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David Tombs

Our interview to mark the Day 11 of the 16 Days of Activism is from David Tombs, Howard Paterson Professor of Theology and Public Issues at the University of Otago, New Zealand.

Tell us about yourself…who are you and what do you do?

I am originally from England and grew up in London. After my BA in Theology and Philosophy at Oxford, I had the opportunity to do a Master’s STM degree at Union Theological Seminary, New York. This gave me a sense of how liberation theology could approach theological work in new ways. I started my career as teacher of religious education at a secondary school in Hounslow (west London).  I then took a Lecturer post in the Department of Theology and Religion at the nearby University of Roehampton (or Roehampton Institute as it was then) in 1992. At Roehampton, I taught a wide-range of modules in Christian Theology and had a particular interest in exploring liberation and contextual theologies further. During my time at Roehampton I worked part-time on a PhD in liberation theology and crucifixion at Heythrop College, University of London, and completed this in 2004.

In 2001, I was offered an amazing opportunity to move to Belfast and work on an MPhil programme for the Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College Dublin. It was a big change in lots of ways and a constantly stimulating experience which kept me busy for thirteen years looking at religion, violence and peacebuilding. Then another great opportunity came up to move to New Zealand. I started my current position in 2015 as Howard Paterson Professor in the Centre for Theology and Public Issues at the University of Otago. It is a great privilege to be working in this new and very different context, and have opportunities to explore how theology and the bible connect to public and social issues at a local, national and global level.

What’s your involvement with The Shiloh Project?

I am a great admirer of Caroline Blyth’s work at University of Auckland, and I was introduced to Shiloh through her. We are currently collaborating on a project for the New Zealand Institute for Pacific Research. The project looks at how transformative bible studies might strengthen church responses to violence against women. We have a great team to work with, including our lead researcher, Dr Mercy Ah Siu-Maliko who is based at Piula Theological College in Samoa.

As others have said, Caroline, Emily Colgan and Katie Edwards are editing a collection which is forthcoming from Palgrave. Caroline invited me to contribute a chapter. The Netflix series 13 Reasons was in the news at the time and Otago Student Christian Movement had invited me to do a bible study on sexual violence. I chose to read 13 Reasons Why and 2 Samuel 15-20 alongside each other. It was a chance to see how a contemporary story might open up an alternative reading of a bible passage, and how in turn the bible passage might offer new insight into the contemporary context. With help from Caroline and Johanna I did a version of this chapter as a Shiloh blog.

I have been really impressed by the vision and values behind the Shiloh project. The way it builds and sustains a collaborative space, and links scholars, students, and practitioners from so many diverse institutions and countries. It is an amazing resource for anyone working on these subjects.

How does The Shiloh Project relate to your work?

I have been interested in connections between religion and violence for a long time, and over the years I have focussed increasingly on sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) as a key concern. During my PhD I had the opportunity to travel to El Salvador as part of my study of Latin American liberation theologies. After I got back to London following a trip in 1996, I read a harrowing story which described the violent and deeply misogynistic public execution of a woman community health worker by the Salvadoran military in 1980.

This led me to investigate two questions that I continue to work with. First, how is SGBV to be adequately understood, especially when it is used for torture and execution in such extreme and public forms. What is the wider context and the politics behind such acts? Second, why were the liberation theologies, which addressed the suffering of the people, largely silent on SGBV? Even when such sexual abuses were well known, as in El Salvador and in other Latin American societies which had faced state terror, they were not a focus for theological reflection.

This second question does not just apply to liberation theologies, it can be applied more widely to ask why theology and biblical studies more generally have not given greater attention to these issues. There are of course exceptions to this silence, as the Shiloh Project shows so well, but for a long-time SGBV has been seen as a marginal or peripheral subject by many theologians and biblical scholars.

We have Gerald West visiting Otago next Semester (February-April 2018) and I am looking forward to learning more about the great work he did with the Ujamaa Centre in South Africa.

How do you think The Shiloh Project’s work on religion and rape culture can add to discussion about gender activism today? 

About 85% of the world’s population consider themselves religious, and about one-third consider themselves Christian. So there really can’t be an adequate response to SGBV and rape culture unless it includes attention to religion. Religion is so often part of the problem, and yet has amazing potential to be part of the solution.

In many ways churches are often very well-placed to take the lead in this response because they can draw on huge strengths and advantages. This is especially important in countries where other services are not well developed or easily accessible. Churches are present in diverse communities; they often enjoy high levels of trust and respect; they can offer practical, emotional and spiritual support; they have strong local, national and international connections.

Tearfund is a Christian international relief and development agency that has done inspiring work in this area. Its research indicates that in many countries the churches are the institutions which survivors identify as having the most potential to help them.

Yet there is also clear evidence that local churches and faith groups frequently do not see SGBV as relevant to their real mission or to the Gospel. The sensitivities and challenges involved in SGBV means that churches find it easier to ignore it or marginalise it. Even when SGBV is recognised as an appropriate pastoral concern, it is unusual for SGBV to be seen as having a strong call on church attention.

For this to change, I think SGBV needs to be addressed more explicitly in theological and biblical terms. Put another way, SGBV needs to be a framed as a ‘faith-based’ issue, and a biblical issue, if it is to be a priority concern for the churches. And, of course, for this to happen a lot of hard questions have to be asked about how and why the bible and theologies often ignore, excuse or support SGBV.

What’s next for your work with The Shiloh Project?

The story I mentioned above on the execution in El Salvador led to a paper I presented at the International Society of Biblical Literature Meeting in 1998. This used evidence of torture and state terror in Latin America to read Jesus as a victim of state terror and sexual abuse.

The paper was published the following year as ‘Crucifixion, State Terror, and Sexual Violence’ (Tombs 1999). There is often lip-service to how shameful and humiliating Roman crucifixions were, but very little attention to the use of sexualised violence in torture practices past and present, and how women and men can be humiliated and shamed by public displays of sexual torture and violence. Recognition of sexual abuse and humiliation is not an anachronistic projection back onto Roman crucifixions, but helps to make sense of references to sexual violence in Roman writers, and to the account of the stripping and enforced exposure of Jesus described in the gospels.

Photo by Alexandra Korey. Michelangelo’s Santo Spirito Crucifix, Florence. © http://www.arttrav.com Used with kind permission.

I have continued to work with many of the same basic ideas since then, looking at SGBV against both female and male victims. Over the next two years I will be leading a research project titled ‘When Did We See You Naked?

The research will seek to take the stripping and forced exposure of Jesus in the crucifixion as an implicit answer to the words of Jesus followers ‘When Did We See You Naked?’ (Mt 25.38). it is amazing how rare it still is to take the nakedness of crucifixion as significant, even though so much has happened since the article which it might speak to. This includes: revelations of church sexual abuses; a new awareness of the prevalence of rape and sexual violence in armed conflicts, such as the 2004 Abu Ghraib scandal; the 2017 #MeToo revelations; and many other examples.

I am interested in whether there is still a silence and stigma around naming Jesus as a victim of sexual abuse despite all we have learnt in the last twenty years, and why this might be the case. I also hope to work with another colleague in Auckland, Dr Rocio Figueroa, to interview survivors of sexual abuse to ask what difference, if any, this makes to how they see Jesus and how they see themselves.

One of the lessons I learnt in my work in Northern Ireland was the need for patient and deep listening in the aftermath of violence. People will often remain silent about what is most important to them, especially when they don’t trust how what they say may be received.

Conversations with people in the churches who have not been victims are also very important. There is often a tendency to blame victims, and this can be expressed in subtle ways. However, Jesus is the one victim who the churches won’t blame. So conversations on Jesus as a victim can be very powerful ways to surface and address this tensions. It can help to identity and explore forms of victim-blaming and stigma that may remain hidden under the surface in many churches but are still very prevalent and damaging.

I have found that, as long as the conversation is done in an appropriate way, talking about Jesus as a victim of sexual abuse has positive and transformative results. It opens up silences in churches and allows a new conversation on faith-based responses to SGBV with people who would not otherwise talk about it. So I am looking forward to what the project will bring, and I hope I can share some of it on the Shiloh Blog.

Tags : #16DaysDavid TombsNew ZealandUniversity of AucklandUniversity of Otago
David Tombs

The author David Tombs

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