Today’s activist is theologian and Quaker Rachel Muers.
Tell us about yourself! Who are you and what do you do?
I’m Rachel Muers, a UK-based academic theologian working at the University of Leeds. My specialism is in modern Christian theology and ethics. I’m very fortunate to be part of a group of scholars at Leeds who approach questions about contemporary religion from many different academic perspectives, and I’ve learned an enormous amount by co-teaching and conversing with these colleagues and with a diverse group of students over the years – especially when we can also bring in our shared commitments to social justice, as with a new course on human rights and religion. I’ve taught courses on theology, religion and gender, and have written on issues of feminism and theology.
Given the history of my subject, I’ve always spent a lot of time reading, and writing about, great works by great men from centuries gone by. I don’t think scholars always realise the cumulative effect that such an experience can have; as women we get the message, on some level, that we’re not really meant to be in this conversation, or at least that we showed up really late.Although I’ve been enthusiastic about feminist theology since I was a student, it still felt like I was breathing new fresh air a few years ago when I finally had a project that let me quote and cite lots of women from history as theological authorities. It was a book on Quaker theology, and since I’m a Quaker it was partly also the pleasure of spending time with ‘foremothers’. Given half a chance, I’ll enthuse at length about the formidable seventeenth-century English women – from all social classes – who were preaching in public and travelling enormous distances, conducting furious theological debates in print and in person, and facing down everything that was thrown at them for their infringements of religious norms – especially gender norms.
People who know me will tell you I’m passionate about a lot of things. One of them is promoting my academic subject, in schools and universities and to the general public; I hope to have more opportunities to do that over the next couple of years as president of a UK learned society. I’d love there to be more spaces where more people feel confident enough to join in with seriouscritical discussion of religion – and I think that’s a feminist issue, because the alternative tends to be that ‘shouty men’ in positions of authority dominate the conversation.
I’ve recently become a co-chair of the Women at Leeds Network, which organizes events and networking opportunities for women across the whole (very large) institution – women academics, research students, professional and managerial staff, technical staff. The greatest power of the network, as I see it, comes from putting women from different contexts in the same room for the first time, and letting them discover connections between their experiences, their challenges and their insights. It’s not exactly revolutionary in itself, but it’s probably the way a lot of change starts.
How do you think the Shiloh Project’s work on religion and rape culture can add to and enrich discussion and action on the topic of gender activism today?
Working on the World Council of Churches (WCC) Faith and Order commission, with a genuinely international group of theologians and church representatives, has made me more aware both of how important it is to keep talking about gender justice in Christian theology – and how difficult it can be, when in some contexts even the mention of ‘gender’ is heard as an attempt to impose some sort of Western liberal agenda. The Shiloh Project is enormously valuable here both because it’s hosting an international conversation where diverse voices are heard, and because – with the focus on rape culture – it makes it very clear why these questions matter across the world, why gender justice isn’t optional or trivial.
In the year ahead, how will you contribute to advancing the aims and goals of The Shiloh Project?
One of my academic writing projects at the moment is a chapter on ‘war and peace’ in modern Christian theology. As a Quaker I’ve always been interested in bringing critical questions about power, violence and nonviolence – including about the links between violence and economic and social injustice – closer to the centre of theological conversation. And I’m increasingly struck, not in a good way, by how much the language and imagery of warfare shows up in theological texts, even when war isn’t the theme. Invading, conscripting, overpowering, conquering are all just fine, apparently, if they are God’s actions. I don’t think you need to be either a pacifist or a feminist to worry about what effect it has within a religious community when the symbolic space is dominated by images of male power. The other thing I’m noticing is that the way questions about ‘war and peace’ are often framed, in theological ethics, leaves gender-based violence out of the picture. Violence only seems to become interesting for ethics when it’s organized groups of men against men; not only rape as a war crime, but the enormous scale of gender-based violence in ‘peacetime’, receives much less attention. I want to ask what that says about the academic conversation, but also what effects it might have in practice.
I’m looking forward to teaching the human rights and religion course again, and – as part of that – working with my colleagues to get students talking and thinking about the complex relationships between religion and violence against women. I’m going to try to keep up with my commitment to read, cite and ‘lift up’ women’s scholarship.