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Religion and Abuse

Abuse, engraved 

Today’s post is by Bradley and Maya. Both are second-year undergraduate students at the University of Leeds and enrolled in a module where they take an active part in a research project. Johanna has got them involved in the ‘Abuse in Religious Contexts’ project and the group (which also includes Joey and Annelise) has taken the initiative to explore rape culture manifestations on campus (the topic of this post), to interview churches about safeguarding practices, and run a Bible study on a text with potential to cause harm at the University’s Chaplaincy Centre.

Bradley (she/her) is a second-year Liberal Arts student majoring in English with career aspirations in the film industry. She’s always been driven by matters concerning social justice, with particular passions for queer and women’s issues.

Maya is also a second-year student at the University of Leeds studying Liberal Arts with a major in English Lit. Home for her is the Isle of Wight in the south of England, where she lives right on the coastline. Although she is not sure where her degree will take her, she has close family friends who run a non-profit that provides housing/has initiated controlled drug use in Vancouver, Canada. She hopes to gain some work experience in harm reduction alongside them after University. 

Pedophile’s sculpture on display at the University of Leeds – and nobody bats an eyelid?!

Every day hundreds of students on Leeds University campus cross paths with Eric Gill’s stone frieze, Christ Driving the Moneychangers from the Temple. To the average university goer, this sculpture – situated centrally in the entrance of the Michael Sadler building – depicts a well-known Bible story. Yet very few are aware of the artist’s sexual abuse of his wife and daughters, exposed 50 years after his death in his personal diaries. This artwork represents a biblical story but also the deeply ubiquitous nature of rape culture and its intersection with the world of religion and spirituality.   

Rape culture is embedded in our everyday lives, manifested in microaggressions and cultural products which vary across communities, countries and social and spiritual groups. Any normalisation of harmful sexual behaviour contributes to rape culture, ranging from the abstract (such as sexist attitudes or jokes) to the concrete (such as sexual violence and rape). Common perpetrators include (particularly violent) pornography, any unsolicited sexual attention, and even our own language. Art is a less common but equally impactful facilitator.  

Although rape culture is everywhere, often the willingness to talk about it is nowhere. This very contradiction is what fuels all different sorts of abuse, in which abuse goes unsaid, abusers go unseen, and survivors go unheard. Despite nationwide vandalism of Gill’s statues there is no disclaimer next to the frieze that warns of its harmful effect in a public education setting. Of course, pointing out Gill’s abuse could be triggering for survivors of sexual abuse. But can ignorance be the optimal alternative? What good can come from acting like it never happened, and stigmatising and silencing survivors even more? 

In our project Addressing Sexual Abuse Scandals in Church Settings, we first approached rape culture, as guided by our mentor Johanna Stiebert, and its intersection with spirituality in so-called spiritual abuse. Springboarding from research into Gill, we delved into other forms of spiritual abuse, and realised it manifests itself in so many different variations – from excusing violence to manipulating spiritual teachings (Spiritual abuse | 1800RESPECT).  

Thus, spiritual abuse is best understood as an umbrella term for the many ways in which people manipulate the power and authority of the church as well as the vulnerability and openness of its followers; perhaps it is best seen as ‘any attempt to exert power and control over someone using religion, faith or beliefs’ (Spiritual Abuse: How to Identify It and Find Help (webmd.com)).  

With this in mind, we continued to look at the context of biblical stories and their place in contemporary society. The focus of this blog is a reminder of the strong influence historical texts can have, and their ongoing effects today. Needless to say, the extent of social change that has occurred between the then of certain religious texts and the now of today highlights the importance of context; various injustices found in biblical stories can never justify structures of abuse seen today.  

Being critical of the past does not negate the importance of religion and spirituality today, and we hope to direct this energy towards aspects of spirituality which facilitate rape culture without undermining the positive impact of faith and the Church.  

Moving forward, our project aims to increase awareness and decrease stigma surrounding spiritual abuse. This begins with collecting first-hand research in the form of interviews in Christian churches in Leeds: All-Hallows church, is our first. Here we met with Revd. Heston Groenewald and Safeguarding Lead Penny Brown. We aim to explore how churches seek to understand, and prevent spiritual abuse among their congregations.  

In opening this conversation on spiritual abuse in this blog, we hope to encourage difficult and necessary conversations on how religious institutions and contexts can permit but also resist rape culture. By having these conversations openly we aim to change the discourse for survivors of religious abuse and give them a platform to express themselves, hopefully taking small steps towards a bigger and brighter picture of change. After all, the subtle microaggressions that foster rape culture are best attacked through small and subtle acts, like simply talking about it. Boosting awareness is the beginning to a road of empowerment and change.  

[The image shows: Penny, Heston, Joey, Maya, Annelise and Bradley, at All Hallows’ Rainbow Junktion in Leeds].

So when you next look at art – religious or otherwise – we hope you feel inclined to investigate its context, and consider its place in society today.   

To read more on the controversy of Gill, click the following links:  

The Michael Sadler sculpture was designed by a known paedophile (thetab.com)  

Eric Gill: can we separate the artist from the abuser? | Eric Gill | The Guardian  

Can Art Created by a Sexual Abuser Ever Be Meaningfully Reframed? – ArtReview  

Written in stone | Art | The Guardian  

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

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

  1. How did the book come about?

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

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

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

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

  • What are the main themes of the book?

The main themes of the book are as follows:

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

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

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

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

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

Congratulations to Mmapula from everyone at The Shiloh Project!

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Conference: Gender and Religious Exit, Moving Away from Faith

Tuesday, 28 November 2023 at 9:00–17:30 

Please use this form to register to attend the online symposium: Registration – Gender and Religious Exit (onlinesurveys.ac.uk)

Organisers:
Dr Nella van den Brandt, Coventry University, UK 
Dr Teija Rantala, Turku University, Finland 
Dr Sarah-Jane Page, University of Nottingham, UK 

From the conference organisers:

There have always been reasons for people to move away from a religious tradition, community or movement. Religious traditions are instrumental in providing individual members with a perspective on the world, a community and a relationship with the divine. Religious communities socialize their adherents regarding behaviour, embodiment and emotions. When people move away from their religion, their experiences may pertain to all or some of these aspects and dimensions. Leaving religion is thus a varied and diverse experience.

The one-day online symposium Gender and Religious Exit starts from the premise that motivations for moving away from religion range from experiencing cognitive or emotional dissonance to social marginalisation to a critique of power relations. The notions of ‘moving away’ or ‘religious exit’ should be considered in a layered and nuanced manner: they raise questions about what exactly individuals consider to leave, and what elements of behaviour, embodiment and emotions remain part of their environments, lives and futures. 

Moving away from religion can thus involve complex processes and negotiations of all areas of life and understandings of the self. An intersectional perspective and analysis of leaving religious is long overdue, since notions and experiences of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, race and dis/ability are central in shaping identity and the self. The multidisciplinary symposium invites scholars to investigate the variety of contemporary dynamics of leaving religion in the lives of individuals and communities.

During the opening plenary session, research findings will be presented that emerged from the Marie Skłodowska-Curie funded two-year qualitative research by Dr Nella van den Brandt (Coventry University, UK) on women leaving religion in the UK and the Netherlands. Keynote lectures on gender, feminism, apostasy and non-religion / leaving religion in various national and cultural contexts will be provided by Dr Julia Martínez-Ariño (Rijksuniversiteit Groningen, the Netherlands) and  Prof. Dr Karin van Nieuwkerk (Radboud University, the Netherlands). During parallel sessions, we will further look into current international and intersectional perspectives on moving away from religion.

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Trauma and Theology Conference

Auckland, Aotearoa New Zealand

Earlier this year, St John’s Theological College (Anglican), Trinity Theological College (Methodist), and the Centre for Theology and Public Issues (University of Otago), jointly hosted a two-day Trauma and Theology Conference. This conference was led by Dr Karen O’Donnell, a specialist in theology and trauma, and the Director of Studies at Wescott House, Cambridge, UK.

During the conference, participants were invited to share some of their reflections. These reflections were filmed (with participants’ permission) and have been developed into a short film by two St John’s students, Scott Parekowhai and Grace Cox. This video highlights some of the participants’ impressions of the significant work that was covered in this conference. 

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

Marriage, Bible, Violence - book cover

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

How did the book come about?

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

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

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

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

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

Johanna and Saima

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

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

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

What are the main themes of the book?

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

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

Who would benefit from the book?

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

Saima and Johanna [2]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saima and Johanna

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

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

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Update on the Bible & Violence Project

The Bible and Violence Project is up and running!

We now have over 120 contributors signed up. Many of them are busy forming and working together in writing groups; others are receiving or providing mentoring. If you are a contributor and find yourself in need of support or motivation, please be in touch if we can help.

The publication emerging from this project aims to be the most comprehensive and inclusive on the topic of the Bible and violence to date. Alongside chapters on every text of the Hebrew Bible and Christian Greek Bible, there will also be chapters on the Bible and…:

Its role and impact in diverse geographical settings

Incel cultures and the manosphere

The ethics of citing violent scholars

HIV/AIDS

Liberative readings in violent settings

Environmental violence

Colonialism

Trafficking

Intimate partner violence

Genocide

Gender-based violence

Rape and rape culture

Violence aimed at children, at animals, and at the deceased

Violence in the family

Divine violence

Supersessionism

Antisemitism, as well as Islamophobia

Martyrdom

War

Crime fiction

Abortion activism

Transphobia

Zionism

Fat shaming…

… and that is not all. Alongside yet more exciting topics, there will also be some chapters on select rabbinical texts and Dead Sea Scrolls, gnostic and deuterocanonical texts.

We have already received contributions ahead of the first deadline of 2 October 2023 by Katherine SouthwoodSébastien DoaneAlison JackBarbara Thiede and Alexiana Fry, with more in the pipeline.

Two of the editors – Chris and Johanna – recently visited Manchester to present at the United Reformed Church research conference on both The Shiloh Project and Bible and Violence Project. While there, we enjoyed hearing Megan Warner’s paper on her topic for the project. 

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Accompanying Survivors of Sexual Harm: A Toolkit for Churches 

The Shiloh Project is pleased to announce the launch of a new toolkit called Accompanying Survivors of Sexual Harm. The toolkit has been developed as an educational resource for church leaders, inviting them to reflect on ways that churches can become spaces where sexual harm survivors feel safe and supported. This resource can be downloaded by following the link to the “Accompanying Survivors Toolkit” page on this website.

Below, Emily Colgan (one of the creators and editors of the toolkit) explains more about the toolkit’s development and its goals.

Accompanying Survivors of Sexual Harm: A Toolkit for Churches 

Accompanying Survivors of Sexual Harm is a trauma-informed resource that offers education and support of Christian clergy and lay leaders as they respond to sexual harm in their communities.  The resource is the collaborate effort of seven academics, all of whom work broadly at the intersection of sexual harm and Christian faith traditions in Aotearoa New Zealand. Through our work in this area, we have long been aware of the distressingly high rates of sexual harm in our communities, and we believe it is important for churches to recognise that the trends we see in society more generally are reflected in church communities as well. Moreover, churches need to acknowledge that sexual harm is perpetrated within these communities—at times by those in positions of authority—and the primary response of church leaders has far too often been one of self-preservation and concealment. For the most part, churches in Aotearoa have not yet found a voice to adequately address the issue of sexual harm, which is endemic in faith communities and in society at large. We (as a country, generally) have a problem with sexual harm and, for the most part, churches keep silent on this issue. 

This situation has come into sharper focus since February 2018, when the New Zealand government announced a Royal Commission of Inquiry into abuse in state care. In November of the same year, the inquiry expanded its scope to include abuse of those in the care of religious institutions. The harrowing testimonies of victims and survivors who experienced horrific sexual harm while in the care of religious institutions reveal that, for many people, churches have not been places of welcome and safety; they have not been places of good news. Churches have failed in their duty of care for the most vulnerable in their midst. The Commission’s work is still ongoing. But it has highlighted the urgent need for churches to be proactive in their support of victims and survivors, as well as in their efforts to ensure that church communities are no longer spaces where sexual harm can flourish. This resource is our – the contributor’s – response to this need. 

Over a number of years, we have canvassed stakeholders from within the Anglican, Methodist, and Roman Catholic traditions, seeking feedback about the educative needs of these churches for confronting the issue of sexual harm. We have also piloted this resource material with various church groups, seeking comment on the relevance and usefulness of its content for those in ministry. It reflects scholarship by experts in their respective fields, consultation with church leaders and those in frontline ministry positions, and insights and input from victims and survivors of sexual harm. It is by no means exhaustive, nor does it claim to be the full and final word on an appropriate Christian response to the issue of sexual harm. Instead, it enables workshop-based sessions which aim to educate clergy and lay leaders about

  • Understanding the nature of sexual harm and its prevalence in New Zealand society. 
  • Being alert to and responding in a pastorally sensitive manner to people within their community who have experienced/are experiencing sexual harm.  
  • Identifying and articulating some of the scriptural and theological foundations that work to justify/legitimise/enable sexual harm while silencing the voices of victims/survivors. 
  • Identifying and articulating some of the scriptural and theological foundations that work to challenge and resist sexual harm. 
  • Exploring how their church might work to create a safe space for victims/survivors of sexual harm. 

The toolkit will be of value to anyone in a church leadership position, including those training for Christian ministry and  those who have extensive ministry/leadership experience. It is intentionally ecumenical in nature and does not require knowledge of any one denominational tradition. While the format of the resource requires reflection and discussion in an “intellectual” sense, the aim of this work is to enable tangible, practical action in our communities that will support victims and survivors, and to make our churches spaces that are welcoming and safe. 

While some of the content relates specifically to the context of Aotearoa New Zealand, most of the material can be adapted and used further afield. There is space offered throughout the sessions for participants to discuss how issues pertaining to sexual harm relate to their own communities. Participants also have opportunities to consider how their own cultures, contexts, traditions, and languages will help shape their role of accompanying victims and survivors. 

The toolkit is free for anyone to download and use. It can be accessed here on the Shiloh Project website. If you have any queries about the use of the toolkit, please contact us at assh.toolkit@gmail.com

We hope this resource is a useful and meaningful tool for all those who accompany victims and survivors on their journey.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are the key arguments of your book?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Reading with self-care when reading in vulnerability

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

Twitter: @Dechurching

Email: rebecca@deconstructingchurch.com

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

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

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

Reading With Self-Care When Reading In Vulnerability

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

Rebecca Parnaby-Rooke, courtesy of the author.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca Parnaby-Rooke

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

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Q&A with Joachim Kügler about his new book

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

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

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

What is the key argument of your book?

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

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

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

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