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Introducing three more contributors to “The Bible and Violence” – Joyce Boham, Helen Paynter and Mothy Varkey

Joyce Boham is Deputy Director of the Institute of Women in Religion and Culture at the Talitha Qumi Centre of Trinity Theological Seminary, Legon (Ghana) and the Anglophone West African Coordinator of the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians. She has worked many years assisting Dr. Mercy Amba Oduyoye, founder of the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians and, until her retirement, first Director of the Institute of Women in Religion and Culture. Joyce is interested in women’s empowerment through public education and counselling. Her target groups consist of Christian and Muslim women, traditional women leaders (such as Queen Mothers), and seminarians. She is passionate about gender sensitization and gender justice. Joyce has organized several public education programmes focusing on such issues as women’s health, women and cultural practices, women and economic empowerment, and at how religion influences Ghanaian women’s lives in these areas. Joyce is writing the chapter on Liberative Bible Reading at the Talitha Qumi Centre (Legon, Ghana) to Combat Violence.

For many years Ghanaian culture, through language, behaviour, and actions, has glorified the notion that women’s ‘silence is golden’. Hence, the idealized Ghanaian woman bears all things, good and bad, quietly, humbly, without fuss or complaint. This has been reinforced by religion in ways that over the years and up to the present has proven detrimental to women’s lives. 

At the Talitha Qumi Centre we try to give voice to women’s experience of suffering and to draw attention to the life-giving potential of religion and scripture, such as by using the example of Mark 5:21-43. This passage contains the stories of a woman healed from a constant discharge of blood and of a girl restored to life when Jesus says to her ‘Talitha, qumi’, ‘little girl, arise’ (the words that give our Centre its name). The goal has been to draw attention to and acknowledge both violence and suffering but also hope of healing. In the past, our liberative theological efforts have focused on how to include and help Ghanaian women through public education to understand that if culture or religion bring pain and violence, or hide pain and violence, they are not just.  Through our work at the Centre, we have also identified the urgent need to include seminarians in our training programmes so they are better equipped to lead congregations in confronting and preventing violence. The purpose of our training is to draw seminarians’ attention to the need for and importance of gender sensitivity and gender justice: in their work both in the liturgical space and in the wider community, in their pastoral duties and in their teaching and preaching. This has become particularly necessary, given the recent rise and prominence of domestic and intimate partner violence cases and the passive role of the church in the light of these cases. 

In my chapter, I will share the Talitha Qumi Centre’s liberative theological methods when working with various women’s groups, as well as some insights from discussions in gender sensitization and gender justice with our seminarians who are mostly male. The chapter will also bring out some of the challenges the Centre faces in its efforts and recommendations for the way forward.

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Helen Paynter is a Baptist minister in Bristol, England. She teaches biblical studies (mainly Old Testament and biblical theology) at the Bristol Baptist College. She is also the founding director of the Centre for the Study of Bible and Violence (see here). Helen is the author of several books on violence and Scripture: God of Violence Yesterday, God of Love Today? Wrestling honestly with the Old Testament (BRF, 2019); Telling Terror in Judges 19: Rape and Reparation for the Levite’s Wife (Routledge, 2020); and The Bible Doesn’t Tell Me So: Why you don’t have to submit to domestic abuse and coercive control (BRF, 2020).Additionally, Helen has edited several volumes on topics of violence and Scripture and authored numerous shorter publications. Helen is writing two chapters: one on Violence in Numbers and one on Violence in Kings.

Violence in the Old Testament presents a number of problems. To believers, it generates questions around the goodness of God or the reliability of Scripture. But, more broadly, it has been used in many times across centuries and continents to justify violent and abusive actions. Contemporary interpretations, whether by those with a faith commitment to the text, or those without one, mandate wisdom and discretion in the ways that biblical texts might be appropriated for violent ends.

However, ‘violence’ in the Hebrew Bible is not a homogenous phenomenon. We read of violent actions portrayed, commanded, exhorted, condemned, judged, and vindicated. I am writing two chapters for the Bible and Violence Project: Violence in the book of Numbers, and Violence in the books of Kings. The chapter on Kings will draw on my doctoral work, where I explored their dark (and often violent) humour, arguing that these books constitute a seriocomedy which subverts many of the certainties of theocracy. My chapter on Numbers will connect with work I am currently undertaking, writing a Bible Commentary for Wipf and Stock. This commentary series, entitled The Bible in God’s World is intended to connect with themes of social justice. Numbers contains texts which will be challenging in this regard, including the test for a potentially unfaithful wife (Numbers 5), and the treatment of female war captives (Numbers 31). I will seek to explore how the violence in these and other texts is being used by the narrator to further theological and ideological ends.

For a full list of Helen’s publications, see here.

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Rev. Dr. Mothy Varkey is Professor of New Testament Studies at the Mar Thoma Theological Seminary in Kerala, India. He specialises in Biblical Hermeneutics, Disability Studies, the Synoptic Gospels, and Pauline Theology. Mothy has published several monographs in English, Malayalam, and Tamil: The Gospel According to Matthew: A Soteriological Commentary (2022); Church and Diakonia in the Age of COVID-19 (2021); Inheritance and Resistance: Reclaiming Bible, Body, and Power (2021); Salvation in Continuity: Reconsidering Matthew’s Soteriology (2017); The Concept of Power in the Sermon on the Mount: A Postcolonial Reading (2010). He has also published articles in international journals and contributed essays in edited volumes. Mothy enjoys the privilege of teaching and of supervising graduate and doctoral students, as well as postgraduates. Mothy is writing the chapter on Violence in Words Attributed to Jesus in the Gospels. 

I will try to explain how words and teachings attributed to Jesus were used to normalise and legalise various forms of violence. It will also explore alternative ways of reimagining such words of terror.  

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Introducing The Contributors to “The Bible and Violence” – Luis A. Quiñones-Román and Lena-Sofia Tiemeyer

Today we are introducing two more contributors to the Bible and Violence Project: Luis A. Quiñones-Román and Lena-Sofia Tiemeyer.

Luis A. Quiñones-Román is Ph.D. candidate in Hebrew Bible/Old Testament in the School of Divinity, University of Edinburgh (Scotland). Luis was born in Ponce, Puerto Rico. He obtained two Bachelor’s degrees, one in Biblical Studies from Mizpa Pentecostal University (Puerto Rico) and one in History of the Americas from the University of Puerto Rico. Luis has also completed two Master’s degrees: one in Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary (USA) and the second in Bible and the Ancient Near East from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (Israel). As a researcher, he is primarily interested in cuneiform laws, biblical laws, sexual violence, source criticism, Pentateuch studies, and Pentecostal studies. Luis is one of two contributors writing on Violence in the General Letters.

My chapter on the General Letters of the New Testament focuses on divine violence and will identify and analyse Hebrew Bible elements used in the Letters to sanction violence. It should be acknowledged that violence within these texts is literary violence, which is sometimes distinct from describing just physical violence. Given my focus, I will consider the passages that make specific references to divine violence. In Hebrews 10:26–31, for instance, the author uses “the law of Moses” to sanction divine violence: “whoever violates the law of Moses dies without mercy” (Heb 10:28). The author creates a concept of a “no mercy rule” for those who sin. The author then tries to reason with the audience: “How much worse punishment do you think will be deserved by those who have spurned the Son of God?” Again, the author evokes the Hebrew Bible, quoting Deuteronomy 32:35, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay.” By doing so, the author keeps amplifying fear, violence and their association with the Hebrew Bible. Hence, it says, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb 10:31). This sounds very ominous and suggests psychological violence.

The General Letters use other elements as “weapons of fear” as well, promoting the notion that one should be frightened of God’s wrath. One example is reference to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah episode (2 Peter 2:4-10; Jude 1:7). So, when applying our “preliminary definition” in these texts, we see that divine violence is used by the author with the intentional aim “to control/oppress others.” Therefore, there is a pattern in authors’ sanctioning of divine violence, which occurs in three or four moves: 1) the author evokes an episode of the Hebrew Bible; 2) the author reasons with the audience; 3) the author re-evokes a passage of the Hebrew Bible; and then 4) creates a “rule/policy/doctrine.”

Discussion of this topic is vital, because the world we live in is a very hostile and violent place, particularly for minority groups. Human violence has been linked to divine violence throughout many ages. Humans use violence as a weapon to control and oppress others, and this is especially potent when it has the sanction of the deity. Divine violence may act as a deterrent for violent transgression, but it is also used as a model to justify more violence—as we see in some passages in the General Letters. I look forward to developing this more in the chapter I am writing. 

(For more about Luis and his work, see here.)

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Lena-Sofia Tiemeyer is Professor of Old Testament Exegesis at Örebro School of Theology (Sweden). She specialises in Hebrew Bible and has mostly worked in the area of biblical prophecy. She has published a series of monographs: Priestly Rites and Prophetic Rage: Post-Exilic Prophetic Critique of the Priesthood (2006), For the Comfort of Zion: The Geographical and Theological Location of Isaiah 40–55 (2011), Zechariah and His Visions: An Exegetical Study of Zechariah’s Vision Report (2015), and Zechariah’s Vision Report and Its Earliest Interpreters: A Redaction-Critical Study of Zechariah 1–8 (2016). In parallel, Tiemeyer has written a shorter textbook on Ezra-Nehemiah (2017), and edited the Oxford Handbook of Isaiah (2020). As if that wasn’t enough, she has also published collections of articles, with focus on the relationship between prophecy and the cult of ancient Israel (2016), and on the Book of the Twelve (2020). Most recently, she published a commentary, Jonah through the Centuries (2021), which led her into the wonderous world of reception history. This interest has resulted in her forthcoming book devoted to the character of Jonathan in 1–2 Samuel. It is aptly called In Search of Jonathan (2023) and explores the literary afterlives of Jonathan in contemporary fiction, and what light these various portrayals can shed upon the biblical narrative. Lena-Sofia is writing a chapter on Violence and its suppression in the David story. 

I am continuing to work on the book of Samuel in various ways. I am contracted to write a commentary on 1–2 Samuel and to co-edit the Oxford Handbook of King David. At the same time, I am developing further my interest in the literary afterlives of biblical characters in The Routledge Handbook of the Hebrew Bible in Contemporary Novels, Short Stories, and Poetry. It is this interest that my chapter for the Bible and Violence project builds on. I will explore how the violence in the David narrative has been treated in its later reception. Mostly, it has been toned down to ensure that David remains the hero of the story and to uphold the image of the ideal Davidic king. Most noticeably, rather than David raping Bathsheba, the sordid affair is often transformed into a mutual love story and/or Bathsheba is blamed for seducing David. In other cases, whole sections of the David narrative are removed, again to uphold a less violent and less savage hero. David’s sojourn among the Philistines is seldom mentioned, and the violence with which he seeks revenge upon his enemies is rarely elaborated on. At the same time, other retellings problematise David’s violence and make it the linchpin around which the plot revolves. In several literary retellings, David’s willingness to obtain 100 Philistine foreskins, which presumably meant killing the men beforehand, is understood as the turning-point in David’s life when he begins his descent into violence. 

(For a complete list of Lena’s many publications, see here.)

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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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Abortion and the Bible

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Child in shadow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Mmapula D. Kebaneilwe

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

The Strip Searching of Child Q

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Stripping of Women in Botswana

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stepping into the room

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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16 Days of Celebrating Activism… The Publication “When Did We See You Naked?”

Today we celebrate an extraordinary book, published earlier this year. The book has the title When Did We See You Naked? Jesus as a Victim of Sexual Abuse (London: SCM, 2021), and is edited by Jayme R. Reaves (one of our 2018 activists), David Tombs (one of our activists from 2017), and Rocio Figueroa (interviewed by the Shiloh Project in 2019).

The book focuses unflinchingly on a distressing detail present in the biblical text of the New Testament gospels—namely the aggressive public stripping of Jesus during his prolonged torture. It calls this what it is: sexual abuse. 

In times past, usually stemming from antisemitic and Judeophobic ideology, the Jewishness of Jesus was more commonly played down, or even denied, than it is today (though see here). And yet, the Jewishness of Jesus is all too clear in the gospels. Jesus, after all, is circumcised, goes to Temple, cites Jewish scripture, and celebrates Pesach. It is no longer controversial to refer to Jesus as Jewish. But in times present, the sexual abuse of Jesus is rarely recognised, let alone called by its name, or discussed. Drawing attention to it is still widely perceived as provocative and sometimes even as offensive.

This book probes first, why the sexualised dimensions of Jesus’s degradation have mostly been hidden in plain sight; and second, why, when they are pointed out, this is often met with resistance, denial, hostility, even repulsion.

There are some helpful resources—a recording of the book launch (featuring the three editors and Mitzi J. Smith, who contributed a powerful chapter to the volume), a link to an extract, another link to a blog post—available here. At the launch, the editors discussed how what is relatively new, is not the descriptions of abuse in the accounts of Jesus’s torture but the application of the language of sexual abuse to these descriptions. 

Screen capture from the book launch (see: scmpress.hymnsam.co.uk)

When language of sexual abuse is applied to the experiences endured by Jesus, reactions can be ones of intense discomfort. Sometimes this is because, as David Tombs explains at the book’s launch, the notion of Jesus as sexually abused is readily equated with Jesus being lessened. Several chapters in the book dig down into this idea, talking back to the notion that victims and survivors of abuse are lessened. It is not, emphatically, the abused who are shameful or lessened—not Jesus, not any victim or survivor of sexual abuse. 

As the book also discusses, when the reasons for discomfort and unease are explored with compassion, acknowledgement and embracing of Jesus as victim of abuse, can bring and has brought comfort and healing to other victims and survivors of sexual abuse.

The book arrives into a wider context where the massive scale of sexual abuse, including in church-run institutions and by church leaders, is becoming ever clearer. The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in Australia and the Independent Inquiry Child Sexual Abuse in the UK are just two sources exposing the scale and extent of such trauma.

This book is a brave book. It is brave, because it shines a light not only on sexual abuse itself, but on the abuse that derives from denial of sexual abuse and from the stigma wrongly and damagingly attached to sexual abuse. 

The book contains a remarkable diversity of contributors, including many from the Global South. It is also diverse in its responses, with sections on ‘Biblical and Textual Studies’, ‘Stations of the Cross’, ‘Parsing Culture, Context and Perspectives’ and ‘Sexual Abuse, Trauma and the Personal’. Many of the chapters pack a punch and leave you pensive for a long time after you finish reading them. 

This is a book that provokes reaction and action. It is a book that can make us feel conscious, and also consciously kinder. Thank you.

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Becoming a Pauline Scholar

Today’s post in the Pushback series is from Grace Emmett (King’s College London). Grace recently defended her PhD thesis on the topic of the apostle Paul’s masculinity. You can find out more about her research on her Humanities Commons page, or by following her on Twitter.


I recently defended my PhD thesis on Paul and masculinity, entitled ‘Becoming a Man’, a nod to 1 Cor 13:11 wherein Paul claims to have ‘become a man’. Essentially, my thesis turns this claim into a series of questions: what sort of man does Paul become, and what’s the process by which he negotiates masculinity? Once the corrections are out the way I will, apparently, have become something myself: a Pauline scholar.

I say ‘apparently’ for two reasons. First, I am hardly expecting an ontological change to happen when I take on the title ‘Doctor’. I will not suddenly transform into a person who has expertise relating to Paul; rather, that knowledge has been curated over a number of years and will always be a work-in-progress. Second, despite finishing the thesis and passing my viva, I still struggle to view myself as a ‘proper’ Pauline scholar.

So why exactly is this a struggle? I am hardly the first person to have experienced imposter syndrome, after all. And yet the nature of my imposter syndrome does, I think, have some specific ties to the nature of my research. Researching masculinity has often felt like a peripheral pursuit within Pauline studies, an experience no doubt true for many others employing modes of analysis that go beyond a strict historical-critical approach. This happens in explicit ways—a comment left online, for example, mocking my research and signed off simply with ‘1 Timothy 2:12–14’. But this impression of being on the fringes asserts itself in more subtle ways too: either when others seem genuinely confused about what a study of Paul’s masculinity might entail, or, at the other end of the spectrum, when those who feel strongly about defending a particular version of Paul’s masculinity feel compelled to interrogate my methodology in a manner that amounts to ‘methodsplaining’.[1]

Serving as a counterpart to the term ‘mansplaining’, ‘methodsplaining’ functions as a form of gatekeeping, whereby proponents of traditional research methods (e.g. historical-critical) determine what is and is not a legitimate research approach. This is more than just something that happens on a one-to-one level; it is fundamental to the way that we cultivate knowledge within biblical studies. Method gatekeeping happens from the outset in terms of what we privilege teaching to students when they first embark on a biblical studies degree, through to the way we structure opportunities to present in academic spaces, like the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature. It doesn’t take long to notice the units that have a ‘marked’ interpretive approach (e.g. ‘Feminist Hermeneutics of the Bible’), in contrast to those that are ‘unmarked’ (e.g. ‘Pauline Epistles’).

Even the means by which one accesses these types of academic spaces is already structured in such a way that it is easier for some rather than others to participate. In the course of the global struggle with the coronavirus pandemic, events offered in a virtual format have demonstrated that greater accessibility is possible when participation is not restricted to those who can only attend in person. As such, the cancellation of the international meeting of SBL (rather than migrating it online) has denied many researchers residing outside of the States a more accessible opportunity to participate in the Society this year—a fundamental reason why the international meeting exists in the first place.[2]

More commendable is SBL’s recent announcement that the annual meeting will be offered in a dual format, with some sessions offered virtually and others in-person.[3] Although not the hybrid format many of us had hoped and asked for, it is, understandably, going to take some time to work out what the ‘new normal’ is for large-scale conferences and how we can move forward in a way that prioritises inclusivity. In the long term, offering virtual participation will benefit a whole host of individuals: disabled scholars, pregnant scholars, scholars with caring responsibilities, unvaccinated scholars, and many others for whom international travel is restrictive—to say nothing of the environmental cost of requiring some members to fly thousands of miles to participate.

Failing to prioritise inclusivity limits the potential richness of biblical studies. Attending to who is able to participate in academic conversations about biblical texts is interwoven with how those texts are studied. Denise Buell explicates this relationship well when she writes:

It is thus of crucial importance to attend to what is habitual and routine in our methods and approaches and not only to the ‘body count’ of who gets PhDs, appointments, tenure, and promotion. That is, attention to who participates at the undergraduate, graduate, and faculty levels in New Testament and early Christian studies matters but always in the context of the very shapes and orientations of the spaces, physical and intellectual, in which this work unfolds. Reorienting the fields of biblical and early Christian studies is an undertaking that also requires deep engagement with the histories of our interpretive approaches and willingness to adopt new perspectives.

Buell is here primarily writing about the way whiteness is intertwined with New Testament and early Christian studies (and see Ekaputra Tupamahu’s recent essay for how whiteness informs particular research topics, such as the Synoptic ‘problem’). Buell’s helpful observation about the intertwining of the who and the how has also been a useful prism for me to reflect on gendered dynamics within Pauline studies.

The way that masculinities research has felt peripheral mirrors the way that I as a woman can feel peripheral in academic spaces. It is hardly necessary to repeat here that biblical studies remains a male-dominated guild (with 75% of its members identifying as men in the most recently available statistics). And so it is not a surprise that this manifests in ways such as being asked if I’m the wife of the male colleague I’m standing next to at a conference drinks reception. Or being told by a senior scholar early on in my PhD to be prepared for the fact that if I presented on Paul in a forum like SBL that some men might actually get up and leave, unwilling to accept that a woman might have something worthwhile to say about Paul. Simply being warned about the potential of such dynamics in an academic context made me wonder how welcome I and my research were in such spaces, ludicrous as such a warning seemed.

There are two scripts of normativity at work here: one sketches out the contours of what a biblical scholar should look like (which extends beyond gender of course), while the other gestures to how a biblical scholar (perhaps particularly a Pauline one) should conduct their research. While one might expect that these undercurrents of masculine- and method-normativity are most consistently embodied by men, women are by no means immune from enacting these scripts too. In some ways, it is as a result of the actions of other women that I have felt most undermined. There is one particular incident that sticks out in my mind that I would eventually come to label as misogynistic, and it was reading Hindy Najman’s essay ‘Community and Solidarity: Women in the Academy’, recommended by a friend, that helped me finally give that particular incident a name. It is this quote in particular that I’ve turned over in my mind many times since: ‘We need to watch the behaviour of women against women, even by those who write treatises against sexism. We are all vulnerable and we are all capable of acts of violence’.

It is for all these reasons, then, that I often do not feel like a ‘proper’ Pauline scholar. ‘Proper’ is, of course, doing a lot of unspoken work in that sentence, guided by the scripts of masculine- and method-normativity to dictate what a model Pauline scholar should look like and how they should behave. But perhaps I can embrace being an improper Pauline scholar instead, with the hope that what constitutes ‘proper’ Pauline scholarship might itself become a more exciting, expansive, and inclusive proposition. In this sense, I hope I add to the ‘body count’, as Buell puts it, when it comes to gender diversity. But more than that I hope that my work adds to the ‘manuscript count’, as it were, contributing to other longstanding efforts to interrogate how our field is constructed and imagine how it might be reconstructed.


[1] Thanks to Dr Chris Greenough for introducing me to this term, coined by sociologist Dr Jane Ward.

[2] It is wonderful news that STECA is planning to offer an alternative forum for those who had papers accepted at ISBL to present.

[3] The efforts of Professor Candida Moss and Dr Meghan Henning were instrumental in encouraging SBL to reconsider its original plans for a solely in-person meeting format.

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Graphic Artwork on Sexual Violence in the Bible by Pia Alize

Sexual Violence in the Bible

Here’s hoping 2021 brings positive action and results after what has been a difficult and challenging 2020, not least for groups already very vulnerable to and suffering from gender-based violence. 

Here’s a resource we hope many of you will find useful. This artwork is by Pia Alize, a graphic artist who has produced stunning images responding to gender-based violence and MeToo in India. You can see some of her other magnificent art, or contact Pia at: www.pigstudio.in

We hope these images, capturing references to gender-based and sexual violence in the Bible, will open up conversations that lead to social justice action in faith-based communities and beyond. We will be using them in workshops and teaching sessions. Our hope is they will appeal to a wide and inclusive audience.

If you require jpg files, please contact Johanna: j.stiebert@leeds.ac.uk

Funding for the production of these images was provided by the generous support of a grant from the AHRC UKRI, ‘Resisting Gender-Based Violence and Injustice Through Activism with Bible Texts and Images’. 

Sexual Violence in the Bible
Sexual Violence in the Bible
preliminary cartoon
an early sketch, by Pia Alize
Sexual Violence in the Bible
Sexual violence in the Bible
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Looking at men looking at women

Symon Hill is a peace activist, a tutor for the Workers’ Educational Association and a postgraduate student at Luther King House. His book The Upside-Down Bible: What Jesus really said about money, sex and violence, is published by Darton, Longman and Todd. You can find Symon’s blog and read more about his book here.

It is often stated that Jesus said very little about sex and sexuality. I have always been a bit baffled by this statement, because it seems to me that he said quite a lot about them.

True, Jesus said less about sex than about poverty, power, wealth, violence, compassion, and forgiveness. But all these issues are relevant to sexuality. Take Jesus’ teaching that the two greatest commandments are to love God and to love our neighbours as ourselves. Jo Ind has used this principle to explore how we love God, others and ourselves through our sexuality. Jesus’ teachings about violence must surely be relevant to sexual violence. Many of Jesus’ teachings are relevant to sexuality because they are concerned with all areas of life.

Nonetheless, Jesus made comments that are specifically about sex and sexuality, or closely related questions about marriage and adultery. This is before we consider his attitude to family relationships more broadly, which were challenged by his very lifestyle: travelling round with his comrades, some of whom had left their families, instead of settling down and getting married.

I should add that I am talking about Jesus’ teachings as recorded in the New Testament. I don’t have space here to go into the many debates about which of the sayings attributed to Jesus are likely to be historically accurate; I am concerned with how we deal with Jesus’ words as they are presented to us.

Is Matthew 5:27-28 liberating or oppressive?

One of Jesus’ most well-known teachings about sexuality is found in the Sermon on the Mount. It is only two sentences long, yet it is a saying that I have been reflecting on, and wrestling with, for years.

The translation is itself controversial. Here’s the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV):

You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery”. But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

Other translations speak of a “married woman.” Some replace “lust” with “desire,” “a view to lusting” or “a hope of sex”. The main Greek word in question, epithymia, is used elsewhere in the New Testament to refer to desires in which no sexual element is involved.
This teaching raises questions that are relevant to many people, whatever their sexuality, religion or beliefs. How is it ethical to behave when you see a stranger whom you find attractive? Does it depend on whether you are single? What if you realise the stranger is married? Is this a question solely about your behaviour or about your feelings and thoughts as well?

These questions often come up when I lead workshops on sexual ethics, and on sexuality in the Bible. One of the first workshops at which I explored this passage was at BiCon, the UK’s Bisexual Convention. This two-sentence teaching of Jesus got people talking so much that there was barely time to discuss anything else. I was delighted by how many people had turned up. Very few were Christians, and most were unfamiliar with the Bible. This passage divided them immediately.

On the one hand were those who found it liberating. Somebody described it as “quite feminist”. They saw Jesus as telling men not to objectify women. To them, he seemed to be attacking sexism and sexual harassment. This seemed more progressive and encouraging than the homophobia and biphobia that some had experienced from religious groups.       

Then were those who found it judgemental. For them, it was about attempts to control people’s emotions and to “condemn sexual feelings.” Some saw it as similar to other judgemental attitudes that they associated with religion. 

I have since led discussions on this passage with both Christian and secular groups. Within the BiCon group, some who viewed the passage positively said that it wasn’t about judging a sexual feeling but about a decision to focus on such a feeling, which would show no respect for someone who did not reciprocate the attraction. In Christian groups, I have heard it said that Jesus was criticising “sexual fantasising.”

Many workshop participants – including people of varied sexualities and genders – have said that they find it hard not to feel sexual attraction to strangers, even when in monogamous relationships. Of course, there are some people who are asexual and unlikely to have such feelings, while others report that they don’t experience sexual feelings outside of relationships (some such people describe themselves as demisexual).

Dealing with desire

Sadly, there is one thing about which we can be sure. This passage has been used for centuries to make people feel bad about sex; not just bad about unethical or selfish sex, but negative about their bodies and sexuality altogether. This has often had little connection with the teachings of Jesus, and it has done immeasurable harm. Today, some stretch this passage to condemn all sorts of things that it does not mention. For example, Phil Moore discusses this passage in a chapter entitled “Jesus on pornography and masturbation.” He argues that Jesus’ teaching here means that Christians should not masturbate, despite the fact that Jesus does not explicitly (or implicitly) say anything about this.

Jesus’ teaching in vv. 27-28 appears just after he is reported to have said:

You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “Whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement. (Matthew 5:21-22; NRSV)

Anyone feeling smug because they have never broken the commandments was reminded that they could break them in their heart. They were in no position to judge others’ sins when they sometimes wanted to commit the same sins. It seems that part of Jesus’ purpose in these teachings is to encourage people not to be judgemental of others but to recognise their own limitations. It is ironic that these teachings are now used to judge and condemn others.

But what’s this about being angry? All the gospels present Jesus as angry on several occasions. In the light of this, it may well be that Jesus was referring to anger that was deliberately cultivated and maintained. If so then “desire” or “lust” may likewise be about deliberate intention; not an instinctive feeling but a developed desire.

Power and victim-blaming

Jesus, like all humans, was affected by his culture and context (he could not have been human if he were not). Some interpreters, understandably, want to dispense with some of the specifics of this passage and get to the general principles. In The Message, the reference to gender is taken out. There is reference instead to “another’s spouse” (see here). I can see the reasons for this, but it means that a crucial element is overlooked. Jesus was not talking only about sex. He was talking about power.

We know only too well that women are often blamed for the sexual sins of men. In our own culture, men are widely assumed to be more sexual than women. But there are also many cultures in which women are assumed to be the ones who are more sexual, enticing men into sex. Even in Britain today, as in many countries, rape victims are sometimes blamed for rape: for wearing revealing clothes, for being drunk, for acting in ways that are seen to reduce the seriousness of rape, or even to invite rape.

Victim-blaming happens frequently in cases of sexual violence. Usually, however, the victim has markedly less power than the perpetrator: on account of being female, or a child, a migrant, poor or less well respected than the abuser.

In this context, Jesus tells men that they are responsible for how they behave sexually towards women. They cannot blame the woman for tempting them, or for dressing seductively. If they develop adulterous feelings in their hearts, they have committed adultery.

When I became a Christian in my late teens, I heard people say that Christian women should dress modestly, so that Christian men would not be tempted. It seems to me now that such an argument might have received short shrift from the Jesus who told men to take responsibility for their attitudes towards women.

People and objects

Nadia Bolz-Weber argues that in this teaching, Jesus is basically saying, “Love your neighbour. People aren’t objects. Let’s not cause each other harm.”

But are we at risk of making Jesus sound suspiciously modern? In Jesus’ society (and in many others), adultery was to some extent a property crime – the theft of another man’s wife. Because of this, William Loader rejects the notion that Jesus was upholding women’s rights. He argues that Jesus’ comment “does not address the rights of women” but “has the effect of protecting male rights, the rights of the other man.”

It seems to me that this does not sit well with a key aspect of the rest of Jesus’ teaching: his generally dismissive attitude to property. As Jesus’ followers left their businesses behind, and he told them not to worry about what they would eat tomorrow, it is unlikely that they would expect him to uphold property rights in relation to either women or objects. For this reason as much as any other, I am inclined to reject Loader’s argument and agree with April DeConick when she writes that Jesus’ teachings reflect “an effort to improve the quality of women’s lives during his time.”        

Maybe we need to hold in tension the varied reactions that I encountered in the workshops looking at this passage. Perhaps we need to consider that Jesus’ teaching leads not only to an emphasis on consent and a rejection of sexual objectification but that it possibly takes this to a greater extreme than modern secular liberals are likely to go (for example, a queer Christian friend of mine believes he should not fantasise about someone while masturbating without their consent).

This is not an easy passage. I know I will continue to wrestle with it, and to appreciate different interpretations of it. But there is one thing of which I am convinced: this teaching of Jesus, which has been used to cause so much harm by condemning people’s sexuality, can be used so much more healthily – to promote sexual wholeness and to challenge sexual violence. To me, this is an illustration of why, if we want to engage in a healthy and helpful exploration of the ethics of sex and violence, Jesus’ teachings are a good place to start.

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