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Religion and Abuse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are the key arguments of your book?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Reading with self-care when reading in vulnerability

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

Twitter: @Dechurching

Email: rebecca@deconstructingchurch.com

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

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

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

Reading With Self-Care When Reading In Vulnerability

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

Rebecca Parnaby-Rooke, courtesy of the author.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca Parnaby-Rooke

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

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Q&A with Joachim Kügler about his new book

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

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

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

What is the key argument of your book?

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

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

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

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Announcing the first colloquium of two: Coercive Control

Broken Glass

Kirsi Cobb and Holly Morse recently posted about their important project, “Abusing God: Reading the Bible in the #MeToo Age” (see here).

The first colloquium will take place both in person and online and is hosted by the University of Manchester on 10 September 2022 (10am to 4pm). It features a line-up of terrific speakers, presenting and co-producing in pairs. The event is designed to foster collaboration, co-learning, and research-based positive action.

Registration is now open! Registration is free. Please find the Eventbrite link here.

(There will be a second colloquium in due course. The focus of the second colloquium will be hypermasculinity.)

For more information, please email: abusinggodahrc@gmail.com

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Announcing… an event for postgraduates, postdocs and other ECRs (early career researchers) working on abuse and trauma in religious contexts

Save the Date… register expressions of interest… spread the word…

An event for postgraduates, postdocs and other ECRs (early career researchers) working on abuse and trauma in religious contexts.

When? 14 – 15 November 2022 (times to be confirmed)

Where? At the University of Leeds (venue to be confirmed). This will be an in-person event only and all participants are encouraged to take part actively in all events.

What? Short presentations by participants, guest presentations by invited speakers, networking, focused discussion groups, informal conversations. 

Why? Research on abuse and trauma in religious contexts comes with profound and distinctive sensitivities and difficulties. While categories such as ‘spiritual abuse’ are becoming more well understood and widely used, and with research on abuse in religious contexts growing, support networks are still sparse.

The aims of this event are:

To bring together postgraduates, postdocs and other ECRs working on abuse and trauma in religious contexts.

To create networks of collaboration and support.

To share information about existing resources and services that participants have found meaningful and helpful.

To identify what is still needed in terms of information and support and to discuss ways to meet these needs.

On November 14–15, activities will be led by Chrissie Thwaites and Laura Wallace. Both are postgraduates in the subject unit of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Leeds. Because both are busy with internships at present, please direct initial enquires and expressions of interest to Johanna Stiebert, co-director of the Shiloh Project: j.stiebert@leeds.ac.uk

If you are a postgraduate, postdoc, or ECR working on abuse and trauma in religious contexts and you’d like to take part in the events of 14-15 November 2022 at the University of Leeds, please get in touch, with a short description (one paragraph) of your research. We will endeavour to fund or subsidise participants’ travel (within the UK) and accommodation costs, as well as refreshments during the event. Numbers will be limited. All participants will make a short presentation to the group (10-15 minutes) about their research. 

If you would like to nominate yourself, or someone else (a researcher, activist, practitioner) to make a short presentation at the event (e.g. about strategies and/or resources for working on topics of abuse and trauma in religious contexts), please be in touch, describing the proposed speaker and providing their contact details. We will cover participants’ travel (within the UK) and accommodation costs, as well as refreshments and a modest honorarium. 

To find out a bit more about the project…

This event is part of a large grant called ‘Abuse in Religious Settings’ (AIRS) funded by the AHRC. It is supplemented by another AHRC grant, with the title ‘The Shiloh Project’, on sacred texts and rape cultures. The AIRS grant is led by Professor Gordon Lynch (University of Kent) and the Shiloh Project grant is led by Johanna Stiebert (University of Leeds). 

This event is aimed at researchers at relatively early stages of their career working on topics of abuse and trauma in religious contexts. It aims to create networks of support and collaboration and to identify existing resources and sources of support, as well as needs for researchers of abuse and trauma in religious contexts that are not met, or not met adequately. Together we will discuss how best to meet these needs.

We acknowledge that researchers working on abuse and trauma in religious contexts encounter sensitivities and difficulties of particular kinds. We acknowledge that researchers working in such areas may themselves be victims or survivors of trauma and abuse, or encounter stress and trauma in working with victims and survivors. Additionally, there may be secondary and intersectional contributing factors and it would be good to discuss and address these, too. Hence, other factors may exacerbate difficulties particular to the research: financial strain, anxiety about employability, minoritized status on account of mental wellbeing, disability, gender, gender identity, sexuality, racism, ethnic marginalisation, classicism, to name a few.

Sad Angel (CC.BY-NC-SA 2.0, cropped)

We hope to create a safe and constructive space to take such conversations forward.

Please help us spread the word and please contact us if you would like to participate. 

Please direct all initial enquiries to Johanna Stiebert: j.stiebert@leeds.ac.uk

For more information on the project ‘Abuse in Religious Settings’, please contact: airs@kent.ac.uk

[The feature image (of the STOP sign) is by allaboutgeorge, CC-BY-ND 2.0, cropped]

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