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“Worse than the trauma itself was the hara [sin] of not being believed”

This blog post is by the Reverend Sarah Pidgeon-Walton. Sarah is a former Crown Prosecutor, and is now Assistant Curate at an Anglican parish in Auckland, New Zealand and an assistant chaplain at Auckland Prison (a men’s maximum-security prison). She is enrolled in a Master of Theology with the University of Otago and her Masters thesis is entitled “Nobody Heard Us”. In this blog post, Sarah discusses epistemic injustice, trauma and “hearing into speech” through the lens of feminist intersectional theology in the context of the Royal Commission into Abuse in Care (NZ). She draws on the work of philosopher Miranda Fricker, whose scholarship was also discussed in our recent Shiloh post by Tasia Scrutton.

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More than 1,686 survivor witnesses have given testimony about their experiences of abuse to the Royal Commission into Abuse in Care in Aotearoa New Zealand. The inquiry is investigating abuse of children and vulnerable adults in state care and in the care of faith-based institutions from 1950-1999.[1] Some survivors have appeared at public hearings to give their harrowing evidence in the hope it will bring about change. Many survivors have spoken about not being believed, having no one they trusted to tell, or what appeared to me as having their disclosure thrown in their face. They have spoken of the mamae (Māori for “hurt”) this has caused them, which is sometimes experienced as a hara (Māori for “sin”) that feels worse than the abuse itself.[2]  My own experience of hearing the testimonial evidence is one of descending into darkness, as survivors gave graphic accounts of the abuse they had suffered. But the importance of hearing the evidence and bearing witness outweighed any discomfort I felt. 

The difficulties and disbelief that survivors of sexual abuse can face when they try to tell their truth is hardly new. Nonetheless, the emerging national conversation on abuse in Aotearoa New Zealand gives Christians pause to really think about these issues theologically. Particularly, as a member of clergy of the Anglican Church of Aotearoa New Zealand and Polynesia (the “Anglican Church”), I am particularly interested in what my church can do to assist survivors proactively with their disclosures and help them gain access to trauma-informed care.

Those in institutional care in Aotearoa New Zealand are usually the most vulnerable: they often come from underprivileged backgrounds, sometimes lack an education, or are rendered vulnerable due to their age, gender, or sexual preference. A disproportionate number are Māori (who might already be experiencing historical intergenerational trauma), Pasifika, the disabled, and those suffering from mental illness. An intersectional feminist theological approach informs us that the compounding effect of all these oppressions[3] often diminishes a person’s power in relationship to hierarchies,[4] and can act to discourage those affected from speaking up for fear of not being believed.[5] This is because, in the context of disclosures, it can be too easy to make snap judgements about a person’s credibility based on such things as their reputation, position in society, and the standing of those who support them.  We can also be persuaded more by the narratives of adults than those of children, due to adults’ superior communication skills and their social status. This means that those who are underprivileged owing to one or more intersecting features of their identity are less likely to be believed as purveyors of truth.

Epistemic Injustice

So why is it that so many survivors are not believed when they disclose abuse? I find Miranda Fricker’s work on epistemic injustice especially helpful on this question. Fricker’s scholarship explores ethics, epistemology and feminist philosophy. Fricker argues that there is a distinctly epistemic type of injustice, where someone is wronged specifically in their capacity as a person who knows things. In other words, epistemic injustice involves the injustice of assumptions about who holds knowledge, and the common prejudices about who can be believed. [6]  Fricker’s work has been developed by others to focus, for example, on epistemic injustice suffered by people with health issues (including mental health), where their knowledge of their own condition(s) and their general credibility have been doubted for reasons such as their lack of professional expertise, their age, or their mental illness.[7]

Fricker identifies a strand of epistemic injustice that she refers to as “testimonial injustice,” which happens “when [identity] prejudice causes a hearer to give a deflated level of credibility to a speaker’s word.”[8] For example, if the hearer holds racist views, they would be predisposed to disbelieve the disclosure of a person of colour; if the hearer thinks that all children lie, they would be less likely to believe a disclosure made by a child. In critiquing Fricker’s work, José Medina argues that we cannot ignore the role of credibility excesses in respect of some persons for producing credibility deficits in others.[9]

Hermeneutical injustice” is another key concept identified by Fricker, which occurs when there is a “gap in collective interpretative resources [which] puts someone at an unfair disadvantage when it comes to making sense of their social experiences.”[10] In cases of abuse perpetrated against children, hermeneutical injustice is in operation even before a child tries to give evidence of their abuse and trauma. This is because a child trying to speak about the trauma of their abuse does not readily have access to the terminology of trauma-informed discourse. Public awareness and knowledge of the causes of trauma and its impacts has grown steadily in recent years, but it is unlikely that a child will be familiar with the concepts and language that others (particularly adults) might take for granted. So, how is a child supposed to express their experience and feelings to people they feel safe with?

A further development to Fricker’s work has been the term “wilful hermeneutical ignorance,” defined by Gaile Pohlhaus Jr as a situation where “dominantly situated knowers refuse to acknowledge epistemic tools developed from the experienced world of those situated marginally. Such refusals allow dominantly situated knowers to misunderstand, misinterpret and/or ignore whole parts of the world.”[11] One example of wilful hermeneutical ignorance offered by Rachel McKinnon is the refusal by some to admit the existence of a rape culture in North America,[12] which in turn refutes any knowledge or testimony in relation to sexual violence and thus perpetuates the oppression of women.[13] This wilful hermeneutical ignorance can sometimes be a result of  what Kristie Dotson refers to as “testimonial quieting,” where the speaker is not regarded as a knower due to identity prejudice and is therefore ignored completely.[14] Dotson’s term, “testimonial smothering,” is also helpful – this occurs when a person believes that an audience is hostile to what they have to say and therefore they withhold or smother their own testimony.[15]

Fricker identifies yet another form of epistemic injustice, which she calls “identity power.” [16] This relates to the social power held by those in positions of authority such as teachers or church leaders. If someone who is responsible for abuse is in a position of authority, they benefit from “identity power.” In other words, they have power and authority because of their position within other power relations and structures which uplifts their social standing. This means that they are more likely to be believed over those they may be abusing.

Some survivors at the public hearings of the Royal Commission have stated that not being believed is a basic form of injustice that caused them significant harm, particularly in their already vulnerable state. This is in line with Fricker’s analysis, which suggests that “the harm [of not being believed] can go so deep, it can cramp self-development, so that a person may be, quite literally, prevented from becoming who they are.”[17]

Many of those testifying at the Royal Commission have had to overcome multiple barriers and obstacles (such as those identified by Fricker) that have served to silence or marginalize their voices in the past. The Commission offers victims the opportunity to have their voices heard and their stories acted upon – it has made recommendations to ensure that other victims do not experience the silence and disbelief they had to endure. These recommendations by the Commission will aid the disclosure of abuse, offer dignity to survivors, and promote better access to trauma-informed care.

Hearing survivors into speech: A task for feminist theologians and the Church

Feminist theologians generally foreground their work with the experience of women and girls and their lived reality.[18]  I argue the experience of women and girls who are survivors of abuse by Church workers (as well as the experience of others who have been abused in this way) could likewise underpin theological reflection and inform our praxis as theologians and members of the Church. As we respond theologically to issues of epistemic justice, abuse and trauma arising from the evidence before the Royal Commission, I think Nicola Slee’s approach to feminist theology as public theology offers useful insights. Slee says we need to use a “methodology of deep conversation … to include a listening both to persons and to cultural patterns … but most particularly to the social and personal lives of the marginalised and disenfranchised from the centres of speech and power, whether by gender, sexuality, race, age, class, physical ability, mental health or any other social marker, and a ‘hearing into speech’[19] of their lives, concerns and knowledge.”[20]

As a member of the Anglican Church, I believe that “hearing others into speech” necessitates a willingness to put unconscious biases aside, to recognize the power that abusers with “identity power” typically use to control the narrative. A desire to hear others into speech prompts a need to adopt a posture of truly listening to survivors; it also requires a willingness to be educated about barriers to disclosure for abuse survivors and how these might be combatted, as well as the impacts of trauma on survivors. The developing body of feminist trauma theologies can also help to reflect theologically on the trauma suffered by abuse survivors and to inform a trauma-informed approach for the Anglican Church to engage with survivors of abuse. Karen O’Donnell, for example, has developed a method to underpin trauma theology work. In her book co-edited with Katie Cross, Feminist Trauma Theologies: Body, Scripture & Church in Critical Perspective, she outlines some features of feminist trauma theologies and a proposed method for constructive theology.[21] The five features of feminist trauma theologies O’Donnell puts forward are summarized by Carla A. Grosch-Miller as follows:

1) they begin from a place of honest confrontation with God;

2) they are “porous” and open theologies that ‘hold to the goods of Christian tradition, while allowing space for something new to be spoken’;

3) they draw on experience, constructing narratives that testify;

4) they defy convention and seek to disrupt the established order that enables the oppression of women; and

5) they are community endeavours, “standing shoulder to shoulder at the foot of the cross” like the Marys.[22]

From these features of feminist trauma theology, O’Donnell derives a threefold methodology that “begins with a thick description of lived experience, moves to critical reflection on experience and how it is perceived and treated in culture and Christian tradition, and develops as a community building project.”[23] I consider that O’Donnell’s methodology, armed “with a theological vision of healing and redemptive possibilities,”[24] could be adapted to help ground the response of the Anglican church to abuse and trauma in Aotearoa New Zealand. Additionally, the church should integrate indigenous and Pasefika modalities of healing trauma, as well as underpinning their work with te ao Māori and Pasefika concepts, values,[25] and theologies. Lastly, the lived experiences of survivors and the knowledge they hold along with that of other experts in the field will always be invaluable.


[1] The Commission can also hear but not investigate more recent claims on a limited basis (see Terms of Reference – Abuseincare.org.nz).

[2] Counsel assisting the Royal Commission, Māori public hearing at Ōrākei marae (a marae is a communal and sacred meeting place established by Māori who are local to the area) on 18 March 2022.

[3] See Kimberlié Crenshaw, cited in Katy Steinmetz, “She Coined the Term ‘Intersectionality’ Over 30 Years Ago. Here’s What It Means to Her Today”, Time, 20 February 2020, at https://time.com/5786710/kimberle-crenshaw-intersectionality/ (20 March 2022). See also Kimberlié Crenshaw, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” University of Chicago Legal Forum: Vol. 1989: Iss. 1, Article 8. Available at: http://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/uclf/vol1989/iss1/8

[4] Grace Ji-Sun Kim and Susan M. Shaw, Intersectional Theology: An Introductory Guide (Fortress Press, 2018), 41.

[5] This was a recurrent theme of the Māori Public Hearing at Ōrākei marae and other public hearings before the Royal Commission.

[6] Miranda Fricker, Epistemic Injustice: Power & the Ethics of Knowing (Oxford: Oxford university Press, 2007), 1.

[7] See, for example, Harvi Carel and Gita Györffy, “The Art of Medicine: Seen but not heard: children and epistemic injustice”, The Lancet 384, No. 9950 (4 October 2014): 1256-57; Harvi Carel and Ian James Kidd, “Epistemic Injustice in healthcare: A philosophical analysis,” Medicine Health Care and Philosophy 17, No. 4 (2014): 529-40; Paul Chrichton, Havi Carel and Ian James Kidd, Epistemic Injustice in psychiatry, BJPsych Bulletin 41, No. 2 (2017) 65-70; Tom Todd, “Epistemic injustice” in the administration of mental health legislation,” Psychosis, 2021, 13, No. 1, 85-88.

[8] Fricker, Epistemic Injustice, 1.

[9] José Medina as cited in McKinnon, “Epistemic Injustice,” p. 440, n 12.

[10] Fricker, Epistemic Injustice, 1.

[11] Gaile Pohlhaus Jr cited in McKinnon, “Epistemic Injustice,” p. 442, n 18.

[12] Rape culture is also an issue in Aotearoa New Zealand. See, for example, Zoe Ferguson, “Rape Culture and Consent in New Zealand,” RNZ, 7 December 2014.

[13] McKinnon, “Epistemic Injustice,” p. 442.

[14] Dotson cited in Ibid., p. 444, n 21. 

[15] Dotson cited in Ibid.

[16] Ibid., 4

[17] Ibid., 5.

[18] See, for example, Valerie Saiving,”The Human Situation: A Feminine View” The Journal of Religion, Vol. 40, No. 2, (Apr., 1960), pp. 100-112 and Linda Hogan, From Women’s Experience to Feminist Theology (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995).

[19] “Hearing into speech” is an often-used phrase in feminist theology and was first used by Nelle Morton in The Journey is Home (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1985. Slee says it is a phase that is used “to refer to the liberation required to enable women, and other powerless groups, to move from a condition of silence to effective speech about their lives. Nicola Slee, “Speaking with the dialects, inflections and rhythms of our own unmistakable voices: Feminist theology as public theology”, Anita Monro and Stephan Burns, Public Theology and the Challenge of Feminism (Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2015), pp. 15-34, at pp. 18, n 22 and p. 30.

[20] Nicola Slee, “Speaking with dialects,” 18.

[21] For a discussion of the elements of a constructive theology see Karen O’Donnell, “The Voices of the Marys: Towards a Method in Feminist Trauma Theologies,” in Karen O’Donnell and Katie Cross, ed., Feminist Trauma Theologies: Body, Scripture & Church in Critical Perspective (London: SCM Press, 2020), pp. 3-20 (esp. pp. 4-6).

[22] Carla A. Grosch-Miller, “Book Review: Feminist Trauma Theologies: Body, Scripture & Church in Critical Perspective,” Practical Theology 14, Nos. 1-2 (2021), pp.175-177 (esp. p. 176); see also O’Donnell, “The Voices of the Marys,” pp. 13-14.

[23] Grosch-Miller, Book Review: Feminist Trauma Theologies, p. 176. See alsoO’Donnell, “The Voices of the Marys,” pp. 13-14.

[24] See for example the work of trauma theology pioneer Shelly Rambo, cited by Natalie Collins, “Broken or Superpowered? Traumatized People, Toxic Doublethink and the Healing Potential of Evangelical Christian Communities,” in Karen O’Donnell and Katie Cross, ed., Feminist Trauma Theologies: Body, Scripture & Church in Critical Perspective (London: SCM Press, 2020), pp. 195-221 at p. 201.

[25] See, for example: Abuse in Care Royal Commission of Inquiry, He Purapura Ora, he Māra Tipu – From Redress to Puretumu (Wellington, 2021), Part 3, p 285.

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Legitimising Sexual Violence: Contesting Toxic Theologies that Valorise Suffering as Redemptive

George Zachariah is a lay theologian of the Mar Thoma Church. He has been working as a theological educator for the last two decades in India and in other countries. Currently, he is serving Trinity Methodist Theological College as Wesley Lecturer in Theological Studies. In this article, George reflects on toxic atonement theologies that valorise suffering as redemptive. His theological perspectives are informed by his long-standing association with different social movements. He has published several articles and books on ecotheology, climate justice, and human sexuality, including Decolonizing Ecotheology: Indigenous and Subaltern Challenge (Wipf and Stock, 2022), coedited with Lily Mendoza.

George Zachariah

“I went to my pastor twenty years ago. I’ve been trying to follow his advice. The priest said, I should rejoice in my suffering because they bring me closer to Jesus. He said, ‘Jesus suffered because he loved us.’ He said, ‘If you love Jesus, accept the beatings and bear them gladly, as Jesus bore the cross.’ I’ve tried, but I’m not sure anymore. My husband is turning on the kids now. Tell me, is what the priest told me true?”[1]

“Go back to him… Learn how to adjust to his moods…don’t do anything that would provoke his anger…Christ suffered and died for you on the Cross…Can’t you bear some suffering too? This is the voice of the church—the words of a priest counseling a woman who was being battered by her husband every single day of her married life. She went to the church for refuge and for moral and spiritual support. What she received instead was advice to learn submissiveness and obedience in a distorted relationship and abusive marriage.”[2]

Sexual harm in general, and intimate violence in particular, are not just heinous crimes that some “bad people” commit out of lust and anger. These are eruptions of male privilege and heteropatriarchal notions of sexuality, internalized by both men and women, mediated through social institutions such as family, religion, media, and education. People internalize these hegemonic worldviews as “normal,” and “sacred” thanks to the theological legitimations provided by religious traditions through their scriptures, doctrines, ethics, and pastoral counseling.

Suffering, sacrifice, and selfless love are foundational to Christian faith and Christian living. Invoking the memory of the crucified Christ is always an invitation to imitate Christ by walking in the way of the cross. Paul’s call to participate in the suffering of Christ makes suffering a virtue and a sacred duty: “I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh, I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col. 1:24). In traditional Christian understanding, suffering that we undergo in our lives is intended by God, and we need to endure those sufferings as Christ did and sacrifice ourselves through selfless love for the glory of God. Any attempt to question and abstain from suffering is therefore considered as an expression of self-love, the desire of the flesh.

The quotes above from survivors of sexual harm expose the toxicity inherent in mainstream biblical, theological, and pastoral responses to intimate partner violence. These responses categorically proclaim that imposed torture and suffering are redemptive. They substantiate their arguments with the help of a distorted understanding of the Christ event and abusive interpretations of the Scripture. The dominant expressions of Christianity thus become an ideological apparatus of heteropatriarchy. Eradication of sexual harm and intimate partner violence from our faith communities thus require from us the courage and creativity to engage in counter-hegemonic biblical interpretations and doctrinal reformulations, informed by the body-mediated knowledges of survivors.  

The dominant expressions of Christianity thus become an ideological apparatus of heteropatriarchy.

Scriptural Legitimation of Sexual Harm

It is important here to explore how the Bible has been used to propagate the toxic valorisation of imposed suffering. Mel Gibson’s 2004 movie, The Passion of the Christ begins with Isaiah 53: 5: “But he was wounded for our transgression, crushed for our iniquities, upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruise we are healed.” Gibson then invites us to watch the last 12 hours of Jesus’ life in a highly graphic way. The gospel according to Mel Gibson proclaims that imposed torture is redemptive, and it is the bruises of that torure that heal us.

Here, it is important for us to understand the Isaiah text in its context. This text is part of four texts (42.1-4; 49.1-6; 50.4-11; 52.13-53.12) generally known as “servant songs.” The way Isaiah 53:5 has been interpreted by isolating it from its larger context and identifying Jesus as the servant is a highly disputed issue. That said, the early church identified Jesus as the servant (Acts 8.32-35; Phil 2. 6-11; 1 Pet 2. 22-25), and the Markan narratives of Jesus’ foretelling of his imminent death (Mk 8. 31; 9.30-32; 10; 33-34) have also been interpreted to ‘prove’ that Jesus was the servant figure in Isaiah. The original historical context of the text, however, indicates that the metaphor of the “servant” stands for Israel in exile. The question here is whether Jesus perceived his death as an atoning sacrifice. As we know, none of the gospels quote from the “servant songs” to interpret Jesus’ death as atoning sacrifice, and the quotations in Mathew (8.17; and 27.57-60) do not discuss atonement. So, we need to ponder how this theology of “a passive victim as the saviour of the world” emerged and dominated our understanding of salvation.

Atonement Theology and Legitimation of Sexual Harm

Atonement theology is central to the Christian faith, and Sunday after Sunday we celebrate the memory of the atoning sacrifice of Christ. But “What happens when violent realities are transubstantiated into spiritual teachings?” This pertinent question posed by Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker should invite us to critically engage with atonement theology in the context of intimate partner violence. According to Brock and Parker, “atonement theology takes an act of state violence and redefines it as intimate violence, a private spiritual transaction between God the Father and God the Son. Atonement theology then says that this intimate violence saves life. This redefinition replaces state violence with intimate violence and makes intimate violence holy and salvific.”[3] Atonement theology is thus lethal as it legitimizes terror and torture in the name of God.

Atonement theology is thus lethal as it legitimizes terror and torture in the name of God.

To understand the toxicity of atonement theology, we need to evaluate critically the atonement theories. The Christus Victor model is the first model of atonement to gain popularity in the early church. This objective model of atonement combines the motifs of ransom and victory. In the cosmic battle between God and Satan, Jesus died, but through his resurrection Satan was defeated. Human beings are in bondage to Satan, and Jesus is the ransom that is paid for our redemption.

Anselm of Canterbury developed the satisfaction model of atonement as a corrective to the Christus Victor model. Based on God’s justice, in order to forgive sin God needed satisfaction. Who can pay more than what was taken? Only God can pay such a price. But since the payer must be a human, God sent his son to pay the price. So, for Anselm, Jesus’ death was a divine plan to satisfy divine justice in order to save humanity. This theory not only argues that God requires a sacrifice for reconciliation, but also God derives satisfaction from sacrifice. Sacrifice is theologically prescribed here as a religious practice that tests the loyalty of the faithful. In the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac, sacrifice is valorised as an act of responsibility and selfless love.

The third model of atonement is known as the moral influence theory developed by Peter Abelard. This is a subjective model focused on human conversion toward God. Jesus’ death is the manifestation of God’s love for us, and hence his death leads us to conversion.

All these models of atonement focus on the objective reality of Jesus’ death on the cross as the salvific event. Such an understanding of atonement reduces the person and work of Jesus into the magical value of his blood and legitimizes and romanticizes imposed suffering and torture. This is precisely what we see in The Passion of the Christ. By portraying the graphic visuals of flogging and torture as redemptive, Gibson’s gospel becomes religious pornography. The movie provides spiritual pleasure by experiencing the redemption that we received through inflicting pain and torture on Jesus’ body. Atonement theology is sadomasochistic.

Atonement theology is sadomasochistic.

Meditations on the cross informed by atonement theology reiterate imposed suffering and torture as redemptive. Such a faith affirmation compels women to accept passively unjust wounds, hurts, and abuses inflicted on them by their husbands, fathers, lovers, and others. As Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker rightly observe,

“Christianity has been a primary—in many women’s lives the primary—force in shaping our acceptance of abuse. The central image of Christ on the cross as the savior of the world communicates the message that suffering is redemptive. …Divine child abuse is paraded as salvific and the child who suffers ‘without even raising a voice’ is lauded as the hope of the world. Those whose lives have been deeply shaped by the Christian tradition feel that self-sacrifice and obedience are not only virtues but the definition of a faithful identity.”[4]

Women who experience the violence of abuse in their homes come to the sanctuary of the Church in search of solace, comfort, courage, and empowerment. But instead they are indoctrinated by the Church to endure the violence as Christ has done on the cross. 

How do we theologically and pastorally engage with these sisters and mothers who have been brutally abused within the intimate Christian institution of family, and treacherously betrayed by the church? Can our theology and pastoral care provide them healing and wholeness?  How can we promise them healing when our central message is the glorification and valorization of self-sacrifice and imposed torture?

“Christian theology presents Jesus as the model of self-sacrificing love and persuades us to believe that sexism is divinely sanctioned. We are tied to the virtue of self-sacrifice, often by hidden social threats of punishment. We keep silent about rape, we deny when we are being abused, and we allow our lives to be consumed by the trivial and by our preoccupation with others. We never claim our lives as our own. We live as though we were not present in our bodies.”[5]

Women and other marginalized communities have contested the Christology of atonement theologies that romanticize sacrifice and suffering. For Rosemary Radford Reuther, Jesus’s vocation was not “to suffer and die.” Rather, “redemption happens through resistance to the sway of evil, and in the experiences of conversion and healing by which communities of well-being are created.”[6] According to Carter Heyward, “We need to say no to a tradition of violent punishment and to a God who would crucify…an innocent brother in our place—rather than hang with us, struggle with us, and grieve with us….Jesus’s mission was not to die but to live.”[7] In other words, the Christ event does not invite women to suffer willingly for anyone’s sake. Rather, the Christ event challenges women to struggle together against the injustice of all human sacrifice, including their own.

What is the theological significance of the tortured and mutilated bodies of victims and survivors of sexual harm as we strive together to create a world devoid of ideologies and practices of domination, exclusion and violence? Dangerous memories, according to Johann Baptist Metz, are “memories which make demands on us. These are memories in which earlier experiences break through to the center-point of our lives and reveal new and dangerous insights for the present.”[8] Dangerous memories are subversive memories. Remembrance of those who have been abused is thus a political, spiritual, and subversive practice, inviting and inspiring us to engage in active resistance against all manifestations of sexual harm and their theological legitimations.

Mark Lewis Taylor’s concept of “anamnestic solidarity” of the victims is instructive here. Anamnestic solidarity, “as a remembrance of the dead constitutes an effect of the dead in the present that re-members, re-constitutes, living communities.”[9] For Taylor, this solidarity with the dead and the tortured affirms that they are co-present in our contemporary struggles for survival and dignity. Their co-presence strengthens those who experience sexual harm today and fight against it. The Eucharist can be understood as an anamnestic celebration of solidarity, which we practise in remembrance of the tortured and abused One. Remembrance of these dangerous memories is a celebration for all who undergo abuse and torture because “every rebellion against suffering is fed by the subversive power of remembered suffering.”[10] The meaning of history lies in the remembrance of those who are crushed by toxic ideologies and social practices. Remembrance of their dangerous memories “anticipates the future as a future of those who are oppressed, without hope and doomed to fail. It is therefore a dangerous and at the same time liberating memory that questions the present,”[11] and empowers all who are destined to live under regimes of abusive power to reclaim their agency and become midwives of a new utopia of hope.        


[1] Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker, Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves us, Boston: Beacon Press, 2001, 21.

[2] Aruna Gnanadason, No Longer a Secret: The Church and Violence against Women, Geneva: WCC Publications, 1993, 1

[3] Brock and Parker. Proverbs of Ashes,

[4] Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker: “For God So Loved the World?” in Violence against Women and Children: A Christian Theological Source Book, ed., Carol J. Adams and Marie M. Fortune, New York: Continuum, 1998, 37.

[5] Brock and Parker. Proverbs of Ashes, 36.

[6] Rosemary Radford Reuther, Introducing Redemption in Christian Feminism (Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998), 104–105.Cited in Weaver, Nonviolent Atonement, 125.

[7] Carter Heyward, Saving Jesus from Those Who Are Right: Rethinking What It Means to Be Christian (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999), 175.

[8] Johann Baptist Metz, Faith in History and Society: Toward a Practical Fundamental Theology, New York: A Crossroad Book, 1980, 109.

[9] [9] Mark Lewis Taylor, The Theological and the Political: On the Weight of the World, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011, 203.

[10] Metz. Faith in History and Society, 110.

[11] Ibid., 90.

Image: “The Passion of the Christ” by six steps  Alex S. Leung is marked with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. To view the terms, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd-nc/2.0/jp/?ref=openverse

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Theology in a Divided World: Five Poems

Today’s post is written by Hannah Buckley, a third-year Theology and Religious Studies student at the University of Aberdeen.  In the post, Hannah reflects on the topic of sexual violence and the murder of Sarah Everard from a Christian theological perspective.

As part of my course, “Theology in a Divided World,” I was asked to produce a creative case study that explores a topic related to theology, division, power, and conflict/conflict transformation. Violence against women is a topic I am passionate about but find difficult to express in standard academic prose, so I decided to use poetry. I chose to focus on Sarah Everard’s murder – it is a topic that’s quite literally close to home for me (Sarah lived 15 miles away from my family home in London). Through my poetry, I explore theological responses to Sarah’s murder in ways that capture raw and sometimes uncomfortable realities. Each of the poems is followed with a commentary on individual verses that offers further explanation and scholarly engagement with the themes raised. Some of the verses speak for themselves, so no commentary is required. The aim of these poems is to introduce my understandings of God’s intentions for women as witnessed in creation. Women has a salvific role for the man, and they rule in harmony until Genesis 3. I also dwell on the ways that humanity has failed to honour God’s intention through Sarah Everard’s murder and the police response at her vigil. Finally, these poems introduce a theological response that explores how the theology of the cross must be embraced by the church, but also by women through forgiveness. True forgiveness is not viewed as giving the perpetrator the upper hand but liberating the victim so they can heal. It is not simply, ‘forgive and forget;’ there is no demand to forget. Instead, it releases the victim from a prison of trauma so they can experience God’s healing, and trust in his justice.

Poem 1: God’s intention for creation

God’s intention for creation

1. The Hebrew phrase ‘ezer kenegdo illustrates equality,and Freedman suggests that this title signifies a “power (or strength) that can save” (cited in McCant 1999, p11). This suggests that the woman is defined equal to the man to be his helper but not his inferior.

2. God’s omniscience demonstrates that sequential creation was deliberate. The process of naming the animals enhanced the man’s loneliness and desire for companionship (Groothius 2005, 86). So the purpose was not to establish a hierarchy, but to emphasise companionship.

3. The woman was created from the man’s rib, a body part located in the centre to represent her literal equality (Groothius 2005, 86).  

5. Relationships are defined using the theory of fusion. The man and woman were psychologically and intellectually fused together with God (Hégy and Marios 2016, 191). Their lack of comprehension, however, caused them to fuse with the snake and abandon harmony.

6. This refers to the doctrine of original sin, how our nature was contaminated, and so I have used the imagery of decomposition.

7. Jerome’s mistranslation of Genesis 3:16 removes the man from temptation and places responsibility on the women (Parker 2013, 737).

8. This refers to Tertullian who says, “you are the one who opened to the door to the Devil” (cited in Parker 2013, 732). This shows how theologians, such as Jerome and Tertullian, have misused Scripture to oppress women.

10. This illustrates the issue of gendercide. The writers summarise the crisis by pointing out that in the twentieth century, the slaughter of females outnumbers that of males in war (Gerhardt 2014, 16).

11. Introduction of Sarah Everard’s murder.

12. Psalms will convey problems before focusing on God to change perspective towards the remedy – God.

13-15.The first section of the book of Psalms (Psalms 1-41) ends with a doxology and amen: ““Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,  from everlasting to everlasting. Amen and Amen” (Psalm 41:13). See Lawson (2014, 85).

Poem 2: Ruin and “redemption”

Ruin and “redemption”

Verses 1-9 present the events that led up to Sarah Everard’s murder (BBC News, 30 September 2021).

6. This is a quotation from Sarah’s mother’s statement, “I go through the sequence of events. I wonder when she realised, she was in mortal danger” (BBC News, 30 September 2021).

9. This verse is a description of a photo of mourners paying tribute to Sarah Everard (see Sinclair 2021). This relates to peacebuilding because it emphasises the absence of peace that women presently experience. Sarah’s murder sparked the “Reclaim These Streets” movement, members of which planned Everard’s vigil, and strives to make the streets safer for women. This protest movement is concerned with liberation, so women aren’t afraid to walk outside at night; it isn’t about forgiveness but reform.

10. This links to the previous poem, which shows that God’s will in creation was for harmony and equality, not for division and gendercide.

11. The emphasis in the second section of Psalms (Psalms 42-72) is on redemption. Sarah Everard, on the other hand, was not redeemed, and women are still victims of abuse. Asking for redemption through prayer is the only alternative.

12. This links to the theology of the cross that will be discussed in the next poem.  

13-15. The second section of Psalms (Psalms 42-72) finishes with the doxology included in these the verses: “Praise be to the Lord God, the God of Israel, who alone does marvellous deeds. Praise be to his glorious name forever; may the whole earth be filled with his glory. Amen and Amen” (Psalm 72:18-19). See Lawson (2014, 86)..

Poem 3: The “sanctuary” of Christian theology

The “sanctuary” of Christian theology

1. Quotation from Sarah Everard’s family (BBC News 29 September 2021).

2. The church does not believe that this violence is a theological issue that requires a unified response (Gerhardt 2014, 5). Biblical interventions are thwarted because sexual violence is perceived as a secular problem that does not happen inside the church.

3. Despite this misogynistic root, the church response is passive and sexual violence remains trapped in a secular bubble.

5. The church denies that violence against women exists. For example, they preach sexual purity yet fail to recognise that 25% of the girls in their flock have been sexually assaulted. This is detrimental, as no response is given to those who had their “sacred purity” taken away through sexual violence (Gerhardt 2014, 6).

6. One method the church employs is to compartmentalise violence, making it a problem that only women can solve (Gerhardt 2014, 17).

7. A change in perspective is paramount for anything to happen. Despite manipulative teachings, involuntary suffering is not redemptive but opposes God’s intention (Gerhardt 2014, 91).

8. The continuity between poems is established by this numbing truth.

9. Changing the church’s perspective on this violence will enlighten the church to the fact that it is a sin because it deviates from God’s intention.

11. Changing language from violence against women being wrong to being a sin is not enough. The church must embrace their confession of faith to end gendercide.

12. By embracing a theology of the cross and Christ-centred actions, churches can remove their pride and devote themselves to helping their hurting neighbour.

13. If the church resists and actively opposes this evil, women will be restored as equals, and other misogynist beliefs will be challenged.

15. Because of the church’s silence, it is a bystander that allows this evil to continue.

16. This is a reference to Ravi Zacharias’s scandal of sexual abuse as a direct result of the church’s lack of accountability and care (Silliman and Sellnutt 2021).

18. When confronted with his victim, Zacharias manipulated her by shifting the responsibility of his ministry and those who follow his teaching onto her, instead of reconciling or allowing justice (Silliman and Sellnutt 2021).

19. Zacharias’s victim saw his ministry destroyed as an answer to [her] prayer (Silliman and Sellnutt 2021).

20-21. The third section of the Psalms (Psalms 73-89) concludes with a doxology.: “Praise be to the Lord forever! Amen and Amen” (Psalm 89:52). See Lawson (2014, 86).

Poem 4: The vigil as relapse

The vigil as relapse

The first 12 verses of this poem are presenting the events that occurred during the vigil (see BBC News 15 March 2021a).

1. Although public gatherings were prohibited during lockdown, COVID guidelines did allow some exceptions in cases where there was a “reasonable excuse” to gather, but it was unclear if the circumstances surrounding the vigil met this criterion (see BBC News 15 March 2021b).

8. Couzens was accused of indecent exposure in 2015, and this was not adequately investigated at the time. So, if the police force had proper accountability, Sarah’s murder should have been avoided. Instead, women were arrested and given a fine for breaking COVID guidelines as seen in the vigil.  

10. This refers to the photo of Patsy Stevenson being arrested at the vigil for Sarah Everard. Her face covered the front page of many newspapers, highlighting police brutality and the continual oppression of women (BBC News 15 March 2021b).

14. The church has been noticeably absent in discussions about Sarah’s vigil and her murder. This suggests that the church did not see this as a theological issue, and therefore did not respond.

15. This response reflects the theme of recovery and longing for the Promised Land in section 4 of the Psalms (Psalms 90-106).

16. There is a continuous reference to prayer, and this is seen as the primary step to defeat gendercide.

17-20. Section 4 of the book of Psalms ends with a doxology: “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting. Let all the people say, ‘Amen!’ Praise the Lord!” (Psalm 106: 48). See Lawson (2014, 87)..

Poem 5: The perfection of God’s word

The perfection of God’s word

2. The main challenge for the church is to look upon the cross so it can understand that the task is to help women and not oppress them.

3. Although the church’s primary concern is the gospel, when accepts the mission of protecting women, it is presenting the gospel through its actions. More people will appreciate Christianity when the church becomes Christ for the hurting.

4. This refers to Luke 9:23 (NRSV, 1989). So, to be a disciple is to do what Jesus did and help women even if it results in your death instead of theirs.

5. In Luke 23:34, Jesus asks his father to forgive his murderers. Throughout the gospels, Jesus teaches us to forgive our enemies. This poses an opportunity for women who have experienced violence to offer forgiveness as a gift of liberation to themselves and the perpetrator (Tutu 1999, 16).

6. To ask for the church to draw their attention to the theology of the cross also encourages women to begin the process of forgiving the perpetrator. There are no boundaries to forgiveness because, as Demond Tutu says, “we may not always reach to that ideal but that is the standard.” Therefore, for one to experience healing, it is beneficial to begin on the path of forgiveness. However, this is a choice and a long process, but with their eyes on the cross, survivors know that with God it is possible.

7. Desmond Tutu’s ability to forgive others is an example for this crisis, as he was able to do the impossible and encourages us to work for reconciliation and peace.

8. Tutu took apartheid as an opportunity to mend division so there is an opportunity to allow Everards’s legacy to likewise mend division through reform by means of reconciliation.

9. This ties back to the first poem that shows gendercide was not God’s intention. God created harmony in the garden as a template of how we should interact with the world and each other (Tutu 1999, 200). So, Christians should strive to display God’s intention through forgiveness.

10. This refers to Tutu’s teaching that emphasises that true forgiveness takes away the sting and allows peace (Tutu 1999, 207). This suggests that women can achieve peace, but it is unclear whether this will make the streets safer or only provide therapeutic benefits.

11. Tutu speaks about clinging onto unforgiveness can place us in a prison of trauma where we relieve the memories of tragedy instead of living in liberation (Tutu 1999, 200).

12. Forgiveness shows it liberates and reflects God’s intention to heal the broken through reconciliation (Tutu 1999, 206).

13. The emphasis on God’s perfection is supported by Revelation 21:4, which promotes comfort to those who are suffering because God’s intention for the future is to remove our suffering and pain.

14-15. The last section of the book of Psalms (Psalms 107-150) ends with a doxology: “Praise the Lord. Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty heavens.  Praise him for his acts of power; praise him for his surpassing greatness. Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet, praise him with the harp and lyre, praise him with timbrel and dancing, praise him with the strings and pipe, praise him with the clash of cymbals, praise him with resounding cymbals. Let everything that has breath praise the Lord. Praise the Lord!” (Psalm 150). See Lawson (2014, 88).

References

BBC News (15 March 2021a). ‘Sarah Everard vigil: ‘All I wanted was to stand with other women.’” https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-56402418

BBC News (15 March 2021b). “Sarah Everard vigil: Boris Johnson ‘deeply concerned by footage.’ https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-56396960

BBC News (29 September 2021). “Sarah Everard murder: ‘Our lives will never be the same again.’” https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-london-58739421

BBC News (30 September 2021). “Sarah Everard: How Wayne Couzens planned her murder.” https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-58746108

Gerhardt, Elizabeth (2014). The Cross and Gendercide: A Theological Response to Global Violence Against Women and Girls. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.

Groothuis, Rebecca Merrill (2005). Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.

Hégy, Pierre, and Joseph Marios (2016). “Understanding the Dynamics of Gender Roles: Towards the Abolition of Sexism in Christianity.”In Equal at the Creation, edited by Joseph Martos and Pierre Hégy, pp. 181-202. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016.

Lawson, Steven J. (2014). Preaching the Psalms: Unlocking the Unsearchable Riches of David’s Treasury. Darlington: Ep Books. 

McCant, Jerry W. (1999). “Inclusive Language and the Gospel.” Religious Education 94 (2): 172-87.

Parker, Julie Faith. (2013). “Blaming Eve Alone: Translation, Omission, and Implications of ‘mh in Genesis 3:6b.” Journal of Biblical Literature 132 (4): 729-47.

Silliman, Daniel, and Kate Shellnutt (2021). “Ravi Zacharias hid hundreds of pictures of women, abuse during massage, and a rape allegation.” Christianity Today, 11 February 2021. https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2021/february/ravi-zacharias-rzim-investigation-sexual-abuse-sexting-rape.html

 Sinclair, Leah (2021). “Tearful mourners gather at Clapham Common Bandstand to pay tribute to Sarah Everard.” Evening Standard, 13 March 2021.  https://www.standard.co.uk/news/uk/sarah-everard-vigil-mourners-clapham-bandstand-b923948.html

Tutu, Desmond. (1999). No Future Without Forgiveness. London: Rider.

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Announcing AHRC Grant Success 

The Shiloh Project Will Be Involved in a Large Grant Focused on Spiritual Abuse

Co-director Johanna is part of a team that has been awarded a large grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) for a two-and-a-half year research project on Abuse in Religious Settings. Johanna is one of three Co-Investigators, and the project is led by Gordon Lynch (University of Kent). It will bring together an experienced team of academics, professional practitioners, and people involved in support and advocacy work with survivors, and will work closely with survivors as co-producers of new insights and resources.

Abuse in Religious Settings will involve a series of connected pieces of work examining theological, organisational, and textual issues, how safeguarding professionals and faith communities work with each other, and what relevant legal and policy frameworks have been developed in different countries. It will also work with survivors to learn from their insights about the meanings that abuse in religious contexts can have, as well as what can support resilience.

Johanna’s focus builds on her work in activist uses of biblical texts and with The Shiloh Project. 

The project will be structured around seven main pieces of work, with cross-cutting themes and issues between them also being studied: 

  1. Abuse and the cultures and structures of religious organisations (literature-based study led by Gordon Lynch). 
  2. Abuse in new religious movements: forms and organisational responses (secondary data analysis led by Sarah Harvey).
  3. The role of religious texts in relation to abuse (workshop-based study led by Johanna Stiebert). This will also include the production of more Shiloh Podcast episodes with the fabulous Rosie Dawson.
  4. International comparisons of legal and policy frameworks in relation to safeguarding and abuse in religious settings (review led by Richard Scorer).
  5. Exploring relationships between faith communities and safeguarding professionals in statutory bodies (survey and interview-based study led by Justin Humphreys).
  6. Survivor responses and resilience to abuse in religious settings (interview-based study led by Linda Woodhead and Jo Kind). 
  7. Disclosures and non-disclosures of abuse (photo-elicitation study led by Lisa Oakley).

In addition, the project will also involve activities and events which will build new relationships between individuals and groups working in this field, both within the United Kingdom and internationally. 

If you are interested in possibly contributing to and participating in Johanna’s workshops and podcast episodes (which are still in the early planning stages), please contact Johanna directly: j.stiebert@leeds.ac.uk

Workshops and podcast episodes will focus on religious texts from a range of religious traditions – not only on the Bible, Jewish or Christian traditions. We welcome postgraduates, practitioners, religious and community leaders, academics and activists working in the area of spiritual abuse and religious texts and contexts.

The project will formally begin with an initial consultation phase in March 2022, with the main research activities beginning in the autumn of 2022. Outcomes from the project are expected to be released by the spring and summer of 2024.

For more information and regular updates about the project, please visit the project website: Abuse in Religious Settings – Research at Kent

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Vocation and Violence: The Church and #MeToo

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

Tell us about yourself, Miryam

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are the key arguments of your book?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References:

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

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

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

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In My Defence

Today’s post is from Karen O’Donnell, Coordinator for the Centre for Contemporary Spirituality at Sarum College. Here Karen reflects on her own experiences of being on the receiving end of attacks in academic settings, and offers advice on how we can act in solidarity when we witness such distressing encounters.


Early on in my doctoral studies, I became quite fascinated with the way in which the battle metaphor is used in the viva and in the presentation of one’s research. It was and is still quite common to talk of having to “defend” your ideas; the idea of attack is implicit in the construction of your defence. I think I was fascinated, because the department I studied in for my doctoral research (Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Exeter) was not like that at all. Research seminars were rigorous conversations but never attacks requiring defence. In fact, it became a running joke about how polite and courteous everyone was in asking questions after a paper!

I have since been in situations where such collegiality and respect has not been a given. A few years ago, in quite quick succession, I twice found myself on the receiving end of a senior white male academic’s irrational anger. In both cases, I had been invited to speak at an institution that was not my own. In both cases, these men felt it was appropriate to shout at me about how wrong I was in what I had said in the context of a research seminar. In one case, the man was angry that I hadn’t talked about sin in the way he thought was appropriate. In the other case, the man was angry that I had suggested that we, as a group of white theologians, were not the best group of people to make judgements about how people of colour might feel about something.

A few things surprised me about these encounters. I was surprised that these senior men, in their professional capacities, became so angry so quickly and felt that it was entirely ok to direct their anger and their verbal aggression (and in one case insults) toward me – a junior female scholar who was, at those times, precariously employed and just starting out on my academic career. I felt incredibly vulnerable. Especially as I looked around the rooms and found many of the rest of the people present avoiding making eye contact with me. This was my second surprise. I am well capable of fighting my own battles, and in both cases I did; I had to. But no one intervened on my behalf or said anything in solidarity. At least not until after. After both of these encounters, I had people come up to me and apologise for the way these men had behaved—not the men themselves—but their more junior colleagues. They said things like “Oh, he’s always like that” and “he’s done that before”.

These experiences led to me posting on Facebook—in the immediate aftermath of the second encounter; mainly, because I was very distressed, having a panic attack in my room, and miles away from any friends—about what had happened. Friends and colleagues were horrified but began to share other scenarios where senior white male academics had behaved in similar ways (the list of responses was shockingly long) and they had not intervened. They reflected on why. In some cases, it was pure shock that paralysed them in the moment. In other cases, it was anxiety around intervention that would somehow imply the person under attack needed rescuing. But what was really helpful was a conversation about preparing a response in advance. Something like, “X is well capable of fighting their own battles, but I want to note that I find this line of questioning / your approach / your anger inappropriate for this context.” I can fight my own battles, but in both of these cases, this small gesture of solidarity would have made all the difference. We should have rigorous conversations about our research, but no one should be made to feel vulnerable or fearful in their professional environments. We should be building each other up, not tearing each other down.

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Academics Behaving Badly

Today’s post is from Chris Greenough. Chris is Reader in Theology & Religion at Edge Hill University; he is also co-director of the Shiloh Project.


Before I started my second career as an academic, I’d enjoyed a really rewarding career in secondary education for fifteen years. I’d had various roles there – originally a French and Spanish teacher by training, I also did stints as an RE teacher, Head of Year, and Assistant Headteacher. It was challenging, nonetheless, and my latter role included responsibilities for safeguarding, child protection and pupil behaviour. The behaviour I’ve experienced in academia has been far more challenging than that in a setting of 11-16 year olds, as I go on to recount.

I completed my PhD while working full time in school, under the wonderful guidance of the most remarkable Deryn Guest. Eighteen months later, I secured my first full-time post in higher education, and was ecstatic. I didn’t land in a traditional Theology and Religious Studies department, but worked on subject knowledge development in initial teacher education.

Nine months later, I wanted to leave higher education and go back to the secondary classroom. I felt an imposter or, more precisely, was made to feel as if I didn’t belong. I was on the receiving end of numerous forms of uninvited ‘advice’: career advice, research advice and unwelcome advice in response to my work:

  • Unwanted career advice:

“Why don’t you move away from queer theology? That’s already x’s area”.

“Wouldn’t you be better doing something more traditional and, well, less controversial?”

“I think it would work better for you if your work was less queer and more theological.”

  • Uninvited research ratings:

“I’d probably give your work a 2* if I were rating it for REF”.

  • Unwelcome responses:

“I don’t really recommend your work to my postgraduates.”

And endless number of in-person, non-verbal responses such as eye-rolls, furrowed frowns, walking out mid-talk, sighing and huffing.

Perhaps I was too open. I had openly shared some of the inadequacies I was feeling. I tend to be quite an open person, and perhaps some academics were responding to that. Of course, isn’t behaviour like this expected in the competitive and hierarchical structures endemic in higher education?

More frustratingly, I didn’t react at the time. I stayed silent. I think I even thanked some people. Yet the experiences from some external colleagues had begun to cause real paralysis in my confidence. I really felt the sting of the critique, and in the moment, I was unable to distinguish between constructive criticism that would move my work on, and this faux criticism which was just the projection of someone’s ideologies or insecurities. 

Of course, I didn’t fit in.

My work seemingly didn’t fit in when I spoke to people about it. My PhD research was life-story research with non-normative Christians. Given the importance of queer theory to my work, I argued how queer approaches should not have a methodology – as methodology is a word that smacks of rigour, order, process – words that are unfitting with the spirit of queer. I’d queered my thesis (a play script in place of a literature review, an ‘undoing’ of methodology, and included resources all brought to me by the participants I dialogued with). So, to begin with, I broke the rules by refusing to repeat tired (not a typo) and tested methods.

Perhaps the perception from some was that my work was ‘unscholarly’. On the one hand, queer criticism is regarded as highly intellectual and is making inroads in many disciplines. Yet, on the other, when my call was to dismantle the production of theology and to queer conventions, it was perhaps a step too far for some. My experiences belie that fact there’s a disjuncture between some claims of the academy and the realities.

As a post-Christian, I wasn’t using confessional approaches, language or subtleties in the theology I was producing. I was gate-crashing. But that was precisely the point. Guest notes how the queer approaches disrupt “the traditional and cherished norms of historical-critical exegesis with all the force of several gate-crashers at a party from which they had long been excluded.”[1]

So despite the reception from a small minority of my peers in person, my research was building a momentum of its own. In publishing, queer work is appealing to the intellectual and methodological originality it is able to create. In reality, people police firmly erected walls around their disciplines.

The impact of these aggressions began to wear me down. I remember a meeting with my Dean of Faculty, where I told her of my intentions to move on and leave academia. She told me to use the responses I’d received as fuel to keep me going. My partner, also an academic, applauded me on ruffling feathers. I had enormous support internally from my University and wonderful colleagues. I had been awarded research leave just twelve months in to my first post and I was working on my second book at the time.

My personhood didn’t fit in. Growing up as a queer kid, I know by instinct and experience the lack of fit when I enter a space that isn’t welcoming to me. But I was also desperate to fit in, and kept on trying. Building up external relationships was vital to me.

Externally, I had got to know a couple of external people, whose kindness changed my perceptions and gave me new energy. The support of some wonderful academics really lifted me. And now, I work with a much wider, more inclusive community with the Shiloh Project – including all the wonderful authors and collaborators I’ve had the pleasure to work with.

The attacks from the academic community are now less frequent. They’ve largely been replaced with attacks from random people with opinions.

I have a folder in my email inbox I called ‘hate’. It currently stands at 3522 emails. Some may be from serial pen-pushers. I know this number of people have not engaged with my work sufficiently to draw any desired level of correspondence. In fact, I wish even half that number had been readers of my journal articles!

Work that is politically charged can leave the researcher exposed to vulnerabilities when it is public facing. The attacks are not concerned with the scholarly argument of the work, but with the position and identity of the researcher.

One piece I wrote provoked outraged responses. I wrote a short article for The Conversation, entitled Using the Bible against LGBTQ+ people is an abuse of scripture, and this kept the keyboard warriors busy. Yahoo News! had republished the article, and this became the platform for homophobic hatred to spew at me.

A very concerned reader took the time to purchase quite an expensive looking Bible and posted it to me at my work address. The sender had highlighted the clobber texts for me, with a handwritten note encouraging me to repent of my sin and cease my false preaching. It’s a shame the Bible contained the highlights, as I’d have got a few quid on eBay for it, I’m sure.

Why am I sharing this?

First, I do believe and argue that there is a transformative potential in sharing our experiences as a way of speaking back to our community. We should all be reflecting on how we behave and when we get it wrong.

Second, I share this to highlight how it is not always outsiders that stop us in our tracks with unexpected or uninvited critiques – academics do it to one another – far too frequently.

Third, I am sure many will relate to these experiences; it may resonate with others.

Finally, I share this as a warning. Next time, I won’t stay silent, or nod, or thank you for your unsolicited advice, or internalise my lack of fit as an imposter…


[1] Deryn Guest, “From Gender Reversal to Genderfuck: Reading Jael through a Lesbian Lens,” in Bible Trouble: Queer Reading at the Boundaries of Biblical Scholarship, eds., Teresa J. Hornsby and Ken Stone (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2010), 10.

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Shiloh Project Interview with Dr CL Nash, Founder of M2M

Please read all about M2M – Misogynoir to Mishpat.

You are invited to the project’s inaugural seminar in the series ‘Decolonizing God’ by Prof. Esther Mombo. The title is: Decolonizing God: African Women’s Epistemic Challenges to Patriarchal Jesus.

This event has now been rescheduled for Thursday 13 May, 16:00-17:30h. Please join via this Teams link.

Launch of the MISOGYNOIR TO MISHPAT RESEARCH NETWORK, and of the seminar series “Decolonising God” (organiser: CRPL Fellow Dr C.L. Nash).

1) Dr CL Nash, tell us a little bit about who you are, and what drives you. Also, what is M2M, which you’ve launched recently?

I am a woman from the U.S. and an independent scholar at the Centre for Religion and Public Life of the University of Leeds, where I manage two research projects. One project deals with religiously ensconced nationalism; and the other, amplifies the religious epistemologies of women of African descent.

This second project has the name ‘Misogynoir to Mishpat’. ‘Misogynoir’ refers to misogyny directed towards Black women, and ‘Mishpat’ is a Hebrew word used in the Bible, which means ‘justice.’ The project is necessary, because the ability and capacity of people of African descent to produce knowledge – such as conducting research, writing and publishing – is often overlooked, pushed to the peripheries, obstructed, or denied. This is especially true for women of African descent. ‘Misogynoir to Mishpat,’ ‘M2M’ for short, will serve as a corrective by resisting and filling this gap in knowledge production. The very title says a lot about who we are and what we strive to do: we strive to move away from the hatred and discrimination of Black women toward fulfilment and social justice.

The challenges for women of African descent are stark, unsettling and undeniable. In my home country, the U.S., for instance, it has recently been revealed that even when all things are comparable (education, training, number of years in work, etc.), African-descended women earn staggeringly less by retirement than their white female counterparts.[i] While there has been a great deal of discourse about the gendered pay gap – and there should be! – African-descended women are doubly discriminated against, and consistently left behind.

Not only are their work contributions valued less and paid less, but there is also other workplace discrimination: such as bullying and other exclusionary practices, including being refused opportunities for promotion, often a consequence of racial biases. African-descended women in the U.S. (to give an example from the setting I’m most familiar with) are significantly economically disadvantaged, as they are also the group who bears the heaviest student loan debt. This means that African-descended women are often precluded from wealth acquisition strategies, such as home purchases, and are also less able to help defray the cost of higher education for their own children, such as via home equity loans. In short, this creates a downward racial-gender spiral.

As an African-descended woman academic, it is concerning to me how invisible we are. A 2017 article, ‘Black Women Professors in the UK,’ shows that white women and women from certain other ethnic minorities are gaining some measure of presence and visibility in universities. But we represent less than 1% of the British academy. Figures in the U.S. are only slightly better.[ii]

While it is good to see diversity increase, with better representation by South Asian women, for example, as an African-descended woman academic, it is concerning to me that our invisibility persists. When we African-descended women are made invisible, so is our research and our writing. In the course of this, the public declarations of universities wanting greater inclusion, are overshadowed by the private resignation to a status quo which continues to deny our relevance and importance.

‘Misogynoir to Mishpat’ deliberately alludes to ‘Mishpat’, a biblical word, because much of the resistance to inequality is grounded in religious institutions, particularly within the Christian faith. Mishpat, ‘justice,’ is a term which occurs in the Bible over 400 times. It is the primary standard by which the Bible writers understood God to evaluate their faithfulness and righteousness as people of God.

Misogynoir is a portmanteau word which combines ‘misogyny,’ or ‘hatred of women,’ with ‘noir,’ which is ‘Black’ in French. The word is apt for me, because it refers openly to the recognition that women of African descent are prejudiced against and nearly non-existent when it comes to representation in the academic study of religions. In the UK, because the term ‘Black’ has often been expanded to include non-African-descended women (that is, ‘anyone “of color”’), the situation of erasure becomes even more acute and problematic.

Through M2M, we are working to cultivate a strong relationship with churches and community activists who share our concerns. There are many issues to address, from lack of representation in politics and higher education, to poverty and over-incarceration, to lack of mental health and other medical resources, and environmental racism – all of which plague African-descended women disproportionately. To give one example, in the U.S. approximately 70,000 Black women and girls are ‘missing.’[iii]This is a staggering statistic. It might point to other crimes: some may have run away from abusive relationships, others may have been kidnapped, murdered, or sex trafficked. But these women and girls matter. They belong to families and communities who feel their absence and need their loss to be acknowledged and addressed to make them feel whole again. M2M has worked to form partnerships with women in various countries including: Kenya, the Netherlands, Ghana, the UK, the US, France, and South Africa. We want to work with African-descended women in religious academia and religious leadership across the globe: women in the World Council of Churches, women who are local pastors, and lecturers and professors in biblical studies, theology and ethics. We are seeking to strengthen the contributions of them all.

2) What are your aims, vision and hopes for M2M?

@Dorret (15/365BLM)

Postgraduate students of color often wish to engage in research which amplifies their own backgrounds and cultures. But these students will disproportionately fail to complete their degrees, or go on to fail their viva. And sometimes – I would venture to say, often – this is because universities do not have qualified academics who can engage with, supervise or examine such research. An examiner may decide that a student is inadequate, because they, as examiner, lack knowledge of what the student has outlined in their research. This means that not only are academics of color under-represented but postgraduates of color also stay under-represented.

Our research network seeks to draw attention to such gaps, so that we can walk alongside and support postgraduate students, in particular African-descended women postgraduates. We can assist in creating mentorship and visibility for them – even when they do not have scholars of color in their institutions. We also want to ensure that the research agendas of African-descended students are supported, that they are hired in full-time tenured posts, and that their work is valued in the university system.

We are proactively engaged in the current funding cycle, with the intention of being able to provide such support. Currently, African-descended women (few as they are) are much more represented as independent scholars than as scholars in stable, permanent posts. This marginalization is exacerbated by institutions not considering them for, or not involving them in, significant grants, or in training on how to make an application for a grant. Moreover, such grants are often not even open to, or actively publicized among, independent scholars. Currently, programs like Marie Currie, for instance, which are highly competitive, in my view effectively bypass people of color without any accountability. This must stop.

Our new M2M website will amplify the voices of women of African descent who are religious leaders or scholars or students of religion and theology by: highlighting their achievements (promotions, PhD awards, new pastoral posts), sharing career and information resources (including publications, but also collegial opportunities, such as funding or grant writing possibilities) and disseminating teaching resources, such as ‘video shorts,’ of 3-5 minutes in length. Taken together, these will explain more about, promote, and celebrate African-descended women’s contributions to academia and religious communities. This will include the ongoing work of the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians (‘the ‘Circle’) and by womanist scholars.

We will post monthly profiles of women. Please see our profiles for Mitzi Smith and Esther Mombo! We also have a new M2M blog series: ‘Conversations in Race, Gender and Religion’ (the call for contributions is here) where we examine our intersectionality more closely. We ask, for instance, ‘In what ways can women in Kenya find synergy with women in Sheffield, England? How might their goals differ? How are their goals compatible?’ And this is just one example of what we hope to grow and nurture into a richly diverse resource.

By balancing these needs of religious leadership and academic religious thinkers with community objectives, I hope we will make a significant difference in the lives of African-descended women and girls.

3) The Shiloh Project is focused on intersections between ‘rape culture’, ‘religion’ and ‘the Bible’. There are some synergies with M2M, particularly given the shocking vulnerabilities of Africana (that is, African-descended) women to gender-based and other forms of violence, including in biblical texts and in religious or religiously influenced communities, right up to the present. How can we support each other’s projects and endeavours? 

It’s true that we have a bit of intersection. There are many social issues that womanist scholars, for example, seek to address – and women who emerge from vulnerable communities frequently emphasize wanting to increase the agency of members of their communities.

Historically, Black American women, as one example, have struggled against ‘Christian’ assumptions of the sexual availability of the Black female body. In other words, women and girls who are African-descended, were regularly raped with impunity. Yet, the rhetoric created was that slave holders were ‘bewitched’ by these vulnerable people. White men could rape Black women and girls without being criminalized for it. Instead, the victims were blamed. Christian theology was not guiltless in this.

During the Antebellum, pregnant Black women thought to ‘require’ severe beatings, could be and were beaten, and sometimes beaten to death. A hole was dug into the ground and the woman was placed over the hole with her belly inserted into the ground. This was done to ‘protect’ the soul of the unborn child while the woman’s flesh was beaten from her body, her blood soaking the ground around her.

In Christian teachings, there is sometimes this ‘Platonic’ assumption that ‘the spirit’ and ‘the flesh’ are antithetical to and separate from each another. So, according to this, the body can be destroyed and the spirit spared. But the assumption that a person’s spirit is not aggrieved at the evil of destroying that same person’s flesh, as if we can physically torture the body without causing trauma to the person’s very spirit…

I must visit Toni Morrison’s Beloved to tease this out a bit further. Baby Suggs, a character in the novel, walks with other African-descended people into a clearing in the woods. This is significant, because the woods were frequently regarded as ‘wilderness,’ or as a ‘wild and dangerous’ sphere of uncivilized society.

Baby Suggs preaches a sermon in that forest which tells the members present to revalue their flesh. She encourages them to take every inch of who they are, and to find something there to love – and to love it fiercely. Black beauty was all but an oxymoron to most in 19th century America. To be beautiful, lovable, intelligent, human was to be white. But Baby Suggs encourages people to create a new theology of self love which renounces the hatred espoused by the dominant majority culture.

With that in mind, women who have been abused need to touch those harmed and swollen joints, the discolored limbs, and love themselves. Those who have had body parts torn and bloodied through rape and other forms of assault, must practise looking at themselves, touching and loving themselves. Just as Baby Suggs encourages her congregants to touch the spaces between the grooves of fleshly abuse, so also we, in M2M and Shiloh, need to encourage people to touch and reclaim all those spaces which were stolen. And, like Baby Suggs did, we need to encourage people to love their bodies, hearts and minds.

In fact, M2M can be summed up in this way: Black women from every land and every religion, are summoned to come and kneel at the altar of self acceptance. We want to encourage all of them to love themselves fiercely – body, mind and spirit. And, for those who are academics, we urge them to share that love of mind and spirit in their research and writing. We will walk alongside you. We only ask that when your legs get strong, you do not run away, but you turn to your left or your right, and you walk alongside someone else. As you stand with us, we also will stand with and support the amazing work of the Shiloh Project.

Indeed, we may kneel as hundreds, but we will stand as tens of thousands.

Thank you, Dr Nash. Thank you for telling us about your important work. We look forward to watching M2M grow and thrive.

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Dr CL Nash recommends the following sites for further reading:

‘Black Then,’ a website to address American Black History, here

‘Black Women’s Experiences in Slavery’ (chapter 2), here

‘Word to the Wise: African American/Black Women and Their Fight for Reproductive Justice,’ here


[i] See the Pew Research Center, which reports the staggering pay differences that can add up to in excess of $1M by the time of retirement. You can see more here and also look at this reference about Black women’s lack of fair pay. For another perspective, see also here. For more statistics on the sharp disparities along color lines, see also this.

[ii] Dr. Nicola Rollock indicates that there are only twenty-five Black female professors (see here). According to her research, this is due to such issues as Black women being bullied, feeling forced to work harder and, ultimately, being drained when working as academics. The Guardian supports her findings. See ‘Black women must deal with bullying to win’, here.

[iii] For more information on the missing Black women and girls in the U.S., please see this reference by the Women’s Media Center. Also, please see the Black and Missing Foundation (here), which also explores the issue of Black Americans missing – an under-reported phenomenon. Because a portion of those missing are presumed to be sex-trafficked, there are activist groups, which are also monitoring and aiding with that situation. Check out Black Women’s Blueprint as one example (here).

@Dorret (15/365BLM)

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The Rape of Men and Rabbinic Literature

Today’s post is by Tali Artman Partock and examines the much-neglected topic of the rape of men in rabbinical texts. Tali studied Hebrew literature and psychology as an undergraduate, followed by a Masters, and PhD in rabbinic literature, all at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel. Her diverse research interests lie in the areas of Judaism and early Christianity; midrash, folktales and hermeneutics; gender studies; and the Bible in literature and film. Tali teaches at the Faculty of Divinity of the University of Cambridge, and Leo Baeck College.

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The rape of men is something that is often just hinted at in the Hebrew Bible. It tends to be confined to, or is threatened during times of war, or in warlike situations. The rape of men by men in “everyday life” is not only not mentioned, but is not even conceptualized, or labelled as rape. In fact, as both Judith Hauptman and Ronit Irshai argue [i], the word “rape” in the Hebrew Bible refers only to penetration of a female virgin without the authorization of her father.

The early layer of rabbinic literature (that is, Tannaitic literature, 2nd-3rd century CE), however, marks a radical change. Not only is the forced penetration of men here becoming marked as rape, but a whole discourse emerges to deal with its criminal and sacral implications.

The problem troubling the rabbis concerns the soul both of the rapist and of the raped. But above all else, the rabbis want to prevent the crime. Towards that purpose, from a Jewish legal perspective, the Mishnah allows an extraordinary thing: namely, the right not only of the rape victim but of any bystander to kill the attacker-rapist in (self-)defence.

The first text to address the issue in a legal codex appears in the Talmud in Mishnah Sanhedrin 8:7 (edited circa 220 CE). Here it says:

“The following must be saved even at the cost of their lives: he who pursues after his fellow to slay him or after a man or a betrothed maiden [to rape them].”

This is not only a recognition of the danger of rape of men by men, but a conceptual revolution. The idea of pre-emptive killing of the pursuer extends from the right to self-defence in the case of attempted murder. But how?  The answer comes from the fate of the raped betrothed maiden (mentioned in Deuteronomy 22:24), who is sentenced to death herself, even though she was raped, because the rape happened “in the town.” In other words, the rape, beyond being terrible in itself, leads to the victim’s death (on sacral grounds), and to the attacker’s death (on criminal and sacral grounds). In that sense, raping a betrothed virgin is like murdering her, making the argument of killing in self-defence comprehensible. The same logic is then applied to the biblical verses regarding male-male sex: here, too, the death penalty is threatened for both the penetrator and the penetrated (Leviticus 20:13).

The Bible does not address the problem of coercion when it comes to men, which poses an ethical dilemma for the rabbis, and an opportunity to learn something new: that in this case, too, rape is like murder, and killing in self-defence, therefore, permissible. This is in line with Roman legislation by Emperor Hadrian, which allowed de facto rape victims (male or female) and their family members to kill the rapist on the spot if caught in the act.[ii]

But what if an attacker is not killed in time (that is, before the rape takes place)? Are rape victims, male or female, to be executed, in the way that might be derived from Leviticus 20:13 and Deuteronomy 22:24? The rabbis have a new agenda here, too. In Sifre to Deuteronomy, Ki Teitzei, a Tannaitic midrash on the book of Deuteronomy, we read:

“Just as when a man rises against his neighbour and murders him (Deut. 22.26), teaches that all who are raped [coerced] in the Torah are blameless, but [also]  that we save them by the life [of the one who pursues them] only in this case. Where, then, do we learn that one should [do the same also in the cases of] he who chases his fellow to kill him and after the man [to rape him]? It is said: so is this matter (Deut. 22:26). Can one do the same to he who pursues a beast or desecrated the Shabbat or worships idols? The Torah said: ‘this matter’ [only] (Deut. 22:26), ‘this’ is punished by stoning and all the rest – not by stoning.”

The verse the Sifre relies on is no longer Deuteronomy 22:24, but Deuteronomy 22:25-26: the case of the betrothed virgin who is raped in the field (rather than in the town). In her case, she is found blameless and only her rapist is put to death. This is another step forward for both women and men as victims: not only does this passage offer victims protection (like the Mishnah passage), but it also cleans them of all fault and blame.

The Amoraic Babylonian sources (3rd-6th century CE), much like those from Israel (3rd-5th century) follow the same logic to the same result.[iii] An interesting point is made also about the strange spelling of the word for “maiden”: in Hebrew the word for maiden is na‘arah, whereas the word for a male youth is na‘ar. In Deuteronomy 22:26, unusually, the word for “maiden” is missing the final consonant (transliterated as “ah”). Noting that the spelling is gender-ambivalent, the rabbis reach their conclusion on the basis that just like in the case of a girl (na‘arah) so in the case of a boy (na‘ar) there is no guilt for the raped.[iv]

In its Roman context, the question of rape of men becomes more complicated. On the one hand, unlike in Livy’s testimony, according to which a man who has been penetrated could not stand in a court of law, unless he was raped in war or by pirates [v], rabbinic literature does not deny a raped man any legal rights. On the other hand, the Roman economy of desire, making boys and slaves particularly vulnerable, still influenced the rabbis in many ways – but that will be a subject for a different post.


[i] Judith Hauptman, Rereading the Rabbis: A Woman’s Voice (Boulder, CO and Oxford: Westview Press, 1998), 81; Ronit Irshai, “Rape of Unmarried Women: From Hazal to Maimonides.” Shnaton ha-Mishpat ha-Ivri 28 (2014-15): 177. (Irshai’s paper is in Hebrew.)

[ii] See Jane F. Gardner, Women in Roman Law & Society (London: Routledge, 1995), 118-19.

[iii] There are two main Talmudic traditions: the Babylonian Talmud (Talmud Bavli) and the Jerusalem Talmud (Talmud Yerushalmi). Talmud is aptly described as a discursive and intergenerational rabbinic discussion. It is one primary focus of traditional Jewish scholarship.

[iv] This might be surprising in a Babylonian context. After all, in the Zoroastrian tradition represented in the Videvdad (8:26-32), the punishment for a man who submits to anal intercourse against his will is “eight hundred strokes with the horse whip, eight hundred with the bastinado.” While the editing of the Videvdad might be two or three centuries later than that of the Bavli, much like the Bavli, it, too, reflects oral traditions that are centuries older.

[v] Craig Williams, Roman Homosexuality, 2nd edn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010),  106.

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Premiere of Kenyan, Christian, Queer

Premiere of Kenyan Christian Queer: 5 Days To Go! poster.

This coming Friday (31 July 2020) is the world premiere of the film Kenyan, Christian, Queer: Struggle for Faith, Hope and Love, directed by Aiwan Obinyan. 

You can see the trailer here

For an earlier Shiloh post on the book of the name Kenyan, Christian, Queer, by Adriaan van Klinken, see here.

About this Event:

Is it possible to be African, Christian and queer? The members of the first LGBTQ church in Nairobi Kenya certainly believe so. The Cosmopolitan Affirming Community (CAC) seeks to promote an inclusive and progressive form of Christianity, in the midst of a rather conservative society.

The screening link will be live from 9am to 12midnight (Eastern Africa Time/Kenya Time) with a live Q&A at 2pm BST (= British Summer Time) / 4pm EAT (= Eastern Africa Time) / 9am EST (= Eastern Standard Time).

The Q&A will feature:

  • Aiwan Obinyan (Film Director)
  • Pastor David Ochar (CAC)
  • Bishop Joseph Tolton 
  • Prophetess Jacinta Nzilani 

Book your ticket now, to receive the link & password for the secure film screening and Q&A.

You can book your free tickets here https://www.eventbrite.com/e/kenyan-christian-queer-premiere-tickets-113871003236?aff=CACAdriaanTFAM

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