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New Testament

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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Introducing…The Shiloh Podcast!

The Shiloh Podcast logo.

The Shiloh Podcast has arrived!

Rosie Dawson, award-winning journalist, theologian, and host of The Shiloh Podcast shines a light on the stories and practices of religion that either contribute to or resist rape culture. Through conversations with scholars and practitioners, the podcast invites us all to think about ways that we can challenge and dismantle rape culture in our own communities.

Feast your ears on our new trailer and introductory episode, where Rosie discusses the origins of The Shiloh Project with Katie Edwards, until July 2020 one of the project’s co-directors.

Don’t forget to review, rate and subscribe to be notified of new episodes.

https://open.spotify.com/episode/0ZPIZec92xIr5hGJvlBiAm

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Tasia Scrutton’s research and publication on Christianity and Depression

Christianity and Depression book cover by Tasia Scrutton.

Tasia Scrutton’s earlier post on the Shiloh Project blog (‘On Sex and Other Possibilities’) is one of our most widely read. Earlier this year Tasia’s new book Christianity and Depression was published by SCM. This book, on an important topic and written in an accessible style, is likely to be of interest to Shiloh Project audiences. Find out more!

Congratulations on your new book! (It has a very beautiful cover, too.) 

Thank you!

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

Photo of Tasia Scrutton and her dog.

I’ll start with how this book came about….

One of the first times I remember thinking about doing research on Christianity and mental illness was when a friend of mine, who had contended with serious health problems from an early age and who suffered from depression, was told by her church that her depression was the result of her having been sinful. Initially I thought that view must be extremely rare, but as I researched further, it became more apparent that it is quite common in some Christian traditions. At the same time, it also became apparent that something like this view is common outside of Christianity or any religious tradition as well: it’s quite frequent that people (religious or otherwise) try to provide moral reasons or quasi-moral reasons (such as not doing enough exercise) for why one person suffers from a mental illness while another does not.  

It was around then that I started thinking consciously about the ways in which theology and philosophy could engage with these kinds of claims. Having said that, in retrospect, I can now see other things that also led up to it. For example, when I experienced depression myself, I wondered how the idea that salvation is not only an otherworldly affair could be squared with my inability to feel happy – or, more generally, how faith could so spectacularly fail to make one feel better. I didn’t experience ‘sin’ accounts like my friend, but I remember some clergy expressing the view that medications for depression were inadvisable because they would ‘block’ something that could lead to spiritual growth. So, all of those things had been fermenting for a long time.

The academic work I had done previously had also paved the way for me to write something on the topic. For example, I had already written on the problem of evil – one of the points I make in my book is that we might think that good things can come out of evil (for example, that depression has helped some people to become more insightful or compassionate) – but that doesn’t stop depression from being undesirable and so an evil. That sounds like a simple point but it becomes very important in practical contexts, for example in avoiding either the tendency to idealise suffering (just because good can come out of it), or else to write off a period of suffering as necessarily meaningless because suffering is an evil. (Unlike some philosophers of religion, I do think suffering is an evil.) 

What are the key discussion points of your book?

The book is about different interpretations of depression (and, often, mental illness more generally), and how those interpretations affect people’s experience of mental illness. My aim is to help people navigate the different interpretations of depression that are often presented to them, and to help them separate the wheat from the chaff – or good interpretations from bad. I look at interpretations such as that depression is caused by individual sin, by demonic possession or oppression, by God (in order to bring about spiritual growth), by purely biological factors, or by a combination of biological, psychological and social factors. As well as explanatory interpretations, I also look at the idea that depression is potentially transformative – that is, that it can give rise to increased compassion, insight, and a heightened appreciation of beauty. And as well as evaluating existing accounts, I point to some promising emphases for a Christian understanding of depression: the importance of recognising our animality; a social (rather than individual) view of sin and the demonic; hope and the resurrection; and affirming God’s solidarity with those who suffer.  

For a more detailed precis of the book, see here: – but don’t forget to come back and read more on the Shiloh blog ?

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

A therapist friend said people may well get out of the book whatever they want to get out of it at the time – whether or not I think I put it there. So, I’m aware that what I see the important points as being may not be the important points for others.

That said, a recurring theme when I’ve given talks on the book topic is that people tell me they’ve experienced sin interpretations of mental illness themselves (often coupled with other forms of spiritual abuse, such as homophobia), and thank me for taking these interpretations down. (I don’t think that’s too much of a spoiler!) I hope this book will come as a relief to those people who have experienced or are experiencing those interpretations, and closely associated interpretations (such as some demonic accounts). I also hope it will make religious leaders and peers think twice before putting forward damaging interpretations to vulnerable people.

As a corrective to sin interpretations, some people now emphasise the idea that mental illness is purely biological. While I think this is an improvement, another hope is that people will take the biopsychosocial model more seriously as a result of reading my book. That’s important because it’s truer to the evidence we have about the causes of mental illness and how to treat it, and because if we deflect attention from the social causes of mental illness – poverty, economic instability, forms of oppression such as racism, sexism, and homophobia – then we have less reason to do something about them. The Christian tradition has a distinctive voice when it comes to talking and doing something about social injustice, and (I argue) there are other (theological) reasons for why Christians should prefer a biopsychosocial model.

I can think of lots of other things I’d like people to take away with them from my book. I’ll mention just one further one though. I hope the book helps people bring together faith, understanding of mental illness, and conversations about the way we understand and treat non-human animals a bit more closely. Some of the causes of mental illness, and/or the collective failure to treat it appropriately, come from a denial of our own animality, and relate to our abuse of other animals. So, for example, we are often encouraged to deny our social needs, and our interdependence with others, in favour of an emphasis on individual competition that is ultimately extremely damaging to us. Christianity has been seen as part of the problem here, as it has been interpreted as a fundamentally dualistic worldview, with humans on the ‘spiritual’ (and only accidentally ‘physical’) side of the spiritual/physical divide. But I think this is a misunderstanding of the Christian tradition – and one that attention to doctrines such as the resurrection of the dead can help us with. 

Can you clarify what is meant by both ‘mental illness’ and ‘depression’?

When I talk about ‘mental illness’ and ‘depression’, I mean anything that might reasonably be diagnosed as a mental illness or depression by a doctor (whether or not these have been diagnosed as such). In the case of depression, these include symptoms such as anhedonia (inability to feel pleasure), decreased motivation and concentration, or changes in sleep, guilt and hopelessness. Other common characteristics of depression not discussed in medical manuals can include, for example, a sense of one’s body being heavy and tired, and/or a decreased sense of free will or of possibility (see Ratcliffe, 2015). 

‘Mental illness’ is a contested term because there is so much that is mental about (what we call) physical illness, and so much that is physical in (what we call) mental illness. In depression, for instance, people often experience tiredness, and report that their body feels heavy or leaden. Conversely, we usually feel pretty miserable when we have ‘flu. In addition to this, critics claim, ‘mental illness’ buys into mind/body dualism – something that’s increasingly recognised as a mistake, and a damaging one. I’m sympathetic to those concerns, but I don’t think changing the terms is the answer – it’s better to check our understanding of them instead. For the most part, we know how to use terms like ‘mental illness’ well – for example, to ask about a friend’s emotions if she says she is worried about her mental health. And while the boundaries are vague, there seem to be some things that make many ‘mental illnesses’ differ from many ‘physical illnesses’: mental illness is usually diagnosed on the basis of symptoms, for example, and the symptoms are often identical with the illness itself.[1]

How does your book engage with the Bible?

As you might expect, there’s a lot of ‘proof-texting’ in sin interpretations of mental illness. Here’s one example, from a bestselling Christian self-help book written by two psychiatrists, about anxiety disorders:

Worrying is a choice, since the apostle Paul commands us to ‘be anxious for nothing’ (Minirth and Meier, p. 174). 

Likewise, demonic interpretations of mental illness often take as their starting-point the perception that the exorcisms performed by Jesus that are reported in the Synoptic Gospels are about (what we would now call) mental illness.

In order to respond to these, I try to attend more closely to the detail of the texts (it turns out only one exorcism account really seems to relate to mental illness, for example), and consider texts taking into account their original context. Among other things, I think this leads to a less individualistic and more political and social understanding of language of sin and the demonic. It also helps to drive a wedge between being demonically afflicted (possessed or oppressed), on the one hand, and having sinned on the other. There’s pretty much nothing in the Bible to suggest that being demonically afflicted is the result of having oneself sinned as some proponents of demonic interpretations suggest – if anything, the opposite is the case.

In addition to this, I’m also interested in what texts are used or not used in worship. For example, many people with depression report finding the Psalms, and especially the Psalms of Lament, particularly helpful. Perhaps that isn’t surprising, since we know from everyday experience that people sometimes find sad music more comforting than happy music when they themselves are feeling sad – so perhaps there is something consoling about it being ok to have certain feelings, and not being alone when having them. 

Some Christian traditions regard happiness as normative, and there’s little space within some forms of worship for feeling anything but joy. People with depression often report that kind of worship making them feel worse, because they can’t participate in the feelings of joy that others have (see e.g. Hilfiker, 2002). I think there’s something important about having biblical texts such as the Psalms of Lament within the context of worship or liturgy, and so making space for a range of different feelings within communal and sacred contexts.     

What do you see as the points of connection between gender-based and sexual violence, Christianity, and mental health?

I talk about this quite a bit in chapter 7 of my book. Many Christian traditions are generally good about talking about suffering – but not so good at talking about certain kinds of suffering. In particular, some kinds of suffering seem to be stigmatized. For example, in the Catholic tradition, all the patron saints of rape victims are figures who managed to avoid rape (perhaps by choosing to die instead). That doesn’t send out a very hopeful message to people who didn’t manage to avoid rape. Relatedly, Christians are very happy with the fact that Christ suffered at the crucifixion, but the suggestion that Christ’s suffering involved sexual humiliation has been rejected by some as ‘feminizing’ Christ (see Tombs, 2018). In other words, there are still some kinds of suffering it’s seen as shameful to experience, and where those who experience them are left out in the cold.

That’s important because of course depression and other forms of mental illness are frequently triggered by trauma, including the trauma of rape and sexual abuse. The Christian tradition can be good at offering support and especially a sense of God’s solidarity with those who suffer, whether through belief that God suffers in Godself, or through an emphasis on the suffering of Christ and the saints. However, in excluding certain stigmatized forms of suffering from the life of Christ and the saints, there is a failure to provide solidarity to people who have had certain experiences – and of course that is also a failure to support people who might suffer from mental illness. In other words, churches can be good at providing solidarity with people in the face of some kinds of suffering but not others, and that is relevant to mental illness.

Whether churches have parallel issues about mental illness as they do to sexual violence isn’t clear. There are fewer patron saints of people with mental illness than victims of rape, and so it is harder to say. Some of the saints and holy figures who are patrons – for example, Matt Talbot – had stigmatized problems such as alcoholism. However, perhaps the most famous patron saint of mental illness, St Dymphna, did not herself have a mental illness – her father did. So perhaps there are similar issues: it is harder for people to identify with a figure within the Christian tradition who is a ‘fellow sufferer who understands’ (in A. N. Whitehead’s words), if the kind of suffering you are experiencing is of a stigmatized kind, because there are fewer people held up as ideals who went through that kind of stuff. That means people experiencing depression and people who have experienced sexual violence might not get forms of support from the Christian tradition that would be available to them if they had experienced poverty or a physical illness instead.

Tasia Scrutton and her dog Lola.

References

Hilfiker, David, 2002, ‘When Mental Illness Blocks The Spirit’, available at http://www.davidhilfiker.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=33:when-mental-illness-blocks-the-spirit&catid=14:spirituality-essays&Itemid=24

Minirth, Frank, and Meier, Paul, 1994, Happiness is a Choice: The Symptoms, Causes and Cures of Depression (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker)

Ratcliffe, Matthew, 2015, Experiences of Depression: A Study in Phenomenology (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

Tombs, David, 2018, ‘#HimToo – Why Jesus Should Be Recognised As A Victim Of Sexual Violence’ is available on the Shiloh Project.


[1] I’m indebted to Simon Hewitt for this thought. 

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Q & A with author Chris Greenough: The Bible and Sexual Violence Against Men

Photo of Chris Greenough.

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

I’m Senior Lecturer in Theology and Religion at Edge Hill University. I got my PhD from the University of Birmingham in 2016, under the expert supervision of the most marvellous Dr Deryn Guest. I’m interested broadly in gender and sexuality and how it interfaces with religion, including LGBTQ+ identities, and queer theologies. 

The Bible and Sexual Violence Against Men is my third monograph. One of the texts I discuss in the book is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19: 1-29) and its legacy of being a text that condemns sex between men. The text is still used in an abusive way today in an attempt to bolster arguments against same-sex relationships or against gay marriage, for example. Religious teaching about the text has resulted in shame and stigma around same-sex relations, yet the passage is not about consensual, loving same-sex acts at all, it is about attempted male rape. 

The book came about when, originally, I was working with the brilliant Dr Katie Edwards on a similarly-themed book. We quickly realised there was a lot to cover and there was therefore a need for two complementary texts. Katie’s book is also forthcoming in the Routledge series. It was such a rewarding experience to work with Katie, and with the editors of the Routledge Focus series on Rape Culture, Religion and the Bible – Prof Johanna Stiebert and Dr Caroline Blyth. I’m ever so grateful for their support during the course of the book’s journey.

What are the key arguments of this book?

Within the first chapter of the book, I set out the importance of the topic for readers of the Bible today. 1 in 6 men have experienced some form of sexual abuse and the most prolific case of serial rape in UK legal history involved the rape of nearly 200 men. In the book, I argue how religion and society, while bolstering hegemonic masculinity and sanctioning heteronormativity, have contributed to a blindness to male sexual abuse in today’s world. I explore the reasons for shame and stigma that surround male sexual abuse, along with unhelpful myths that prevent men from reporting and seeking support. In Chapter Two, I examine passages from the Hebrew Bible that describe male rape or attempted sexual violence against men: Lot’s daughters who get him drunk and rape him in order to procreate (Genesis 19: 30-38); Potiphar’s Wife’s sexual advances against Joseph (Genesis 39) and the attempted rape of men (Genesis 19Judges 19). In Chapter Three, I turn the attention on Jesus’ enforced nudity at his crucifixion, and I examine sources that denote how such an act was a public humiliation and shaming of a man. The shaming was sexual. Reading Jesus as a victim of sexual violence remains a contentious issue in theology and biblical studies, as well as in wider faith communities. I explore why there is such stigma around these issues, which are undoubtedly connected to the fact he was a man. 

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

In general, critical studies into sexual violence experienced by men remain relatively scarce compared to scholarship exploring the rape and sexual violation of women. This is undoubtedly due to the fact that women experience sexual violence on a much greater scale than men. My aim is that the book generates an awareness of the lived realities of sexual violence against men, and that such an awareness will help debunk some of the myths that men cannot be abused.

I also hope that the book can serve a number of interested readers, including those who may be coming to explore the content of the biblical texts for the first time. For this reason, I wrote the book using a number of different critical approaches from theology, biblical and religious studies perspectives, while also exploring insights from the fields of sociology, psychology, criminology, as well as referring to legal cases and legislation, charity work and media-focussed articles. 

Give us one quotation from your book that you think will make readers want to go and read the rest.

“a blindness to the sexual violence Jesus endured has led to a blindness to sexual violence against men in general.”

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The #MeToo Reckoning: Book Review

Reflection on and review of The #MeToo Reckoning: Facing the Church’s Complicity in Sexual Abuse and Misconduct, by Ruth Everhart (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2020).

This is not the kind of book I usually pick up – but I’m glad I did. Why might I not have picked it up? The author, Ruth Everhart, is a Presbyterian pastor, and she writes of Jesus as a presence and of the Bible as instrumental in addressing sexual abuse and misconduct in today’s churches. I am not drawn to church, and for me, doing something ‘because of Jesus’ (the title of one sub-section early on in the book), or treating the Bible as a kind of how-to for protecting the most vulnerable (signified by ‘the little ones’ of Matthew 18), as much as I applaud Everhart’s purpose, is utterly unfamiliar. Like humanizing one’s pets, or talking to the dead, I see nothing wrong in theory with believing in Jesus’ active presence, but at the same time it’s just not ‘me’.Moreover, I’ve tended to see the Bible as more part of the problem in matters sexual abuse than part of the solution.

Some of Everhart’s writing struck me as too ‘churchy-preachy’ to warm to. Hence, I almost put the book away when I got to, ‘[Jesus’] love changes everything. He is the divine one who came into this world via vagina. To Jesus, women’s bodily experiences matter. To Jesus, all humans bear the image of God equally. To Jesus, the voices of victims crying out for justice is a beatitude sung by a chorus. Stop and listen. Push past the fear. Unleash the energy. The Spirit is here’ (p.15). But I pushed past, persevered, perhaps in part, because Everhart had said at the outset that the book was addressed to victims, survivors, allies of victims and survivors, pastors, lay leaders and also to non-Christians. 

I had ordered Everhart’s book, because I came across it as forthcoming while researching my own book on rape culture and #MeToo. In my book I make much of the enduring influence of biblical texts, particularly in faith communities. And yet, can I really say this with authority, given my own remove from such communities? I preordered Everhart’s book and began to read it soon after it arrived, hot off the press. It is a book that – much to my own surprise – engaged me; a book I admire and warmly recommend. It has taught me much and given me some insight into new perspectives. Here are a few things I particularly like about this book.

Everhart knows what she is talking about and sticks to what she knows 

Everhart is a rape survivor. She has written a memoir about her ordeal, when she and her roommates, all young students at a Christian college, were held at gunpoint and raped by two intruders. The memoir is called Ruined(Tyndale House, 2016)because this word captured her perception of herself following the rape. Feeling ruined can be traced back in part to the purity culture in which Everhart was raised and immersed. Her intimate understanding of both purity culture and of trying to understand rape against the backdrop of faith in a loving God also contributes to her acutely sensitive and empathetic depiction of the stories of others who have encountered sexual abuse and mistreatment in church settings: like Melissa, raised and home-schooled in a conservative Christian culture that deprived her of the language to disclose or speak about rape; Stephanie, the pastor who had to recognize and resist the sexism that was creating a rape-supportive environment in her own faith community; Kris, the young man exposed to a sexual abuser who was protected by church structures and secrecies.

Ruined follows Everhart’s spiritual journey moving through and past rape, past feeling ruined, and her choice of remaining in the church and following her calling to become a pastor. I have not read Everhart’s memoir, only her allusions to it in this book. Like other first-person accounts of rape, Everhart’s albeit brief descriptions stay with me. The two book-length autobiographical accounts of rape I have read – and yes, sadly, rape memoirs are a genre –  are Jill Saward’s Rape: My Story (Bloomsbury, 1990) and Joanna Connors’ I Will Find You: A Reporter Investigates the Life of the Man Who Raped Her (Fourth Estate, 2016). 

With both of these accounts, as with Everhart’s, the victim is easily identified as ‘innocent’. Of course no victim of rape is anything other than blameless; rape is always a dreadful crime, regardless of who the victim is. But it is no revelation that not all rape victims receive sympathy or support. Instead, some victims are blamed – on account of being drunk, or being perceived to have been sexually provocative, for instance. There exists a hierarchy of respectability with some victims deemed ‘more innocent’ and ‘more undeserving’ and others as‘rapable’, their violation ‘understandable’, occasionally even deserved. 

This hierarchy is amply infused with perceptions regarding purity, as well as with racism and other forms of discrimination pertaining to class, for instance. Moreover, it is affected by the identity of both victim and perpetrator – and Everhart is well aware of these toxic dynamics. Early on she alludes to the inequalities of rape, including those pertaining to race (pp.7-8), which she returns to repeatedly (e.g. p.49, pp.222-23). Everhart also unpicks the subtle workings of purity culture and its intersections with rape culture (pp.108–32) and the multiple vulnerabilities of class-based inequalities (passim).

Everhart, Saward and Connors’ accounts are all by white women. Everhart and Saward were both very young at the time of their rapes and both were devout Christians – Everhart a student at a Christian college, Saward a vicar’s daughter. In all three cases the rapists were strangers, in two (Everhart’s and Saward’s) there was more than one rapist and the rapists were armed intruders. In both Everhart and Connors’ cases the rapists were black men. All of these factors – that the rape victims were young, white, Christian, and the assailantsviolent, armed, black, strangers – serve to render the victims ‘more innocent’ in terms of the hierarchy of respectability and the rapists ‘more deplorable’ in the hierarchy of perpetrators than if the victims had been black, sexually experienced, older, or sex workers, for instance, or if the rapists had been their victims’ husbands, acquaintances, or famous, handsome, white. 

This is due to networks of rape myths and how theseshape stereotypes, expectations, prejudices, values and it explains why some rapists – such as good-looking, or wealthy, white men, boyfriends or celebrities – are more likely to get away with rape and why black victims, or sex workers, or disabled victims while, according to statistics especially vulnerable to sexual violence, more often than not do not get a hearing, let alone justice in court, or even representation or acknowledgement of their disproportionate suffering in popular culture.

Everhart comprehends this fully and reflects this in her writing. She chooses, however, wisely in my view, to hone in on the rape culture context she knows and understands best. As she writes, ‘Because I have become a progressive Protestant, this book focuses on stories within that world. I feel a call to clean the dirt in my own house…’ (p.9). Everhart makes no bones about who she is – ‘a rape survivor… a former “good girl,” … a radical feminist’ (p.6) and she takes a clear-eyed look at the church to which she belongs and feels indebted but which she also recognizes as ‘the culprit… the place where culpability hides’ (p.4).

The book contains a variety of stories and gives insight into the complex reasons why abuse is common in churches 

This book is substantial in length and demonstrates considerable narrative agility. It combines accounts ofEverhart’s personal experience, stories of others who have encountered church complicity in sexual abuse and misconduct, news reports (including about the testimony of both Anita Hill and Christine Blasey-Ford), excerpts from written correspondences, and careful examinationsof a wide range of biblical texts: among these, Leviticus 15 (detailing the menstruation purity laws), Numbers 27 (about the daughters of Zelophehad), 2 Samuel 11–13(the stories of Nathan’s parable and the rapes of both Bathsheba and Tamar), Psalm 55, the book of Lamentations, Matthew 10 and 18 (about Jesus and the children, or ‘little ones’), Mark 5:21-43 (the stories of two daughters – Jairus’ daughter and the woman healed of a continuous discharge), Luke 18 (the story of a persistent widow – a text I hadn’t known about prior to reading Everhart’s book), and 1 Corinthians 12 (on theinter-dependent body of the Church).

Everhart is superb at telling and at connecting stories that show in multiple ways that churches foster environments in which sexual misconduct and abuse thrive. She tells her own story, of working in a new congregation and of the inappropriate attentions of a church leader, culminating in his forcibly kissing Everhart. She talks of her efforts first to forestall and then to address this incident and of the many obstructions she encountered. She speaks of how this revived past trauma and also, how her past trauma was used against her.

Alongside this, Everhart tells others’ stories that have been entrusted to her. Some of these describe cases of severe physical abuse (Melissa’s rape by two men, one a stranger, one a trusted friend from church; Kris’s violent assault by a church-assigned chaperone), others of apparently less serious encounters (the misogynybrewing in Stephanie Green’s congregation). Skillful and effective here is how Everhart constructs a church-specific picture of a rape culture pyramid, in which it isclear that the serious crimes that happen in church settings (and which have begun to make the news with horrible regularity) are under-shored by networks and tributaries of rape-supportive attitudes, complicities and suppressions. As Everhart argues persuasively, none of these, even if seemingly small or jocular, are harmless and – if left unchallenged – transpire in the protection of abusers and the multiplication of victims. Atmospheres where sexist jokes are accepted as ‘banter’ diminish and silence women; small sexualized transgressions when dismissed can embolden perpetrators. Everhart tells of the sexualized ‘jokes’ of Big Joe, which go on to influence a vulnerable attendee of his soup kitchen, who then begins to stalk Stephanie, and of Ginni, who is tooready to forgive a sexual predator in spite of his not taking accountability or accepting any punishment. Everhart’s stories are vivid and familiar – even to those not part of a church community. This is because the church setting she describes is a microcosm that, for all its distinctive features, echoes broader social patterns. 

Everhart’s examinations of biblical texts are also compelling – and here I feel on more familiar ground. I, too, have interfaced biblical texts with contemporarycontexts. Everhart describes her approach as hearing stories of the Bible and the present ‘in tandem, the twin halves of a double helix’ (p.11). She uses the Bible as an inspiration for seeking justice: Jesus’ advocacy for ‘the little ones’ calls her to speak for victims and survivors and to heal the church; she appeals to David’s exposure of guilt, as well as to his acknowledgement of fault and acceptance of punishment to act as a model for seekingperpetrators’ accountability.

But Everhart is not uncritical of the Bible by any means. Hence, she notes, for instance, David’s mourning for his sons, Amnon and Absalom, but not for Tamar, his daughter: ‘David’s silence speaks volumes: Tamar’s life is not equal in value to those of her brothers. How painful to be confronted with the sheer expendability of females in Scripture – yet this is our religious heritage’ (p.34). Everhart finds inspiration in the Bible – for women’s solidarity in the story of Zelophehad’sdaughters, and for persistence in seeking justice in the parable of the widow and the judge – but she is not blind to the Bible’s misogyny and she is aware of how it has been used against women. 

Everhart has clearly studied and reflected on the Bible in considerable depth. I have too – but I learned from Everhart. I found her reflection on the ewe lamb in Nathan’s parable insightful, for instance. Hence, Everhart suggests that the man’s affection for the lamb might point to a particularly tender relationship between Uriah and Bathsheba. I did not know and agree with Everhart that it is meaningful, that Bathsheba, though not named here, is referred to as the wife of Uriah in the New Testament (Matthew 1:6). I also concur that the image of the lamb emphasizes Bathsheba’s youth and vulnerability: Everhart asks, ‘Due to stark disparities in status, power, and age, was meaningful consent possible in the story of David and Bathsheba?’ (p.144) We are agreed that the story is one of rape. 

Everhart’s adept and lively narration of stories – both personal and biblical – makes this book enjoyable to read. Her careful analysis of texts from the Bible is balanced with vividly related accounts of actual people from her own circle. The parallels between the two make the Bible stories relevant and alive but without obscuring their toxic potential. As Everhart recognizes ‘Scripture says many things, including many contradictory things. … We must be aware of the temptation to “baptize” what feels good and right because it’s known and comfortable’ (p.36). Everhart avoids this temptation and delves into much that is uncomfortable and painful.

Ruth Everhart

The book not only identifies and explains problems but offers hope and church-compatible ways and incentives to resolve them

Everhart is clear where she stands: she is in the church and intends to remain there. She recognizes the church’s potential for facilitating abuse and wants to be part of the solution for bringing this to an end. She is motivated by feminism and enthusiastic about #MeToo, identifying it as a time to speak up and to bring the church into a movement for positive change. 

Among the problems Everhart identifies and seeks to resist are Christian complicity ‘in championing a patriarchal masculinity that marginalizes women and protects abusers’ (p.11); the manipulation of turning the willing sacrifice of Jesus into the exploitation of self-sacrifice, or into sacrifice of the truth (p.35, p.204); the prevalence of a purity culture and a conservative view on sexuality, which can prepare a seedbed for driving sexual abuse underground; the church’s ‘tremendous pull toward institutional self-preservation’ and the ‘intricate web of relationships within the church’ (p.53); and disciplinary processes that do not acknowledge, let alonehonour harms done (p.90ff., 104–06). 

Over and over again, Everhart, while drawing on discrete examples, agues that these problems lie not with a few ‘sick individuals’ but with systems (e.g. pp.80-81). She advocates for transparency and speaking out (p.106) and for making churches ‘safer and braver’ (p.212). Hence, rather than holding meetings about abuse behind closed doors or foregrounding privacy and anonymity, Everhart advocates for public laments, in line with the large-scale, public strategies of #MeToo. Shame, she points out, lies not with victims but with perpetrators and resisting sexual abuse is not a women’s issue but a human issue. Without active resistance, she warns, churches will lose all the remaining trust they still have and go under. 

Everhart’s book ends on a note of hope, optimism and activity – with a list of strategies for effecting positive change within congregations.

I was left, after reading this book, feeling sombre but also more knowledgeable, and very grateful for people like Everhart and others, including several who have featured on this blog – Jayme ReavesRosinah GabaitseMusa DubeDavid TombsMegan RobertsonLaurie Lyter-BrightHelen PaynterJoachim KueglerGerald WestEricka DunbarJoyce BohamJo Sadgrove… – for fighting the fight in the churches. 

I hope many of you will read this book, whether you are Christian, church-going, or not.

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