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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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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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The Crucifixion of Jesus: Torture, Sexual Abuse, and the Scandal of the Cross – Book Review

Review of The Crucifixion of Jesus: Torture, Sexual Abuse, and the Scandal of the Cross. David Tombs, Routledge, 2023 (open access).

The idea that Jesus was a victim of sexual violence will be novel and startling to many. Professor David Tombs opens his monograph The Crucifixion of Jesus: Torture, Sexual Abuse, and the Scandal of the Cross by observing that contemporary Christians are unlikely to fully appreciate the shame and degradation involved in first-century Roman crucifixions. Indeed, popular perceptions of the crucifixion draw more on centuries of sanitised artistic representation than on any in-depth interrogation of the sparsely detailed texts of the Gospels. Countless Christians over the centuries have encountered the theology and language of the cross on a daily basis without being confronted and haunted by its torturous, bloody, and excruciatingly humiliating reality.

This is a challenging subject to engage with, but one which is well-worth the effort and which, arguably, has significant implications for the future health of the church. The shift in thinking required to accommodate Tombs’ suggestion that Jesus was sexually abused relies on understanding that crucifixion was a practice designed to utterly degrade and humiliate those subjected to it. It was a highly political act and Jesus was, from the time of his arrest, a political prisoner. The torture, humiliation and cruelty involved in Roman crucifixions constituted a deliberate political strategy, designed to invoke profound revulsion and terror in onlookers and to thereby ensure compliance with Roman rule.

The first three chapters of this insightful study examine accounts of recent and ancient torture and execution practices, including Greco-Roman crucifixions, to shed light on the probability that sexual violence was integral to the torture endured by Jesus at the hands of Roman soldiers. Tombs makes the case that the stripping of Jesus (both implicit and explicit in the Gospel accounts) was itself a form of sexual violence, as anyone who has been subjected to such a practice will likely agree. Next, he argues that, while we cannot know for sure whether Jesus was subjected to further sexual violence, there is significant evidence from both recent and ancient accounts of torture and execution practices to suggest that this was highly likely.

Tombs’ earlier work on this theme has provoked mixed reactions.[1] As a fellow author on hard subjects, I empathise with Tombs’ observation that this book was difficult to write. In researching sexual violence, we encounter the distressing, the disturbing, the utterly barbaric. We read accounts that can never be unread, we amass a mental archive of images that can never be unseen. Many, even when prompted, will not want to front up to this subject. Tombs recognises that his hypothesis has been challenged in the past and this has prompted him to make his case thoroughly. He is clear that this book will be difficult to read. Indeed, he cautions readers at several points in the book that they may prefer to skip some of the more distressing content in the first three chapters. So why write it? Why do any of us confront the degradation and pain of sexual violence? Why do we not leave it under the centuries-old carpet where it has traditionally been swept? Why, moreover, do we not keep the crucifixion respectable?

Tombs writes this challenging book for two very sound reasons: because the Bible matters, and because confronting violence and sexual violence matters. He offers this book ‘with the hope that a reading of Jesus’ experience which is attentive to sexualised violence can contribute to better responses to sexual violence.’ In so doing, he is lifting this ‘unspeakable violence’ out of ‘shame, stigma and silence’ (p. 2). This is a powerful motivation. Arguably, it is only by speaking the unspeakable – by voicing the violation of the divine – that the sexual violence that continues to plague the church will diminish.

Well-versed in liberation theology and its demand that Christians recognise the suffering of the cross in the lives of the oppressed and are thereby called to action, it was on reading the account of the sexualised torture and execution of a woman in El Salvador and in the context of increasing public awareness of sexual violence as a tool of conflict and genocide in the 1990s that Tombs identified a gap in liberation theology. There was little reference to sexual violence in torture and none to the sexual violence of the cross. ‘How,’ Tombs asked, ‘were those who suffered sexualised violence to be helped down from the cross? How was this possible if the form of crucifixion they experienced was never spoken about?’ (p. 4). Tombs’ subsequent  study of the torture practices and abuses of authoritarian Latin American regimes informed his developing theology of the cross as a locus of sexual violence, leading him to propose two things: that public crucifixions were a deliberate strategy of state terror and that forced nudity and sexual violence were integral to this.

Tombs utilises accounts of recent and ancient torture, including assertions by Seneca (first century CE) that some crucifixions involved extreme sexual violence, to inform his hypothesis that it is highly likely that Jesus was sexually violated (in addition to the strippings, which themselves constitute abuse) during the deliberately dehumanising public spectacle of torture and execution. It is in the first three chapters that Tombs’ lays out the groundwork for his assertions, before turning, in chapter 4 to the ongoing issues which accompany sexual violence – victim blaming and stigma – and, crucially, to the recovery of human dignity which is Tombs’ ultimate aim.

Drawing on Tombs’ earlier work and more recent research, chapters 1-3 follow the crucifixion narratives to address, in turn, the stripping, mocking and crucifixion of Jesus that are explicit in the texts. The forced nudity of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and discussion of biblical, Jewish, Greek, and Roman attitudes to nudity inform chapter 1. Chapter 2 examines recent reports of abuse of detainees and ancient accounts of the widespread practice of rape during war to support his view of the likelihood that Jesus was further abused after being stripped naked, a possibility supported by evidence that, in the practice of torture, stripping is generally a precursor to additional acts of sexual violence. While we do not know for sure what Jesus endured in the praetorium, we do know that he endured it at the hands of a ‘cohort’ of soldiers: some 500 men primed to participate in a violent and bloody spectacle. Chapter 3 contrasts the portrayal of the crucifixion in Christian art with the sparse details of the Gospel texts before exploring the development of Roman crucifixion in relation to earlier impalement punishments and suspension executions, again viewing this information through the lens of more recent events.

In his review of the edited volume When Did We See You Naked? Jesus as a Victim of Sexual Abuse,[2] Robin Gill appears to have overlooked the fact that Tombs treats the stripping and the possibility of further sexual violence separately as, respectively, fact and well-informed supposition.[3] The Gospel accounts are clear that the stripping occurred and this Tombs correctly, in my opinion, describes as sexual abuse. Because we are not told the detail of what happened at the praetorium, Tombs is careful to note that any further sexual violence was possible, indeed likely, but that we cannot know for sure. I find his argument indisputably compelling. Human beings have the capacity for indescribable violence, especially when they are seeking to maintain power. Philip Zimbardo demonstrated in his analysis of the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib how readily many of us become bystanders, if not active collaborators, in the perpetration of gross injustice and harm if the conditions support it.[4]

This book will, and arguably should, be hugely disturbing for all who brave its pages. Some readers will undoubtedly find it triggering and may, as Tombs suggests, choose to avoid the more explicitly violent material. However, it is a book that theologians and church leaders would do well to engage with in full if they are able to. For those for whom the accounts of violence necessary to establish Tombs’ argument will be too hard to read, a gentler approach might be to consider the crucifixion narratives through Bible study, such as the one designed by Tombs in the Open Access resource Accompanying Survivors of Sexual Harm: A Toolkit for Churches (ed. Emily Colgan and Caroline Blyth, The Shiloh Project, 2022). Tombs also includes a contextual Bible study in chapter 4 of this book.

Some will regard Tombs’ arguments with abhorrence. In the culture of toxic masculinity and homophobia that still persists in the church, the notion that the male saviour was sexually violated will be anathema – ‘real men’ don’t get raped. Additionally, reminders of both sex and death heighten our own innate mortality salience, arousing in us a terrifying awareness of our human fragility – which is arguably why images of the crucifixion over the centuries have been sanitised – and Tombs will be taking some readers beyond their comfort zones in this respect. A crucified God who was also sexually violated will shake the foundations for some.

In chapter 4, ‘Resurrection,’ Tombs outlines the value of this difficult work. Hostility to the idea of Jesus as a victim of sexual abuse is indicative, Tombs notes, of the way in which those people may perceive victims of sexual harm. Historically, churches have sought hide abuse within faith-based settings and to stigmatise and shame victims. Change in this regard is slow. Jesus’ experience ‘invites churches to develop a more serious theological conversation on sexual violence and upholding human dignity.’ In making the theological connections between Jesus’ suffering as a victim of sexual as well as physical harm and unspeakable public humiliation, those who struggle with this concept or who are prone to victim-blaming may be helped to reassess their beliefs and consequently to take a more informed and compassionate approach to the issue of sexual harm, and churches may be brought to an awareness of the damage caused by secondary victimisation (the harm caused when victims are not believed or are stigmatised). Theological reflection on Jesus as a victim of sexual violation invites churches towards both repentance and redress. This chapter is arguably the most powerful and I find Tombs’ theology of the cross and resurrection (albeit necessarily brief in this focus series) more exciting, more grounded, and more credible than any I have encountered before now.

The notion that Jesus, too, suffered sexual violence will not resonate with everyone who has experienced sexual harm (see p. 76). One survivor of church-based abuse I spoke to felt that Jesus had not experienced the harm that comes from being abused in secret, of having to maintain the secret, and of being disbelieved and stigmatised for eventually speaking out. For others, Tombs’ hypothesis may be of comfort, and if one survivor of sexual violence is helped by the idea that Jesus understood, from painful personal experience, what she too has been through, then Tombs has done his job. But more than this, if this work enables churches – congregations and church leaders – to recognise that even Jesus suffered sexual harm – it follows that they must take a more compassionate, a more informed, and a more responsible approach to the scourge that is sexual violence in the church. If Jesus suffered sexual harm, the stigma begins to fall away. If, conversely, Christians cannot accept the possibility that Jesus too, was a victim of sexual violence, then they have not truly understood the incarnation.

Feature image: “Cross Church 03,” courtesy of JoLynne Martinez on Flickr (https://flic.kr/p/2gpbXAV)


[1] In his review of When Did We See You Naked? Jesus as a Victim of Sexual Abuse (ed. Jayme R. Reaves, David Tombs and Rocío Figueroa, London: SCM Press, 2021) for the Church Times (‘What the Soldiers Did,’23 July 2021) Robin Gill commented that while some readers supported Tombs’ suggestion that Jesus was sexually abused as a ‘natural corollary’ of the strippings mentioned in the Gospels, others ‘felt that it directed attention away from the sheer barbarity of Roman crucifixion or that it trivialised the experience of powerless women who have been brutally raped and/or genitally mutilated.’ This statement strikes me as somewhat anomalous in two respects. First, in its inference that the abusive act of stripping a person naked in the presence of a hostile crowd is not, in itself, barbaric, and second, in its assertion that Jesus being sexually violated and humiliated by a cohort of soldiers in the lead-up to a drawn-out public execution in some way detracts from the experiences of women who have been raped or mutilated.

[2] Edited by Jayme R. Reaves, David Tombs and Rocío Figueroa, London: SCM Press, 2021.

[3] Gill, ‘What the Soldiers did.’

[4] Philip Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect: How Good People Turn Evil, New York: Random House, 2007.

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Q&A with David Tombs about his new book – available open access

There is a new book in our Routledge Focus series, ‘Rape Culture, Religion and the Bible’ and this one is available from today and open access.

The author is David Tombs and the book’s title is The Crucifixion of Jesus: Torture, Sexual Abuse, and the Scandal of the Cross (London: Routledge, 2023). 

For the open access ebook DOI: https://doi.org/10.4324/9780429289750 

For further information and the hardback: www.routledge.com/9780367257651

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

When I was an undergraduate studying Philosophy and Theology I picked up a copy of Gustavo Gutiérrez’s book A Theology of Liberation in Blackwell’s bookshop in OxfordIt is a classic work, but I had no real idea of that when I first looked at it. Instead, I was drawn to the distinctive cover image. I had visited Peru the previous summer and the cover captured what I had seen there in two readily recognisable scenes. One scene showed a poor community, the other showed a row of military police. It was not what I expected from a theology book. 

I started reading the work of Gutiérrez and then the works by other liberation theologians in the library. I was struck by the passion and compassion they brought to their work and their belief that theology can make a radical difference when it is rooted in what they called ‘an option’ for the oppressed. Their concern for poverty and injustice guided a liberative approach to theological and biblical work. From then on, I have been interested in how faith and theology can make a difference, and how reading the Bible from a specific context can offer new insights into the text. In my theological work in the UK, then in Ireland, and now in New Zealand, I continue to seek insights from liberation and contextual theologies for my thinking and writing.

The specific prompt for the book dates back to the 1990s. I was a PhD student at Heythrop College, London, and working on liberation theology and Christology. Following a visit to El Salvador in the summer of 1996, I read a story of a sexualised execution that occurred during the war in the 1980s. It was a very confronting testimony and I wanted to understand more. First I asked myself why it had happened. Then I asked why it did not get more attention.  Even a theologian as insightful and courageous as Jon Sobrino who had worked in El Salvador for many years seemed to be silent on this type of violence. So I read more about sexualised violence during torture and state terror in Latin America. Then I  started to explore the relevance of this to crucifixion. I first published on this in the article ‘Crucifixion, State Terror, and Sexual Abuse’ (1999) (see here). The book has been an opportunity to revisit this and develop the argument further. 

Last year, I co-edited the book When Did We See You Naked? Jesus as a Victim of Sexual Abuse (SCM 2021) with Jayme Reaves and Rocío Figueroa. Scholars from Australia, the Bahamas, Botswana, Indonesia, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, South Africa, the UK, and the USA, explored implications of acknowledging Jesus as a victim of sexual abuse. It was an opportunity to work with a fantastic group of colleagues and a really inspirational learning experience. It helped me see more clearly what a book like The Crucifixion of Jesus could support this area of research. 

What are the key arguments of your book?

The book investigates some disturbing elements of crucifixion that have only recently started to get attention. It starts with the Salvadoran execution I just mentioned and the impact this had on me. I then turn in Chapter 1 to the strippings of Jesus. These include the multiple strippings by the cohort of soldiers in Pilate’s palace (the praetorium) recorded by Mark and Matthew. In addition, there is the stripping of Jesus at the cross recorded by all four gospels. The strippings and the enforced nakedness of crucifixion are well attested in the gospels, and I would argue that the facts of these alone  are compelling reasons for acknowledging that Jesus was a victim of sexual abuse. 

I then ask whether Jesus might have experienced other forms of sexualised violence beyond the strippings. The evidence for further violence is less direct, and the answers less clear-cut than the strippings, but the questions are worth asking. Forced stripping often leads to further violence and Chapter 2 investigates whether there might be more to the mocking than is usually assumed. I look at what might be learnt from the rape, murder, and dismemberment of the Levite’s wife in Judges 19, and also at why the mockery that followed the death of Herod Agrippa in 44 CE might be relevant to the mockery of Jesus.

Chapter 3 turns to the horror and shame associated with crucifixion. It looks at passages by the Roman writer Seneca that suggest sexualised violations during crucifixion. This is explored with attention to ancient impalement practices and the common belief that the Romans used crucifixions but not impalement. I think the reality might have been more complicated, but the evidence is not easy to interpret. It  requires more research by specialists and I hope to encourage this work by others. Although Jesus’ experience of strippings and enforced nudity provide strong reasons for seeing him as a victim of sexual abuse, we don’t know—and will probably never know—whether there were further forms of sexualised violence in the mocking and crucifixion.

Chapter 4  discusses why this sort of research matters and what positive value might come from it. These are questions that I have often been asked;  I discuss them with attention to Christian belief in resurrection. I believe that recognising Jesus’ experience can help churches address victim-blaming and the perceived stigma associated sexual violence. For example, it can strengthen positive messages to survivors like ‘You are not alone’ and ‘You are not to blame’. Of course, churches should not need the experience of Jesus to prompt them to respond well to survivors. But in my experience it can be an effective way to open up a deeper conversation on how churches can do better.

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

I am a theologian not a biblical scholar, so whilst I found the biblical discussion very interesting, and I hope it will be of interest to others, I also hope that some readers will be interested in the theological issues the book raises. For example, how this reading might offer a  better understanding of Jesus as fully human and vulnerable, or how it might challenge the assumption that the cross must be good. Sobrino speaks of ‘taking victims down from the cross’. I hope the book will encourage readers in churches to think about how recognition of Jesus’ experience might guide a better response to sexual violence. 

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

“This has been a difficult book to write, and it will almost certainly be a difficult book to read. But the book is driven by the conviction that the biblical text matters. It is also shaped by the belief that recognising and confronting violence—especially sexual violence—matters’”(p. 2).

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Reading with self-care when reading in vulnerability

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

Twitter: @Dechurching

Email: rebecca@deconstructingchurch.com

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

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

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

Reading With Self-Care When Reading In Vulnerability

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

Rebecca Parnaby-Rooke, courtesy of the author.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca Parnaby-Rooke

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

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Q&A with Joachim Kügler about his new book

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

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

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

What is the key argument of your book?

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

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

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

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New Book: ‘Boys Will Be Boys, and Other Myths: Unravelling Biblical Masculinities’ by Will Moore

Book cover of 'Boys will be Boys and other myths' by Will Moore

The Shiloh Project caught up with Will Moore, to discuss his new book Boys Will Be Boys, and Other Myths: Unravelling Biblical Masculinities, with SCM Press.

Hi Will, tell us a bit about you. 

Hello! My name is Will Moore. I’m an ordinand (training to be a priest!) in the Church of England at Westcott House in Cambridge, and will be beginning a PhD in September with the Cambridge Theological Federation and Anglia Ruskin University, focussing on constructing a trauma theology of masculinities under the supervision of the fantastic Dr Karen O’Donnell. I’ve also studied for previous degrees with Cardiff University. And, of course, I should say that I’m the author of Boys Will Be Boys, and Other Myths: Unravelling Biblical Masculinities, published by SCM Press.

How did this book come about and how does it relate to your work and interests and passions more widely? 

During the final months of my MTh degree, I completed my dissertation which focussed on using queer theory and theology to resolve a seeming tension of divine masculinities, particularly looking at God and Jesus, in the Bible. (A much-reduced version was later published with the Journal for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies.) During this time, the coronavirus pandemic began and I was stuck inside my university home for more than I had planned. Having been captivated by masculinity studies, and with my final dissertation completed earlier than expected, I let my brain keep on thinking and I continued to write. I knew the insights of masculinity studies needed to break into the popular and accessible Christian imagination, as feminist theology had done in recent decades, and I thought this might be the perfect opportunity for where such a process could begin. 

My previous work has been mostly focussed on gender, sexuality, and violence, and how they intersect with the Bible and Christianity. Some of this has taken a particularly academic shape, but as someone working in and with the Church, I have always valued theological work being accessible and meaningful for Christian communities. This book, then, combines my commitment for academic rigour as well as theological accessibility with my research interests.

Can you tell us more about the title, and about “unravelling biblical masculinities”?

The title ‘Boys Will Be Boys, and Other Myths’ sets the structure and main argument of the book. Each chapter uses a biblical man (from Adam and Moses to Jesus and his disciples) as a springboard for conversation around masculinities, in the biblical worlds as well as for modern readers. It tackles myths of masculinity such as men’s presumed entitlement to power and authority, the necessity to endure without any sign of vulnerability, their inability to express emotion or talk about mental health difficulties, and a reluctance to show intimacy towards other men. Such myths of masculinity seem to persist through so many times and cultures.

What is clear throughout this book is that masculinity, or more accurately masculinities in their plurality, are not and cannot be clear cut. They are slippery, messy, and tangled up in so many other wider conversations. As such, the subtitle ‘unravelling biblical masculinities’ acknowledges that there are no definitive answers to understanding masculinities in the Bible and modern world for Christians. This book is simply an attempt to begin to ‘unravel’ and untangle some of the key characters, themes, issues, and interpretations that are on offer – this unravelling is certainly not exhaustive. Instead, I hope my contribution is the beginning of a wider conversation on men and masculinities at a grass-roots level for Christians and church communities. 

What are the key arguments of your book? 

As well as tackling myths of masculinity outlined above, the central claim I make is that masculinities are just that: a plurality of gender performativities (as Judith Butler would have it). Within that plurality, there is so much breadth and diversity. We can see that in the societies around us, as well as even in the biblical texts. There is no singular way to be a man that is coherently proposed in the Bible; rather, we find that God takes, uses, and adores men just as they are. Therefore, the claim that we should enact a ‘biblical’ or ‘Christian’ masculinity or manhood is a tricky and dangerous one to make, for masculinities in the Bible and Christian living are too complex and intricate to be pinned down to one particular way of being. If we acknowledge this, we are invited to read scripture again and see the flawed, troubled, and trying men in our Bibles staring back at us and reflecting much of what it means to be men today too.

Image of Will Moore
Will Moore, author of ‘Boys Will Be Boys and Other Myths’

Who is the book for and what would you like your readers to take away from reading your book? 

My book aims to be as useful to undergraduate and postgraduate university students looking into the application of gender studies in theology and biblical studies as it should be for Christians, church leaders, and intrigued spiritual wanderers. It’s a broad readership to try to cater for, but I hope my book contains as much scholarly insight as it does personal stories, popular culture, and humour!

I have always said that not everything in this book will please everyone, but I hope that each reader has something that they can take away. In honesty, I expect that this book might shake up at least one myth or misconception about masculinity or the Bible that the reader might hold – it might not give them the solution that they are looking for but will perhaps provoke them enough to search further.

What activities do you have to promote the book? 

I’m excited to say I have lots of speaking and media appearances coming up to talk about the book which you can find on my website or Twitter, but I’m most looking forward to the two wings of my book launch. One will be held in St John the Baptist church in Cardiff on Fri 9th Sept at 7pm and another in Cambridge (and on Zoom) on the 5th Oct at 7pm. I will be in conversation with a different set of scholars and practitioners at each event and I can’t wait to meet others intrigued in the book. Copies will also be available to buy on the nights. Free tickets for both events can be reserved on Eventbrite (see links here and here). 

Give us a short excerpt from the book that will make us want to go read more! 

This is from my introduction:

 “Phrases like ‘boys will be boys’ have reverberated around the walls of school halls, family homes, locker rooms, and courts of law for far too many years in British society, with their justification wearing a little thin. In a country where seven times more men are arrested for crimes than women, unhealthy traits found in modern masculinities have caused men to inflict violence on those close to them as well as their surrounding communities. Yet, simultaneously, an inward bound violence to manhood and men themselves is being perpetrated, where three times as many men are committing suicide than women. Toxic masculinity in modern Western society is a poison which, whilst infecting those who encounter it, is crippling the very hosts that keep it in circulation. Men truly have become their ‘own worst enemies’.”

What’s next for you?

I’m excited to begin my PhD in September, as well as continue my ordination training for two more years before beginning ordained ministry. I hope to keep following my two-fold calling of ministry and theological education – who knows in what form! This book coming about was such a surprise to me, that I can honestly never guess what’s in store next.

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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.”

Update (15 November 2022) – for a review, see: https://www.tikkun.org/rape-culture-in-the-house-of-david-book-review/

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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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Vocation and Violence: The Church and #MeToo

Miryam Clough’s book, Vocation and Violence: The Church and #MeToo is part of the Routledge Focus series (Rape Culture, Religion and the Bible) and it hits the bookshelves this week! In her work, Miryam interviews survivors and church leaders to explore the impact of clergy sexual misconduct on women’s careers and vocational aspirations.

Tell us about yourself, Miryam

I am a Postdoctoral Fellow at St John’s Theological College in Auckland (New Zealand) and a tutor at Ōrongonui, the regional training programme for Te Hui Amorangi ki te Tai Tokerau – a diocese of Te Hāhi Mihingare (the Māori Anglican Church). I have two adult daughters and recently was present at the birth of my first granddaughter in Australia via video call from lockdown here in Aotearoa. Prior to the pandemic I’d lived in the UK since 1990, where I was practicing as a homeopath and working in homeopathic education. I completed a PhD in Theology and Religious Studies at Bristol University/Trinity College Bristol in 2014.

How did this book come about and how does it relate to your work as a whole?

I’d published my first book (Shame, the Church and the Regulation of Female Sexuality) in 2017 and was looking for another theology project. A couple of conversations got me thinking about my experience of the church as a young person with a sense of vocation and I decided to explore this further. I was offered a visiting scholarship at St John’s College in early 2019 and was subsequently invited to return in 2020. I didn’t anticipate writing about clergy misconduct – my project was about the experiences of women in the Anglican Church in Aotearoa more broadly – but this subject kept coming up as being pivotal for me and a factor in the lives of other women in the church. Once the book title ‘landed’, I felt compelled to run with it.

In terms of my work overall, my key academic interest is shame – the subject of my PhD – both in terms of how it affects the lives of those who are susceptible to it, and how it is utilised in groups, organisations, and even on an international scale as a means of control. The book is part of a wider research focus on shame in Aotearoa, with particular application to the church and gender violence in various forms.

I realised during my doctoral research, which focused on an Irish Catholic setting (the Magdalen laundries), that it was necessary to look at the national shame caused by colonisation to understand the shame that was inflicted on women in the socio-religious context. In Aotearoa, colonisation continues to be a huge source of shame and intergenerational trauma and some of this is expressed very clearly in gendered relationships and gender violence, including within the church.

Several things particularly captivate me about shame. One is that it is a primary cause of aggression and violence on micro and macro levels (James Gilligan (2003) and Thomas Scheff and Suzanne Retzinger (2001) write about this); another is that it signifies a breakdown in social relationships – which is why it is so debilitating; and a third is that it pulls us away from the things that really matter to us – it can set us on the wrong path. Silvan Tomkins (in Sedgwick and Frank 1995) describes this as an interruption of interest. Each of these aspects of shame is prevalent in the ongoing trauma of both colonisation and gender violence. On a positive note, shame is healed when we are brought back into relationship and this is where churches have a key role to play through restorative action and fostering right relationship.

What are the key arguments of your book?

Essentially, I see clergy abuse as a structural issue which affects the church’s credibility in an increasingly secular world, so I look at the contexts within the church that allow abuse to flourish and at the wider public perception of the church.The church sees itself as welcoming and inclusive, but it has often been adept at pushing people away, especially over issues related to gender or sexuality – whether that’s been women with vocations, members of the LGBTQ+ community, unmarried mothers, or victims of abuse. This is totally at odds with the Gospel and what Jesus was about. While churches will often deny that they are excluding people, the lived experience of those people who feel hurt and unvalued is very real. There’s a fear of contamination of all kinds that underpins much of the church’s thinking throughout history and this goes hand in hand with a kind of moral superiority or self-righteousness. Both fly in the face of the inclusiveness modelled by Jesus in the gospels.

I left the church after a period of clergy abuse because of my own sense of shame and failure, which was fuelled by the way some people in the church reacted to this abuse. Some years later, one of my daughters said to me, “Mum, the church didn’t just lose you – they lost our whole family”. I think this is often the case when people are hurt and leave – others leave with them. When we treat people badly or exclude them, we’re not just hurting those individuals, our actions also affect those who care about them. Certainly, that’s been the case for many victims of clergy abuse, and it’s been similar for women and for the LGBTQ+ community. People are disillusioned with churches because they see churches taking the moral high ground and they see people being hurt. If churches want to build up their membership and have more of a role in contemporary society – and I think it’s essential now, more than ever, that they do – they need to be transparent about who they are and demonstrate that they are working hard to put things right. They also need to be truly inclusive. There’s no room for discrimination. There’s a tendency to a kind of self-satisfaction when churches make tiny steps – look, we’ve done this (ordained a woman as bishop or agreed to bless the relationship of a gay couple), so we can rest on our laurels and go back to business as usual, forgetting that the gender balance in our leadership and governance groups is still heavily skewed in favour of men, that gay clergy are expected to be celibate, that gay couples can’t marry in church, that lay women are overworked and undervalued, and that we’re still, in some of the language of the church, sons of God and brothers in Christ irrespective of our gender. All these issues, which also include clericalism, complementarianism, and purity culture, feed into and support what is essentially a culture of toxic masculinity that enables sexual abuse to go undetected, and to not be adequately addressed when it is disclosed.

The book also speaks to the integrity of the Anglican Church here in Aotearoa in wanting to address the issue of clergy abuse and to change, not least in that two of its bishops, Bishop Te Kitohi Pikaahu and Archbishop Philip Richardson, have actively supported my research. I think this demonstrates an impressive openness, both personally and on behalf of the church, to move forward with this issue. Archbishop Richardson, for example, was willing to give me some concrete examples of situations he is aware of or has had to manage that really demonstrate how attitudes and responses can and have changed, and how our approaches need to be and can be considered and compassionate. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. We need to keep the humanness and fragility of all parties to the fore and be open to exploring what’s really going on, while also holding abusers to account in clear and appropriate ways. In the past the approach has been to silence and ostracise victims, protect abusers, and try to keep the topic out of the public square, and this does no one any favours.

The book has felt timely as Aotearoa is in the middle of its Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care, so churches are having to rethink their approaches and to be upfront about their history. It’s really common for survivors to take many years before speaking up about abuse, and this has been my experience, too. I think having that distance gives perspective and we can be kinder to our younger selves when we are able to be more objective and analytical about the factors that shaped the society we were part of back then. Hearing other people’s stories helps significantly.

Towards the end of the book, I talk about what I see as the way forward – that is, the importance of respectful relationships. Conversely, the absence of respect shows itself in prejudice of all kinds, in theologies that privilege men over others, in purity culture which defines women through a sexual lens, in clericalism which continues to privilege clergy over lay people and gives them a kind of moral immunity. Some of the book concentrates on describing how this plays out, including how I saw it play out in Aotearoa when I was a young ordinand in the 1980s. Paradoxically, in some respects, little has changed.

It was really helpful for me to explore the broader context of my own experience as a young woman in the church and to realise that this was very much a shared experience. So, I focus a lot on language – the language and discourse that shapes our theologies and our actions. Having left Aotearoa in the late 1980s when we were making inroads into the language of the church becoming more inclusive, it was a real surprise to return in 2019 and find a significant slippage in this area, particularly among younger people.

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

One emphasis which is articulated very clearly by both Archbishop Richardson and Dr Emily Colgan, who I interviewed for the book, is the need for education and training across church communities. Policy changes alone won’t make a difference. In Aotearoa there is some excellent training available through the programme that Dr Colgan discusses in the final chapter, and I hope the book may prompt more churches to take it up.

One of my main hopes for the book is that it will promote more honest and open discussion about the nature of the church and its shortcomings, as well as about its aspirations and strengths. The exciting thing about this book for me is the interviews. They model this honesty and openness so well and I hope this will be encouraging for people.  People’s stories illustrate the main concerns of the book so beautifully. The interviews are pretty much verbatim, and the stories and experiences are really evocative. You get the immediacy of the situation in the way that a more theoretical perspective can’t deliver. So really, this has been a collaborative project with some amazing people, and I’m so grateful to them for being willing to share their stories and perspectives. They’ve helped me to work through my own experiences and I think they will help others too. We’ve tended not to talk publicly about abuse in the church. I think it’s vitally important to be open about this issue, or nothing will change. We also need to be honest about our failings because people outside the church see what’s going on and don’t appreciate the hypocrisy.

Give us one quotation from the book that you think will make a reader go and read the rest.

It’s a bit harsh, but I quite like this one:

When we put real women into the frame and examine their experiences in the context of a theology and ecclesiology that continues to undermine them, and that makes women primarily responsible for sex, including sex that is coercive or non-consensual, we begin to gradually chip away at an edifice that has cloaked the liberating message of the gospel in a miserable shell of misogyny and dishonesty.

For me it sums up the systemic nature of clergy abuse and this is the crux of it. We need to acknowledge that clergy abuse is absolutely systemic and that it is the product of toxic masculinity. It’s supported by the language, theology, and structure of the church and until this changes, abuse will be with us. When people speak out about their experiences, as several – women and men – have generously and courageously done in this book, they help to create a better future.

References:

Gilligan, J., 2003. ‘Shame, Guilt, and Violence’. Social Research 70:4, 1149–1180.

Scheff, T.J. and Retzinger, S.M., 2001. Emotions and Violence: Shame and Rage in Destructive Conflicts. Author’s Guild Backinprint.com ed. Lincoln, NE: iUniverse.com.

Sedgwick, E.K. and Frank, A. (eds), 1995. Shame and Its Sisters: A Silvan Tomkins Reader. Durham: Duke University Press.

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