Today’s post is written by Hannah Buckley, a third-year Theology and Religious Studies student at the University of Aberdeen. In the post, Hannah reflects on the topic of sexual violence and the murder of Sarah Everard from a Christian theological perspective.
As part of my course, “Theology in a Divided World,” I was asked to produce a creative case study that explores a topic related to theology, division, power, and conflict/conflict transformation. Violence against women is a topic I am passionate about but find difficult to express in standard academic prose, so I decided to use poetry. I chose to focus on Sarah Everard’s murder – it is a topic that’s quite literally close to home for me (Sarah lived 15 miles away from my family home in London). Through my poetry, I explore theological responses to Sarah’s murder in ways that capture raw and sometimes uncomfortable realities. Each of the poems is followed with a commentary on individual verses that offers further explanation and scholarly engagement with the themes raised. Some of the verses speak for themselves, so no commentary is required. The aim of these poems is to introduce my understandings of God’s intentions for women as witnessed in creation. Women has a salvific role for the man, and they rule in harmony until Genesis 3. I also dwell on the ways that humanity has failed to honour God’s intention through Sarah Everard’s murder and the police response at her vigil. Finally, these poems introduce a theological response that explores how the theology of the cross must be embraced by the church, but also by women through forgiveness. True forgiveness is not viewed as giving the perpetrator the upper hand but liberating the victim so they can heal. It is not simply, ‘forgive and forget;’ there is no demand to forget. Instead, it releases the victim from a prison of trauma so they can experience God’s healing, and trust in his justice.
Poem 1: God’s intention for creation
God’s intention for creation
1. The Hebrew phrase ‘ezer kenegdo illustrates equality,and Freedman suggests that this title signifies a “power (or strength) that can save” (cited in McCant 1999, p11). This suggests that the woman is defined equal to the man to be his helper but not his inferior.
2. God’s omniscience demonstrates that sequential creation was deliberate. The process of naming the animals enhanced the man’s loneliness and desire for companionship (Groothius 2005, 86). So the purpose was not to establish a hierarchy, but to emphasise companionship.
3. The woman was created from the man’s rib, a body part located in the centre to represent her literal equality (Groothius 2005, 86).
5. Relationships are defined using the theory of fusion. The man and woman were psychologically and intellectually fused together with God (Hégy and Marios 2016, 191). Their lack of comprehension, however, caused them to fuse with the snake and abandon harmony.
6. This refers to the doctrine of original sin, how our nature was contaminated, and so I have used the imagery of decomposition.
7. Jerome’s mistranslation of Genesis 3:16 removes the man from temptation and places responsibility on the women (Parker 2013, 737).
8. This refers to Tertullian who says, “you are the one who opened to the door to the Devil” (cited in Parker 2013, 732). This shows how theologians, such as Jerome and Tertullian, have misused Scripture to oppress women.
10. This illustrates the issue of gendercide. The writers summarise the crisis by pointing out that in the twentieth century, the slaughter of females outnumbers that of males in war (Gerhardt 2014, 16).
11. Introduction of Sarah Everard’s murder.
12. Psalms will convey problems before focusing on God to change perspective towards the remedy – God.
13-15.The first section of the book of Psalms (Psalms 1-41) ends with a doxology and amen: ““Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting. Amen and Amen” (Psalm 41:13). See Lawson (2014, 85).
Poem 2: Ruin and “redemption”
Ruin and “redemption”
Verses 1-9 present the events that led up to Sarah Everard’s murder (BBC News, 30 September 2021).
6. This is a quotation from Sarah’s mother’s statement, “I go through the sequence of events. I wonder when she realised, she was in mortal danger” (BBC News, 30 September 2021).
9. This verse is a description of a photo of mourners paying tribute to Sarah Everard (see Sinclair 2021). This relates to peacebuilding because it emphasises the absence of peace that women presently experience. Sarah’s murder sparked the “Reclaim These Streets” movement, members of which planned Everard’s vigil, and strives to make the streets safer for women. This protest movement is concerned with liberation, so women aren’t afraid to walk outside at night; it isn’t about forgiveness but reform.
10. This links to the previous poem, which shows that God’s will in creation was for harmony and equality, not for division and gendercide.
11. The emphasis in the second section of Psalms (Psalms 42-72) is on redemption. Sarah Everard, on the other hand, was not redeemed, and women are still victims of abuse. Asking for redemption through prayer is the only alternative.
12. This links to the theology of the cross that will be discussed in the next poem.
13-15. The second section of Psalms (Psalms 42-72) finishes with the doxology included in these the verses: “Praise be to the Lord God, the God of Israel, who alone does marvellous deeds. Praise be to his glorious name forever; may the whole earth be filled with his glory. Amen and Amen” (Psalm 72:18-19). See Lawson (2014, 86)..
Poem 3: The “sanctuary” of Christian theology
The “sanctuary” of Christian theology
1. Quotation from Sarah Everard’s family (BBC News 29 September 2021).
2. The church does not believe that this violence is a theological issue that requires a unified response (Gerhardt 2014, 5). Biblical interventions are thwarted because sexual violence is perceived as a secular problem that does not happen inside the church.
3. Despite this misogynistic root, the church response is passive and sexual violence remains trapped in a secular bubble.
5. The church denies that violence against women exists. For example, they preach sexual purity yet fail to recognise that 25% of the girls in their flock have been sexually assaulted. This is detrimental, as no response is given to those who had their “sacred purity” taken away through sexual violence (Gerhardt 2014, 6).
6. One method the church employs is to compartmentalise violence, making it a problem that only women can solve (Gerhardt 2014, 17).
7. A change in perspective is paramount for anything to happen. Despite manipulative teachings, involuntary suffering is not redemptive but opposes God’s intention (Gerhardt 2014, 91).
8. The continuity between poems is established by this numbing truth.
9. Changing the church’s perspective on this violence will enlighten the church to the fact that it is a sin because it deviates from God’s intention.
11. Changing language from violence against women being wrong to being a sin is not enough. The church must embrace their confession of faith to end gendercide.
12. By embracing a theology of the cross and Christ-centred actions, churches can remove their pride and devote themselves to helping their hurting neighbour.
13. If the church resists and actively opposes this evil, women will be restored as equals, and other misogynist beliefs will be challenged.
15. Because of the church’s silence, it is a bystander that allows this evil to continue.
16. This is a reference to Ravi Zacharias’s scandal of sexual abuse as a direct result of the church’s lack of accountability and care (Silliman and Sellnutt 2021).
18. When confronted with his victim, Zacharias manipulated her by shifting the responsibility of his ministry and those who follow his teaching onto her, instead of reconciling or allowing justice (Silliman and Sellnutt 2021).
19. Zacharias’s victim saw his ministry destroyed as an answer to [her] prayer (Silliman and Sellnutt 2021).
20-21. The third section of the Psalms (Psalms 73-89) concludes with a doxology.: “Praise be to the Lord forever! Amen and Amen” (Psalm 89:52). See Lawson (2014, 86).
Poem 4: The vigil as relapse
The vigil as relapse
The first 12 verses of this poem are presenting the events that occurred during the vigil (see BBC News 15 March 2021a).
1. Although public gatherings were prohibited during lockdown, COVID guidelines did allow some exceptions in cases where there was a “reasonable excuse” to gather, but it was unclear if the circumstances surrounding the vigil met this criterion (see BBC News 15 March 2021b).
8. Couzens was accused of indecent exposure in 2015, and this was not adequately investigated at the time. So, if the police force had proper accountability, Sarah’s murder should have been avoided. Instead, women were arrested and given a fine for breaking COVID guidelines as seen in the vigil.
10. This refers to the photo of Patsy Stevenson being arrested at the vigil for Sarah Everard. Her face covered the front page of many newspapers, highlighting police brutality and the continual oppression of women (BBC News 15 March 2021b).
14. The church has been noticeably absent in discussions about Sarah’s vigil and her murder. This suggests that the church did not see this as a theological issue, and therefore did not respond.
15. This response reflects the theme of recovery and longing for the Promised Land in section 4 of the Psalms (Psalms 90-106).
16. There is a continuous reference to prayer, and this is seen as the primary step to defeat gendercide.
17-20. Section 4 of the book of Psalms ends with a doxology: “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting. Let all the people say, ‘Amen!’ Praise the Lord!” (Psalm 106: 48). See Lawson (2014, 87)..
Poem 5: The perfection of God’s word
The perfection of God’s word
2. The main challenge for the church is to look upon the cross so it can understand that the task is to help women and not oppress them.
3. Although the church’s primary concern is the gospel, when accepts the mission of protecting women, it is presenting the gospel through its actions. More people will appreciate Christianity when the church becomes Christ for the hurting.
4. This refers to Luke 9:23 (NRSV, 1989). So, to be a disciple is to do what Jesus did and help women even if it results in your death instead of theirs.
5. In Luke 23:34, Jesus asks his father to forgive his murderers. Throughout the gospels, Jesus teaches us to forgive our enemies. This poses an opportunity for women who have experienced violence to offer forgiveness as a gift of liberation to themselves and the perpetrator (Tutu 1999, 16).
6. To ask for the church to draw their attention to the theology of the cross also encourages women to begin the process of forgiving the perpetrator. There are no boundaries to forgiveness because, as Demond Tutu says, “we may not always reach to that ideal but that is the standard.” Therefore, for one to experience healing, it is beneficial to begin on the path of forgiveness. However, this is a choice and a long process, but with their eyes on the cross, survivors know that with God it is possible.
7. Desmond Tutu’s ability to forgive others is an example for this crisis, as he was able to do the impossible and encourages us to work for reconciliation and peace.
8. Tutu took apartheid as an opportunity to mend division so there is an opportunity to allow Everards’s legacy to likewise mend division through reform by means of reconciliation.
9. This ties back to the first poem that shows gendercide was not God’s intention. God created harmony in the garden as a template of how we should interact with the world and each other (Tutu 1999, 200). So, Christians should strive to display God’s intention through forgiveness.
10. This refers to Tutu’s teaching that emphasises that true forgiveness takes away the sting and allows peace (Tutu 1999, 207). This suggests that women can achieve peace, but it is unclear whether this will make the streets safer or only provide therapeutic benefits.
11. Tutu speaks about clinging onto unforgiveness can place us in a prison of trauma where we relieve the memories of tragedy instead of living in liberation (Tutu 1999, 200).
12. Forgiveness shows it liberates and reflects God’s intention to heal the broken through reconciliation (Tutu 1999, 206).
13. The emphasis on God’s perfection is supported by Revelation 21:4, which promotes comfort to those who are suffering because God’s intention for the future is to remove our suffering and pain.
14-15. The last section of the book of Psalms (Psalms 107-150) ends with a doxology: “Praise the Lord. Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty heavens. Praise him for his acts of power; praise him for his surpassing greatness. Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet, praise him with the harp and lyre, praise him with timbrel and dancing, praise him with the strings and pipe, praise him with the clash of cymbals, praise him with resounding cymbals. Let everything that has breath praise the Lord. Praise the Lord!” (Psalm 150). See Lawson (2014, 88).
BBC News (15 March 2021a). ‘Sarah Everard vigil: ‘All I wanted was to stand with other women.’” https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-56402418
BBC News (15 March 2021b). “Sarah Everard vigil: Boris Johnson ‘deeply concerned by footage.’ https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-56396960
BBC News (29 September 2021). “Sarah Everard murder: ‘Our lives will never be the same again.’” https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-london-58739421
BBC News (30 September 2021). “Sarah Everard: How Wayne Couzens planned her murder.” https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-58746108
Gerhardt, Elizabeth (2014). The Cross and Gendercide: A Theological Response to Global Violence Against Women and Girls. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.
Groothuis, Rebecca Merrill (2005). Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.
Hégy, Pierre, and Joseph Marios (2016). “Understanding the Dynamics of Gender Roles: Towards the Abolition of Sexism in Christianity.”In Equal at the Creation, edited by Joseph Martos and Pierre Hégy, pp. 181-202. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016.
Lawson, Steven J. (2014). Preaching the Psalms: Unlocking the Unsearchable Riches of David’s Treasury. Darlington: Ep Books.
McCant, Jerry W. (1999). “Inclusive Language and the Gospel.” Religious Education 94 (2): 172-87.
Parker, Julie Faith. (2013). “Blaming Eve Alone: Translation, Omission, and Implications of ‘mh in Genesis 3:6b.” Journal of Biblical Literature 132 (4): 729-47.
Silliman, Daniel, and Kate Shellnutt (2021). “Ravi Zacharias hid hundreds of pictures of women, abuse during massage, and a rape allegation.” Christianity Today, 11 February 2021. https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2021/february/ravi-zacharias-rzim-investigation-sexual-abuse-sexting-rape.html
Sinclair, Leah (2021). “Tearful mourners gather at Clapham Common Bandstand to pay tribute to Sarah Everard.” Evening Standard, 13 March 2021. https://www.standard.co.uk/news/uk/sarah-everard-vigil-mourners-clapham-bandstand-b923948.html
Tutu, Desmond. (1999). No Future Without Forgiveness. London: Rider.