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Spotlight! Barbara Thiede

Routledge Focus Series: Rape Culture, Religion and the Bible

Barbara Thiede’s book has the title Rape Culture in the House of David: A Company of Men and was first published in 2022. The book focuses on the revered character of David, as well as on other characters in the biblical narrative he so dominates. Barbara’s close analysis exposes the rape cultures that are described in and which shaped the narrative. Barbara is now co-editor of the book series.

How do you reflect back on writing your book?

When I began writing, I focused on demonstrating that sexual violence against female characters was not the product of rogue “bad actors.” Rather, a company of men supported Bible’s rape culture through enabling, witnessing, and colluding in sexual violence. While writing, I realized the extent to which male-on-male sexualized violence similarly supported biblical rape culture. This realization generated a recent article on Saul as a trauma victim (“Hidden in Plain Sight: Saul’s Trauma Narrative in 1 Samuel,” Biblical Interpretation) and profoundly affected my forthcoming monograph, Yhwh’s Emotional and Sexual Life in the Books of Samuel. In that work, I analyze how the Israelite deity models the use of male-on-male sexual violence—not only against his enemies, but against his own men.

Writing Rape Culture in the House of David also helped me clarify the ways in which academe continues to repress the ethical interrogation of Bible, particularly in regard to sexual violence. The pages I devoted to the use of the terms rape and rape culture in my introduction helped me think about the ethical foundations this book series rests on. The outcome was an article, “Taking Biblical Authors at Their Word: On Scholarly Ethics, Sexual Violence, and Rape Culture in the Hebrew Bible,” which will be published in the Journal of Biblical Literature. That article is, in a way, partial payment of the debt I owe to the editors of this series for making the work we do possible. 

In short, writing for this series engendered enough ideas to keep me busy for years!

What has been the response to your book? 

The book has helped me connect with other scholars who are working on similar issues; in writing it, I began realizing that I belonged to a community.

Do you have any advice for authors of future publications in this series – which you now co-edit?

We are engaged in an ethical project, one that can have profound impact on real human lives. There is no reason to hold back and every reason to be precise and thorough in interrogating biblical literature for the sexual violence that goes unaddressed by most of its exegetes and readers.

What topics in the area of rape culture, religion and/or the Bible would you like to see a book on?

We have much to do in exploring male-on-male sexualized violence. Just as importantly, we have only begun to address the ethnic and racial elements that undergird rape culture in biblical literature and in our own time. And finally, we could ask how characters whose gendered presentations do not conform to binary expectations also become victims of brutal and sexualized violence in biblical literature.

Shout out!

I must first note the editorial work of Johanna Stiebert and Caroline Blyth in the series’ formative years. I benefited enormously from their labors on my behalf.

Every single one of the authors who have contributed to this series deserves a shout-out; they are forging pathways, creating a scholarly community, and developing a space for asking the ethical questions that must be made foundational to the academic project. I love reading their work!

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Spotlight! Miryam Clough

Routledge Focus Series: Rape Culture, Religion and the Bible

Miryam’s Clough’s courageous book has the title Vocation and Violence: The Church and #MeToo. It was first published in 2022 and includes, alongside accounts of Miryam’s own experiences, data from interviews with both survivors and church leaders. The book explores the impact of clergy sexual misconduct on women’s careers and vocational aspirations in the church.

What follows are Miryam’s reflections on writing and publishing her book.

The focus of my book was a surprise to me. I was doing some quite broad research on women in the Anglican Church in New Zealand when someone referred me to Rev’d Louise Deans’ book Whistleblower, about a serial abuser and the struggle a group of women had to call him, and the church, to account. This story had come to light when a group of women met to discuss sexual harassment in the church at a conference of ordained Anglican women in 1989, the year after I left New Zealand having had a similar experience as a young ordinand. As I researched, the theme of clergy abuse kept coming up, and my book evolved from there. Revisiting that time in my life in the context of what the church was like for other women was actually a very positive experience for me, and it was helpful to assess my own experiences from a more structural perspective. It was fun delving into the archives of the John Kinder Theological Library in Auckland and especially revisiting Vashti’s Voice, a home-grown Christian feminist journal from the 1980s. The copy, produced on typewriters or by hand, hand illustrated, and duplicated on a Gestetner, brought the experiences of those women to life. It was also really useful to immerse myself in the literature on clergy abuse, which I’d not read before then. Some really seminal work in this area was done decades ago by women like Marie Fortune. The church is still catching up.

Vocation and Violence was very much a collaborative project and I’m grateful to all those who contributed to it. It is important to recognise that much of the work towards addressing sexual violence in the church is driven by survivors and takes a particular kind of courage. Bringing stories of abuse into the public arena is both potentially freeing and increases vulnerability. The stories have a way of becoming public property. They may be examined in intrusively forensic detail by church lawyers seeking to evade culpability for their client, or graphically reported by a media intent on selling their product to a prurient and scandal-hungry public. In the frenzy, the wellbeing of those involved and the structural mechanisms that facilitate abuse are often overlooked. 

Misogyny and toxic masculinity persistently exploit biblical violence to justify purity culture, complementarianism, and clericalism, promoting entitlement in some and cultivating the conditions for abuse to flourish. The fundamental problem of a male God – man made God in his own image – remains one of the central delusions of the church’s history, and the language of the church continues to support this. Here in New Zealand currently, I’ve noticed that the phrase “Father God” is repeated in some extempore prayer so often that it becomes almost the sole content of the prayer, interspersed with the odd petition. Meanwhile in wider society women are once more being subtly written out of the language and I think this will prove to be really damaging if it persists. 

I’m using a similar methodology in my third Routledge monograph on the way churches in New Zealand responded to the Ardern government’s Covid-19 Protection Framework in 2021–2022, which saw many unvaccinated Christians excluded from their church congregations and mandated out of their jobs. I’m interviewing clergy and lay people about their experiences – whether those were of working within the Framework to implement its guidelines or of being excluded by it – and aiming to give voice to a range of perspectives in the hope that, should a similar situation arise, the churches are better equipped to respond. 

The interviews worked well in Vocation and Violence. Some contributors have said they found it helpful to tell their stories and feel heard and several readers have contacted me to say they found it helpful to read stories that echoed their own experiences, and that they appreciated both the authenticity of accounts and the assessment of the theological and structural dynamics that enable and allow abuse – including theirs – to occur. Another aspect that was appreciated was that I didn’t focus on the details of abuse, which, as I’ve noted, so many public accounts do. So often, reporting of sexual violence is gratuitous and amounts to secondary abuse. One reviewer commented that the book “should be required  reading for  bishops and others in church leadership and positions of decision-making as well as for both teachers and learners in theological education and ministry training.”[1]

One area where I think a lot more work is needed is on the way the churches prevent and respond to misconduct and abuse by clergy and others in positions of power. I think we, in the church, struggle to deal with the complexities involved, and with how to disentangle subjective judgements about morality from coercive or abusive behaviour. Far too much energy goes into judging and controlling people’s intimate lives rather than into preventing abuse and discerning and dealing with it well when it does occur. I’m not sure that our Ministry Standards processes are yet really fit for purpose. 

The Routledge Focus Series on “Rape Culture, Religion, and the Bible” was a great series to write for. The editors are really hands-on, interested, encouraging, and prompt to respond to queries. If you are thinking of submitting a proposal for a volume in this series – do it! Even if you’re just at the ideas stage, you’ll get some great feedback and support. There is some fantastic work being done now on religion and rape culture, Bible and violence and I cannot recommend this series too highly!


[1] Janet Crawford, “Book Review: Vocation and Violence: The Church and #MeToo,” Anglican Journal of Theology in Aotearoa and Oceania, Vol. 1, issue 1, Spring 2022, https://www.stjohnscollege.ac.nz/journal.

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Spotlight! Ericka S. Dunbar

Routledge Focus Series: Rape Culture, Religion and the Bible

Ericka S. Dunbar’s book in the series is Trafficking Hadassah: Collective Trauma, Cultural Memory, and Identity in the Book of Esther and in the African Diaspora. It was first published in 2022 and is one of our best sellers. The book expounds how Africana female bodies have been and continue to be colonized and sexualized, as well as exploited for profit and pleasure. It shows how this contributes to adverse physical, mental, sexual, socio-cultural, and spiritual consequences for girls and women, and links present-day systemic violence to the canonised template in the book of Esther. 

How do you reflect back on writing your book? 

Writing my book was a process that I deeply value and appreciate. Publishing this book felt like a full circle moment. The topic is one that I started researching and writing about in seminary. I didn’t imagine then that I’d go on to do PhD work and that my senior project would inspire my dissertation, but that’s my story. The process allowed me to explore questions that had been with me since I was a little girl and to amplify the voices of women who taught me about sexual exploitation, rape culture, and intersectionality from their lived experiences. They transformed how I understood and interacted with the biblical text, so I was honored to share the impact of my engagement with these brave and resilient women with the world.

What has been the response to your book?

Extremely positive. I am pleasantly surprised that it was as well received in church settings as it has been in the academy. One of the most meaningful experiences I have had was people disclosing that the book gave them the courage to tell their own stories and inspired them to do more to transform rape cultures. 

How and where are you now and what are you doing or working on at present?

I am well. I am an Assistant Professor of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament at Baylor University (Waco, Texas, USA). I am currently working on a book on migration in the Bible. I recently offered a keynote at a Migration and Food Needs Symposium where I assessed a few stories in the Hebrew Bible that depict a nexus between food insecurity and migration. These stories illuminate that there are benefits and negative consequences of migration. Moreover, an intersectional lens exposes that not everyone experiences migration and food insecurity in the same way, or to the same extent, and that women often experience disproportionately negative physiological and psychological consequences because of migration. Again, these consequences intersect with food insecurity and with rape culture (such as when they result from being trafficked and sexually exploited in order to resolve food insecurity). 

Do you have any advice for authors of future publications in this series?

The world needs to encounter your voice and unique engagement with religion and the Bible. Do the work! It’s a rewarding experience to publish a book that works towards transforming toxic cultures. 

What topics in the area of rape culture, religion and/or the Bible would you like to see a book on?

Perhaps a book on eunuchs and sexual exploitation.

Do you have a shout-out to anyone working in this general area? Please shout about them!

Rhiannon Graybill. I appreciate her latest monograph, Texts After Terror: Rape, Sexual Violence, and the Hebrew Bible. 

Ericka’s book is available from Routledge. It is out in paperback. Like the eBook version, this costs just under £16. 

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The Woman from Judges 19

Hilary Willett (she/her) fights for gender justice by writing icons and reclaiming the lives of biblical women. Her most recent icon writes the unnamed woman whose story is found in Judges 19. Here, Hilary reflects on the process of writing this icon.

“The Woman from Judges 19” is one of the more confronting icons I have written. I knew I wanted to write it within a few months of learning iconography. I first read about this woman in Phyllis Trible’s book Texts of Terror.[1] Judges 19 tells the story of a woman in scripture who should be known and mourned everywhere, but is rarely discussed.

The woman in Judges 19 has no name. In many translations, she is rather crudely described as a “concubine” to a Levite man. In even less forgiving translations, she is described as an “unfaithful” concubine (ESV, NIV). But it is hard to know the precise nature of her relationship with the Levite. At times, the Levite is described as her “husband.” Some scholars speak of her as a “secondary wife.” For myself, I do not really want to describe her according to her relationship with a man. It is enough to know that this woman existed and that the biblical authors give her no name.

This unnamed woman appears to be in a fraught relationship with the Levite. While the woman from Judges 19 is not given much agency by the textual authors, she does leave the Levite man at the beginning of the narrative. She travels back home and is away for four months. This hint of autonomy, however, is short-lived. The Levite sets out with a servant, follows her to her home and is welcomed (“with joy!”) by the woman’s father. The father and the Levite enjoy food and drink for five days. The father does not uphold his daughter’s choice to live separately from the Levite in this moment, he focuses on male comfort and social expectations around hospitality.

On the afternoon of the fifth day, the woman’s father encourages the Levite to stay for another night. The Levite wants to leave (a deeply unwise decision). He takes the woman with him; there is no objection to her leaving with him in the text. As they travel, the Levite refuses to stop for the night at many of the safe havens they pass, preferring to keep travelling until they reach a Benjamanite town. Unable to travel any further, the Levite and the woman are stranded. The Levite is unable to find a place to keep them safe for the night.

Eventually, an older man takes pity on the Levite and shelters him, the woman, and the Levite’s servant. However, the house is surrounded by men who wish to rape the Levite man. To protect the Levite, the woman is cast out of the house. She is raped to death. She dies with her hands on the doorstep of the house.

But this story, as horrific as it is, gets worse.

The Levite cuts up the woman’s body and sends the pieces throughout Israel to incite war. Israel goes to war against the tribe of Benjamin, virtually wiping them out. Towns, people, and animals are destroyed, until only 600 men are left alive. Then, fearing a future where the tribe of Benjamin is eradicated, these armies kill the inhabitants of another town (Jabesh-Gilead), sparing only 400 virgin women. These women are given to the 600 Benjaminites to continue the bloodline of the tribe. The men left without wives are instructed to abduct still more women from Shiloh.

There is a reason we don’t often talk about this story. It is depraved. It is a story of extreme male violence and terror, of war justified by patriarchal sin. At the heart of this violence is a woman, whose name is absent, whose voice is silenced, and whose body is not her own. She is used, over and over, by men who care more about protecting their masculinity, upholding social expectations, and enacting vengeance. Her vulnerability is extreme – just like every innocent person who died in the fallout of war, just like every one of those 400 women from Jabesh-Gilead, just like every woman abducted from Shiloh.

To show such vulnerability in this icon, the woman is written naked. To show her stark reality, the shadows are deep; there is no colour apart from the red lines on her skin. These lines indicate where her body will be divided up. In the middle of some of the sections, a tribe of Israel is written on her body. This visual allusion drew upon butchers’ charts for inspiration, which divide up animals according to their meat cuts. Her face is hidden to highlight the absence of her name or any identifying feature. Finally, to show the utter horror of her situation, her halo is fractured, its pieces raining down on her body.

There is a reason why we should tell this woman’s story. It is because the story has not ended. There is so much war and violence occurring in the world today, so much justifying the unjustifiable. Every time we allow violence to reign in the home, in church, in society, and in politics, it is horrifying. Every time a vulnerable body is used, every time women are abused, every time innocent people become fallout or justifications for war, we need to remember this story and say very clearly: “No. No more. Never again. This ends here.”

Find more of Hilary’s icons – including the Woman from Judges 19 – at Lumen Icons: https://www.lumenicons.nz/


[1] Phyllis Trible, Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984).

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Power Dynamics: Who Can Say No?

Princess O’Nika Auguste hails from Helen of the West, the Caribbean island of Saint Lucia. She is a PhD student in Biblical Studies at Dublin City University. Follow her on Twitter:/X @isletheologian.

The complex interplay of power dynamics is not limited by time; it is present in ancient history, in holy books like the Bible, and in our current world. Indeed, many stories that depict human interactions bear witness to the presence of complex power relationships across time and space. Two such stories include that of David and Bathsheba (2Sam 11), and the encounter between Mary and the Angel Gabriel (or God in Luke 1). This post will engage these biblical narratives alongside contemporary narratives in order to ruminate on this complex and timeless topic. By examining these stories, I will highlight the deep and long-lasting effects of power relations, acknowledging their presence over generations and influence on the human condition. 

Jenna Van Schoor describes power dynamics as “the balance of power between two or more people when they engage with each other. Depending on cultural and other relevant contexts, this can look very different” (van Schoor 2023 What Are Power Dynamics). So, how do the narratives of Bathsheba and David and Mary and Gabriel/God reflect these dynamics of power? The power of both David and Gabriel is signaled initially by their gender and status – David as a king and Gabriel as an angel/deity. In each story, this power is contrasted with the lack of status held by Bathsheba and Mary both of whom have little or limited status. David and Gabriel thus wield great authority, power, and influence over Bathsheba and Mary respectively.

David and Bathsheba’s story is widely contested on and offline. Every year there are debates on social media about whether Bathsheba was raped by David. In this narrative, the power dynamics are those of a king and his subject. Thus, any conversations about the relationship between David and Bathsheba needs to include the nuanced discussion around concepts of consent, cultural context and, of course, power disparities.

The limited amount of detail given in the biblical text of the Bathsheba narrative reveals its complexity. The text tells us that David sent men to find Bathsheba after he observed her taking a bath (2Sam 11:2–5). We read, “David sent messengers to get her, and she came to him, and he lay with her,” after which she became pregnant. The text is silent on Bathsheba’s feelings about the encounter. Some, like Randall C. Bailey (1990, 86) contend that Bathsheba was a consenting and equal partner. They suggest she flirted with David and even requested to be sent for. Despite extensive research by feminist biblical scholars like Phyllis Trible, Jennifer Wright Knust, and Johanna Stiebert which problematise the power dynamics between Bathsheba and David, such interpreters continue to deny the power differentials and insist that Bathsheba consented to King David’s advances for sex.

It is important to recognise, however, that even if Bathsheba had agreed to the encounter with King David, this relationship is still problematic because David is the king, and the inequality of relationship amounts to an abuse of power. The problem is one of consent and Bathsheba’s ability (or lack thereof) to say ‘no’ or refuse the advances of one who has power and authority over her.

Similar power dynamics exist in contemporary culture, where powerful men have sexual relationships with women who have less power and status than them. Examples of powerful men who have used their power to abuse women include Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, R. Kelly, and Danny Matterson. In some instances, these men have been found guilty of rape, but all of these relationships amount, at the very least, to an abuse of power. Another example is the relationship between Monica Lewinsky and former US President Bill Clinton – a relationship which is still the subject of intense media debate decades later. In the mid-1990s, President Clinton started an intimate relationship with a young White House intern named Monica Lewinsky. Eventually, media leaks about the affair led to Clinton’s impeachment although he was ultimately acquitted and remained in office until 2001. Monica Lewinsky, on the other hand, was demonized as an opportunist and seductress who tempted an honourable man and she continues to bear the fallout from this affair to this day. While some argue that Monica was a free intern and could have left the relationship at any time, we have to question whether this was even an option for her given the power disparity between them (as intern and president). What would have happened to her if she had ended the relationship? Would she have been able to find other forms of employment? What consequences would she have suffered for denying the most powerful man in the world? Would she have been ostracized from Washington DC? (See Sex, power, and humiliation: eight lessons women learned from Monica Lewinsky’s shaming).

The relationship between defamed R&B singer, R. Kelly, and the late singer Aaliyah offers another opportunity for reflection on relational power dynamics. Their relationship began in the early 90s when Aaliyah was emerging in the music industry. There were rumours that Aaliyah (15) and R. Kelly (27) were married – a rumour that was also implied in her album Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number, which Kelly was heavily involved in. At the time of the relationship, Aaliyah was underage and was also looking to grow in the music industry. Her family argue that Kelly took advantage of her at a time when she was very vulnerable. Others argue, however, that Aaliyah and her family used the relationship with R. Kelly to cement her as music royalty. Aaliyah already had connections in the music business as her aunt was Gladys Knight and her uncle was recording producer Barry Hankerson. This meant that an alliance between Aaliyah and R. Kelly would strengthen Aaliyah’s place in Hollywood. However, it is now known that when Aaliyah’s parents found out about the relationship they had her marriage annulled and Aaliyah never worked with R. Kelly again. Her marriage to the singer was covered up until years after her death and after R. Kelly had been accused and convicted of sexual assault unrelated to Aaliyah’s case. 

How do the relationships between Monica Lewinsky/Bill Clinton and Aaliyah/R Kelly relate to the story of Bathsheba and David? It could be argued that, like Monica and Aaliyah, Bathsheba was a seductress and an opportunist who used her relationship with a powerful man to ‘get ahead’. Some scholars suggest that Bathsheba was of noble blood because she was the granddaughter of Ahithophel, King David’s counsellor (2Sam 11:3; 23:34). Bathsheba’s father was Eliam, and her husband was Uriah the Hittie both of whom were part of a group of soldiers called David’s Thirty Mighty Men (2Sam 23:8-38). Those men were David’s closest friends and thus, it could be argued that Bathsheba may have taken advantage of her family’s connections to advance in society through her connection to the throne. But, like Monica and Aaliyah, we have to ask, did Bathsheba have the ability to consent to the relationship with David? Could she have said no to him without fear of consequence? Can any woman in a relationship where this is a large disparity in power say no?

Before these questions are answered, we need to discuss rape and consent. According to Barstow (2023), rape is

“unlawful sexual activity, most often involving sexual intercourse, against the will of the victim through force or the threat of force or with an individual who is incapable of giving legal consent because of minor status, mental illnessmental deficiency, intoxication, unconsciousness, or deception. In many jurisdictions, the crime of rape has been subsumed under that of sexual assault. Rape was long considered to be caused by unbridled sexual desire, but it is now understood as a pathological assertion of power over a victim.” (Barstow 2023).

When we consider this understanding of rape, we must ask ourselves, did any of these women have the freedom to fully consent to their relationship with such powerful men? Could Monica Lewinsky say no to President Bill Clinton? Could Aaliyah say no to the “King of R&B,” R. Kelly? Could Bathsheba say no to King David? If the answer is no, then by the rape definition above these women were coerced into sexual relationships with men in higher positions than them because if they said no, they could lose their livelihoods.  

Perhaps one of the reasons that some interpreters understand Bathsheba as a consenting participant in the relationship is the fact that the biblical the text is not clear on Bathsheba’s feelings and perspective. This is in contrast to another text, 2 Samuel 13, where King David’s daughter, Tamar, is raped, and the biblical writer is very clear about her violation. Tamar clearly resists her rapist, saying ‘no’ and asking him not to ‘force’ her (v 12). She declares his intentions to be evil and offers him a way out (vv 12, 13). She does everything she can to prevent her assault. She is the “ideal victim.” The fact that the author of 2Sam 11 is not explicit about Bathsheba’s role in her relationship with David has led some to be convinced that Bathsheba was complicit in the affair and thus just as guilty as David. Bathsheba does not fulfil the ideal victim trope.

So, what is the ideal victim? According to Mary Morgan,

“Victims of sexual assault are forced to prove not only the guilt of their perpetrator, but also their own innocence. The ideal victim is seen as innocent in the eyes of the public, the judge, the jury and the public. The ideal victim cannot be blamed whatsoever for violence committed against them. It is only then, when the victim has been deemed completely innocent, that perpetrators are evaluated for their guilt” (Words from an “Unideal” Victim).

So, can a woman only be a rape victim if she is deemed to be good, pure, and holy? Conflicting with the myth of this ideal victim is another common rape myth that good and holy women would not be the target of predatory men. But these myths – like all rape myths – only serve to excuse perpetrators of sexual violence and blame victims.

These rape myths are conceivably one of the reasons why many find it difficult to consider the Virgin Mary a rape victim. But equally, people may find it difficult to believe the Virgin Mary was a rape victim because of who impregnated her. To identify Mary in this way is to question the reputation of an angel and of a good God. While the relationship between David and Bathsheba is open to discussion, many seem afraid to debate the narrative of Mary in order to raise similar questions – either because it is too complicated, or because it would cause controversy. The idea that Mary was sexually assaulted or raped would be hugely controversial, of course, because it would be to accuse the deity of sexual violence.

The Biblical narrative in Luke 1 narrates that when the angel Gabriel came to speak to Mary she was afraid and did not understand what the angel was speaking about. The angel told her not to be afraid, that the deity would overshadow her, and Jesus would be born. At the end of the narrative, Mary submits. (Luke 1:26-38).  The text reads:

The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

Some argue that Mary is portrayed as having autonomy in this text because she agrees to become pregnant with Jesus (Barber 202, 22). Mary Daly, for example, argues that Mary as the virgin mother could be empowering and an image for female autonomy (Daly 1993,84).

But did Mary have the full freedom of consent? What if Mary did not consent and the deity abused his power? In Luke 1 we find a similar power disparity to that seen between David and Bathsheba – but the inequalities between Mary and the angel are even greater. Here we see an all-powerful male impregnating a young, vulnerable woman. And so, the same questions about power dynamics that were applied to Bathsheba should also be applied to Mary. Could Mary say no? Could she leave? What would have been the consequences if she had told the angel Gabriel “no”?  While some scholars will not go as far as to suggest the Mary was a victim of rape, there there are those who find her consent troubling. Wil Gafney, for example, notes although Mary’s ancient context would have meant that she probably could not have consented to the encounter, she still used whatever agency she had to withhold her consent initially by asking the question, “How could this be?”  Gafney notes that while she did agree, her consent was problematic because, “Mary’s submission [‘here I am, the woman-slave of the Lord] is in the vernacular of slavery… In this light, her consent is troubled and troubling.” (Gafney, Did Mary Say “Me Too”?

Thus, both the narratives of Mary and Bathsheba raise questions of power dynamics and consent. Our traditional interpretations of these stories are troubling because if we are not interpreting these women as victims of male power, we are sexualizing them – Mary a virgin and Bathsheba an adulteress. This, in turn, emboldens patriarchy and sexual violence and puts women in similar power relationships in our own time in a perilous situation. Perilous situations that benefit men. When power disparities are overlooked, we underplay how these dynamics can lead to sexual violence and sexual coercion. Consent is not complicated; power dynamics should not determine who can say no!

References

Bailey, R.C., 1990. David in love and war: The pursuit of power in 2 Samuel 10-12 (Vol. 75). A&C Black.

Barber, M., 2021. Hagar and Sarah and Mary and Elizabeth: Reading Luke 1 with Genesis 16/21 (Doctoral dissertation, Union Theological Seminary).

Daly, M., 1993. Beyond God the father: Toward a philosophy of women’s liberation. Beacon Press.

Klein, L.R., 2003. From Deborah to Esther: sexual politics in the Hebrew Bible. Fortress Press.

Kirk-Duggan, C.A. ed., 2004. Pregnant passion: gender, sex, and violence in the Bible (Vol. 44). Brill.

Reilly, F., 2005. Jane Schaberg, Raymond E. Brown, and the problem of the illegitimacy of Jesus. Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion21(1), pp.57-80.

Schaberg, J., 2006. The Illegitimacy of Jesus. A Feminist Theological Interpretation of the infancy Narratives, Expanded Twentieth Anniversary Edition.

Images

“David en Batseba, RP-P-2015-17-117-8” by Rijksmuseum is marked with CC0 1.0. To view the terms, visit https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/deed.en/?ref=openverse.

“File:PM 080988 E La Granja n.jpg” by PMRMaeyaert is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/?ref=openverse.

<div class=’fn’> <div style=’font-weight:bold;display:inline-block;’><a href=’https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/en:Annunciation’ class=’extiw’ title=’w:en:Annunciation’><span title=’announcement of the birth of Jesus to Mary’>Annunciation</span></a></div></div>” by Fra Angelico is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

  

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New Book: The Bible and Gender-Based Violence in Botswana

In this post we feature the forthcoming book The Bible and Gender-Based Violence in Botswana (Routledge, 2024) by Mmapula Diana Kebaneilwe. The book is in the Routledge Focus series, ‘Rape Culture, Religion and the Bible’, which is edited by Emily Colgan, Johanna Stiebert and Barbara Thiede. The book is out in March and ready for pre-order from 22 February 2024. (Yes, this post is early… – but we just couldn’t wait!) Read about the book here first!

  1. How did the book come about?

The current rampancy of gender-based violence (GBV) against women and girls in Christianised Botswana prompted the writing of this book. As a Motswana woman who lives and has lived in this country since birth, I have witnessed uncountable inhumane acts of violence that disproportionately affect women and girls. I have experienced GBV myself, as have many women and girls that I know personally (family and friends), as well as those I only read or hear about on different media platforms, including the national television station, newspapers, etc. They, we have suffered GBV, and many have lost their lives at the hands of men and boys, those who are most often the perpetrators of GBV. Therefore, my identity, experiences, and research created in me the hunger to put together in print Batswana women’s stories of GBV alongside stories of GBV against biblical women. My quest has been to explore how the Bible and the Botswana faith communities it inspires intersect with traditional political landscapes to reinforce GBV. 

  • What does activism mean to you, and how does this book relate to religion and GBV?

Activism means everything to me. I am of the view that keeping quiet about acts of violence and injustice of whatever nature, including GBV, equates to colluding with perpetrators, and hence, I choose to expose, name, and seek ways to correct such. Researching and writing on GBV, as in this book, is a way of campaigning for social change regarding women’s and girls’ rights. Their rights are being stifled by gender inequality, which has resulted in our pandemic of GBV. 

The book relates to religion and GBV in that stories of GBV against women in Botswana are read alongside similar stories from the Bible, the sacred literature of Christianity, the dominant religion in Botswana. My research has revealed unbelievable resonance between GBV against textual biblical female characters and Botswana’s real flesh and blood female persons. The exercise of inter-reading or co-reading is an important one, given the authority and respect accorded the Bible in the Botswana context where many people intimately associate themselves with its faith and teachings.

  • What are the main themes of the book?

The main themes of the book are as follows:

  • Demonstrating and acknowledging that GBV is endemic in the Bible and in Botswana
  • Insisting that there should be no recycling of biblical injustices: read it, name it, and fix it
  • Reading the Bible and its stories of GBV in a quest for transformational revelation and for gender justice in Botswana and beyond.
  • Who would benefit from the book?

The book will benefit everyone willing to seek positive change in regard to gender equality, and is intended for a wide readership, including researchers, postgraduates, church leaders and other representatives of religious institutions, and upper-level undergraduates.

  • Give us a quotation from your book and tell us why you chose it?

“Like a mirror, the Bible is an accessible resource—but only if we first, use it and second, use it purposefully and constructively with integrity” (Kebaneilwe 2024, 84).

I choose the above quotation because I believe that the Bible is confrontational in nature by reflecting parts of life that we do not want to see or do not want to admit to: jealousy, passion, anger, violence, etc. Like a mirror, its transformational effect can only be accessible if we first admit what we see when we look into its pages.  Ultimately, concealing, spiritualising, or twisting the rottenness in biblical texts will only serve to perpetuate the same in our world, which explains why even in Christianised contexts like Botswana, we still find heinous acts of injustice and violence, including, in this case GBV. 

Congratulations to Mmapula from everyone at The Shiloh Project!

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The Bible and Violence Project: Meet Joseph N. Goh

Picture of Joseph N. Goh credited to Puah Sze Ning

Joseph N. Goh (he/they/any) hails from Sarawak, Malaysia, and joined the School of Arts and Social Sciences, Monash University Malaysia in January 2016.  Currently a Senior Lecturer in Gender Studies, Goh’s first single-authored monograph entitled Living Out Sexuality and Faith: Body Admissions of Malaysian Gay and Bisexual Men (Routledge 2018) was based on his doctoral project. It analyses and theorises the self-understandings of gay and bisexual men of various ethnicities, classes, ages and faiths on their gender and sexual identities and practices, and their performances of religiosity and spirituality. His second book, Becoming a Malaysian Trans Man: Gender, Society, Body and Faith (Palgrave Macmillan 2020), was the first dedicated academic volume on Malaysian transgender men, and won the ‘Ground-Breaking Subject Matter Accolade’ in the IBP 2021 Accolades in the Social Sciences category of the ICAS Book Prize 2021 competition. His third sole-authored volume, Doing Church at the Amplify Open and Affirming Conferences: Queer Ecclesiologies in Asia (Palgrave Macmillan 2021), was the first in-depth theological study of a series of Christian conferences in Asia by and for LGBTIQ-affirming churches, communities, organisations and individuals. Goh has also co-edited several anthologies with Robert E. Shore-Goss, Hugo Córdova Quero, Michael Sepidoza Campos, Sharon A. Bong and Thaatchaayini Kananatu. He is a member of the Emerging Queer Asian Pacific Islander Religion Scholars international group (EQARS), and sits on the advisory board of the Queer Asia Book Series (Hong Kong University Press), as well as the editorial boards of the Queer and Trans Intersections Series (University of Wales Press) and QTR: A Journal of Queer and Transgender Studies in Religion (Duke University Press).

Goh, along with his collaborators, was awarded the Vice-Chancellor’s Diversity and Inclusion Award (2018) and Pro-Vice Chancellor’s Excellence in Diversity & Inclusion Award (2022) for the development of the Understanding Gender Inclusivity in Malaysia training module at Monash University Malaysia, which serves to create greater awareness of the issues, needs and concerns of LGBTIQ people in the interest of equity, diversity and inclusion. With research interests in LGBTIQ studies, human rights, sexual health, theology, spirituality, religion, and qualitative research, Goh’s two present projects focus on the complex and controversial operations of SEED Malaysia, the first transgender-led community-based organisation in Malaysia, and the manifold spiritualities of Malaysian Christian transgender women.

Goh’s contribution to The Bible and Violence Project is a book chapter entitled ‘A Triptych of Biblical Violence Towards Gay and Transgender Christians: The Case of Malaysia’. Cognisant of the multifarious ways in which the Bible continues to be weaponised against people of diverse genders and sexualities in his home country, Goh argues that there are three parallel and mutually interactive dynamics in the production of Christian violence against LGBTQ Malaysians: (i) official Bible-based ecclesiastical pronouncements against gender and sexual diversities; (ii) scriptural de-legitimisations of gay and transgender people as personally experienced in churches and faith communities; and (iii) insidious practices of conversion therapy. He demonstrates how non-affirming Malaysian Christianity galvanises and preserves the vulnerability of LGBTQ Malaysians, branded as ‘sexually broken’, with far-reaching consequences beyond the immediate use of the Bible as ‘sacred’ arsenal.

Goh owns a personal website at https://www.josephgoh.org/

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The Bible and Violence Project – and Manipur: An Update

Bible picture with a 'warning' sign.

The Bible and Violence Project is humming along, and chapters have started to trickle in as the first deadline (in early October) approaches. It has been cheering to hear of our contributors forming support and writing groups, sharing ideas and sources.

We editors have always felt passionate about this project, and we recognized from the outset that this is work that matters and will have impact. Sometimes, this feeling and knowledge is brought home to us with poignancy and intensity.

Today we want to highlight the dreadful events that continue to unfold in Manipur, India. Since May this year the long-standing conflict in Manipur between the mostly Hindu Meitei and the mostly Christian Kuki scheduled tribes peoples has escalated markedly and erupted in multiple acts of brutality and in human rights violations that have claimed (mostly Kuki) lives and displaced tens of thousands of people, among other harms. (For more background, see here.) 

The situation in Manipur is one where religion and rape culture clash with tragic and fatal force. And yet, it receives little in the way of outrage or attention in either the international media or wider international community.

One of our Bible and Violence contributors is Chingboi Guite Phaipi; she is writing the chapter “The Bible and Violence with Perspectives of Tribal Communities of India.” Understandably, turning to this subject matter is overwhelmingly painful at present, when members of Chingboi’s community are uprooted, frightened, distressed, and grieving. 

Rape culture, as many articles on our blog make clear, covers a wide spectrum of harmful acts, from verbal microaggressions and online abuse, to physical and fatal violence. One distressing and strategically vicious expression of rape culture in Manipur is the stripping and parading of Kuki women, which has been filmed and disseminated to spread fear and intimidation. There are also very many reports of rapes of women, including gang rapes. (There is an article on sexual violence in Manipur, here.) 

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been criticized for being slow to act and stands accused of fanning Hindu nationalist ideologies that benefit and please the electoral base of the party he leads, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). These same ideologies, it is argued, exacerbate abuse, and take a toll on several religious minorities in India, including the Kuki. The Kuki are demanding justice and pushing for a separate administration, to defend and protect their lives and lands from incursion and violence (see here).

The Bible and Violence Project brings together many voices from all over the world, to reflect the dispersion of the Bible’s influence. It examines a myriad of ways in which the Bible depicts, justifies, suppresses, promotes, or resists multiple forms of violence. For some of our contributors this is primarily an exercise in research and scholarship; for others, it represents something visceral, even matters of life and death. Biblical interpretation is political, sometimes intensely so. 

We are excited to see how the project will come together. Along the way, we are often affected by the circumstances and experiences of our contributors. We have already learned a great deal and look forward to seeing the project grow and find a diverse and far-flung readership. Please look out for future posts and for the publication of multiple volumes, including, we hope, in online and – eventually – in open access formats.

We encourage everyone to follow and stay informed about events in Manipur. Alongside some articles such as the ones linked above, you can find out more from ITLF (Indigenous Tribal Leaders Forum), or (especially if you are based in the USA or Canada), NAMTA (North American Manipur Tribal Association). The latter was formed this year and raises consciousness, support, and funds for the tribal people of Manipur.  

Here are the websites for both: https://www.itlfmediacell.com/ and https://namta.us/

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

Marriage, Bible, Violence - book cover

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

How did the book come about?

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

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

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

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

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

Johanna and Saima

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

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

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

What are the main themes of the book?

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

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

Who would benefit from the book?

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

Saima and Johanna [2]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saima and Johanna

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

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

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Support to Survive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doing this work in community is central to surviving.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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