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Introducing the Contributors to “The Bible And Violence” – Laura Carlson Hasler and Alexiana Fry

We continue with our profiles of some of the 100+ contributors of the Bible and Violence project (under contract with Bloomsbury). (For our earlier introduction to the Bible and Violence Project, see here.) Today we are thrilled to introduce Laura Carlson Hasler and Alexiana Fry. 

Laura Carlson Hasler is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and Jewish Studies at Indiana University Bloomington where she holds the Alvin H. Rosenfeld Chair in Hebrew Bible. She is the author of Archival Historiography in Jewish Antiquity (Oxford, 2020, see here), which argues that the literary form of certain Second Temple texts, such as Ezra and Nehemiah, mimics archival spaces and represents a means of cultural postexilic recovery. She is the author of several recent articles: “The Cited Documents of Ezra-Nehemiah: Does their Authenticity Matter?” (Biblical Interpretation 27/3, 2019, see here) calls into question the usefulness of categories like “fabrication” and “authenticity” in biblical scholarship; “Persia is Everywhere Where Nothing Happens: Imperial Ubiquity and Its Limits in Ezra-Nehemiah” (Bible & Critical Theory 16/1, 2020; open access) argues for a new way of reading representations of empire in the ancient world; “Poor Circulation: Embodied Economics in Haggai, Malachi, and Zechariah 1–8” (Journal of Biblical Literature 141/3, 2022, see here) contends that in the texts of postexilic prophets Judean collectivity is made legible through concepts of exchange and sensation. Laura is writing one of the chapters on Violence and the Minor Prophets

I am writing about violence in the Minor Prophets, focusing on Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. Though these texts may not be the first that come to mind when considering violence in the Bible, they are riddled with representations, explanations, and expectations of bodily pain. In this chapter, I will use the Second Temple prophetic texts to explore the ambiguities that haunt the term “violence” – especially fantasies of divinely-orchestrated coercive harm. Does harm presuppose violence? How can we measure coercion? And do textualized or future violences count as “real” violence, anyway? Deriving an emic understanding of violence from these texts discloses the term’s rich instability and demands that readers grapple with their own assumptions about agency, power, textual representation, and the body.

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Alexiana Fry is research fellow at Stellenbosch University (South Africa). She recently finished her PhD in Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, focusing her research on the intersections of migration, trauma, and feminism. She is currently finishing her first monograph on Speech Act Theory and trauma, provisionally entitled Through the Middle of the Thick (Lexington Press). Alexiana is writing the chapter on Violence, Trauma, and the Bible. She wants to add that she is indebted to her two pugs for their snuggles, which help her to write.

We are living in a time where biblical studies and wider society both seem finally to be catching up with recognizing the profound impact and implications of trauma on our lives and our interpretations of experiences and texts. While trauma in and of itself is horrific, it is also quite mundane in that it can and does affect anyone, regardless of location, time, or identity. Shoshana Felman speaks of moving from an “era of testimony” to an “era of trauma,” which I perceive as bringing about a blurry mess of sorts, where we are desperate to be understood and make sense of a society that is very much in flux and transition. 

Writing this chapter, then, is going to be difficult. It will aim to provide an introduction and invitation of sorts into what could be in the future of the field of trauma-informed biblical studies, looking forward while acknowledging and examining traces of trauma in ancient texts that continue to be interpreted in the present. We’re only just beginning to better understand trauma, and the possibilities of doing so are utterly fascinating to me (and, I hope, you). 

I aim to provide a definition of trauma and examine trauma within the socio-historical world of biblical texts, in terms of the words being read, and with respect to embodied readers in the present. Contexts of the past, trauma language, and the embodied present: all are potential sites of violence, and impact our interpretation of trauma. And this is just the beginning! 

What thrills me most is the prospect of exploring trauma and violence in the round, and, once they are better understood, to imagine a softer, kinder, healing world. My hope is this will facilitate something of a radical departure from where we currently are, including in the academy, and in biblical studies. I’m excited to see where these explorations take me. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are the key arguments of your book?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Reading with self-care when reading in vulnerability

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

Twitter: @Dechurching

Email: rebecca@deconstructingchurch.com

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

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

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

Reading With Self-Care When Reading In Vulnerability

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

Rebecca Parnaby-Rooke, courtesy of the author.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca Parnaby-Rooke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The aims of this event are:

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

To create networks of collaboration and support.

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

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

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

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

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

To find out a bit more about the project…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“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 conducts Assistant Chaplaincy 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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Strip searches, abuses of power, and ‘stepping into the room’

Child in shadow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Mmapula D. Kebaneilwe

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

The Strip Searching of Child Q

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Stripping of Women in Botswana

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stepping into the room

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Margin. Meeting. Mirror. Shifting perspective to read Rahab, the Levite’s wife, and the necromancer of En-Dor

Today’s post is by Alexiana Fry. Alexiana is a recent Hebrew Bible/Old Testament PhD graduate of Stellenbosch University. Her dissertation is on the sin of Gibeah, focusing on Judges 19 alongside Hosea through the lenses of trauma, migration, and feminism. She is currently working on her first book, under contract with Lexington Press, which explores the intersections of speech act theory and trauma hermeneutics. 

When not reading or writing, you can find Alexiana playing with her two pugs, or on Twitter: @alexianadlou

Today’s post looks at three biblical women characters on the margins (or are they?) of eventful stories of invasion and war. Each of these stories is violent; in each of these stories a woman is in danger. But is a straight-out rejection of such stories helpful? Is there another way to read and learn from them?

Dr. Alexiana Fry, PhD.

Margin. Meeting. Mirror.

Rahab in Joshua 2-6, the nameless Levite’s wife in Judges 19, the necromancer of En-Dor in 1 Samuel 28: all three characters have things in common. All of them feature in stories of hospitality and violence. All are considered “other” – inhabiting marginalized places. Each of these women’s bodies constitutes a “meeting place” for men. 

But maybe the biblical author is also through these women stating something rather subversive and calling on us to read responsibly. In what follows, I attempt to read these women for “the dignity of all” and in so doing, seek the God within these stories.

Introduction

I grew up in a white, evangelical church and heard almost no biblical stories in which women played anything other than supporting roles at best. I remember a cute, PG version of Esther,[1] done as a musical play and put on by the children in my church–but that rendition, with Esther in the starring role, was an exception. Biblical women and actual women were mostly on the sidelines. Hence, women were mostly relegated to roles in the home and abstained from anything that could be interpreted as asserting themselves over against the dominance that was “rightfully” men’s. This, inevitably, erased girls’ and women’s visible presence and representation.

Rebecca Solnit, in her memoir Recollections of My Non-Existence, says this about her love for literature, and about lack of representation and its effects:

“You should be yourself some of the time. You should be with people who are like you, who are facing what you’re facing, who dream your dreams and fight your battles, who recognize you. And then, other times, you should be like people unlike yourself. Because there is a problem as well with those who spend too little time being anyone else; it stunts the imagination in which empathy takes root, that empathy that is a capacity to shape-shift and roam out of your sole self. One of the convenient afflictions of power is a lack of this imaginative extension. For many men it begins in early childhood, with almost exclusively being given stories with male protagonists… And the task of finding one’s own way must be immeasurably harder when all the heroes, all the protagonists, are not only another gender but another race, or another sexual orientation, and when you find that you yourself are described as the savages or the servants or the people who don’t matter. There are so many forms of annihilation.”[2]

In pursuit of representations of women in the Hebrew Bible, I notice patterns in some of the stories of my foremothers. I look closely at Rahab, at the Levite’s nameless wife, and at the necromancer at En-Dor. Each depiction is riddled with and even defined by problematic binaries, yet those binaries are also confronted and refuted by the women themselves. In each story, we see borne out what Solnit says: “there are so many forms of annihilation.” But I also see God herself speaking through and imaged in these women.[3] Let me explain this tension.

Margins

The women in these stories are located at the margins—both socially and spatially/geographically. Rahab initially resides in the town of Jericho, one of the first cities in Canaan encroached on by the Israelites as they leave the wilderness. Rahab is “foreign” in relation to the Israelite normative, indigenous to the land that is being stolen. She is a sex worker by occupation, and a woman. Even when she is spared by and joins the invaders, she remains at the outer margin of their encampment (Jos. 6:23).

The nameless Levite’s wife is rendered marginal by the lack of a name and by her designation as a pilegesh, probably a secondary wife (although this word is still debated in scholarship). Some scholars propose she is little more than a sex-toy to the Levite.[4] There is no mention of another wife, primary or otherwise, and no mention of children. Being from Bethlehem, she is an outsider to those of Gibeah or Ephraim. She is, again, a woman. Following her brutal and sustained abuse, her hands reach for the threshold—the liminal, or transitional, space at the border between private and public spheres—showing starkly that neither space, to either side, is safe for her. 

The necromancer (or diviner) resides in En-Dor, which is possibly another marginal location, a town on a border. This place of residence may be significant: only here can she perform her illegal (though highly effective, apparently) occupation of divining. She may belong to a persecuted guild, or ancestor-worshipping religion, and may have to be ready to move at short notice across borders. While, seemingly, well known for her excellent divining, she, too, is nameless, and again, a woman. 

These three women, consequently, in a number of ways all exist at intersection(s), or rather, at borderlands. 

Namelessness can convey precarity. Rahab has a name; the other two women discussed here have not. In the Judges 19 story in particular, namelessness is much discussed; after all, all the characters in Judges 19 are nameless. For Laura Smit and Stephen Fowl namelessness here holds theological significance. They argue that anonymity in this chapter signifies one way to show how far the characters have “fallen from God”: “the loss of a name is a symptom of the slide backward from the creation into which we have been called toward nonbeing.”[5] J. Cheryl Exum argues that the concubine’s anonymity, “encourages readers not to view her as a person in her own right.”[6] Another way to view the story is, like Adele Reinhartz, to see nameless characters of the Hebrew Bible as becoming “types.” In one sense, types are non-specific, but in another, they are representative of the general thing they are designated as: thus, in the story of Judges 19 each of Levite, pilegesh, servant, old man, father, virgin daughter, men of wickedness represents, if not a specific individual, this named category.[7]

In this way, anonymity can be seen to be given a greater place, because it fulfils a rhetorical function and a “universalizing purpose.”[8] Havilah Dharamraj gives an example of how this can be implemented in a reading that emphasizes anonymity as type: “the narrator seems to be saying that every Levite was capable of the horrendous acts described. Every host was potentially helpless against the mistreatment of his guests, and every woman could become a victim of rape until death.”[9]

Similarly, Mieke Bal suggests that:

“The powerlessness of the victims [in Judges (the nameless wives of the Levite and Samson and Jephthah’s daughter),] is the first element of the counter coherence. It is not a mindless subordination. All three young women show, at some point of their stories, some autonomy of action. It is not a lack of initiative or capacity that condemns them, but the ‘might’ of the men, the gibborim, who are socially entitled to exercise power over them. The powerlessness of their situation is reflected on the literary level by their namelessness.”[10]

In some ways, too, the namelessness of both the Levite’s wife and the necromancer of En-Dor leaves us as readers denied of, as Rhiannon Graybill expresses it, “the experience of closure and catharsis.” Namelessness leaves us at a loss as to how to “rescue” or reclaim the women in these stories from what comes next. We may long to save or at least to remember these women and to prevent further marginalization, or silencing.[11] Their namelessness makes this harder.

Moving on from this topic, another commonality is that each of these stories is written from a male perspective, or suggests a male gaze. Male characters are at the center; masculine concerns (invasion, war) and actors drive the plot. The implied gaze is male and heteronormative. This, in turn, contributes to casting the female as “other” in these stories. It is striking that they still have any place in the sacred text at all! Moreover, in her story, Rahab is even granted survival and safety, though she and her family remain on the outside of the camp, not truly brought into the fold (Josh. 6:23). The story of the Levite’s nameless wife, however, ends in her violent dismemberment and dehumanization. While it seems that the necromancer gets a pass, the Chronicler later attributes the fault and fall of Saul to his action of seeking out a medium. In so doing, the narrator blames the woman (1 Chron. 10:13). Not only are the female characters marginalized and harmed in a multitude of ways in the story world; they are also, to use J. Cheryl Exum’s expression, “raped by the pen”: that is, the very way the narrative is constructed violates the female characters.

One weapon widely used in these stories to violate the literarily marginalized women is stereotyping. Stereotyping a person or character makes it easier to depersonalize and to dismiss them. Johnny Miles, who writes on the concept of othering both in the context of ancient Israel and in the contemporary United States, says this in conversation with Michael Pickering: 

“stereotyping is more rigid and inflexible when thinking in terms of categories, and the evaluative ordering produced by stereotyping comes at a cost for those stereotyped who ‘are then fixed into a marginal position or subordinate status and judged accordingly.’ Though often found to be erroneous, simplistic, and rigid, stereotypes nonetheless perform their damage discriminating on the basis of stunted features characterizing them, and they ‘form the basis for negative or hostile judgments, the rationale for exploitative, unjust treatment, or the justification for aggressive behavior.’”[12]

Aggressive behavior often follows when stereotypes are weaponized. Sometimes stereotyping serves to excuse such aggression. Labeling certain women as “witches” and using the label to justify their ill-treatment, is a gendered stereotype. Notably, the necromancer at En-Dor is in some translations called a “witch.” Kimberly Stratton points out how in times past “witch-hunting constituted the hunting of women who refused to conform to societal expectations about proper (submissive) female behavior.”[13] There are other pervasive stereotypes that follow and harm women right up to the present: like those pertaining to sex-workers, migrants, and women of color, who are all disproportionately targeted by physical aggression and sexual violence. It would be remiss not to mention the stereotypes that haunt those in the Hebrew Bible called zonah, widely translated “prostitute” or “harlot” in English bibles. Zonah, sometimes denoting a sex worker, also refers sometimes to “playing the whore,” or “unfaithfulness,” especially with reference to idolatry. While Rahab may be deemed a “good” sex worker, including by those who consider themselves objective interpreters of the biblical text, the affect many readers first assume when reading of her profession is disapproval, even the judgment that this woman deserves what is about to befall the city of Jericho. An action from the same semantic root as zonah is also attributed to the Levite’s wife in Judges 19:2 and this is sometimes pointed to as justification for her gang-rape and dismemberment. In other words, her performance of zonah is interpreted as a crime befitting severe and sadistic punishment. This is disturbing and dangerous.

Meetings

Not only are all three women at intersections, but each operates as a bridge of sorts, as a meeting place for the men in the story. The women work specifically as conduits, in order for the men to progress to the next place in their privileged his-stories. The women’s bodies become primarily functional, even as they lay claim to agency and voice. 

Rahab is the meeting point for the spies and a conduit between resident Canaanites and invading Israelites. She fits in the category of the model minority, or the exception to the rule, in that she aids the “right” side, in spite of belonging to the “wrong” people. She also does sex work, which might compromise her “right”-ness. It is a matter of debate whether Rahab was sought out for the work she does. Did the spies encounter Rahab because they were seeking sex? Seemingly, activities designated זנה (z-n-h) bring less condemnation to the men who seek sex work than to the persons (usually women) who perform it. Words from this root are repeated multiple times and make Rahab’s sex work her prominent characteristic. Is Rahab opportunistically grasping at anything that allows her and her family to survive? Who can blame her? Because Rahab concedes to the invaders’ notions and beliefs about conquest and domination (which is hardly a choice or option for her), she is saved. 

The Levite’s nameless wife is the meeting place for multiple men. She connects the Levite and her father; later, she is seized and thrown out from the house in Gibeah to the wicked men to save the men inside; finally, her dismembered body is the call to war that brings the men of the tribes of Israel together. 

The necromancer of En-Dor is persecuted for her profession. Yet she becomes the meeting point and medium enabling communication and encounter between YHWH, King Saul, and the dead prophet (or rather, “god”) Samuel. The men in each of these stories reach a precarious spot and, regardless of the cost and risk befalling them, use women to escape danger.

Rahab holds the power over the spies’ lives, as well as over the lives of the members of her community. Her actions save her life and the lives of members of her immediate family, but then she quickly relinquishes agency once more. The Levite’s wife starts the story with considerable agency, leaving the Levite. As the story continues, the Levite’s power grows, and her agency diminishes. Every male in her story completely and utterly fails her. In death, however, her body still has the power to bring together tribes for war. The necromancer of En-Dor has the power to raise the dead but her role is short-lived and she recedes again to the margins from which she, briefly, emerged.

Being the meeting place and conduit for men, the women in these stories, while not devoid of agency, are, above all, acted upon. While each finds herself in the borderlands, their bodies act as bridges. Susan Niditch writes of Judges 19, “the tale as told also emphasizes the ways in which women, the mediating gender, provide doorways in and out of war.”[14] Beyond the lens of private and public spheres and the gendered roles assigned them, the in-between nature of the three women renders them dispensable following their use for men’s advancement. In each story, the power these women have is recognized by the men, used instrumentally, and, once they have been used as a bridge from a dangerous place and to garner more power, the women all fade from the story. 

Gloria Anzaldúa writes as a woman caught in the crossroads: “blocked, immobilized, we can’t move forward, can’t move backwards.”[15] Anzaldúa writes this from her perspective as someone on the margins in terms of her sexuality, race, and gender. She remarks on the desire of others to find her on one or other side of dichotomies; but these dichotomies are disrupted in her existence. She writes in a poem, “you are the battleground”[16] and this speaks also to the three biblical women who are my focus here.

The notion of a battleground becomes actual in all three stories. In Rahab’s story, the Israelites invade; in Judges 19, the brutal rape and killing transpire in more war; in the story of the necromancer battle soon ensues. And maybe, as Graybill writes, “we should stay with this trouble.”[17] Maybe we should linger with the stories’ unknowns, complexities, and difficulties. Consequently, I am not advocating a rewriting, or an attempt to make these passages more acceptable to our tastes or liking. Instead, maybe there is a piece (and peace) where we can feel the affect and how it acts upon us, the reader. Maybe, too, if we linger, the deity, also at the margins in these stories, can be found where one wasn’t looking for her.

Mirrors

Isabelle Hamley writes that, “women work as the fixed reference points, the mirrors of male constructions of subjectivity. As such, they cannot have their own representations, discourse, or desires, as this would threaten male totalitarian constructs.”[18] And, as has been demonstrated, each of the women in these stories functions in a situation of threat, and helps men through a situation of threat. Mirroring also entails negative space, projection, and a “reverse image,” or inverse reflection. Analogously, even as the text is a product of the male elite of the time, is there still yet a way to re-imag(in)e without rewriting, to “refuse salvation” as Graybill puts it?[19] Can the mirroring that occurs in these texts function also to capture a glimpse of the deity, mirrored in these women’s bodies?

Yes, the texts can be seen and interpreted in ways that reflect and serve the status quo but maybe they can (and should) also be interpreted in other, even subversive ways. Jeremiah Cataldo writes, “in facing the Other we are judged by her, called into an ethical relationship by her.”[20] Confrontation with the Other can incite critique of the very power structures that are held up and reflected in the narratives. Might such confrontation also change behaviors, so that the future and upcoming “afters” might be different? There may not be repair in these stories, even if YHWH is mirrored therein, but they might hold a mirror up to our own time and bring repair long after they were written and first transmitted. 

While stereotypes and binaries in these stories have contributed to some interpreters placing criticism and blame on the women – Rahab, the Levite’s wife, the necromancer – the texts can also point to other, restorative, readings. God can be imaged into each of these women. Each woman holds something that signifies divine knowledge. Rahab gives what some call a testimony or even “conversion” (Josh. 2:9-13); the necromancer is herself a skilled prophet who successfully conjures up Samuel (literally “god”); the Levite’s wife with her body bears witness and demands justice. In each story, it could be said, YHWH sides with the Other, with the women. Fault lies with the spies, Joshua and Canaanites, with Saul, with the wicked men of Gibeah, and the Levite. The usual binaries do not hold up, the women refuse to fit neatly inside them; binaries disintegrate. As Anzaldúa writes of crossroads that break down dualities: answers are equivocal, found in the between spaces, by “a conscious rupture with all oppressive traditions of all cultures and religions, communicating that rupture, documenting the struggle.”[21]

This account of mine has itself moved from sensation to perception, from margin to meeting. But both of these must be moved through, into a place where we can receive the Other. As Hamley writes, “when one voice has sought to dominate and tell the whole from the point of view of the One, then deconstruction—but not destruction—is needed.”[22] The aim and of this piece, similarly, has been not destruction of difficult and violent texts but deconstruction and a willingness to meet, reflect and mirror.

Conclusion

The personal is indeed political. My attempt at personal encounter with the women in these stories – imagining them as embodied, seeking their affect and mirror image – has proven political. Judith Butler, writing on whose lives are mournable in the face of violence, states that, 

“when we consider the ordinary ways that we think about humanization and dehumanization, we find the assumption that those who gain representation, especially self-representation, have a better chance of being humanized, and those who have no chance to represent themselves run a greater risk of being treated as less than human, regarded as less than human, or indeed, not regarded at all.”[23]

Butler alerts us to resisting stereotypes and dehumanization. Similarly, Cataldo calls us to the performative responsibility of acknowledging the Other. As biblical scholars, we have a choice, indeed a responsibility, to read for liberation, and to refuse to read the marginalized as flattened, dispensable objects. Because, as Miles writes, “stories of the past become in actuality reflections of the present,”[24] responsibility is our duty. As the proverbial saying goes, “may the bridges we burn light the way.”

Bibliography

Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute, 1987.

Bal, Mieke. Death and Dissymmetry: The Politics of Coherence in the Book of Judges. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Butler, Judith. Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. New York: Verso, 2004.

Cataldo, Jeremiah. “The Other: Sociological Perspectives in a Postcolonial Age.” Imagining the Other and Constructing Israelite Identity in the Early Second Temple Period. Ehud Ben Zvi and Diana Edelman eds. New York: Bloomsbury, 2016.

Dharamraj, Havilah. “Judges,” in South Asia Bible Commentary: A One-Volume Commentary on the Whole Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015, 296-334.

Exum, J. Cheryl. Fragmented Women: Feminist (Sub)Versions of Biblical Narratives. New York: T&T Clark, 2015.

Graybill, Rhiannon. Texts After Terror: Rape, Sexual Violence, and the Hebrew Bible. London: Oxford University Press, 2021.

Hamley, Isabelle M. Unspeakable Things Unspoken: An Irigarayan Reading of Otherness and Victimization in Judges 19-21. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2019.

Klein, Lillian R. The Triumph of Irony in the Book of Judges. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1988.

Miles, Johnny. Constructing the Other in Ancient Israel and the USA. The Bible and Modern World, 32. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2011.

Niditch, Susan. Judges: A Commentary. Old Testament Library. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008.

Paynter, Helen. Telling Terror in Judges 19: Rape and Reparation for the Levite’s Wife. London: Routledge, 2020.

Pickering, Michael. Stereotyping: The Politics of Representation. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2001.

Reinhartz, Adele. ‘Why Ask My Name?’: Anonymity and Identity in Biblical Narrative. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Smit, Laura and Stephen Fowl. Judges & Ruth. Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible. Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing, 2018.

Solnit, Rebecca. Recollections of My Non-Existence. New York: Penguin Books, 2021.

Stratton, Kimberly and Dayna Kalleres, eds. Daughters of Hecate: Women and Magic in the Ancient World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.


[1] For a non-PG reading of Esther, see the recent publication by Ericka Dunbar. For more information, see here.

[2] See Solnit (2020: 110-113).

[3] This includes those who identify as women. Taking a lead from trans activists, I move away from “womxn,” because trans women are women: full stop.

[4] This is taken from Lillian R. Klein: “Given these conditions, the Levite seems to have brought the girl for purposes of sexual gratification or housekeeping (or both), possibly because he could not afford the bride price of a wife. The narrative supports this conjecture: the Levite pretends to be more affluent than he really is; and although he pursues his concubine to bring her back, he ignores her in every respect but one: in presenting her to the Gibeaites for abuse, he acknowledges her as a sexual object” (1988: 162-63).

[5] Smit and Fowl (2018: 180).

[6] Exum (2015: 176).

[7] Reinhartz (1998: 6).

[8] Paynter (2020: 32). See more information, here.

[9] Dharamraj (2015: 325).

[10] Bal (1988: 23).

[11] Graybill (2021: 168-69).

[12] Miles (2011) and Pickering (2001: 31).

[13] Stratton (2014: 9).

[14] Niditch (2008: 193).

[15] Anzaldúa (1987: 43).

[16] Ibid. (1987: 52-53, 216).

[17] Graybill (2021: 168).

[18] Hamley (2019: 10).

[19] Graybill (2021: 169).

[20] Cataldo (2016: 19).

[21] Anzaldúa (1987: 103-04).

[22] Hamley (2019: 25).

[23] Butler (2006: 141).

[24] Miles, (2011: 44).

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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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Christmas, Mary, and the new Nationality and Borders Bill

Today’s post is by Tasia Scrutton, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion at the University of Leeds. Tasia’s research lies in the intersection between religion and human experience, including experiences of mental illness, bereavement, and displacement. Her most recent book, Christianity and depression: interpretation, meaning, and the shaping of experience came out with SCM Press in 2020 and you can find out more about it here. Outside of her academic work, she enjoys walking her dog Lola. She also volunteers with an asylum seeker charity, BEACON, whose work you can find out more about here: Bradford Ecumenical Asylum Concern (beaconbradford.org)   

Kelly Latimore, Our Lady of the Journey (jpg purchased from the artist and reproduced with kind permission: kellylatimoreicons.com)

Kelly Latimore’s icon, Our Lady of the Journey, depicts the episode early in Matthew’s Gospel in which Mary, Joseph and the newborn Jesus flee to Egypt to escape the persecution of an oppressive government (Matthew 2:13-23). While many paintings have depicted the ‘Flight into Egypt’ in relation to the plight of refugees, one of the most striking features of this icon for me is the way it highlights the experience of Mary, and especially her fear.

In this respect the icon is realistic, since the fear of asylum seekers who are women and girls is very real, and very well-founded. Women who attempt to flee their country of origin in hope of better, safer prospects are at risk from the same very-real threats to life that men experience, as was devastatingly laid bare with the recent Channel crossing drownings (see here). But women who flee their countries of origin are also vulnerable to additional dangers: to rape, to sexual trafficking, and to other forms of sexual exploitation, both on their journey, and in the place where they seek refugee status. In the words of one woman, who fled from Cameroon, where homosexuality is illegal:

“I came to the UK because I was raped, beaten and locked up in my country because of my sexuality. When I arrived, I didn’t know where to go or what to do and I had never heard of asylum. I thought I was coming to a country where I would be accepted for who I am but that was not the case.

Being a refugee in a new country, you don’t trust people easily, especially if you have been through so much hatred, so much abuse. It took me a while to trust people who told me about the asylum process. When I applied, it was a very long journey of stress and struggle. The Home Office said they didn’t believe my story and refused my asylum claim. I was depressed and had nowhere to go for support. I had to sleep on the bus and the only way to survive was to have sex to get food. It was traumatic and degrading.” 

(‘Anna’, quoted in Women for Refugee Women : Legal Opinion: The Nationality and Borders Bill will harm women)

Detail from Kelly Latimore’s Our Lady of the Journey

In addition to the sexual violence and exploitation they face, women are also more likely to be travelling with children, whose presence makes the journey harder, and the stakes even higher – since women asylum seekers are risking not only their own lives, but also the lives of their children. And especially if the children are girls, they too are vulnerable to violence and hardship, including sexual violence and exploitation.

These dangers might make one wonder, why would any woman take these terrible risks? The answer, of course, as ‘Anna’s’ story highlights, is that the things that make women risk all these things are yet more terrible and fearful still.   

The way in which female asylum seekers are especially vulnerable – what we might call the ‘gendered aspect’ of asylum seeking – makes the UK government’s Nationality and Border Bill, passed by the House of Commons last week, all the more cruel and unjust. Briefly, the Bill allows the government to deprive a person of citizenship, without even notifying them. This can be done, either if the Home Office does not have the person’s contact details, or if notifying them is ‘not reasonably practical’ (see here).

In addition, the same Bill criminalises anyone taking part in the rescue missions in the English Channel. To put this another way, it means that the people we regard as heroes for helping persecuted people escape torture and death (for example, people who smuggled Jewish children to the UK during the Nazi regime), would be regarded as criminals in the UK, according to the new law.

Although it doesn’t explicitly target women, the new Bill is, in practice, misogynistic, since it will disadvantage women and girls especially. This is for a number of reasons, but I will highlight just three here. First, the new Bill will introduce a ‘two-tier system’ that discriminates especially against asylum seekers who arrive in the UK via what the Home Office considers illegal means, such as in small boats. People coming from Afghanistan are among those asylum seekers especially likely to arrive in small boats – and women and girls from Afghanistan are highly likely to be fleeing, because of the newly-installed Taliban regime, which has, since the 2021 offensive, severely constrained women’s and girls’ movements, including access to education. In other words, the new Bill won’t discriminate against women explicitly and directly, but by virtue of discriminating against people who come via ‘illegal routes’ on small boats, it will effectively discriminate against people who are forced to flee from places such as Afghanistan, for gender-based reasons. 

Second, the new Bill will mean that there is a ‘heightened standard of proof’ expected of asylum seekers, and that cases will be considered at a more rapid rate (see here for the Executive Summary).  But women and girls who have frequently experienced rape and other forms of sexual torture are often traumatised to the extent that they do not have a coherent narrative about what has happened to them. Narratives of trauma often emerge only long after the traumatic event itself, because victims of sexual violence and exploitation experience guilt and shame, because being a victim of sexual violence is still a cause of stigma in many cultures, including our own. The asylum process is stacked against them. And asylum seekers are oftentimes interrogated without sensitivity about the violence and torture they have experienced.

Third, as human rights lawyers have pointed out, the new Bill’s clauses about modern slavery and trafficking will make it harder for women and girls who are victims of trafficking and modern slavery to be identified and protected. This is contrary to the UK’s obligations according to international law. In addition to that, the much swifter process that will lead a woman or girl to be deported may well mean that there is not enough time for trafficking claims to be determined (see here, for the Executive Summary).

I could go on about the other ways in which the new Nationality and Borders Bill will harm female asylum seekers, not just because they are asylum seekers, but (additionally) because they are women and girls. But those who are interested can read more about the reasons here.

So instead, I want to return to where we started – to the Bible – and provide just a few passages for reflection about the way the Scriptures encourage us to show solidarity with the oppressed, and hospitality to asylum seekers in particular. At the very end, I suggest four  ways in which we can help.

You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt (Exodus 22:21).

The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God (Leviticus 19:34).

You shall have one law for the alien and for the citizen: for I am the Lord your God (Leviticus 24:22).

Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and she will repay her for her deed (Proverbs 19:17).

Give justice to the weak and the orphan;
maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute (Psalm 82:3).

 Learn to do good;
 Seek justice,
 Rescue the oppressed,
 Defend the orphan,
 Plead for the widow. (Isaiah 1:17)

Thus says the Lord of hosts: Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another (Zechariah 7: 9-10)

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)

Let justice roll down like waters,
    and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:24).

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me. (Matthew 25:34-40)

Four ways you can help:

  1. Join, donate, or volunteer for Women for Refugee Women: Women for Refugee Women
  2. If you are in the UK, write to your MP and oppose the Nationality and Borders Bill. You can find out who your MP is, and how to write to them, here: Find out who your MP is / mySociety . If you’re stuck for what to write, you can copy or adapt the template here: #antirefugeebill (asylummatters.org)
  3. Sign up to receive campaigning news and opportunities from Asylum MattersHome | Asylum Matters
  4. Encourage your church and any other organisations with which you may be involved to join the Together with Refugees coalition: Join the coalition – Together With Refugees
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