat?’, Elkanah has already given his wives a portion (or portions) in verses 4 to 5. He may expect Hannah to eat and drink at the feast, expressing joy and gratitude. When she does not, the question ‘why do you not eat?’ could connote threat: Hannah is falling short of Elkanah’s expectation.  
  • Threats to remove care, or not to undertake caring responsibilities that the victim relies on, is a tactic of intimidation. This may escalate to exploitation because Elkanah could use his power to refrain from supplying food altogether.   
  • Asking ‘why do you weep?’ may also reflect Hannah’s helplessness. These questions further humiliate her: weeping and not eating are useless for resisting controlling or coercive behaviours.  

Question 3: Manipulation and Sabotage 

Manipulation 

  • Elkanah asks, ‘why is your heart discontented?’ This question blames Hannah, the victim, and suggests she is ungrateful.  
  • This kind of blaming can be a manipulative tactic: making false allegations against victims, pretending their controlling tactics are for the victim’s own safety. The depiction of Hannah as an ungrateful wife renders Elkanah as a kind and generous husband.  

Sabotage 

  • The depiction of Hannah’s discontented heart also harms her image in the public sphere. It demeans and devalues Hannah and puts guilt and shame on her.  
  • This kind of depiction can be sabotaging. A tactic that perpetrators deploy to interfere in victims’ personal or professional opportunities or to frustrate a police investigation. This includes claiming victims are mentally ill, so their statements are not trustworthy.  
  • Elkanah, in contrast, is depicted as a good husband. Hannah’s weeping and not eating are due to her discontentment with his love. Therefore, he himself can remain innocent in the conflict between his wives.  

Question 4: Intimidation and Manipulation 

Intimidation 

  • When Elkanah asks whether he is better than ten sons, Hannah cannot reply that having ten sons is better to her than Elkanah. Otherwise, she may make him angry or lose his protection because Elkanah has the power to abandon her.  
  • He also has control over whether she can possibly conceive ten, or any sons. Both options offered are actually under Elkanah’s control. He knows her vulnerabilities, that she has no other support and protection. He also understands her deepest desire of having a son. The dependence on physical needs and protection puts a vulnerable person at greater risk of intimidation, because a perpetrator has control over all their needs.  

Manipulation 

  • Hannah could have more choices, besides either Elkanah’s love, or ten sons. He decides for her that staying with him is the only way she can go. Meanwhile, he permits Peninnah’s provocation. Indeed, his ‘love’ for Hannah makes the relationship between Peninnah and Hannah worse.  
  • The options offered devalue all Hannah’s other relationships, isolate her from any support network, and hinder potential solutions. Elkanah has decided for her that being his wife is the only option. This question renders her a person who does not know what is good for herself.  
  • So, this yes-no question not only limits her options, it can also be a tactic of manipulation. This manipulation tactic obscures the facts and creates doubt. This question together with the previous questions creates confusion and instils doubt about her feelings. These doubts can make a victim forget why she responds as she does in the first place, direct her to query her responses and render her vulnerable to trusting a perpetrator’s ‘comforting’ decision. 

RE-READING HANNAH’S RESPONSE WITH COERCIVE CONTROL BEHAVIOUR   

Reading the text with the perspective of controlling and coercive behaviours can illustrate how power can be used by a perpetrator on their victim, but we can also see how a victim can empower herself in the face of abuse. After her husband asks her those controlling and coercive questions, Hannah neither responds directly nor endures helplessly. Hannah looks for an opportunity to get away from the immediate pressures.  

  1.  She seeks alternatives and breaks old patterns  

Not giving a reply to Elkanah’s questions, she goes to pray to her God (vv.9–11). Hannah recognises her identity, not only as the wife of Elkanah, but also as a servant of the LORD. She makes her vow to the LORD as an alternative to Elkanah’s ‘choices’ of either having Elkanah or ten sons. Her action is a form of resistance. 

After she has borne Samuel, Hannah does not go up together with Elkanah and all his household to the yearly sacrifice (vv.20–22). Though she still belongs to him, she does not stick with the pattern. The pattern is most likely set up by her husband, but she again demonstrates agency and resistance and opts out. 

  • She speaks up.  

Having built up her own identity, Hannah now speaks up for herself. She resists Elkanah’s request of going up to the yearly sacrifice (v.21) and voices that her determination is to wait until she has weaned her son, and then to offer him as a Nazirite and let him remain at the sanctuary forever (v.22).  

William de Brailes, ‘Hannah Prays in the Temple’ and ‘Hannah gives birth to Samuel’ (Walters Art Museum Illuminated Manuscripts. Ms W.106 for.17r (Creative Commons).

Her vow is from her own volition using ‘I’ (vv.26–28) and reflects her self-identity and autonomy to do what is best for herself. As she has decided to offer Samuel to the LORD, she vows, ‘I have lent him to the LORD’ rather than ‘we have lent’.  

  • She protects herself and her son 

Having a son may release Hannah from Peninnah’s provocation. She asks for a son, not a child, or a daughter. In that time, a woman needed male protection.  

However, it is odd to ask for a child from God, then offering the child to God. Having a relationship with a controlling and coercive abuser, the custody of the child might entail further harms and threats to her, as well as to the child. Offering her son to the LORD may be a way to protect the son from becoming a tool for manipulation. This also limits Elkanah’s power to deploy his controlling and coercive tactics through Samuel, the son. 

CONCLUSION 

Rereading the first book of Samuel chapter 1 verse 8, Elkanah’s four questions escalate in terms of exertion of control. My rereading demonstrates how a veneer of care can hide cajoling and controlling behaviour within an intimate relationship where there is power imbalance. This rereading is not judging Elkanah as perpetrator but seeks to sensitise readers to the means and tactics of coercive control. The reading of Hannah’ response may illustrate how controlees can empower themselves to reduce risk of harm to them and their loved ones. 

EPILOGUE 

At the presentation at the SST conference, members of the audience asked me how the narration of the LORD’s closing Hannah’s womb relates to my reading. They also asked how other people relate to the relationship between Elkanah and Hannah. These questions reflect the complicated power dynamics in the story and how other people can be involved in and affected by coercive control in different ways. Due to time constraints, my paper focused only on Elkanah as potentially coercive – not on God, or Peninnah, or Eli, as well. There is definitely potential for further research.

Another question proposed that Peninnah also suffers from Elkanah’s coercive control and that she directs her own pain towards Hannah. I am reminded of a contextual Bible reading of this passage, which I conducted with domestic workers in Hong Kong. One of them identified with Peninnah. She had children with her husband, but her husband also had an extra-marital relationship with another woman and provided financial support to this woman. This, in turn, made the wife feel deprived of resources and resentful towards the other woman. This perspective would again direct us to feeling differently – both towards the ‘good’ husband Elkanah, and towards his less favoured wife Peninnah. 

The power dynamics among the biblical figures in 1 Samuel 1 are significant and worthy of more study. The perspective of coercive control can, I argue, shed some light on this story, as well as open up questions for present-day predicaments and situations. 

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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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Infographic for the White Rose Project ‘Domestic Violence and Marginalised Communities’

The White Rose Network Project ‘Domestic Violence and Marginalised Communities’ (see here) led by Parveen Ali and Michaela Rogers of the University of Sheffield, is currently developing resources for researchers and activists.

Here is an Act-tea-vism infographic to introduce some members of the team (please see the attached pdf below for the full version). Special thanks to Mark Fitzgerald (see his picture in the infographic!) for his assistance.

Why tea? Drinking tea is an activity central to the domestic realm in many places and settings. Tea can provide comfort and also opportunity for social engagement and community building. Tea can play a part in grassroots activism, in providing support, and fostering solidarity.

Check out the complete document:

https://www.shilohproject.blog/wp-content/uploads/2022/11/Act-TEA-vism.pdf

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Announcing… an event for postgraduates, postdocs and other ECRs (early career researchers) working on abuse and trauma in religious contexts

Save the Date… register expressions of interest… spread the word…

An event for postgraduates, postdocs and other ECRs (early career researchers) working on abuse and trauma in religious contexts.

When? 14 – 15 November 2022 (times to be confirmed)

Where? At the University of Leeds (venue to be confirmed). This will be an in-person event only and all participants are encouraged to take part actively in all events.

What? Short presentations by participants, guest presentations by invited speakers, networking, focused discussion groups, informal conversations. 

Why? Research on abuse and trauma in religious contexts comes with profound and distinctive sensitivities and difficulties. While categories such as ‘spiritual abuse’ are becoming more well understood and widely used, and with research on abuse in religious contexts growing, support networks are still sparse.

The aims of this event are:

To bring together postgraduates, postdocs and other ECRs working on abuse and trauma in religious contexts.

To create networks of collaboration and support.

To share information about existing resources and services that participants have found meaningful and helpful.

To identify what is still needed in terms of information and support and to discuss ways to meet these needs.

On November 14–15, activities will be led by Chrissie Thwaites and Laura Wallace. Both are postgraduates in the subject unit of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Leeds. Because both are busy with internships at present, please direct initial enquires and expressions of interest to Johanna Stiebert, co-director of the Shiloh Project: j.stiebert@leeds.ac.uk

If you are a postgraduate, postdoc, or ECR working on abuse and trauma in religious contexts and you’d like to take part in the events of 14-15 November 2022 at the University of Leeds, please get in touch, with a short description (one paragraph) of your research. We will endeavour to fund or subsidise participants’ travel (within the UK) and accommodation costs, as well as refreshments during the event. Numbers will be limited. All participants will make a short presentation to the group (10-15 minutes) about their research. 

If you would like to nominate yourself, or someone else (a researcher, activist, practitioner) to make a short presentation at the event (e.g. about strategies and/or resources for working on topics of abuse and trauma in religious contexts), please be in touch, describing the proposed speaker and providing their contact details. We will cover participants’ travel (within the UK) and accommodation costs, as well as refreshments and a modest honorarium. 

To find out a bit more about the project…

This event is part of a large grant called ‘Abuse in Religious Settings’ (AIRS) funded by the AHRC. It is supplemented by another AHRC grant, with the title ‘The Shiloh Project’, on sacred texts and rape cultures. The AIRS grant is led by Professor Gordon Lynch (University of Kent) and the Shiloh Project grant is led by Johanna Stiebert (University of Leeds). 

This event is aimed at researchers at relatively early stages of their career working on topics of abuse and trauma in religious contexts. It aims to create networks of support and collaboration and to identify existing resources and sources of support, as well as needs for researchers of abuse and trauma in religious contexts that are not met, or not met adequately. Together we will discuss how best to meet these needs.

We acknowledge that researchers working on abuse and trauma in religious contexts encounter sensitivities and difficulties of particular kinds. We acknowledge that researchers working in such areas may themselves be victims or survivors of trauma and abuse, or encounter stress and trauma in working with victims and survivors. Additionally, there may be secondary and intersectional contributing factors and it would be good to discuss and address these, too. Hence, other factors may exacerbate difficulties particular to the research: financial strain, anxiety about employability, minoritized status on account of mental wellbeing, disability, gender, gender identity, sexuality, racism, ethnic marginalisation, classicism, to name a few.

Sad Angel (CC.BY-NC-SA 2.0, cropped)

We hope to create a safe and constructive space to take such conversations forward.

Please help us spread the word and please contact us if you would like to participate. 

Please direct all initial enquiries to Johanna Stiebert: j.stiebert@leeds.ac.uk

For more information on the project ‘Abuse in Religious Settings’, please contact: airs@kent.ac.uk

[The feature image (of the STOP sign) is by allaboutgeorge, CC-BY-ND 2.0, cropped]

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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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