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“A Universe of Ontological Terror”: A Comparative Analysis of Genesis 34 and the Rape and Murder of Sarah Everard.

Isobel Wood has recently graduated from the University of Leeds after studying Philosophy, Politics and Economics. Her research critically reflects on feminist approaches to global social justice and gender inequality issues. In particular, her most recent research centres on the intersection of religion and gender, namely the similarities between contemporary and biblical rape culture, which this blog focuses on. Her other research interests include popular culture, Marxism and identity politics. Following graduation, she will be moving to London where she begins her career as an Associate Consultant at one of the world’s leading technology companies.

Deena Metzger (cited in Blyth 2010, p.91) introduces a horrifying reality for women in her definition of rape.[1] She argues that women live in a “universe of ontological terror”, whereby the very essence of womanhood is threatened by sexual violence and misconduct. This post explores Metzger’s claim by addressing similarities between biblical and contemporary British rape culture through a comparative analysis of the 2021 rape and murder of Sarah Everard, contemporary rape rhetoric, and the biblical story of Genesis 34.

Sexual violence towards women continues to be a prominent issue in the United Kingdom, with recent surveys estimating 1.6 million adults aged 16 to 74 years have experienced sexual assault by rape or penetration (including attempts) since the age of 16 years. This, however, is no contemporary phenomenon. There is a common consensus amongst feminist biblical scholars that the Bible has been highly influential in the creation of Western rape culture due to its authority in both faith-based communities and pop-culture as well as the recurring themes of patriarchy and gender-based violence present within its narratives (see, e.g., Scholz, 1999; Stiebert, 2021; Thiede, 2022). Such a connection warrants an exploration into the similarities between biblical and contemporary rape cultures.

Genesis 34

This blog post focuses upon the narrative of Genesis 34 which recounts the rape of Dinah, the daughter of Jacob, by a Canaanite prince called Shechem. The story begins by introducing Dinah’s journey to see the “daughters of the land” (Genesis 34:1). Here, she is intercepted by Shechem, son of Hamor the Canaanite, who ‘takes her by force’ (Genesis 34:2). Following the rape, Shechem’s father Hamor meets with Jacob to negotiate marriage terms between Shechem and Dinah. Hamor also suggests that further intermarriage and assimilation take place between the Hivite and Jacobite communities. Though Jacob remains silent on the matter, Dinah’s brothers (Simeon and Levi) are enraged and, in a plot to avenge their sister, demand that all the Hivite men must first be circumcised before any intermarriage can occur. The brothers then invade the town whilst the Hivite men are recovering from surgery, proceeding to slaughter the recovering Canaanites, taking their wives, and pillaging their wealth (Klopper, 2010, p. 656).

Genesis 34 and Sarah Everard

In early March 2021, Sarah Everard, aged 33, was walking home from a friend’s house in Clapham when she was intercepted by Wayne Couzens, a Metropolitan Police officer. Couzens falsely arrested Ms Everard on the pretence that she was breaking COVID-19 legislation. He drove her to a secluded rural area in Kent where he raped and murdered her.

The case of Sarah Everard echoes the plight of Dinah in Genesis 34, and whilst the most obvious comparison is the sexually violent nature of the crimes,[2] the similar responses to both cases offer an insight into the perpetuation of rape mythology and culture.

Victim Blaming and the Policing of Women

The first point of comparison centres around rape myths, including victim-blaming and the subsequent policing of women in both biblical Israel and contemporary Britain.

Much of the victim-blaming response to Dinah’s story is elicited by the first verse, which details Dinah’s journey to see the Canaanite daughters: “Now Dinah the daughter of Leah, whom she had borne to Jacob, went out to visit the women of the region” (Genesis 34:1). For instance, Aalders (1981 cited in Parry, 2002, p.7) confidently surmises that Dinah has “natural desire to be seen by the young men of the city” and is disturbed that she would “flippantly expose herself” to these men. His response exemplifies a victim-blaming stance, making assumptions about Dinah’s character and placing her at fault for the crimes perpetrated against her. This maintains another rape myth: that ‘normal men’ do not commit rape but are driven “to such an extreme form of sexual behaviour” by female promiscuity (Blyth, 2010, p.3).

This same stance of victim-blaming has been repeated in the policy and rhetoric of senior UK government officials in response to the Sarah Everard case. North Yorkshire Commissioner Philip Allott exhibited these attitudes in his statement, arguing “she [Sarah] never should have submitted to the arrest” and “women need to be streetwise”. The government action which follows Sarah Everard’s rape and murder also reinforces the opinion that the surveillance of women and girls is necessary for their own safety. The “immediate steps aimed at improving safety for women” included “an additional £25m for better lighting and CCTV” and a “pilot scheme which would see plain-clothes officers in pubs and clubs”. Surveillance is an important facet of victim-blaming, insofar that it monitors women ensuring that they are in keeping with the “ideal rape victim” construct (Larcombe, 2002). Here, women are chaste, sensible and cautious, modifying their behaviours to demonstrate caution in interactions with the opposite sex (Larcombe, 2002, p.133). Furthermore, the introduction of plain-clothed officers perpetuates the “damsel in distress trope,” academically termed “benevolent sexism” (Glick and Fiske, 2001). Though a more covert form of prejudice, benevolent sexism is “disarming” through its “promises that men’s power will be used to women’s advantage” (Glick and Fiske, 2001, p.111). This form of sexism is innately patronising, by positioning men as saviours it condescends the role of women, implying men’s dominance and depicting women as a liability (Dardenne et al, 2007, p.765).

Similarly, victim-blaming rhetoric is littered throughout contemporary media, specifically newspaper articles. A recent Daily Mail article included details about Sarah’s education, the value of her parent’s house, and the clothing she was wearing before the attack. By including these details, the Daily Mail attempted to position Everard as an “ideal rape victim’” (Larcombe, 2002) deserving of sympathy and retribution. For instance, she was presented in the article as a sensible, responsible woman with a university degree who came from a respected middle-class family; consequently, she would have understood the risk of rape and chose to wear modest dress. Circulating this information reinforces the opinion that certain characteristics of women make them more or less susceptible to or culpable for violence. 

Just as Lange (1899, pp.563-564) describes Dinah’s story as a “warning to the daughters of Israel”, Meyers (1997, p. 24) argues that problematic news coverage “serves as a warning and a form of social control over women and a guide to appropriate female behaviour.” By sharing intimate and unnecessary details of a woman’s character, and responding to such acts with further forms of policing and surveillance on women’s freedoms, society is merely perpetuating the rape myth that women are culpable for the crimes committed against them. The mere act of going out becomes an invitation for sexual violence. In fact, the disclosure of intimate details about rape victims continues to be a legitimate judicial defence strategy, contributing to the extremely low conviction rates seen today in the United Kingdom[3] (Larcombe, 2002, p.136). Therefore, contemporary media outlets must understand their complicity in perpetuating rape culture and accept responsibility for ceasing the propagation of rape mythology (Meyers, 1997, pp.xi).

Race and Rape Culture

Sexual violence against women intersects with race to the detriment of already marginalised groups. The media hysteria surrounding the Everard case may be wrongfully credited to the appearance and social standing of Sarah, who, as a privileged white woman received more publicity and attention than other victims of similar crimes (Stiebert, 2021, p.48). For instance, Sabina Nessa’s murder, which occurred six months after the murder of Sarah Everard, received minimal coverage and, according to internet analytical tools like Google Trends and Crowdtangle, markedly less public engagement.

Similarly, the fate of the Canaanite women who are abducted (and presumably raped) by Dinah’s brothers during the raid of the Hivite city (Gen. 34:29) receive very little attention in both the text and its interpretative traditions. The injustice they face is rooted in the identity politics of Ancient Israel, where boundaries are set between different groups through geography, ethnicity, and allegiance. Outsiders are demonised in an attempt to justify violence against them and to form stronger group boundaries (Bechtel, 1994, p.22). Consequently, genealogy is understood to be essential in maintaining purity within the precincts of different groups, and so the concept of a woman being raped by an “outsider” is considered especially abhorrent (Bechtel, 1994, p.22).

Both Simeon and Levi share a disdain for the inter-ethnic sexual relationship between Shechem and Dinah and the proposal of long-term interdependence between Canaanites and Jacobites, which “threatened to put the colonized and the colonizer in a relationship of equality (although not gender equality)” (Dube, 2017, p.54). Subsequently, the Canaanite women (Gen. 34:29) are simply depicted as plunder, and as restitution for the sins Shechem conducted against the Jacobite family (Dube, 2017, p.54). These women are silenced by the text, just as Sabina Nessa’s story is omitted from much contemporary media coverage.

Rape Rhetoric

In Genesis 34:2, where we read about Shechem’s act of rape, Dinah is repeatedly referred to using pronominal suffixes, which “depersonalise and objectify her” (Blyth, 2010, p.87), limiting her to a sedentary object of Shechem’s desire and subsequent abuse.  Dinah is referred to by name eight times throughout the narrative, and in most cases, she is identified in relation to her family (particularly her father and brothers): she is “the daughter of Leah”, “our sister” and “Jacob’s Daughter” (Genesis 34) (Scholz, 1997, p.151-2). This kinship language reinforces the discourse that a woman’s plight is only valued at the cost to her male counterparts; her status as a rape victim only deserves sympathy in relation to others.

However, recent British media campaigns have criticised the usage of such language within rape culture rhetoric. This is illustrated by an image created by popular Instagram page and blog @Ladbible, which was shared as part of a campaign during Sexual Abuse & Sexual Violence Awareness Week. The image features the statement “She is Someone’s” followed by ‘Daughter,Sister, Mother, Wife, Girlfriend, Friend’ which are all crossed out.

The use of slogan, “She is Someone’s” (Ladbible, 2021) is particularly poignant, insofar that it acknowledges the use of kinship language within contemporary “lad” culture to wrongfully evoke sympathy towards the victim, much like the language used to describe Dinah within Genesis 34. The campaign implores readers to consider victims (in this case women) as simply people in their own right, as opposed to those deserving of empathy by virtue of their relationships with others. Ultimately, a victim’s background, sexual history and race should not influence the condemnation of the crime.

Concluding Remarks

This blog post offers a damning indictment of the pervasiveness of patriarchy and sexual violence, concluding that despite millennia, the responses of both biblical and contemporary societies to sexual violence are almost identical in their semantics, their mistreatment of minority groups, and their recitation of rape mythology. The female rape survivor’s experience is focalised by an exclusively androcentric ideological framework, where male voices take precedence (Blyth, 2009, p.485), confining the survivor to the limitations of the “ideal rape victim” (Larcombe, 2002). Here, a woman’s race, background and the most intimate details of her personal life are derised and critiqued, until she is rendered culpable to her own defilement, despite exercising the most basic of freedoms.

Nowadays, rape mythology is no longer limited to the pages of ancient texts but a reality of the very essence of womanhood.

Works Cited

Bechtel, L.M. 1994. What is Dinah is Not Raped? (Genesis 34). Journal for the Study of the Old Testament62 (1), pp. 19–36.

Bible: New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).

Blyth, C. 2009. Terrible Silence, Eternal Silence: A Feminist Re-Reading of Dinah’s Voicelessness in Genesis 34. Biblical Interpretation 17 (1), pp.483–506.

Blyth, C. 2010. The Narrative of Rape in Genesis 34: Interpreting Dinah’s Silence. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Cates, L and Penner, T. 2007. Textually Violating Dinah. The Bible and Critical Theory 3 (3), pp. 37.1–37.18.

Dardenne, B., Dumont, M. and Bollier, T. 2007. Insidious Dangers of Benevolent Sexism: Consequences for Women’s Performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 93 (5), pp. 764–779.

Dube, M. 2017. Dinah (Genesis 34) At the Contact Zone “Shall Our Sister Become a Whore?” In: Claassens, L.J and Sharp, C.J. (eds), Feminist Frameworks and The Bible: Power, Ambiguity, and Intersectionality. London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, pp. 39–58. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Musa-Dube/publication/323839710_SHALL_OUR_SISTER_BECOME_A_WHORE_Introduction_Colonial_Contexts_Race_and_Sexual_Violence/links/5aaed3bc0f7e9b4897c03807/SHALL-OUR-SISTER-BECOME-A-WHORE-Introduction-Colonial-Contexts-Race-and-Sexual-Violence.pdf

Glick, P and Fiske, S. 2001. An Ambivalent Alliance: Hostile and Benevolent Sexism as Complementary Justifications for Gender Inequality. American Psychologist 5 (2), pp. 109–118. 

Klopper, F. 2010. Rape and the Case of Dinah: Ethical Responsibilities for Reading Genesis 34. Old Testament Essays 22 (1), pp.652–665.

Ladbible.  2021. SHE IS SOMEONE. [Instagram]. January 31st. Available from: https://www.instagram.com/p/CZZXNfvMuFN/

Lange, J. 1899. Genesis, or, The First Book of Moses. Together with a General Theological and Homiletical Introduction to the Old Testament. 5th Edition. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. Available from: http://www.orcuttchristian.org/John%20Peter%20Lange,%20Critical,%20Doctrinal%20and%20Homiletical%20Commentary_Genesis.pdf

Larcombe, W. 2002. The “Ideal” Victim v Seccessful Rape Complainants: Not What You Might Expect. Feminist Legal Studies 10 (1), pp. 131–148.

Meyers, M. 1997. News Coverage of Violence Against Women: Engendering Blame. London: SAGE. 

Parry, R. 2002. Feminist Hermeneutics and Evangelical Concerns: The Rape of Dinah as a Case Study. Tyndale Bulletin 53 (1), pp. 1–28.

Scholz, S. 1997. Rape Plots: A Feminist Cultural Study of Genesis 34. New York: UMI. Available from: https://search.proquest.com/openview/650d9a9842518cf704771516cce932ed/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=18750&diss=y

Scholz, S., 1999. Was it Really Rape in Genesis 34? In: Washington, H., Graham S.L. and Thimmes, P. (eds), Escaping Eden: New Feminist Perspectives on the Bible. New York: New York University Press. pp 182–198.

Stiebert J., 2021. Rape Myths, the Bible, and #MeToo. Abingdon: Routledge.

Thiede, B., 2022. Rape Culture in the House of David: A Company of Men. Abingdon: Routledge.

The featured image at the start of the blog post is by Tim Dennell, “Reclaim These Streets: Vigil for Sarah Everard in Sheffield.” On Flickr: https://flic.kr/p/2kKAaZR.


[1] Metzger (cited in Blyth, 2010, p.91) describes rape as when “a woman is brutally stripped of her humanity and confronted with her definition as a nonperson, a function…Rape asserts only combat, brutalizing the communal aspect of sexuality, destroying meaning, relationship, and person, creating a universe of ontological terror”. I have used part of this quote in the title of the blog post.

[2] It is important to note that whilst both crimes involve the abduction and rape of women, their fates are very different. Dinah returns to her household following her brothers’ attack upon the Canaanite men, whereas Sarah is murdered following her rape.

[3] 1.3% of 67,125 rape offences recorded by police in 2021 led to a prosecution.

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Q&A with Joachim Kügler about his new book

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

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

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

What is the key argument of your book?

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

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

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

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Announcing… 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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Abortion and the Bible

NB (added 27 June 2022): The article following predates the Supreme Court overturning on 24 June 2022 of the landmark abortion decision of Roe v. Wade. Since that day, there has been another flurry of articles, posts and tweets. Responding to some of these, please note first, that the self-designation of anti-abortionists as being ‘pro-life’ or ‘pro-lifers’ is critiqued in Note 2. There are further comments about language use in Notes 1, 6 and 10. Second, I agree that Numbers 5 is a frightening text, or ‘text of terror’, for women – hence, I write of it being reprehensible and to be rejected. Third, the reason I confine myself to examples from the Hebrew Bible is that this is my area of expertise, not because I deem the New Testament or Christian texts unproblematic. Indeed, a number of these texts advocate control over or subordination of women, which can contribute to both spiritual abuse and restriction of women’s rights, including the right to health care and reproductive control. For evidence of violence, including gendered violence, in Christian texts, as explored by subject experts, please see this forthcoming book (among other texts cited in the ‘Resources’ tab of the Shiloh Project blog): Christy Cobb and Eric Vanden Eykel (eds.). 2022. Sex, Violence, and Early Christian Texts. Lexington Books.

____________________________ ______________________________

The imminent risk of abortion rights becoming even more severely restricted across the USA feels very frightening, and it also feels personal. In today’s post I look at why. I realise this piece is a bit of a long read. The first bit is mostly some context. The latter section is about how selectively the Bible is drawn into anti-abortion polemic.

From 2003 to 2009 I lived and worked in East Tennessee. My work there, as elsewhere over the past 20+ years, was teaching and researching the Hebrew Bible within a higher education setting. 

Both my children were born in Knoxville, Tennessee, and my 6+ years there were a memorable chunk of my life. Looking back, I made many great friendships. I also regularly encountered people – friendly, kind people – who (bizarrely, to my mind) believed gun owning is a human right, state health provision is ‘nanny state’ stuff, and abortion is genocide. 

Every year a portion of the University of Tennessee campus, right outside the tower block containing the Department of Religious Studies’ offices, would be taken over by ‘The Genocide Awareness Project’ (GAP) and their horrible large images of foetuses, alongside other horrifying images of emaciated corpses at the sites of Nazi atrocities. There is so much that is wrong, offensive, disingenuous, and manipulative about such an association and comparison between ‘abortion’ and ‘genocide’, which I won’t go into here now. Suffice to say, every year GAP would repel and enrage me.[1]

Christmas trees would have upset or enraged me far less, if at all. Christmas trees were, however, unlike GAP displays, discouraged on campus, because they were seen as privileging or promoting one religion – namely, the undeniably, unequivocally dominant one of Tennessee – over other religions. This religion, of course, is Christianity. Tennessee is, after all, the ‘buckle of the Bible belt’. US laws of free speech and freedom of religion, like the alleged or actual separations of ‘religion’ and ‘state’, are complex, and sometimes baffling – certainly to me.

Most anti-abortion, or ‘pro-life’,[2] voices in Tennessee are overtly Christian ones. That is hardly surprising, given that the majority of Tennesseans full stop are Christian. Tennessee is in the top three ‘most religious’ states of the USA. According to the Pew Research Center, 81% of Tennesseeans identify as Christian, and 73% as highly religious. While Protestants (73%) are the majority, both Protestant and Catholic Christians of Tennessee tend to oppose abortion.[3]

However, surveys conducted among adult Tennesseeans show that while a majority (55%) oppose abortion in all or most cases, a significant number (40%) are in favour of permitting abortion in all or most cases.[4] None the less, Pew Center research on views on abortion in Tennessee shows clearly that belief in God, level of church attendance, and participation in prayer, scripture reading, and scripture study, have impact on abortion views (i.e. on whether one is ‘for’ or ‘against’ abortion).

During my years in Knoxville, I spent one summer (2005) teaching as a volunteer at the Kerala United Theological Seminary (KUTS) in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, in southern India. It was an incredible experience on many levels. But one thing relevant to this piece that particularly struck me was how rarely strong feeling about abortion was mentioned and, instead, how frequently expressions about the wrongfulness of divorce cropped up in conversation. The situation in Tennessee was the exact opposite. In Tennessee, particularly among Christians, divorce was certainly deemed regrettable and unbiblical, but it was neither uncommon, nor particularly stigmatised.[5] Instead, it was accepted as a private matter and unfortunate thing to happen. In Tennessee, much more insistent and virulent opposition was reserved for both abortion and same-sex marriage. Both were protested publicly.[6] Health centres providing abortions were regularly picketed and attacked in a way that divorce lawyers were not. (Google searches for a divorce or an abortion in East Tennessee make abundantly clear that obtaining a divorce is quick, easy, and can be as cheap as US$139. An abortion, on the other hand, is much less straightforward, has a rapidly reducing number of providers, and at present costs closer to US$1000.) 

But in Kerala, it was divorce that was the big problem.[7] Divorce was a source of stigma and intense disapproval. Biblical passages were readily cited to support this: Malachi 2:16, about God hating divorce, and the line about what God has joined none should sever (Mark 10:9; Matthew 19:6).[8] Abortion, however, was, in Kerala, tolerated as a regrettable but sometimes necessary intervention – which was in line with how abortion tends to be regarded in other places I have lived (Germany, the UK, New Zealand). Margaret Atwood puts it well in her recent piece in The Guardian, ‘Nobody likes abortion, even when safe and legal. It’s not what any woman would choose for a happy time on Saturday night. But nobody likes women bleeding to death on the bathroom floor from illegal abortions either.’[9] In other words, in conversations I had in Kerala abortion was spoken of as something to advocate for and legalise not because it is desirable but because (like divorce when discussed in Tennessee) sometimes it is the best and safest course of action.[10]

Given the wider context of Kerala, this made sense. In India, Christianity is a minority religion. The majority religion and dominant culture of India – to which we give the (inadequate) name ‘Hinduism’– does not outright ban divorce but none the less considers it alien (see here). Given population density, managing family size is, however, encouraged in India and most couples I encountered through the seminary had no more than two children. Birth control and even abortion, were viewed with acceptance and spoken about freely. Compared to the ‘hot potato’-matter abortion was in Tennessee, the prevailing attitude to abortion among Christians in Kerala struck me. It showed me very clearly that context and positionality, where and who we are, has enormous bearing on how we view the world and the Bible. The Bible may in one sense be a fixed text, but it is read and interpreted and emphasised in radically different ways and with wide-ranging effect and consequence.

Abortion and divorce: both are life events we may or may not be confronted with. Neither refers to something that is easy or – in most cases – rashly decided upon. For both, I would argue, safe strategies need to be in place, because both can be the best course of action in a difficult situation. I am sure that more restriction placed on safe, legal abortion will have devastating consequences in the USA, as it has elsewhere.[11] Given that restrictions on divorce are not (yet?) under threat in the USA, let me turn to abortion and the Bible. After all, the Bible is very often cited in public statements about the banning or restricting of abortion rights.[12]

Distressing cases are regularly brought up in abortion discussions. I mean here, situations of pregnancies resulting from rape, sometimes gang rape or child rape, or incestuous rape; or pregnancies, such as ectopic pregnancies, that endanger the health or life of pregnant women; or cases where the unborn has no chance of viability, or where diagnosable diseases, such as Tay-Sachs, promise a life of pain. 

Over the past days and weeks, since the leak of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito’s draft case for reversing Roe v. Wade, there have been many emotionally affecting posts about just such cases. Lizzi Green tweeted that she is a Christian priest who has had two abortions: one following a rape and another following a pregnancy that was killing her. Ruth Everhart, author of the spiritual memoir about rape Ruined, posted her essay Skin in the Game, about rejection by a church that failed to acknowledge the violence of rape and the violence of condemning abortion even in cases of rape. Several Facebook friends circulated a text attributed to Evelyn Raso, which begins, ‘I am not pro-murdering babies. I’m pro Beccy… Susan… Theresa…’. Raso lists the abbreviated ordeals of persons, pregnant with unviable foetuses, pregnant as the result of rape, whose wellbeing, fulfilment, lives, are at risk in ways that can only be ameliorated or made bearable by access to safe abortion. 

Understandably, such harrowing life situations feature prominently at this critical time of defending women’s rights and access to health care, because they make the case for access to abortion particularly persuasively and urgently. 

Those cases – heart-rending, searing, and important to hold before us – are very far from my own experience. I read books like Christina Lamb’s Our Bodies Their Battlefield (reviewed here), because they are incredibly important – but the experiences it describes are, like those of Lizzi Green, Ruth Everhart and the people in Evelyn Raso’s post, far from my own.

Through the random fortune of birth and circumstance – I have been spared the brutalities of war, rape, forced marriage, forced pregnancy, and denial of abortion. Instead, my experiences of violation, grief, heartache, and illness have been certainly formative and keenly felt, just more prosaic.

And, from and through my experience, I am firmly pro-choice. And that choice extends to persons choosing abortion in less harrowing scenarios and situations, too.

Why? Because life is messy. Because people have sex without wanting, or expecting, a pregnancy and a baby. Because you can get pregnant to people you fall in, then out of, love with, or in relationships that grow apart and awry; because we fall for people who are not good to or for us, people who coerce, force, manipulate or deceive us – or we, them. Because it is possible to get pregnant by accident or deliberately – and this can be disastrous in either case. Because for fertile women who have sex with fertile men, the prospect of pregnancy can be a source of tension, fear, difficulty. And none of this means that abortion is a trifling choice made lightly but a necessity and safe alternative in life which can be or can get complicated.

Abortion is part of the package of reproductive health care that includes also smear tests, and contraception. Such health care saved my life when I was diagnosed and operated for cervical cancer. For all women who have sex with men before we are able or fit to have a full-term pregnancy, let alone a baby to look after, the knowledge that abortion is a safe available option not affecting fertility down the line is a relief.

Giving birth – even if you love the baby the moment you set eyes on it – is not the end of the matter either, of course, because a baby is demanding and absorbing on every level. It cannot and it should not be taken on unwillingly.

Choice has to mean choosing what is the best course of action for the pregnant person concerned – on their terms. Otherwise, it is not a choice. The wonderful pie graph on the internet, headed ‘reasons for abortion’ with each colour segment of various size being labelled ‘it’s none of your business’ is bang on.

There may be people who ‘get their life together’ when or because they are pregnant but – like with diets – for everyone that works for, there are many for whom it doesn’t, for whom a pregnancy and baby does not ‘fix the problem’: be that a rocky relationship, an incentive to break an addiction, or to get a better job, or be a better person. Instead, going through a pregnancy and having a baby can often put relationships under strain, create dependencies, and reduce options. The consequences can be devastating, and the stakes are very high, no less than the life and wellbeing of a completely dependent human. Access to safe,[13] legal abortion can and has make enormous positive difference, for individuals and more widely.[14]

I am even more confirmed in my pro-choice stance since having been pregnant and become a parent. Because I know now how a pregnancy reorganises one’s imagination and takes over one’s thoughts, emotions, plans, and body. And, being pro-choice means I find it crucial to support those who want to carry their pregnancy to term and those who do not. For me, this is not a case of disdaining the potential life of the unborn but of respecting and dignifying the life and agency of the living. 

And now to the Bible, which on this, as on so many topics, is often brought into public discussion… 

First off, the Bible has nothing to say about elective abortion. Because elective abortion did not exist as an option in any of the diverse societies reflected in biblical texts. While there is occasional mention of midwives and wise women, and while they may have known about herbal remedies, maybe about ways of preventing pregnancy or inducing miscarriage, there is not much to go on. Like IVF, organ transplants, or blood transfusions, safe elective abortions are modern (and by now routine) medical procedures. 

One possible reference to a potion that brings on miscarriage, or spontaneous abortion, might be present in the peculiar Sotah passage of Numbers 5:11-31.[15] This text describes what a jealous man, suspecting his wife of infidelity, is to do. It goes into tremendous detail describing the sequence of offerings and quasi-magical rituals led by the priest in the sanctuary. At one point the priest takes holy water and dust from the tabernacle and makes a potion; he then exacts an oath from the woman suspected of infidelity and makes her drink it. Apparently, the potion contains a curse that will lead, if the woman has ‘gone astray while under [her] husband’s authority’ (5:20, NRSV), to her uterus dropping and her womb discharging (5:21, NRSV). This sounds like an induced abortion. It is performed without the woman having any other say than ‘agreeing’ (!) to the ritual by saying ‘Amen’ (5:22). If this is a text about a husband who is jealous, because he suspects his wife is pregnant by someone other than him, and if the potion and ritual – which is, incidentally, prescribed by God, relayed to Moses (5:11), and performed by a priest ‘before the LORD’ (5:16) – brings about an abortion in the event of infidelity, which is what most biblical scholars take to be the most straightforward reading of this strange text, then what we have here is divinely sanctioned abortion of an adulterous conception. In other words, we have a concession for abortion. 

Now, I am NOT advocating that this text become a proof-text in discussions about abortion! I am NOT saying women should be subjected to such rituals, or that there are cases where women should be forced to abort. Far from it. In fact, I think this text is frightful. This text is also odd (to me at least), and it doesn’t speak very well into the world I live in. It’s clearly from a time and place completely different from mine, reflecting assumptions, practices and beliefs that are also unfamiliar, not to mention objectionable. It is unsurprising to me that this is not a text I encounter much – unlike some other biblical texts – except in academic literature I seek out. 

Numbers 5 may feel particularly strange, but all biblical texts present us with challenges. They are all in languages of which there are no longer native speakers (bringing about lack of understanding and nuance about both denotation and connotation of words). Furthermore, we lack the context of these texts. And context, of course, has enormous consequence for meaning and understanding. (We need only think of the song line, ‘you are the cream in my coffee’ – and how differently this will be decoded in settings where coffee is always drunk black. What is heard as a delight, complement, and completion to one listener, is heard as discordant and bizarre to another.) This needs to be kept in mind – especially when the Bible is interpreted with confidence and stridency. 

Parts of the Bible, indeed, are reprehensible and should be rejected. Numbers 5 is one such text, which I see as having nothing positive to say into the world I inhabit. Instead, it renders women vulnerable and passive in the face of men’s jealousy and authority over women and exonerates and justifies both (Num. 5:29-31). The potential for spousal coercive control and abuse is obvious. Also, even people who claim that all the Bible is God’s true and unchanging word tend to be quiet about this text, just as they tend to be quiet about making raped unbetrothed virgins marry their rapists without possibility of divorce (Deut. 22:28-29),[16] or about reinstating the enslavement laws.[17]

There is another law that might refer to an instance of abortion – though, again, not elective abortion. Exodus 21:22-23 describes a scenario resulting in a law. (Such laws, resulting from precedent and usually constructed in terms of ‘when/if… then’, are called casuistic laws.)[18] Here two who are fighting injure a pregnant woman, and this causes a miscarriage, or spontaneous abortion. The law is that if ‘no further harm follows’ (presumably, if the woman is not disabled or if she does not die subsequently), then the one who is deemed responsible for causing the miscarriage must pay the woman’s husband a sum determined by the judges. This shows that the crime is not considered a capital crime, because the unborn is not here regarded as having a status equivalent with a human. The woman, meanwhile, is depicted in relation to her husband and as not fully independent: hence, she does not receive the compensation directly. Instead, a sum of money is paid to her husband. This compensation suggests that the miscarriage is constructed above all in economic terms, i.e., as ‘damages’. It again appears to be the case that a wife is considered the property, or commodity, of her husband. 

The next verse says that if ‘any harm follows, then you shall give life for life’. In other words, if the pregnant woman miscarries, and then goes on to die, then this does become a capital crime. The woman – while in one sense the property of her husband – is (unlike the unborn) a full life. Killing her, requires ‘life for life’ (according to what the text says, at least – we cannot know if the law was actually followed to the letter). 

As already stated, elective abortion is not represented in the Bible. Nowadays, like Caesarean births, elective abortion can be a safe option in a way it was not in times past. This is because things change. The Bible itself also makes allowance for things changing, including rules and ways of doing things. Arguably, this is another reason for not using the Bible rigidly to impose its regulations made long ago on times present. 

To give one example, The Ten Commandments begin with ‘…For I the Lord your God am an impassioned God, visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children, upon the third and upon the fourth generations of those who reject Me…’ (Exod. 20:5; cf. Deut. 5:9 and Exod. 34:7; Num. 14:18). This makes very clear that there is inherited guilt and justification for punishing people whose forebears did something that constitutes rejection of God. What precisely this rejection of God looks like is not clear: would a spontaneous, one-off blasphemy or curse of one’s parent incur guilt for generations to follow (cf. Lev. 24:10-16; Exod. 21:17)? In any case, what is clear is that things took a different turn. In other words, God changed his mind. Hence, in the books of the Prophets it now says, ‘…they shall no longer say, “Parents have eaten sour grapes and children’s teeth are blunted.” But every one shall die for his own sins… I will make a new covenant with the House of Israel… It will not be like the covenant I made their fathers …’ (Jer. 31:29-31; cf. Ezek. 18:4 and the long qualification that follows, 18:5-22).

Quick recap… The Bible is a text that has great authority but that is difficult to navigate. It is in an ancient language of which there are no native speakers. Even those who have studied Biblical Hebrew are stumped by, and muddle through, much of it. Moreover, the Bible has been edited extensively and it is a composite text, compiled of many pieces that were written by a variety of authors in multiple times and places. Consequently, there are internal inconsistencies. Added to this, the contexts are not known to us. For all these reasons, claiming certainty in applying the Bible to the here and now is ill-advised. Added to this, where abortion is concerned, the Bible has nothing to say about elective abortion as it is practised in modern medical facilities. Plus, the Bible itself – where other matters are concerned (e.g. enslavement) offers a diversity of pronouncements, or shows evidence of change over time (e.g. regarding inherited guilt). Furthermore, which texts are emphasised and how texts are received and interpreted through time has changed. Christians once used the Bible routinely to justify enslavement of other peoples – for instance, by identifying Black Africans with Ham’s descendants, called on to be enslaved to the descendants of Shem and Japheth (Gen. 9:26-27), who were – conveniently – identified with enslavers. Beating enslaved persons to the point of near death is – helpfully – excused by the Bible, too (Exod. 21:21), as is an enslaver’s possession of any children born in his household (Exod. 21:4). While enslavement has not gone, using the Bible to justify it is now superseded in many settings by using it instead to decry abortion, homosexuality, and transgenderism. Depending on time and on setting, the Bible is selected from and used in strikingly different ways. 

The Bible is not a useful guidebook for deciding about whether an abortion is preferable for a particular person and their situation.  For those who do want to consult the Bible for such a purpose, what can be brought in to speak to the topic of abortion is, taken together, ambiguous at best. 

There are passages – widely cited by pro-lifers – that depict the unborn as extraordinary and ready to live. In Psalm 139:13-16 the psalmist praises God for forming their internal parts and knitting them together in their mother’s womb. It says here God beheld them already when they were yet unformed and wrote them in his book. This is a beautiful passage and reflects trust in God’s omnipotence and omniscience. (It then goes on, less beautifully, to express hatred for and wish death on all who are wicked, Ps 139:19-22).[19] In Jeremiah, God tells his prophet that he formed and knew and consecrated him in the womb (Jer. 1:5).[20] Job,[21] too, acknowledges that God made him (Job 10:8), fashioned him like clay (10:9), and knit together his bones and sinews (10:11) – but this is not a hymn of praise and gratitude. Instead, Job is in unbearable pain. He says he loathes his life (10:1) and accuses the God who made him of also destroying him (10:8) and of hunting him down like a predator (10:16). Job even says, ‘Would that I had died before any eye had seen me, and were as though I had not been’ (10:18b-19a). Jeremiah expresses similar bitterness (20:18). This might acknowledge that life and living are not always what’s ‘for the best’, to be preserved at any and all cost.[22]

Life – this is certainly not hidden in the Bible – can be utterly brutal and painful. As I defend being pro-choice, I appreciate how profoundly fortunate I am to have and can make choices at all. For all too many human beings, life is only, or predominantly, about suffering and pain and a complete absence of choices or prospects. The starkest image of this in the Bible is in Lamentations, depicting the destruction of Jerusalem and the suffering of the people. As in Job, God is not questioned here in terms of his power – but he is questioned on account of the relentless cruelty suffered by his people.[23] One of the most awful images in Lamentations is of the women who have boiled their own children for food. These women are called ‘compassionate’ (Lam. 4:10) – presumably, because life can indeed be so cruel that not living is a mercy. 

All in all, the passages of the unborn, woven together in the womb, confirm what very many, including I myself, feel: that the formation of a human life is astonishing and wondrous. None of the scientific detail can take away from how miraculous it is that in nine short months of gestation after a sperm and an egg come together, a little human is formed, who can go on, with nurturing and help, to become an independent being, with consciousness, attitude, and personality. Wow. Even to an agnostic like me, this is divine, awesome, mind-blowing. 

Pro-lifers make a great deal of abortions killing ‘the innocent’. Even though ‘an unborn’ is not the same as ‘a baby’, abortion is equated with baby-killing, or (see GAP) genocide. Such allusions recall a biblical trope, namely, ‘the massacre of the innocents’, the name given to the gruesome event mentioned in Matthew 2:16-18, which, it says, fulfils a prophecy in Jeremiah where wailing and lamentation erupt as Rachel weeps for her children.[24] Pro-lifers point to Proverbs 6:17 and to Psalm 68:5: according to Proverbs, God hates ‘hands that shed innocent blood’ and, according to the psalm, God is father of orphans and protector of widows. From this, they extrapolate that the unborn is the most innocent – therefore, God hates all who abort (that is, kill) the unborn. Moreover, the unborn is the most vulnerable – so, if God is champion to such vulnerable figures as the widow and orphan, how much more so to a vulnerable unborn. But a woman who finds herself pregnant against her will, or in the face of circumstances that make a pregnancy very difficult and traumatic for her, or for the potential life she is carrying, is also vulnerable; arguably, she, too, is as deserving of God’s protection as the widow and orphan. 

Yes, life is certainly a precious and sometimes vulnerable thing. Some biblical passages capture the wondrousness of life, and of its beginnings in pregnancy in beautiful and compelling ways. But elsewhere, the preciousness of life, including of the life of innocent babies, seems rather off the agenda. Yes, it is a mark King Herod’s cruelty that he vents his fury on the babies and toddlers of Bethlehem and surroundings in the massacre of the innocents (1 Matt. 2:16). But elsewhere in the Bible, the killing of adults and children, including male babies, is ordered by Moses, the recipient of divine instruction, and their killing is depicted as a sacred act (Num. 31:1, 17; cf. Deut. 2:34). 

Killing women along with their unborns, by ripping them open, is depicted in the Bible as a dreadful act, which it truly is. Chillingly, callously so. This is the action of the Ammonites, rebuked for their transgressions (Amos 1:13), and of Menahem of Samaria (the northern kingdom of Israel), who is called ‘evil in the sight of LORD’ for good measure (2 Kgs 15:16, 18).[25] But dashing to pieces the ‘little ones’ of Samaria and ripping open Samaria’s pregnant women is also, horrifyingly, what God threatens and prophesies as punishment (Hos. 13:16). What of the protection of the most innocent here? The verse is notably absent among pro-life-defending Bible citations. 

The Bible is – understandably, given its complex and only patchily understood composition, transmission, and formation – eclectic and polyvocal. It contains passages that resonate on into the present, and passages that are hard to make sense of, or which are downright reprehensible. It also contains a lot of inconsistency and internal contradiction. If it can be used at all, it must be read judiciously, in the light of the present, including knowledge gained in the intervening centuries since the Bible was canonised. 

The decision to have an abortion or not is personal and case-by-case. Ultimately, whether life begins at conception, or at some other stage, or whether an abortion can be a better choice than giving birth, cannot and should not be determined on the basis of the Bible alone. It is disingenuous to claim otherwise.

There now exist medical knowledge,  means and facilities whereby fertility can be controlled with contraception, or pregnancy facilitated with IVF, or early pregnancy terminated safely, without significant risk to future fertility.  This offers choices and opportunities to those fortunate enough to have access to them, which were not available in the centuries over which biblical texts were composed. 

It’s tough out there. Here in the UK the strain is palpable everywhere. Poverty and financial strains are escalating as fuel and food and housing and rent prices rise. Mental health care is utterly inadequate. NHS waiting lists are growing by the hour. It’s not so rosy in the USA either, with health care crises and gun deaths and post-Covid recession. On top of this, there is a climate crisis, a war in Ukraine, and a worldwide migration crisis. Right now, many choices and options and decisions are curtailed or particularly difficult for a checkerboard of reasons. And removing the choice of a safe abortion for someone who cannot cope with the alternative seems especially cruel. 

When the Bible is used to deny or malign the option of abortion, then it is propelled by extraneous agendas. In the absence of any mention of elective abortion these agendas are supported by hand-picked and cobbled together proof-texts given a particular spin. Whether someone chooses or refuses an abortion – keep the Bible out of it. 


[1] The GAP website is accessible here and there is much I could say (while fuming with rage) about the problematic, vile and offensive content and strategies contained therein. GAP is described on the site as the ‘mass media outreach’ for the (grandly named) ‘Center for Bio-Ethical Reform’. Not surprisingly (given the entanglements between the Republican Party and restriction of access to health care, including abortions) the Executive Director, Gregg Cunningham, is a Republican and former member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. While the site makes no references to the Bible and (like proponents of so-called ‘Intelligent Design’) instead bandies about pseudo-scientific language (e.g. ‘bio-ethical’), it uses Islamophobic rhetoric and it promotes the aims of the US evangelical anti-abortion and anti-choice (called ‘pro-life’) lobby. Regarding Islamophobia, in a passage arguing against abortion in cases of rape, Cunningham cites the words of a Jordanian man who shot dead his sister following her rape, because her death was, for him, preferable to inflicting shame on the whole family. The citation ends with, ‘His logic is not a logic rare in the Arab world’ – which airs the toxic prejudice that so-called ‘honour’ killings alongside lack of sympathy for rape victims and a callous disregard for life are widespread in ‘the Arab world’. This is offensive and unsupported by evidence. There is a well-articulated student response to GAP on US campuses here

[2] Language again (see note 1) functions in manipulative ways. Those opposed to abortion (in all or most cases) refer to themselves as being ‘pro-life’ or ‘anti-abortion’. The effect of this is to cast those who defend abortion (in all or most cases) as ‘anti-life’ or ‘pro-abortion’. Those who defend a woman’s right to choose an abortion (in all or most cases) prefer to call themselves ‘pro-choice’, thereby accentuating agency and choice, rather than the taking or diminishment of life. 

[3] Jon Ronson in his BBC audio book Things Fell Apart provides a fascinating exploration of how in the USA the topic of abortion developed from a fringe matter associated above all with Catholicism into a divisive preoccupation of the so-called culture wars (available on the BBC Sounds app, see here).

[4] For a host of social and medical data on the state of Tennessee, including pertaining to marriage and divorce, induced terminations of pregnancies, and sexually transmitted diseases, with demographic break-downs, see here.

[5] For statistics on divorce by religious affiliation, see here. A no longer up-to-date but widely circulated study reported that US Christians were just as likely, possibly even more likely, to divorce than US non-believers (see here). Even Christian interpreters challenging such reports admit to high divorce rates among US Christians (see here).

[6] I was living in Tennessee at the time of The Tennessee Marriage Protection Amendment, also known as Tennessee Amendment 1 (2006). Once more, language is telling, because what is ‘protected’ here is heterosexual marriage, with the word ‘protection’ implying that other kinds of marriage are a risk, even a danger. This state constitutional amendment banned same-sex unions and the referendum was approved by 81% of voters. It specified that only a marriage between a man and a woman could be legally recognized in the state of Tennessee. Same-sex marriage only became legal in Tennessee with the US Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges on June 26, 2015. There are plausible concerns that the current Supreme Court will enforce restrictions and violations not only on abortion rights but on other human rights, including those of LGBTQ+ persons. Pat Buchanan’s 1992 ‘Culture Wars’ speech (available here) in many ways galvanises the ‘package’ of conservative Christian and Republican values exemplified particularly by strong opposition to all of feminism, abortion, and LGBTQ+ identities.

[7] When I was in Kerala, same-sex marriage was not once raised as a topic. I was given to understand that conversation about homosexuality was taboo. 

[8] A host of Christian biblical commentators and theologians have scrutinized these biblical passages and considered their impact on those who feel constrained or endangered by them. See for instance, Helen Paynter, in The Bible Doesn’t Tell Me So (The Bible Reading Fellowship, 2020), 68–76. I have reviewed Paynter’s book here.

[9] Margaret Atwood, ‘Means of production: Force women to have babies and then make them pay? It’s slavery’ (The Guardian, 2 May 2022, p.39). Atwood continues with, ‘What kind of country do you want to live in? One in which every individual is free to make decisions concerning his or her health and body, or one in which half the population is free and the other half is enslaved? Women who cannot make their own decisions about whether or not to have babies are enslaved because the state claims ownership of their bodies and the right to dictate the use to which their bodies must be put.’

[10] Those who choose to defend one over the other by depicting elective abortion as ‘the massacre of the innocents’ and divorce as less egregious because it is a choice made by mature adults, need to undertake more nuanced analysis. The discussion of when a human is a human with full human rights (at conception, at birth, at some other point) and whether an unborn has integrity and independence from or equal rights with the human in which it is forming, are, of course, very much contested. It should be noted that marriage, or intimacy, can also be violent, even deadly, as high rates of spousal coercive control, domestic and intimate partner violence and femicide the world over confirms. Importantly, too, pro-choice advocates support a woman’s right both to refuse forced abortion and forced pregnancy. I am very much on the side of advocating for the preservation and improvement of the lives and quality of life of those who are born – including those living in famine- and war-ravaged regions, refugees, trafficked humans, and those suffering from preventable diseases. 

[11] Cliona O’Gallchoir has written in an earlier post about the tragic outworkings of the amendment of Article 40.3.3 of the Irish Constitution before its repeal in 2018 (see here). When I lived in Botswana, a country where abortion is only legally available in exceptional cases, I heard many stories of desperation and knew of women who had the means travelling to neighbouring South Africa for safe abortions. 

[12] The Bible is not drawn into Justice Samuel Alito’s draft ruling regarding Roe v. Wade (see here). The draft report would overrule the constitutional right to abortion. The response from religious leaders has not been monolithic (see here) but conservative voices have long used the Bible to condemn abortion. 

[13] There are many claims about abortion posing health risks, including to mental health and increased risk of breast cancer. These claims are carefully examined and mostly dispelled, see here.

[14] Access to safe, legal abortion  is linked to a drop in crime (see here) and to improvement in women’s and children’s health.

[15] I have written at length about this text. See Johanna Stiebert, ‘Divinely Sanctioned Violence Against Women: Biblical Marriage and the Example of the Sotah of Numbers 5’. The Bible & Critical Theory 15/2 (2019). It is available for free download here.

[16] Franklin Graham is one vocal and high profile proponent and projects the notion that the Bible is clear and straightforward on a number of matters, including abortion (see here). 

[17] Enslavement is assumed in the Bible – both in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. The three sets of laws of enslavement in the Hebrew Bible (Exod. 21:1-6; Lev. 25:39-46; Deut. 15:12-18) are by no means identical, suggesting changes in circumstance, attitudes, and law, over time. The Bible was widely used to justify enslavement, and also to achieve liberation from enslavement. This would seem to show that there is not ‘one truth for all time’ but a text that can be and is used to defend a variety of positions depending on the time and circumstances. As is clear from my observations in Tennessee and Kerala, setting drives both selection and interpretation. 

[18] Laws such as the Ten Commandments (‘you shall not…’) are called apodictic laws. 

[19] Psalm 137 – the opening verses of which have been made famous by 1970s band Boney M – ends with the line ‘Happy shall they be who take your [i.e. the enemy Babylon’s] little ones and dash them against the rock!’ There is not much love lost here for little ones.

[20] There is a similar sense of prenatal selection in Matthew 1:20, where Joseph is told that the unborn (Jesus-to-be) is ‘from the Holy Spirit’. The Gospel of Luke, too, refers to Elizabeth’s unborn (John-the-Baptist-to-be) as ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’ (Luke 1:15). The presence of the Holy Spirit in these unborns clearly sets them apart. There is no indication that what makes these pregnancies special is ‘democatized’ to all other pregnancies. Another delightful detail in Luke is that Elizabeth’s unborn leaps in her womb on hearing Mary’s greeting. 

[21] The Book of Job is particularly difficult to translate. The book’s poetic passages are full of images that are difficult to decode, and the entire book is speckled with terms that are rare, even singular. Unsurprisingly, an annotated translation contains many notes saying ‘Meaning of Hebrew uncertain’. 

[22] Job is a very complex text that does not offer clear answers to such big questions as ‘why do humans suffer?’ ‘Is God all good?’ or, ‘is life always worth living?’ Instead, it says a lot about how meaningless and miserable life can be, how righteousness does not preserve from suffering, and how cruel God can seem. Yes, the book has a (trite) ‘happy ending’ where Job is comforted on account of all the evil God has brought on him (Job 40:11). His wealth is restored, he has ten more children, and dies at an old age. But experience shows us that such dramatic turn-arounds don’t always happen and also, that they don’t undo the harm and pain of severe trauma. 

[23] I have written about this extensively elsewhere: see Johanna Stiebert, ‘Human Suffering and Divine Abuse of Power in Lamentations: Reflections on Forgiveness in the Context of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Process’ Pacifica16/2 (2003): 195–215. (For access, see here.)

[24] The massacre of the innocents is, therefore, as inevitable as the consecration of Jeremiah in the womb or the vocation of John the Baptist and Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit before birth. Wonder and horror – both are depicted as foretold, matters of destiny. 

[25] Ripping open pregnant women is not a suitable analogy for elective abortion in a medical setting. Such an analogy would be like aligning the threat of male-male rape (e.g. Gen. 19:5) with consenting same-sex love-making. 

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Q & A with Rabbi Dr. Barbara Thiede about her book Rape Culture in the House of David: A Company of Men

The latest volume in our Routledge Focus Series is out! It joins a string of carefully focused examinations of how rape culture and religion intersect. The focus of this volume by Rabbi Dr. Barbara Thiede is on the characters of the David story in the Hebrew Bible’s Books of Samuel. More volumes will follow later in the year. If you would like to propose a volume, please read more about our series here, and contact Johanna (j.stiebert@leeds.ac.uk).

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

I am a professor of Judaic Studies at UNC Charlotte in North Carolina (USA) and an ordained rabbi. My work studies the male alliances, friendships, and networks that undergird biblical hegemonic masculinity. My first bookMale Friendship, Homosociality, and Women in the Hebrew Bible: Malignant Fraternities, explores how male relationships are engendered by the sexual use and abuse of women’s bodies. 

Rape Culture in the House of David: A Company of Men focuses specifically on the many men — from kings, princes, and courtiers, to generals, counsellors, and servants — who are complicit in the taking and raping of women in the Books of Samuel. I also examine male-on-male sexualized violence in biblical rape culture.

My next book, Yhwh’s Emotional and Sexual Life in the Books of Samuel: How the Deity Acts the Man, will be published with Bloomsbury Press. In that work, I directly address a topic that I began exploring in my previous books: the Israelite deity’s emotionally fraught and sexually charged relationships with his chosen men.

What are the key arguments of your book? 

I argue that the Books of Samuel present the reader with a powerful depiction of an ancient rape culture, in which the best king proves his right to the throne through powerful and exhibitionist displays of sexual violence. I contend that rapists in the Hebrew Bible do not act alone; they are enabled and supported by a company of men.

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

I hope readers will feel empowered to call out these texts for the rape culture they depict. If they can do so with the Bible, they will be better able to identify any and all depictions or enactments of dominant, exploitative masculinity in our own time. It is equally important to me that readers become conscious of the ways in which biblical literature has legitimized toxic forms of masculinity.

Please give us a quotation that captures something significant about your book and will make readers want to read the rest. 

“[M]en of the texts, who aspire to honor their rulers, must emulate, support, collude, and enable them. The taking and raping of female characters and the intentional sexual humiliation of male ones do not constitute merely a backdrop to political events. Such deeds are political. They constitute the core of the narratives… Rapists are supported by a company of men, even an army of them.”

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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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Strip searches, abuses of power, and ‘stepping into the room’

Child in shadow

Today’s post is by David Tombs, who is lay Anglican theologian and the Howard Paterson Chair Professor of Theology and Public Issues at the University of Otago, Aotearoa New Zealand. His work draws on liberation and contextual theologies to address public issues. His publications include When Did We See You Naked?’: Jesus as a Victim of Sexual Abuse co-edited with Jayme Reaves and Rocío Figueroa (SCM 2021), see here.

A strip search at a secondary school in Hackney in December 2020, the experience of an individual child (known as Child Q), and a system that permitted it to happen, have in recent weeks become the focus for widespread commentary.[1] The strip search of a Black female child  (aged just 15 in 2020) by two police officers in a school medical room without a parent, guardian or other support person present is a disturbing incident. It provides a troubling window into systemic inequalities of race, gender and age. 

The City and Hackney Safeguarding Children Partnership (CHSCP) report released on 14 March 2022 includes the finding that racism ‘likely’ contributed to the decision to strip search Child Q. This finding is supported by the statistics on ‘further searches,’ the term used to cover different forms of strip searches by police. 

Hackney Town Hall, Mare Street, Hackney, London. 
Photographer: Fin Fahey, 20 October 2005 (Creative Commons, see here).

The report describes two different types of strip search that are outlined under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) 1984. The first is referred to as a ‘more thorough search.’ This involves removal of clothing beyond external clothing: for example, the removal of a T-shirt, rather than only a jacket, hat, or gloves. The second, and the type of search that was wrongfully conducted on Child Q, is yet more intrusive and involves exposure of intimate body parts. This can include the removal of all clothing and a requirement on the person being stripped to bend over and spread their legs.[2]

The report notes that during 2020/2021, there were 299 further searches conducted in Hackney. Over this period, ‘25 children under the age of 18 were subject of further searches. 19 were male and 18 were handcuffed during the process.’ Of these 25 searches, 15 involved Black children (60%), and 22 (88%) did not find anything illegal (e.g. weapons or drugs).

As Diana Abbot MP explains, the finding that racism was a factor should be clear already from the statistics. The events surrounding Child Q, therefore, require attention to a longer and sustained history and to a wider systemic context (see here). A recent freedom of information request made by Tom Kemp of Nottingham University, shows that for the period 2016-2021 the Metropolitan Police conducted over 170,000 strip searches. About one third of individuals searched were Black. There were about 9,000 strip searches of children, including over 2,000 searches of children under 16 (see here).

The Child Q case should not be viewed in isolation but in the context of systemic issues and inequalities. Concerns over the misuse of strip searches are not new. In 2014, The Guardian reported that from 2008 to 2013 more than 4,500 children, some as young as 10, were strip searched by members of the Metropolitan Police. In January 2015, a group of advocates for children’s rights wrote a joint letter to The Guardian which described strip searches as ‘humiliating, degrading, and frightening,’ calling on the government to launch an urgent review, to ensure that,

“… children are only strip-searched at the police station as a last resort and that when this happens it is subject to proper safeguarding and child protection measures, such as making sure a child’s parent or another appropriate adult is present. These changes are vital to protecting children’s human rights to be kept safe from harm” (see here).

This blog post discusses the Child Q safeguarding report in the light of the work of Motswana womanist biblical scholar Mmapula Kebaneilwe. Kebaneilwe discusses the forced stripping of a young woman at a taxi rank in Botswana in her recently published chapter ‘Jesus as a Victim of Sexual Abuse:  A Womanist Critical Discourse Analysis of the Crucifixion.’ The chapter is found in the book When Did We See You Naked? Jesus as a Victim of Sexual Abuse (see here). Kebaneilwe’s approach is to examine the stripping of the young woman alongside the stripping of Jesus as told in the Gospel of Matthew. While these two contexts are very different from each other, she notes  some common themes which can help to give a better understanding of both events. Following Kebaneilwe’s example, the final part of this post explores whether the disturbing events in Hackney might also offer useful insights for thinking about the stripping of Jesus. 

Dr. Mmapula D. Kebaneilwe

One of the key findings in the safeguarding report is that the school should have ensured that Child Q had an appropriate adult with her in the room. The teachers should have been more curious about what might happen and should have ensured that Child Q was protected. I suggest that the reluctance—or readiness—to ‘step into the room’ is a helpful metaphor from the Child Q case for thinking about how the stripping of Jesus is read. The  safeguarding failure in the Child Q case suggests how readers might approach the biblical passage with more curiosity for what might be happening within the praetorium.[3] Readers should be willing to step, metaphorically, into the room to see what is going on.   

The Strip Searching of Child Q

The school girl who was searched is referred to throughout the CHSCP report as ‘Child Q’ to preserve her anonymity. There are still some details that are unclear and/or contested. The outcome of a complaint to the Independent Office for Police Conduct is expected soon and should offer further information. However, the CHSCP report is clear in its conclusion that the search should not have happened and that ‘racism (whether deliberate or not) was likely to have been an influencing factor in the decision to undertake a strip search.’

On the day concerned, Child Q was due to take a mock exam. However, teachers at the school believed that Child Q smelled of cannabis and suspected that she might be carrying drugs. Child Q denied taking or possessing cannabis and school staff searched her bag, blazer, scarf and shoes. When they did not find anything, they consulted the Safer Schools Officer and were advised to ask for a female police officer to attend the school. 

Two police officers came to the school (one male and one female) and were joined by an additional two officers (also one male and one female) a short time later. Following discussion between the police and the teacher(s), Child Q was taken to the school medical room and strip searched by the two female officers. Her mother was not contacted and so neither she, nor any other appropriate adult was present. While the search took place, the teacher(s) remained outside the room.

The search of Child Q involved the removal of all of her clothing, including her underwear, even though she was known to be menstruating. To check whether she was hiding anything, she was told to bend over, use her hands to spread her buttocks, and cough. She was also required to remove her sanitary towel. No drugs were found. After the search, Child Q was told to go back to continue with her exam. She said she requested permission to go first to a cloakroom to change her sanitary towel, but this was refused. 

When Child Q got home, she told her mother what had happened. Because Child Q was so distressed, her mother took her to the family GP, who in turn referred her for psychological support through Hackney Children and Families Services (Hackney CFS). The City and Hackney Safeguarding Children Partnership (CHSCP) became aware of the case, and believed that the incident raised such serious safeguarding issues that it warranted a Rapid Review. The CHSCP Rapid Review report was initiated in early 2021 and the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel was notified. However, the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel apparently advised:

‘We noted your decision to carry out a local child safeguarding practice review (LCSPR) but would encourage you to think carefully about whether one is necessary as we felt that this case was not notifiable and did not meet the criteria for an LCSPR.’[4]

Despite this advice, the CHSCP decided a local review was warranted. This took testimony from Child Q’s mother and her aunt on the traumatic impact of the event and the changes they saw in Child Q’s confidence, wellbeing and behaviour. It also included powerful testimony on her experience from Child Q herself.

The report raises many disturbing questions about both the treatment of Child Q and the wider use of strip searches by the Metropolitan Police. (For fuller analysis, see here.) A key finding in the report on the individual case is that teachers should have been more assertive in asking what the police intended to do and that, if indeed any legitimate reason had been ascertained, an appropriate adult should have been present during any strip search. 

The report judged that the initial search of Child Q by staff was appropriate and showed ‘good curiosity’ on safeguarding in response to a potential indicator of risk (Finding 1). However, the decision to follow up the initial search with a strip search ‘was insufficiently attuned to her best interests or right to privacy.’ The school have said they were not aware of what the police officers planned to do (see here). The report accepts that the decision to undertake the more intimate form of strip search was a choice made by the police. However, it also concludes that teachers presumably expected some form of further search to take place and had contacted the police for this reason. It therefore faulted the school, because: ‘School staff deferred to the authority of the police on their arrival at school. They should have been more challenging to the police, seeking clarity about the actions they intended to take’ (Finding 3). It concludes ‘School staff had an insufficient focus on the safeguarding needs of Child Q when responding to concerns about suspected drug use’ (Finding 4). That is, if the teachers showed ‘good curiosity’ about the smell of cannabis, they failed to show adequate curiosity about how Child Q would be treated by police in the medical room. They should have done more to understand what was intended and what it involved. Instead, they accepted that their role was to stay on the outside of a closed door. Regardless of who suggested this arrangement, this failure to ensure an appropriate adult was present for a strip search was a serious failing in the school’s safeguarding duty. A member of the staff told the review, ‘In hindsight I put my trust in the law; I know now that I need to understand the law better… For example, insisting on staying with a student at all times…’.

When the report was released it attracted national media attention and prompted outrage and protest from the local community. A public demonstration included a protest march from Stoke Newington police station to Hackney Town Hall. The organisation Sistah Space, a community organisation offering support to African heritage women and girls who experience domestic abuse, described the strip search as a ‘sexual assault.’ Other commentators pointed to the humiliation associated with a strip search and suggested that a willingness to humiliate Black people was a feature of the racism involved. Other commentators pointed to the ‘adultification’ of Black teenagers and to the readiness of police to treat Black minors as adults rather than children. 

Child Q’s family are suing both the school and the police. The school acknowledged failure to safeguard Child Q and apologised. The police say the search should ‘never have happened’, and have apologised to Child Q, describing the search as ‘truly regrettable.’

The Stripping of Women in Botswana

Mmapula Kebaneilwe’s context as a womanist theologian and biblical scholar in Botswana is very different to that of a school in Hackney, but her work can offer insight into the treatment of Child Q, especially on the humiliation of a forced stripping. 

Kebaneilwe notes that statistics gathered by The Gender-Based Violence (GBV) Indicator Study: Botswana (2012), indicate that almost 70% of women in Botswana experience gender-based violence in their lifetime.[5] Turning from the systemic to the more specific, Kebaneilwe then focusses attention on the forced public stripping of a young woman at a bus rank in Gaborone in 2017, which was reported in the English-language national newspaper Mmegi:

One Sunday, a young woman was stripped naked at the Gaborone Bus Rank by what appeared to be a crazed group of adult men old enough to be her father. She was insulted and mocked. Not a single member of the mob tried to protect the young woman. Not even the women who were clearly in the midst. They too laughed and apparently encouraged others to abuse the girl.

A video of the incident subsequently circulated on social media and was widely viewed and commented upon, with some comments criticising the mob and others criticising the victim. The newspaper cited similar previous incidents at taxi ranks in Zimbabwe and South Africa. 

Kebaneilwe discusses the gendered power dynamics at play in this event. In keeping with the wider theme of the book in which her chapter features, Kebaneilwe then turns to the stripping of Jesus at the crucifixion, as depicted in Matthew 27:32-56, and asks how the stripping at the bus rank might offer new insight into the biblical text and vice-versa. She makes four astute connections between the two events, which can be summarised briefly.

First, she notes that the use of force, and threat of further force, is clear in both cases. This involves both domination and intimidation. The abusers’ initial display of force both allows them to carry out the violence involved and presents an intimidating threat of further violence should the victim resist. 

Second, in both cases, the victim is falsely accused and blamed for provoking the violence used against them. In both cases, this victim-blaming is connected to a sense that the victim has offended against those in power and should therefore be made an example of, so that others might be taught a lesson. 

Third, both cases of stripping involve a display of power over someone in a vulnerable situation and the stripping reinforces their vulnerability. The stripping off of clothing is at the same time a stripping off of dignity and an extension of enforced vulnerability. 

Fourth, the impact of stripping is psychological not just physical. In both cases the physical act of stripping is linked to verbal insults and mockery. The threats and mockery increase the humiliation and reinforce the element of threat.

Kebaneilwe is well aware that hers is an unusual approach to the biblical text. Giving attention to the stripping of Jesus, and making connections to the stripping of young woman in contemporary Botswana, is likely to offend some in the churches. However, Kebaneilwe argues that there is some positive, even liberatory, outcome from this sort of contextual reading. She concludes: 

Juxtaposing the crucifixion ordeal with issues of gender-based violence in Botswana has uncovered the liberating message embedded in the reading that views Jesus as having suffered one of the most humiliating crimes against humanity. The reading also brings to life Jesus’ own words when he said, ‘Truly I say to you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it for me’ (Matt. 25.40). (pp. 239-240)

Kebaneilwe argues that a focus on the stripping of Jesus can raise our awareness of the humiliation involved in crucifixion, and can help readers to think more deeply about those who ‘have been stripped naked in public, those who are less powerful, and those who, like Jesus, have been sexually humiliated and even murdered.’

Kebaneilwe’s reading shows how a thoughtful approach to reading a biblical text in the light of a specific contemporary context can open up fresh insights on familiar passages. The Ujamaa Centre at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa is well-known for its pioneering work in this type of contextual approach. One of its strengths is that it invites readers to enter more deeply into a text that resonates with everyday experience. Rather than assuming the events of the Bible and their meaning are self-evident, or tied to a historical situation, a contextual approach often opens up new discussions through slow and careful reading. It offers new ways to notice specific details and to think about their importance. Placing a biblical text in dialogue with a contemporary context thereby illuminates elements of the text which might otherwise be missed.

Stepping into the room

Kebaneilwe’s use of a newspaper article reporting on a violent public stripping in Botswana becomes an opportunity to think more deeply and critically about the stripping of Jesus. For me, Kebaneilwe’s inter-reading serves also as an invitation to think more deeply and critically about the safeguarding report. In this final section, I ask: how might the safeguarding report open new perspectives for reading Matthew 27:26-31? 

Matthew 27: 26-31 describes the mockery of Jesus in the praetorium. These verses immediately precede the passage Kebaneilwe examines so insightfully. The systemic issues identified in the safeguarding report, I believe, should serve as an invitation to readers to look more closely at power relations and abuses more widely, including in the canonized texts of the Bible. Readers can think beyond the immediate individuals involved to notice also the systemic power relations that are part of the gospel story but rarely given sufficient attention in how Jesus’ stripping is understood (see more here).

In addition, perhaps because I started my career as a teacher at a school in the west London suburb of Hounslow, another part of the report that especially struck me was the role of the teachers. After the extraordinary failure by teachers to notify Child Q’s mother, so that she could be present, the teachers themselves failed to accompany Child Q into the medical room. They remained outside the room during the search, and showed insufficient curiosity as to what was happening within. They might not have intended to abandon Child Q but due to their actions Child Q was left in the medical room without an appropriate adult.

Returning to the verses in Matthew, recent work has raised questions about the repeated stripping presented in this passage.[6] It is easy to read 27:26-31 without noticing repeated stripping.

26 So he released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified. 27 Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters,a and they gathered the whole cohort around him. 28 They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, 29 and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head. They put a reed in his right hand and knelt before him and mocked him, saying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ 30 They spat on him, and took the reed and struck him on the head. 31 After mocking him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him. (NRSV)

There are two strippings explicitly mentioned (v. 28 and v. 31a) plus a further implied stripping associated with flogging in v.26, giving three strippings in total in just six verses. A fourth when Jesus is crucified is implied in v. 31b. 

The fact that these verses have not attracted more attention suggests that too many Christians have had little curiosity about this part of Jesus’ story. This lack of curiosity might be compared with the teachers who stayed outside the room at Child Q’s school. They did not do enough to inform themselves (let alone prevent) what was happening inside. 

By contrast, the CHSCP showed determination to understand what happened. This commitment is even more impressive given the response they initially received from the Review Panel. Rather than affirming and welcoming their initiative, the Review Panel encouraged them to reconsider their intention to review the incident. They might have taken this message as a reason not to investigate any further. Instead, the CHSCP correctly decided that the issues were serious and that a safeguarding investigation was, therefore, warranted. Their willingness to undertake a proper investigation proved the right decision. Both the individual incident and the wider pattern require urgent attention and reform. The CHSCP were willing to step into the room and investigate what happened. This was an important public service. Kebaneilwe shows a similar willingness to investigate what happened in the stripping of Jesus at the cross.

Christians are called to ‘follow Jesus’ and this includes a willingness to follow Jesus into the praetorium to better understand the mockery and degradation which took place. Whilst it is impossible literally to step into the praetorium to see what transpired inside, it is possible to take steps to be more informed about what might have happened. This is important because it takes the text seriously and takes what happened to Jesus seriously. It also takes seriously the experiences of others who are subjected to stripping. Attention to the humiliation of stripping in both the ancient world and today can help Christians to take the text seriously. Kebaneilwe’s analysis of the young woman at the bus rank, therefore, can help readers figuratively step into the praetorium. Her reading helps others to consider more deeply what the stripping of Jesus meant at the time, and why this part of the story remains important and relevant today. That it does remain urgent and relevant up to today is all too clear from the injustice endured by Child Q. 


[1] See especially the coverage in The Independent by Nadine White, herehere (16 March 200), and here (18 March 2022).

[2] A third category of search involves the searching of intimate body parts.

[3] In the New Testament, praetorium refers to the palace of Roman prefect of Judea Pontius Pilate.

[4] CHSCP, ‘Local Child Safeguarding Practice Review – Child Q’, p. 3.

[5] Mercy Machisa and Roos van Dorp, The Gender Based Violence Indicators Study: Botswana (Oxford: African Books Collective, 2012), p. 11. There is emerging evidence that this figure has risen further following COVID restrictions and lockdowns starting in 2020.

[6] Gerald O. West, ‘Jesus, Joseph, and Tamar Stripped: Trans-textual and Intertextual Resources for Engaging Sexual Violence Against Men,’ in Jayme R. Reaves, David Tombs and Rocio Figueroa (eds.), When Did We See You Naked?’: Jesus as a Victim of Sexual Abuse (London: SCM Press, 2021), pp. 110-128; David Tombs, ‘Reading Crucifixion Narratives as Texts of Terror,’ in Monica Melanchthon and Robyn Whitaker (eds.), Terror in the Bible: Rhetoric, Gender, and Violence (International Voices in Biblical Studies Series. Atlanta, GA: SBL Press, 2021), pp. 139-60. For the open access version of this book, see here.

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Theology in a Divided World: Five Poems

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

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

Poem 1: God’s intention for creation

God’s intention for creation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11. Introduction of Sarah Everard’s murder.

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

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

Poem 2: Ruin and “redemption”

Ruin and “redemption”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poem 3: The “sanctuary” of Christian theology

The “sanctuary” of Christian theology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poem 4: The vigil as relapse

The vigil as relapse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poem 5: The perfection of God’s word

The perfection of God’s word

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today’s post is by Karina Atudosie and Katherine Gwyther

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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Terror in the Bible: Rhetoric, Gender, and Violence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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