On Monday 22 June 2020 the news broke of the conviction of Jan Joosten for downloading thousands upon thousands of images and videos of child abuse and pornography. I first read about it in an article in The Guardian. There are numerous other reports in other papers, too: the Daily Mail , The Timesof Israel, and Euro Weekly. The images that accompany these articles show the protzy façade of Christ Church, Joosten smiling, Joosten mid-lecture. An older, white male scholar who has blended right into the various biblical studies conferences he’s attended over many years – Society of Biblical Literature (SBL), Society for Old Testament Study(SOTS), International Organisation for the Study of the Old Testament (IOSOT)… I’ve seen him there, talked to him, received his recommendation for a publication of his to read and for references to chase up.
As the newspaper articles report, Joosten is a former pastor, who taught for 20 years at the University of Strasbourg before, in 2014, taking up “the prestigious regiusprofessorship of Hebrew at Oxford.” Until his suspension, Joosten was based at Christ Church, renowned for its academic excellence, Old Master paintings, and for being home to Oxford’s cathedral. Until recently, Joosten was editor-in-chief of Vetus Testamentum, according to its site, “a leading journal … generally recognized to be indispensable for scholarly work on the Old Testament,” publishing articles in English, French and German, all languages in which Joosten is fluent.
The lashings of respectability, status and privilege that have until recently enveloped Joosten – “pastor”, “Regius Professorof Hebrew” (founded in 1546 by Henry VIII), “Christ Church”, “University of Oxford”, “Princeton Theological Seminary”, “Hebrew University, Jerusalem”, “father of four”, “married”, “one of the most distinguished biblical scholars of his generation” – add force to the shock and outrage that havemet the revelations of Joosten’s conviction. Shocking, too, is the sheer volume of images (27,000) and videos (1000) depicting abuse, including rape of children, which Joosten downloaded. The brilliant man falling from his high pedestal: as a German, I think right away of the legend of Faust. Such hubris and such hypocrisy. Did Joosten think a different law applied to him? Did he believe he was too clever ever to get caught?
Joosten did get caught and his reputation is shot. His sentence, however, is paltry: one year in prison, placement on the sex offender register in France, a three-year programme of treatment, and a ban on any activity bringing him into contact with minors. Furthermore, Joosten has not gone to prison (yet?): his sentence will be “supervised” and “may be amended.” The Guardian reports that “Joosten was yet to decide whether to appeal on Friday” (he gets to decide that?!). His family “were aware of his offences” and argued Joostenshould not be imprisoned, “because he was a first time offender” (hardly: he was caught for the first time – he is now known to have been offending thousands of times for six years), “presented little risk of reoffending” (how so?), and “had sought psychiatric help voluntarily” (albeit only following arrest). In court, so it is reported, Joosten declaredthat he was relieved to be arrested. He described his addiction as “a secret garden, in contradiction with myself.” To many ears, including those of biblical scholars, this expression is particularly jarring and repugnant. It conjures up imagery from Song of Songs, of eroticism and lovemaking (e.g. “You are a garden locked up, my sister, my bride…” Song of Songs 4:12). But this is brutal child pornography that is at issue! And watching such is not a victimless crime. Child pornography is no “virtual reality”; it depicts suffering, severe and profound damage; the demand for it proliferates this; in some casesconsumption of violent pornography leads on to committing sexual abuse.
As would be expected, the general public and the scholarly community to which Joosten belonged have been vocal in their outrage and repulsion. Twitter is abuzz. People are “reeling”, “shocked and horrified”. A terse comment on the SBL website, stating that the Society had requested Joosten’s resignation, evoked protest on account of being woefully inadequate – rather like the Christ Church statement that “Our thoughts are with anyone affected by this news” (reminiscent of the “thoughts and prayers” routinely following school shootings in the US – in lieu of doing anything). A petition led promptly to a fuller statement sent to all present and past members of SBL. SOTS followed with their statement soon after, resolving to build “a more inclusive and ethical Society” and expressing concern “for the unknown children who are the ultimate victims of such crimes” as well as for Joosten’s family, colleagues and supervisees. One of Joosten’s co-authors has expressed feeling “shocked, shattered and disgusted” – he is donating all royalties of the book, past and future, to the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children. Another scholar has set up a GoFundMe page “Biblical Scholars Against Child Abuse”. There is a powerful piece out deploring “himpathy” for Joosten (that is, excessive sympathy that is directed at perpetrators of sexual violence and abuse) and there are many expressions of contempt for a situation where “*reputations* of men are more important to keep safe than the *bodies* of women, children.”
When I read of Joosten’s conviction I, too, was reeling, shocked and horrified. I probably shouldn’t have been. Sadly, I know many people who are survivors of child abuse and of rape. The statistics of The Office for National Statistics do not strike me as exaggerated. And when you know there are so many survivors, you know there are very, very many perpetrators, too – the numbers have to add up. Even taking into account that perpetrators tend to abuse multiple victims, the numbers of perpetrators must still be very high. The same goes for the abuse that is consumption of child pornography. The amount of child abuse material is staggering – so, really it isn’t surprising that I know people who are revealed to be abusers. I also know that – for all the stereotypes and rape myths about rapists and pornography users (“creepy men in raincoats” we used to jest) – there is no “type” – so a depraved person can be an Oxford don (clearly). Having worked in universities for over 20 years, I’ve twice known of cases where a member of the university community was charged with child pornography. Two people I have encountered in my community have been charged with possession of child pornography (one committed suicide). I had already reeled a few years back at the conviction of Holt Parker, who received a four-year prison sentence for offences not dissimilar to Joosten’s. I had admired Holt’s work and wrestled then with the question of “do you cite scholars who have done appalling things?” (I still wrestle with that question – as compelling as I find Stephen Young’s article, I also see some of the complexity so well articulated by Sarah Scullin. Do I read a biography of every author before I cite their work?)
Fact is, in my earlier work I have cited Joosten. I met Joosten in 2011 in South Africa. We were both attending a meeting of the Old Testament Society of South Africa (OTSSA) (my first far-flung work trip since my younger child was born). I had not met Joosten before and I was mostly preoccupied with dear friends from my years in southern Africa. But on some bus trip or other we sat together and had one of “those conversations” about research that you have at these kinds of conferences. He was friendly but quite intimidating. One of those scholars who can quote in multiple languages and recall titles and years of publication of articles on any topic that arises in conversation. I was working on my book on fathers and daughters in the Hebrew Bible at the time and told Joosten so when he asked me. He told me he had published an article on the missing daughter in the laws of Leviticus 18 – but it was in French: did I read French? I admitted that my French is pretty lousy. Not much more was said, as I recall it.
Shortly after I returned home, there was an email from Joosten. (I have been re-reading the short exchanges he and Ihad in 2011 and 2013 and they make me uncomfortable now.) It said, “It was nice to meet you at the conference. While browsing through my computer I came across an English translation of my paper on the missing daughter. I attach it herewith.” I was touched. It was a nice thing to do. I thanked him. I read the article and found it helpful for my research. In the book I published I thank Joosten. That’s what you do.
Two years later I received another email: “While searching for something else on the internet I came across your recent book on Fathers and Daughters. Congratulations! And thank you for the generous reception of my article on Lev 18.” (Two short emails, in each a mention of a computer or the internet. Of course, I thought nothing of it at the time – it only reads as sinister in retrospect.) After 2013 I did not communicate with Joosten again. I did cite his work in my next book.
When I read about Joosten in the paper, I felt deeply troubled. I couldn’t shake it. I searched for and found the emails from years before and eventually decided to write to him.
I wrote of the revulsion I felt and of wondering how manyhands of “respectable men” I had shaken without fathoming what they were capable of, of being repelled at the “secret garden” obfuscating, even romanticising and eroticising the brutal abuse of frightened and utterly vulnerable and helpless children. I wrote that I cannot comprehend why, if he acknowledged the harm he had done, he would not willingly go to prison, “Why should you not go? What will you do now, I wonder?”
To my astonishment, Joosten wrote back very soon after. He said my words hurt but that he deserved them. That he had always known his “doings” were not victimless, that they were “sordid and destructive”. He wrote that he “came across” the images and videos looking for pornography and that they were “freely available and easily accessible”. He describes how this became an addiction from which he could not break free, that he did not want to make excuses but did want to heal, with the help of a psychiatrist. He spoke of the support of his family who accepted him with his defects, characterizing them as an ugly “stain” on a beautiful painting. Ever the linguist, Joosten explained the expression “jardinsecret” as “a mental and emotional space one doesn’t wish to share with anyone” but that he had not intended to evoke anything positive but rather that “the world of those images and videos and the real world” in which he lived his life were “completely separate”. He closed by saying he felt deep regret for what he had done, could not undo it and had to look to the future. The closing words were, “I hope one day you will be able to forgive me.”
The email troubled me. (A part of me was very surprised that Joosten clearly had access to a computer and to his University email address.) The sheer eloquence troubled me – but of course he is eloquent: he is a linguist, scholar and prolific writer. I was troubled that he wrote of “coming across” horrendous child pornography (is it that easy and happenstance?), and of the addiction and harm that he acknowledged as a “stain” and something to “heal” from, as if it were somehow separable from him, a “secret garden” apart from his “real life”. There is nothing “unreal” about the violence depicted in child pornography – enacted on real children whose lives, psyches, futures, potential, are deeply harmed.
As I read Joosten’s email I found myself recalling a correspondence I had over many years with a prisoner in the notorious Angola penitentiary in Louisiana. It started when a letter addressed in meticulous handwriting to “The Bible Department” landed in my office at the University of Tennessee. The writer, “E.”, had found Jesus in prison, where he was incarcerated for life. He had also taught himself Hebrew. He had questions about grammar and points of translation. It was enjoyable finding ways to explain features of Hebrew and reasons for translations that might not match the Hebrew text. E. was always eager to learn. Years passed. I moved to England. In time, we came to write about more than the language riddles that had brought us together. E. spent hours in the prison workshop and made my daughter a wooden box and some metal earrings with her (Hebrew). name engraved on them. I wrote about my children growing up, juggling work and family life, travelling; he wrote about his past, including (eventually) the crimes that transpired in his incarceration. What began to unfold was an early life of chaos, deprivation, struggle and petty crime. Next came an act of violence done to him by a sheriff, when he was put in a cell overnight for marijuana possession. E. was cagey about what took place but I was able to find newspaper articles, which reported that the sheriff was found guilty of sexually abusing young men in his custody. If that is what happened to E., he could never bring himself to say so, stressing instead how many girlfriends he’d had in his youth. He never used this as an excuse for the violent crimes he went on to commit. What struck me was how hard he tried to do something good – even from within prison where he spent most of his time in solitary confinement or labouring, with only one library book to read each week. He had written to all his victims; he was always worried about his mother and the pain he had caused her; he wrote to his son, who seldom replied; he worked hard at learning Hebrew; he tried hard to convert me to Christianity, earnestly believing that if he didn’t, I would not be saved.
Unlike E., Joosten has enjoyed enormous privileges. He still does. Life must feel frightening for him and his prestige and reputation will never recover. But he has his freedom, the support of his family, access to a psychiatrist, even access to a computer and his email account. He also has a first-class education and tremendous talent.
I feel the same anger as many of my colleagues on Twitter and Facebook. Condemnation is right; outrage at the light sentence is right; donating to organisations that support vulnerable children is right. But what more? The SOTS statement goes some way towards pointing out that more must be done within our discipline, too. A legitimizing patina of respectability has for too long shrouded a great deal of ignominy. What Scullin says of the discipline of Classics is true also of biblical studies: both have “a troubled history (that, unfortunately, continues to the present) of participation in various oppressions.” Just as the BLM protests have led to a flurry of statements and self-searching, that momentum must be harnessed and taken much further. The cracks in the patina have become very visible in recent days and weeks. It is no surprise at all actually that Joosten was able to persist in his “doings”. In large part, his respectability and his privilege have enabled it. They have also, I have no doubt, cushioned him from a harsher sentence. E. would have stood no such chance in the same court room.
It is one thing – in the case of Joosten – not to read or cite his scholarship, to evict him permanently from all societies he has belonged to, and to support his students. But what more? Even if Joosten receives a prison sentence that reflects the gravity of his offence, is that then adequate? Eventually, he would leave prison. It is not possible “to lock up all paedophiles and throw away the key.”
What I see in E. and find myself missing with Joosten is any attempt at restitution. I do hope that as Joosten looks to the future he will apply all his abilities – his mastery of languages, his research and writing skills, his experience and insight gained from therapy – for helping other addicts and for helping victims of sexual violence and human trafficking. If I can help with that, I will.
The forgiveness he says he hopes for from me is not mine to give. Vladimir Jankelevitch writes, “forgiveness is not for swine” and the first step towards forgiveness is full admission of wrong. Today Joosten may appeal. I hope he takes full responsibility and does not.
COVID-19’s impact on educate. and life in Honduras
Tell us about yourself. What have you been doing and what are you working on during this COVID-19 lock-in.
I’m one of the directors of a non-profit called educate. that supports community-driven educational projects in Honduras. We’re a volunteer-run charity, with a team in Honduras and a team in Amsterdam (where I live), so we are quite used to communicating digitally, but both sides of our work are being deeply affected by everything that’s going on at the moment. Here in Amsterdam, our fundraising has had to shift because we’ve had to call off all our fundraising events, and in Honduras many people in our community have lost their whole household incomes due to the lockdown, with no government safety net to provide support. Personally, I’m spending a lot of time on the phone with people across Honduras, especially our teachers and community project leaders, as well as supporting our Amsterdam team in shifting our work online. I also work as an au pair here in Amsterdam, so I’m doing home-schooling with three little kids on the side!
In Honduras, the government has imposed a strict and total lockdown: people are allowed outside once per week in a time block decided by their ID number, but the country has a 66% poverty rate and a huge informal sector, so for many people a lockdown means no way to put food on the table. That includes several members of our team in Honduras, so we sent some emergency funds over last week.
In general, though, I am struck by the positivity and resilience in the conversations I have with our community in Honduras. I think it comes from the fact that we work with a lot of teachers, and teachers are just the kind of people who are always supporting people, always looking for ways to rally together and make things work – especially a lot of the teachers we work with, who are used to working with limited resources and in tough conditions. They are endlessly driven and dedicated to the wellbeing and education of their students. Even without internet access and in some cases even electricity, teachers are making sure their students are safe and can continue learning even with everything that is going on.
Here in Amsterdam, things are, in many ways, more straightforward. We’ve have had to call off all our fundraising events for the upcoming months, but our team has been coming up with different ways to make sure we continue to raise the necessary funds for our ongoing projects, and to support our community through this time. I feel incredibly lucky to lead a team that has been so positive in coming together to make quick and often logistically difficult changes. Our grants team have expanded, our events team are taking our whole six-month event programme online, we’ve launched an emergency crowdfunding campaign that our community has been so generous in supporting, and our schools team who usually organise school-based service learning and fundraising partnerships, are working on a postcard project using student artwork from Honduras. I’m mostly focused on coordinating everything and leading our online communications across our different platforms – making sure we continue to share what we’re doing, telling stories from our projects, finding ways to raise awareness about the situation in Honduras, and promoting our fundraising campaigns and online events.
Which aspects of your work past and present might be particularly interesting for supporters of the Shiloh Project?
At the moment, we are sharing a lot of videos on our social media channels from parents, teachers, students and project leaders from our community across Honduras, who are talking about their experiences, giving advice, and sharing some words of solidarity. For us it’s a great way not only to raise awareness about the situation in Honduras, but to strengthen our community through these shared stories on our platform.
We also have a blog that has some interesting articles on it about our work, which supporters of the Shiloh Project might find interesting.
How are you bearing up and what’s helping you most?
educate. is all about community and community leadership, so we’ve been finding ways to keep our community strong despite being physically isolated from one another. We’ve been talking with our student and teacher community across Honduras more than ever, asking people to share photos and videos about what they are up to, and making collaborative video messages to share.
One of the teachers at a school we work with in Honduras, in a small village called Las Lagunas, asked if we could make a video from our Amsterdam team for her students sharing some advice and words of encouragement, so we got all the Spanish speakers on our Amsterdam team to record a message and we put them together for the kids in Las Lagunas. We’ve had photos and videos back from several of the students and people there. So we’re really trying to stay connected, and make sure everyone knows they’re not alone in this, even though our experiences may be vastly different.
I’m Saima Afzal and I’ve reported before for the Shiloh Project on the work I do as independent equality, human rights and safeguarding adviser and through my organisation SAS Rights. Alongside this, I’m also a local councillor for Blackburn (Lancashire).
At the moment, my life has just gone, and I am running purely on adrenalin, almost in autopilot mode, really, dealing with non-stop issues relating to the council and to people urgently needing help of various kinds.
Lockdown means my phone is ringing non-stop; or, there are messages on Facebook, WhatsApp, email…
I am contacted every day about safeguarding cases. I have six on the go, these are the priority as they are all families in crisis.
Among the things I’m doing – mostly by phone – are: ensuring residents understand the hospital visiting and chaplaincy guidelines; formulating and disseminating advice on fasting at Ramadan and ensuring this is from accurate sources, I need to explain clearly to those who ask for my advice, in a language they understand, who is exempt and how to fast safely at a time when many people’s physical and mental health is compromised; assisting community members who are stranded overseas (I am mindful that dual UK-Pakistani citizens may not qualify for help in returning to the UK); passing on approved advice regarding funeral arrangements (such as on washing the body of the deceased and negotiating restrictions on attendance in line with COVID-19 regulations); coordinating my own volunteering activities and ensuring all SAS Rights volunteers I am responsible for take steps to guard against fraud and other crimes that are on the rise. I am responding to council and resident related issues such as fly tipping, myths relating to G5 towers, or financial queries relating to business grants. These are many and exhausting; as one query is resolved, another arises.
The work of SAS Rights and other local groups has also skyrocketed in a positive way, in that communities and small organisations are coming together more to assist vulnerable people: by facilitating food parcels, stepping up to assist with telephone check-ins and conversations… Creative contact and conversation (including by Zoom and WhatsApp) are welcomed and encouraged. I know I must play my part in these tough times to make sure I am helping to alleviate isolation, helping the most vulnerable and to ensure that the mental health and wellbeing of not just individuals but also of the community remains positive and buoyant. I must admit, I can’t say I am bored!
I see my son and my grand-daughter but I’m missing my mum terribly. She is in a vulnerable category and I am not allowed to see, let alone hug her.
When I can, I try to motivate whoever I can and celebrate the NHS and other key workers. (In the pictures you see me making signs in my garden. My neighbours are doing the same in their gardens). I have some crazy-fun instruments that normally my granddaughter plays with, but every Thursday we are putting those to good use to make an almighty racket for the NHS and all key workers out there providing vital support and services.
My son, a small independent filmmaker, has really helped us capture our first co-ordinated applause, he did this using his drone. I have attached a link so everyone can enjoy the racket we made!
I’m also working on a couple of fundraisers. One is for safeguarding support and we are nearly at 50% of our initial fundraising target. Please see this link should anyone wish to assist with contributions.
The second project is one for the long term, once COVID-19 Lockdown rules are lifted. This one is designed to bring love and fun into people’s lives and it’s my version of continuing community cohesion via ‘speed dating’, whereby pairs of people from our community are brought together to learn more about each other. I firmly believe that good things happen when people connect and understand one another better. Not being disturbed by difference but learning to celebrate diversity is a step that will make us the kind of community we want to be. Maybe something good can be harnessed from this crisis and make us a more connected, mindful, caring community.
Tell us about yourself. What have you been doing and what are you working on during this COVID-19 lock-in.
I’m an author and pastor, although I find it difficult to be both at once! This fall I’ll celebrate my 30th anniversary of ordination, and for the last nine years I’ve put a lot of energy into writing while pastoring part-time.
Two of my three books could be classified as “spiritual memoir.” Chasing the Divine in the Holy Land (Eerdmans, 2012) takes the reader along on a transformative pilgrimage to Israel and Palestine. Ruined (Tyndale, 2016) tells the story of a traumatic experience of sexual violence when I was 20 years old, and explores how that shaped my life and faith through the next decade.
My new book (InterVarsity Press, Jan 2020) is The #MeToo Reckoning: Facing the Church’s Complicity in Sexual Abuse and Misconduct. In this book I widen my lens to tell other people’s stories as well as my own, and intertwine those stories with scripture.
So far during this Covid-19 lock-in, I’ve been following up on podcasts and articles related to my #MeToo book launch. My speaking engagements have been cancelled, of course, so I’m doing more videos and webinars than I had planned to do.
I would love to begin to think about “the next thing” but it’s been challenging to find mental and emotional bandwidth during a time of global distress!
2. Which aspects of your work past and present might be particularly interesting for supporters of the Shiloh Project?
My memoir Ruined explores how my religious upbringing shaped my response to a brutal rape by two African-American strangers — and the response of the Calvinist faith community in which I was submerged. The title is a synonym for shame, which engulfed me. My viewpoint alternates between the 20-something Ruth who felt ruined, and the self who became a pastor and found healing in a larger faith tradition.
My more recent book is The #MeToo Reckoning: Facing the Church’s Complicity in Sexual Abuse and Misconduct. The interplay between current and ancient stories of abuse may be of particular interest to the members of the Shiloh Project. In the introduction I itemize the lenses I bring to the work: “My interest in sexual assault and faith is not academic. I wrote this book because I felt called by God to do so, and could find no excuse to refuse (although I did search for one). I bring certain lenses along with me. As a rape survivor, I am passionate about justice for victims and accountability for victimizers. As a former “good girl,” I am conversant with the conservative subculture. As a committed Christian, I am tenacious about loving Jesus, who first loved me. As a pastor, I spend my days swimming in Scripture. As a wife, I am one half of what turned out to be an egalitarian marriage, thirty-five years and counting. As a mother, my heart walks around outside my body with two daughters, a fact that will keep me poking and prodding the church toward greater gender equality as long as I live. Most of all, as an author, the response to my earlier writing about assault has softened my heart and thickened my skin. I will not be bullied by blowback or made callous to the plight of my sister survivors, and brothers as well. It is time for a reckoning.”
3. How are you bearing up and what’s helping you most?
I am in a very fortunate situation. I am “locked-in” with my husband, with whom I am very companionable. There is plenty of room and quiet for each of us to pursue our own work. We are doing yoga each day and going for walks in the fresh air as often as possible.
We are very grateful for technology which allows us to see the faces of our loved ones — our two grown daughters who each live alone about an hour’s drive from our home, and our two aged mothers, each living in a facility a great distance from us.
Every one of us is living with a great deal of pain and loss right now, on a personal level and a societal level. I find that naming these losses — even trivial ones — and then naming that for which I am grateful, helps me feel more centered and settled during this most unusual Lent. Because I tend toward the contemplative, the practice of praying for others is also essential.
I also look forward to a few ounces of tawny port and a dose of Netflix each evening!
4. Send us a picture to capture you or your work in these COVID-19 days.
I do quite a bit of supply preaching, and had agreed to help a local Presbyterian congregation for a few weeks, which turned out to be the beginning of lockdown. The picture, taken by my husband, is of me preaching via FB Live in my study, with an improvised worship space created by a purple stole, a cross on the wall, and a few sprigs of forsythia.
2. Which aspects of your work past and present might be particularly interesting for supporters of the Shiloh Project?
I think they might be interested in my recently published book on a terrible act of sexual violence in the Bible (Telling Terror in Judges 19: Rape and Reparation for the Levite’s Wife), and my forthcoming one on the use of the Bible in domestic abuse (The Bible Doesn’t Tell Me So: Why you don’t have to submit to domestic abuse and coercive control).
I’m very concerned about the problem of domestic abuse in these days, as people are trapped in homes with abusers, and frustration and anger are riding high. I understand that nine women were killed in their home last week. I’ve been trying to help raise awareness of this issue, and to highlight that refuges are still open and that this constitutes an acceptable reason for leaving lockdown.
3. How are you bearing up and what’s helping you most?
I’m doing okay most of the time. I’m incredibly grateful that we have a garden, and we’ve been playing a lot of swingball! I’m trying to keep a good daily and weekly routine, which includes writing the day in large letters in our hall(!), making sure I always get dressed, and exercise regularly. There are five of us at home here – I’m very grateful that our two student daughters have been able to come home to be with us. We’ve been having some great family times, including a riotous quiz evening, board games (if you’ve never played Terraforming Mars, it’s utterly addictive), and recreating famous works of art very badly! (See pictures.)
Above all, I’m appreciating regular a rhythm of prayer throughout the day, which really helps me to recentre myself. In the mornings, I ‘gather’ with colleagues from the Baptist College to pray. After our evening meal, as a family we have been using the Northumbria evening prayer together – great words for a time of darkness (see here). And at bedtime I’ve been streaming an Anglican church’s evening office. Three very different traditions, and all very helpful.
(Helen is also during self-isolation giving a ‘Tour of the Bible’ in daily short recordings. Here is her recording of Judges.)
Like many introverts, I think I’ve been practising social distancing for many years! But, as an academic, these aren’t times where you can knuckle down to work, wrapped in a comforting cocoon of your own reading, thoughts and writing. Coronavirus brings a real, present and threatening worry that breaks concentration, interrupts everyday activities and the anxiety is real. But, if anything, the social aspects of my life have picked up through making a conscious effort to stay in touch with people and check in on how they’re doing. Ironically, therefore, being connected and being in touch with others are helping me most.
While work sometimes pales into insignificance, there has been an urgent need to move teaching online, to stay in touch with students in new ways, to get to grips with technology I’ve never used before and to continue to supervise students. I’ve learnt that I’m less of a luddite than I thought. I’ve much appreciated and been touched by the genuine exchange of good wishes and the warm relationships we have with one another – whether we are lecturers, students or colleagues.
There have been some days where I’ve found research to be a helpful distraction, too. I’m currently finishing off my volume for the Rape Culture, Religion and the Bible series entitled The Bible and Sexual Violence Against Men. Working with Caroline Blyth, Katie Edwards and Johanna Stiebert as editors has been such a rewarding experience. The book examines social and cultural myths around sexual violence against men: that boys and men can be sexually abused, and this has nothing to do with their gender, sexuality or how masculine they are. At least 1 in 6 men have been sexually abused or assaulted. I’m grateful to feminist criticism in biblical studies that has drawn attention to sexual violence against men in the Bible, and in my work, I’m exploring Lot’s daughters’ sexual assault of him (Genesis 19), Joseph’s rebuttal of unwanted sexual attention from Potiphar’s wife (Genesis 39) and the attempted rape of men in Genesis 19 and Judges 19. As it is Eastertide, it is relevant to mention how I am also looking at the stripping of Jesus as an act of sexual violence.
During the times I’m unable to concentrate or just need to stop, I’ve been able to benefit from the garden, the intermittent sunshine, my companion dogs and rabbit, my hilarious partner and wine.
Tell us about what you’re doing and what you’re working on during this COVID-19 lock-in.
I admit that I have been fairly distracted since I started effectively self-isolating around the 10th of March. I’ve got only a few days, if not hours, left before I go on Maternity Leave with my first baby, so keeping my household healthy and safe has occupied a lot of my brain space.
That said, I had some pretty tangible goals that I wanted to achieve before stopping work, so I’ve been working as much as I can on those. I’ve been adjusting a workshop that was set to meet in-person in July, on embodiment and the senses called What the Body Knows, which now has funding to hire a PhD helper — the workshop is going to be online now, so it has taken some creativity in figuring out how that will work! I am very pleased that the second issue of JIBS, on transgenderqueer and genderqueer perspectives on biblical studies was released last week, guest edited by Caroline Blyth. I’ve also just finished up an article co-authored with Sarah Rollens and Eric Vanden Eykel, for JIBS’s forthcoming issue on Activism in the Classroom, guest edited by Johanna Stiebert. I’m also chipping away at a text book that Sara Parks and Shayna Sheinfeld and I are co-authoring, on Women in Ancient Religions, and an essay on angelic eating in Good Omens.
2. Which aspects of your work might be particularly interesting or relevant for Shiloh Project readers?
The textbook that Sara Parks and Shayna Sheinfeld and I are writing might be of interest to friends of the Shiloh Project. It’s based off of a class the three of us used to teach when we were finishing up our PhDs at McGill University. Our aims in the text book are intersectional, trying to look at overlapping identities that women held in antiquity while providing an accessible and progressive introduction to the topic that will make teaching it easier for those who would like to do so. We invariably will have to wrestle with texts and images which depict or advocate sexual violence given the nature of women’s lived experience then and now.
3. How are you bearing up and what’s helped you most?
It feels good to be working on collaborative pieces right now, and having regular contact with my colleagues (as well as with friends) has been really helpful in keeping my head above water. Work is sometimes a welcome distraction from the chaos outside. I’m also doing a lot of baking, taking my state-sanctioned daily walks in the nice weather, reading non-academic books, and trying to spend quality time with our cat Button while he is still an ‘only child’.
Reflection on and review of The #MeToo Reckoning: Facing the Church’s Complicity in Sexual Abuse and Misconduct, by Ruth Everhart (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2020).
This is not the kind of book I usually pick up – but I’m glad I did. Why might I not have picked it up? The author, Ruth Everhart, is a Presbyterian pastor, and she writes of Jesus as a presence and of the Bible as instrumental in addressing sexual abuse and misconduct in today’s churches. I am not drawn to church, and for me, doing something ‘because of Jesus’ (the title of one sub-section early on in the book), or treating the Bible as a kind of how-to for protecting the most vulnerable (signified by ‘the little ones’ of Matthew 18), as much as I applaud Everhart’s purpose, is utterly unfamiliar. Like humanizing one’s pets, or talking to the dead, I see nothing wrong in theory with believing in Jesus’ active presence, but at the same time it’s just not ‘me’.Moreover, I’ve tended to see the Bible as more part of the problem in matters sexual abuse than part of the solution.
Some of Everhart’s writing struck me as too ‘churchy-preachy’ to warm to. Hence, I almost put the book away when I got to, ‘[Jesus’] love changes everything. He is the divine one who came into this world via vagina. To Jesus, women’s bodily experiences matter. To Jesus, all humans bear the image of God equally. To Jesus, the voices of victims crying out for justice is a beatitude sung by a chorus. Stop and listen. Push past the fear. Unleash the energy. The Spirit is here’ (p.15). But I pushed past, persevered, perhaps in part, because Everhart had said at the outset that the book was addressed to victims, survivors, allies of victims and survivors, pastors, lay leaders and also to non-Christians.
I had ordered Everhart’s book, because I came across it as forthcoming while researching my own book on rape culture and #MeToo. In my book I make much of the enduring influence of biblical texts, particularly in faith communities. And yet, can I really say this with authority, given my own remove from such communities? I preordered Everhart’s book and began to read it soon after it arrived, hot off the press. It is a book that – much to my own surprise – engaged me; a book I admire and warmly recommend. It has taught me much and given me some insight into new perspectives. Here are a few things I particularly like about this book.
Everhart knows what she is talking about and sticks to what she knows
Everhart is a rape survivor. She has written a memoir about her ordeal, when she and her roommates, all young students at a Christian college, were held at gunpoint and raped by two intruders. The memoir is called Ruined(Tyndale House, 2016), because this word captured her perception of herself following the rape. Feeling ruined can be traced back in part to the purity culture in which Everhart was raised and immersed. Her intimate understanding of both purity culture and of trying to understand rape against the backdrop of faith in a loving God also contributes to her acutely sensitive and empathetic depiction of the stories of others who have encountered sexual abuse and mistreatment in church settings: like Melissa, raised and home-schooled in a conservative Christian culture that deprived her of the language to disclose or speak about rape; Stephanie, the pastor who had to recognize and resist the sexism that was creating a rape-supportive environment in her own faith community; Kris, the young man exposed to a sexual abuser who was protected by church structures and secrecies.
Ruined follows Everhart’s spiritual journey moving through and past rape, past feeling ruined, and her choice of remaining in the church and following her calling to become a pastor. I have not read Everhart’s memoir, only her allusions to it in this book. Like other first-person accounts of rape, Everhart’s albeit brief descriptions stay with me. The two book-length autobiographical accounts of rape I have read – and yes, sadly, rape memoirs are a genre – are Jill Saward’s Rape: My Story (Bloomsbury, 1990) and Joanna Connors’ I Will Find You: A Reporter Investigates the Life of the Man Who Raped Her (Fourth Estate, 2016).
With both of these accounts, as with Everhart’s, the victim is easily identified as ‘innocent’. Of course no victim of rape is anything other than blameless; rape is always a dreadful crime, regardless of who the victim is. But it is no revelation that not all rape victims receive sympathy or support. Instead, some victims are blamed – on account of being drunk, or being perceived to have been sexually provocative, for instance. There exists a hierarchy of respectability with some victims deemed ‘more innocent’ and ‘more undeserving’ and others as‘rapable’, their violation ‘understandable’, occasionally even deserved.
This hierarchy is amply infused with perceptions regarding purity, as well as with racism and other forms of discrimination pertaining to class, for instance. Moreover, it is affected by the identity of both victim and perpetrator – and Everhart is well aware of these toxic dynamics. Early on she alludes to the inequalities of rape, including those pertaining to race (pp.7-8), which she returns to repeatedly (e.g. p.49, pp.222-23). Everhart also unpicks the subtle workings of purity culture and its intersections with rape culture (pp.108–32) and the multiple vulnerabilities of class-based inequalities (passim).
Everhart, Saward and Connors’ accounts are all by white women. Everhart and Saward were both very young at the time of their rapes and both were devout Christians – Everhart a student at a Christian college, Saward a vicar’s daughter. In all three cases the rapists were strangers, in two (Everhart’s and Saward’s) there was more than one rapist and the rapists were armed intruders. In both Everhart and Connors’ cases the rapists were black men. All of these factors – that the rape victims were young, white, Christian, and the assailantsviolent, armed, black, strangers – serve to render the victims ‘more innocent’ in terms of the hierarchy of respectability and the rapists ‘more deplorable’ in the hierarchy of perpetrators than if the victims had been black, sexually experienced, older, or sex workers, for instance, or if the rapists had been their victims’ husbands, acquaintances, or famous, handsome, white.
This is due to networks of rape myths and how theseshape stereotypes, expectations, prejudices, values and it explains why some rapists – such as good-looking, or wealthy, white men, boyfriends or celebrities – are more likely to get away with rape and why black victims, or sex workers, or disabled victims while, according to statistics especially vulnerable to sexual violence, more often than not do not get a hearing, let alone justice in court, or even representation or acknowledgement of their disproportionate suffering in popular culture.
Everhart comprehends this fully and reflects this in her writing. She chooses, however, wisely in my view, to hone in on the rape culture context she knows and understands best. As she writes, ‘Because I have become a progressive Protestant, this book focuses on stories within that world. I feel a call to clean the dirt in my own house…’ (p.9). Everhart makes no bones about who she is – ‘a rape survivor… a former “good girl,” … a radical feminist’ (p.6) and she takes a clear-eyed look at the church to which she belongs and feels indebted but which she also recognizes as ‘the culprit… the place where culpability hides’ (p.4).
The book contains a variety of stories and gives insight into the complex reasons why abuse is common in churches
This book is substantial in length and demonstrates considerable narrative agility. It combines accounts ofEverhart’s personal experience, stories of others who have encountered church complicity in sexual abuse and misconduct, news reports (including about the testimony of both Anita Hill and Christine Blasey-Ford), excerpts from written correspondences, and careful examinationsof a wide range of biblical texts: among these, Leviticus 15 (detailing the menstruation purity laws), Numbers 27 (about the daughters of Zelophehad), 2 Samuel 11–13(the stories of Nathan’s parable and the rapes of both Bathsheba and Tamar), Psalm 55, the book of Lamentations, Matthew 10 and 18 (about Jesus and the children, or ‘little ones’), Mark 5:21-43 (the stories of two daughters – Jairus’ daughter and the woman healed of a continuous discharge), Luke 18 (the story of a persistent widow – a text I hadn’t known about prior to reading Everhart’s book), and 1 Corinthians 12 (on theinter-dependent body of the Church).
Everhart is superb at telling and at connecting stories that show in multiple ways that churches foster environments in which sexual misconduct and abuse thrive. She tells her own story, of working in a new congregation and of the inappropriate attentions of a church leader, culminating in his forcibly kissing Everhart. She talks of her efforts first to forestall and then to address this incident and of the many obstructions she encountered. She speaks of how this revived past trauma and also, how her past trauma was used against her.
Alongside this, Everhart tells others’ stories that have been entrusted to her. Some of these describe cases of severe physical abuse (Melissa’s rape by two men, one a stranger, one a trusted friend from church; Kris’s violent assault by a church-assigned chaperone), others of apparently less serious encounters (the misogynybrewing in Stephanie Green’s congregation). Skillful and effective here is how Everhart constructs a church-specific picture of a rape culture pyramid, in which it isclear that the serious crimes that happen in church settings (and which have begun to make the news with horrible regularity) are under-shored by networks and tributaries of rape-supportive attitudes, complicities and suppressions. As Everhart argues persuasively, none of these, even if seemingly small or jocular, are harmless and – if left unchallenged – transpire in the protection of abusers and the multiplication of victims. Atmospheres where sexist jokes are accepted as ‘banter’ diminish and silence women; small sexualized transgressions when dismissed can embolden perpetrators. Everhart tells of the sexualized ‘jokes’ of Big Joe, which go on to influence a vulnerable attendee of his soup kitchen, who then begins to stalk Stephanie, and of Ginni, who is tooready to forgive a sexual predator in spite of his not taking accountability or accepting any punishment. Everhart’s stories are vivid and familiar – even to those not part of a church community. This is because the church setting she describes is a microcosm that, for all its distinctive features, echoes broader social patterns.
Everhart’s examinations of biblical texts are also compelling – and here I feel on more familiar ground. I, too, have interfaced biblical texts with contemporarycontexts. Everhart describes her approach as hearing stories of the Bible and the present ‘in tandem, the twin halves of a double helix’ (p.11). She uses the Bible as an inspiration for seeking justice: Jesus’ advocacy for ‘the little ones’ calls her to speak for victims and survivors and to heal the church; she appeals to David’s exposure of guilt, as well as to his acknowledgement of fault and acceptance of punishment to act as a model for seekingperpetrators’ accountability.
But Everhart is not uncritical of the Bible by any means. Hence, she notes, for instance, David’s mourning for his sons, Amnon and Absalom, but not for Tamar, his daughter: ‘David’s silence speaks volumes: Tamar’s life is not equal in value to those of her brothers. How painful to be confronted with the sheer expendability of females in Scripture – yet this is our religious heritage’ (p.34). Everhart finds inspiration in the Bible – for women’s solidarity in the story of Zelophehad’sdaughters, and for persistence in seeking justice in the parable of the widow and the judge – but she is not blind to the Bible’s misogyny and she is aware of how it has been used against women.
Everhart has clearly studied and reflected on the Bible in considerable depth. I have too – but I learned from Everhart. I found her reflection on the ewe lamb in Nathan’s parable insightful, for instance. Hence, Everhart suggests that the man’s affection for the lamb might point to a particularly tender relationship between Uriah and Bathsheba. I did not know and agree with Everhart that it is meaningful, that Bathsheba, though not named here, is referred to as the wife of Uriah in the New Testament (Matthew 1:6). I also concur that the image of the lamb emphasizes Bathsheba’s youth and vulnerability: Everhart asks, ‘Due to stark disparities in status, power, and age, was meaningful consent possible in the story of David and Bathsheba?’ (p.144) We are agreed that the story is one of rape.
Everhart’s adept and lively narration of stories – both personal and biblical – makes this book enjoyable to read. Her careful analysis of texts from the Bible is balanced with vividly related accounts of actual people from her own circle. The parallels between the two make the Bible stories relevant and alive but without obscuring their toxic potential. As Everhart recognizes ‘Scripture says many things, including many contradictory things. … We must be aware of the temptation to “baptize” what feels good and right because it’s known and comfortable’ (p.36). Everhart avoids this temptation and delves into much that is uncomfortable and painful.
The book not only identifies and explains problems but offers hope and church-compatible ways and incentives to resolve them
Everhart is clear where she stands: she is in the church and intends to remain there. She recognizes the church’s potential for facilitating abuse and wants to be part of the solution for bringing this to an end. She is motivated by feminism and enthusiastic about #MeToo, identifying it as a time to speak up and to bring the church into a movement for positive change.
Among the problems Everhart identifies and seeks to resist are Christian complicity ‘in championing a patriarchal masculinity that marginalizes women and protects abusers’ (p.11); the manipulation of turning the willing sacrifice of Jesus into the exploitation of self-sacrifice, or into sacrifice of the truth (p.35, p.204); the prevalence of a purity culture and a conservative view on sexuality, which can prepare a seedbed for driving sexual abuse underground; the church’s ‘tremendous pull toward institutional self-preservation’ and the ‘intricate web of relationships within the church’ (p.53); and disciplinary processes that do not acknowledge, let alonehonour harms done (p.90ff., 104–06).
Over and over again, Everhart, while drawing on discrete examples, agues that these problems lie not with a few ‘sick individuals’ but with systems (e.g. pp.80-81). She advocates for transparency and speaking out (p.106) and for making churches ‘safer and braver’ (p.212). Hence, rather than holding meetings about abuse behind closed doors or foregrounding privacy and anonymity, Everhart advocates for public laments, in line with the large-scale, public strategies of #MeToo. Shame, she points out, lies not with victims but with perpetrators and resisting sexual abuse is not a women’s issue but a human issue. Without active resistance, she warns, churches will lose all the remaining trust they still have and go under.
Everhart’s book ends on a note of hope, optimism and activity – with a list of strategies for effecting positive change within congregations.
I was left, after reading this book, feeling sombre but also more knowledgeable, and very grateful for people like Everhart and others, including several who have featured on this blog – Jayme Reaves, Rosinah Gabaitse, Musa Dube, David Tombs, Megan Robertson, Laurie Lyter-Bright, Helen Paynter, Joachim Kuegler, Gerald West, Ericka Dunbar, Joyce Boham, Jo Sadgrove… – for fighting the fight in the churches.
I hope many of you will read this book, whether you are Christian, church-going, or not.
During these extraordinary times, our little team at the Shiloh Project (Katie, Johanna, and Caroline – see above!) just want to reach out and wish our readers and supporters all our love, aroha, and solidarity.
We know that it’s far from ‘business as usual’ right now, but we want to keep our Shiloh community going – as a source of support and sustenance, imagination and inspiration – or even just as a distraction.
Over the coming weeks and months, we’ll keep posting material that we hope will serve some practical purpose, particularly for those of us getting to grips with online teaching, but also for everyone still working so hard in academia and the community to end gender-based violence. We will share teaching resources, research, and anything else that might help us all.
If any of our readers have ideas for Shiloh content, please do get in touch!
We leave you with a Māori proverb from Caroline’s adopted and Johanna’s homeland of Aotearoa New Zealand: Kia kaha, kia māia, kia manawanui. Be strong, be brave, be steadfast.
And more than anything, let’s look after each other.