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“Women, take the matter up!” Family violence, social justice, and faith

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This post is written by Daphne Marsden (BMin, MTh). Daphne works with Project Esther, a charitable trust that works with and for women to ensure they are valued, respected, and can reach their full potential. Project Esther offers an impressive range of services to women, including wellbeing support groups (Waiora o te Wahine), temporary and emergency accommodation for women in crisis, supporting women of faith who are experiencing domestic violence, and advising church leaders about responding pastorally  to disclosures of domestic violence. Project Esther staff also contribute to the Chaplaincy work in Christchurch Women’s Prison providing pastoral care, crafts, music lessons and a bookclub for the women in the prison.

The first part of Daphne’s post is based on a presentation she originally gave at a 2018 suffrage event in Christchurch, New Zealand, titled  “Women on Fire.” Daphne presented this extended version at our recent Shiloh Project workshop, held at the University of Auckland on 4 July, 2019.

 

Nga mihi tena koutou katoa – Greetings everyone

No Ōtautahi ahau  – I am from Christchurch

Ko Opawaho te awa – The Opawa is my river

Ko Alice raua ko Betty ōku kuia – Alice and Betty are my grandmothers

Ko Fay tōku whaea – Fay is my mother

Ko Anna raua ko Emily āku tamāhine – Anna and Emily are my daughters

Ko Daphne Gracie tāku ingoa – I am Daphne Gracie

No reira tena koutou katoa – Greetings to you

I want to give voice to past and present stories.

The present stories are from the places I work.

Rachel McAlpine’s novel, Farewell Speech (Penguin, 1990) gives voice to the ordinary women who worked as suffragettes. In the novel, we read about suffragette Ada Wells, who had a daughter called Bim. Bim describes the following:

I woke up suddenly and I heard the noises. A thump thump thump, and then a silence and another thump. I pushed the door open and there was father in his rage. I wanted mother to scream but she just stayed there with her hands over her head.I once asked, “Why did you let Father hit you, Mother?”

In frustration, she said, “He was bigger than me.“

Image: www.pexels.com; Text added: E.Samuel

In a support group, a woman shared with us how she grew up in a cult. During her childhood, all the decisions concerning her schooling, social, and home life were made by men. The man in charge was a bully to her family:

“There was so much I wasn’t allowed to do, like simply reading a novel or having friends outside the cult. We had no freedom, we were all controlled. I have come to Christchurch to get away from a very controlling and abusive husband; I brought my young children with me.”

Image: D Marsden

A woman who used our accommodation tells us how she came to New Zealand with her husband of many years. Soon after arriving, he did not want her anymore. He left her for another woman. She says:

“He said he did not love me, he does not want to look at me, and I bring him bad luck. The police came one day when I was injured and in hospital and I got refuge help. I have a lawyer now and I am waiting to know what will happen with our children.  I still love my husband and I feel very sad.”

Image: D. Marsden

A disabled woman’s diabetic son got taken from school to hospital by ambulance. He stayed overnight. When he was discharged they took turns riding home on her disability scooter. She says:

 “He was weak and couldn’t walk far. It was dark and cold we had to do it this way I only had $30 in the bank till Tuesday and couldn’t afford a taxi it would have cost $30. But we did it because we had to, life can be like that, but when you have kids you find a way.”

Image: Marco Verch on Flickr https://flic.kr/p/SnszHw

There is a school nearby our workplace; the teachers sometimes ask us, can we provide bras, underwear and sanitary pads for young women students who have special needs? These requests make me wonder, what other issues are these young women facing and struggling with? Thankfully, there are women school teachers who advocate and care for them. It’s not right though, that the girls who are the most vulnerable in our community have so few resources, and must rely on the support of teachers and charity.

Image: D. Marsden

In the Christchurch women’s prison where I am chaplain, the women often ask me if I can get them a bra, socks, or a pair of undies. Some women arrive at prison in what they wore to court, or in the police cells.  For others, their size has changed or their only bra has worn out. It’s embarrassing for them to have to ask; the older ladies whisper their size to me and I have to explain, “You need to fill out a special form and give it to someone who works here.” In my mind I think, “She will need to keep going through this embarrassment time and again. This is not justice.”

Image: D. Marsden

The role of chaplain involves a lot of listening to stories about gender injustice, women who can’t leave the prison as they don’t have a safe place to go to. Some women say, “I will be sleeping on the street when I get out,” or “I don’t want to go, I am better off here,” despite the fact that being “here” is not an easy option, no matter what people say. It is sad to hear these words from both young women and older women. It is also sad when women come back after only a short time of freedom, and I ask myself, “was she ever really free?”

Image: D. Marsden

Years after the vote was won, a Women’s Christian Temperance Union  editor wrote of the suffragettes,“We, the mothers of the present, need to impress upon our children’s minds how the women of the past wrestled and fought, suffered and wept, prayed and believed, agonised and won for them the freedom they enjoy today.” Gratefully, we walk in their footsteps of advocacy but need to leave our own.  Present freedoms remain partial. Stories still need to be rescued, heard, understood, felt, and resourced so that allwomen have choices.

Image: Deraman Uskratzt on Flickr. Text: D. Marsden

One hundred and twenty five years after suffrage, we still have a long way to go in Aotearoa New Zealand. There are still bastions of patriarchal power which do not enable freedoms or goals of equality and respect. We are told that a nation’s greatness is measured by how it treatsits weakest members.  Women and girls remain in positions of exploitation and disadvantage in every area: education, health, employment, and safety. That our sisters are needing help to access sanitary pads, bras, transport, domestic safety, homes, health services and a basic income screams injustice.

Image: www.pexels.com; Text added: E.Samuel; Cartoon source: https://natlib.govt.nz/records/37118907

We are women on fire.  In our communities we smoulder away; some of us are infernos which people try to dampen down. Fires destroy rubbish, give direction, signal danger, and clear paths. Margaret Atwood says:

Eating fire
is your ambition: 
to swallow the flame down
take it into your mouth
and shoot it forth, a shout or an incandescent
tongue, a word
exploding from you in gold, crimson,
unrolling in a brilliant scroll
To be lit up from within
vein by vein
To be the sun.

I concluded my talk at the suffrage event last year by saying I hope an evening such as this encourages us to keep our feminist fires burning, to gather fuel, stoke up embers, eliminate dead wood, and choke with smoke if we need to. Our fires need to rage and burn the rubbish and dross of patriarchy.  There is so much more work to do. Some structures are difficult and take a long time to burn. I say, let’s turn up the heat. Justice still needs to come. For so many women and girls, things are far from what they should be.  I ended my talk with the lovely words of New Zealand’s most famous suffragist, Kate Sheppard: “Women, take the matter up”

But for now, I don’t quite want to end there.

We have some more precious and significant words from women of faith who journey with domestic violence.

The first time that Sam hit me, he just … I was on the bed and he was slapping my face, side to side like that, you know (moves head) … hurting … and I thought to myself, “I’m not going to cry, I’m not going to let him see that this is upsetting me.” And I just lay there and let him do it to me. Where did that come from?! I’ve not a clue. He just slapped, slap, slap – like this – and I didn’t know it was abuse. I just lay there, thinking, “There’s one thing I’m not going to let him do to me – and that is I’m not going to let him break me.” …. That was so early in our marriage, like, maybe a year into our marriage …. something just shifted in my thinking towards him, from then on – and I was married to him for thirteen yearsCovenant is something to be taken seriously. I didn’t think God ever broke covenants – so if we made a covenant with God, then we shouldn’t break it either. Which sort of takes my mind down the road to, well, how bad is divorce, then?[1]

In secular situations when a woman continues to return to a violent relationship, the question most often asked is, “Why doesn’t she just leave?”

Within the church, however, leaving, even as a temporary measure is a possibility that is frequently denied an abused woman. When seeking help from her faith community it is more than likely that she will be asked a series of faith-related questions which she no doubt has already asked herself:

Have you prayed about the problem? 

Have you forgiven him? 

How have you contributed to the conflict? 

Have you been a good witness or example? 

Have you been submissive? 

Didn’t you promise to stay for better or for worse? 

Doesn’t the Bible say we are to suffer for our faith?

Each of these questions is undergirded by and justified with traditional understandings of particular scriptures, such as forgiving seventy times seven (Matthew 18:21-22), women remaining silent (1 Corinthians 14:34-35), and wives submitting to their husbands (Ephesians 5:22-24; Colossians 3:18).  Literature and stories women share with us continually  highlight these particular scriptures.

Another woman has spoken to me about her experiences of church culture which shaped her husband’s behaviours:

In our church there was a theology of domination. The great God does all these things and is in control and takes charge – and that was mirrored by men being the ones who take charge, and they solve things by taking charge. Women are there to assist.  Subservience and suffering are somehow virtuous in their own right. 

A big issue of course was sex. I was “being cruel” and depriving him of something that was really essential to him by not wanting to go to bed.  

If we disagreed about sex, who gets to decide? Well, he’s the man, he’s in charge, and I’m the woman. How important am I as a person? and in fact, do I even own my body?

Christian women are a very vulnerable group who, in the main, wait longer to seek help for domestic violence than their secular sisters.

The churches that hold onto patriarchy and non-egalitarian beliefs and practices (which I would say areunbiblical) create a lot of hard work. The church is very happy to celebrate and draw attention to itself for the work that women do to help other women, such as providing services like refuge, food, and education. But the church does not want to see or take responsibility for the ways it contributes to the plight of women, especially those who are vulnerable. There continues to be resistance to basic practices like the use of inclusive language and the equitable sharing of leadership between women and men. Church leadership commonly continues to withhold power from women and other marginalized groups in patriarchal and hierarchical ways. There is resistance to appreciating how pervasiveand complex violence against women is, and of course many male church leaders are certain that God is a man.

The patriarchal tenets of this hierarchical model can be replicated in the Christian family and increase the risk of family violence. Some Christian women experience their marriage as a place of vulnerability and danger, as their husband is guided by beliefs adhered to within their faith communities: that a wife’s submission is biblically expected and directed. Abused Christian women describe their marriage relationship as one of inequality, where the greater power is held by their husbands. Christian husbands mayembrace traditional ideas about family and gender roles,especially that the husband is the supreme and superior leader in the home and,as such,has the power to control family members. Choices made by husbands may leave women feeling disadvantaged and, in many instances, vulnerable to harm. The children within these families also suffer as a result of this misuse of male power.

Let me share another woman’s story:

My husband had an affair; our baby was six months old.  Once he was angry with the dog and he threatened, “You wait ‘til I get home, I’m going to fuckin’ kill it; I’m going to fuckin’ wring its neck.” I was frightened. He would get angry with our little son and push him into the corner and I push my way between them, the kids were only little. I’d go back to “you made your bed and you lie in it.” So I’ve made my bed and I’m lying in it.

Research highlights the connection between violence within marriage and the subordinate position of women within marriage. The abuse of women exposes the potential danger of men’s sense of entitlement and their claims to control within the family structure.

In my work at Project Esther, I meet women who have encountered similar circumstances. Sometimes they just want to chat, to ask questions about scripture; many feel they need to justify why they believe they cannot leave the abusive relationship, and some to ask for advice about a safe place to go with their children for a reprieve from violence.

I always feel that it is a privilege to listen to a woman sharing her difficult story of abuse; it is sacred listening which behoves respect. We must do justice with her trust, offer her support, and respect her choices.

********

[1]This and the following quotes are from Daphne Marsden’s Masters Thesis, “Dishonoured and Unheard: Christian Women, Domestic Violence, and the Church,” Laidlaw-Carey Graduate School of Theology, 2013. This thesis is now published by Archer Press(2018).

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An Introduction to the Institute of Women in Religion and Culture, Accra, Ghana

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At the recent gathering of the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians, convened at the University of Botswana from 2 to 5 July, Shiloh co-directors Katie Edwards and Johanna Stiebert met up again with Joyce Boham. Joyce is manager of the Institute of Women in Religion and Culture, which is attached to the Trinity Theological Seminary in Legon, Accra. Both the Circle and the Institute were founded by Mercy Amba Oduyoye who has recently retired as Institute manager. 

The Institute is also called the Talitha Qumi Centre, a name which recalls the (Aramaic) words spoken by Jesus to the daughter of Jairus whom he raised from the dead (see Mark 5:21-43). Talitha Qumi means “little girl, arise!” and is an apt name for the Institute, which in a number of ways works with seminarians, academics, and members of grassroots communities to improve the lives of women and girls in Ghana. 

What follows is an account of the Institute and its work by Joyce Boham.

African women academics are increasingly involved in intellectual discussions in their disciplinary areas, yet in the humanities they continue barely to be heard. ‘The Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians’ was founded to encourage and promote African women theologians to make their ideas, insights and writings available within and beyond continental borders. As such, the Circle serves as a platform for disseminating African women’s research on religion and culture, focusing primarily on Africa’s rich store of indigenous religions, cultures and popular religious movements. Nurtured by the Circle, members from across the continent have begun to write about themselves and about their understanding of and reflections on religious and cultural issues and how these affect them and their communities. The publications by members over the past thirty years since the Circle’s foundation have brought immense benefit to academics and students interested in African women’s perspectives on religion and culture. They have also made the international academic discourse on such topics more inclusive and more comprehensive. 

The Institute of Women in Religion and Culture (hereafter known as the Institute) is a project started in 1999 by the Circle’s Ghana chapter and led by Mercy Amba Oduyoye. One of its founding principles is to disseminate the writings of the Circle to women in grassroots communities. A leading pioneer of African women theologies, Mercy Amba Oduyoye is sowing the seeds for a harvest of peoples attuned to gender sensitivity and gender justice in the religio-cultural space of Ghana. At the Institute we examine what religion and culture mean to the lives of Ghanaian women. Our focus is on the “Way-forward” – or, on how to move from the difficulties and problems of the present towards a better future of justice that honours the humanity of women. 

The Institute focuses on areas including but not limited to: 

  1. The challenges single women face in bringing up their children in the absence of fathers.  

The roots of this issue lie in long-entrenched patriarchal family systems, where fathers are regarded as the heads of families with primary authority over all other members. The absence of fathers (for whatever reason) creates difficulties for women who have to be both father and mother at the same time – but in a context where their status and authority are low, including, often, in the eyes of their own sons who may not accept maternal authority on account of wider social pressures that undermine it. 

  1. Violence against women perpetrated and perpetuated through rape culture, including the use of language in lyrics, proverbs and common sayings. 

To give one example, there is a saying that goes: “even if a woman is brave enough to use the gun, the gun rests in her husband’s house.” What this transmits is that irrespective of how brave a woman is, she is still under the authority of her husband. There is, therefore, no need for a woman to be brave or independent – being a woman is enough to curtail her opportunities.  

  1. Violence against women and girls connected to cultural practices. 

These practices include, for example, trokosi: a practice where a virgin girl is sent to live with a fetish priest to serve him in whatever way he deems fit in order to atone for the crimes of older members of the girl’s family.

  1. Women living with HIV and AIDS and their families.
  1. Marriage, focusing on the marrying of under-age girls. 

While the legal age of maturity and marriage in Ghana is 18, forced and under-age marriage still take place.

  1. Trafficking of persons, especially women and children.
  1. Current or arising challenges.

We ran special seminars on peace and conflict resolution during the election season, because elections in Ghana are often marred by violence. One reason is that politicians sometimes incite youths, known as ‘foot soldiers’ (who are disproportionately from under-privileged communities) to riot and disrupt elections, which has led to clashes with police, injuries and fatalities. The Institute, in partnership with the Electoral Commission, called out to women before the elections, educating them on how letting their sons and daughters be used as foot soldiers is exploitative and has harmful consequences for their children, their communities and the country as a whole. This public education campaign contributed immensely to the relatively peaceful elections of 2016. The Institute also held a vigil and prayer meeting following the spate of ritual murders of women before and during elections.

The Institute has produced publications based on discussions on all of these focus topics. These booklets are available to students of religion of the Trinity Theological Seminary, as well as to students of other universities in Ghana. In this way, engagement with how religion impacts on topical issues becomes a resource for purposeful scholarship and for collective problem-solving.

I have worked with Mercy Amba Oduyoye for the past twenty years, first as the liaison officer for the Circle and later as programme manager for the Institute. Following Mercy’s retirement, I am now manager of the Institute. The Institute is now entering a new phase, with Mercy’s blessing and oversight.

I am planning a number of public events at the Institute, which will bring together students, academics and members of the community. One of these, which may be of particular interest to those who study and seek to detoxify rape culture, will focus on the effects of language, in particular popular sayings, proverbs and songs, in terms of how women are depicted and portrayed. For instance, we have saying – onoo na wo pea kofa, ankaa abirikoo naso afede yetino bushe. The saying translates as, “if that is what you want, you can take it. The orange is eaten ripe, but we want it green”. We would like to discuss such a saying in group seminars to probe what it transmits and how acceptable and accepted people find it. We want to ask, “whom does the orange represent?”, “is it okay to take what you want?”, “what does it mean to refer to a person as ‘ripe’ or ‘green’?”, “if this is about women, how are women depicted in this saying?”, “is this acceptable?”, “if not, what needs to be done to change and how can we be the change we want to see?”

We also want to discuss together ideas about marriage. For instance, what does it mean to say “she has gone to her husband’s house”? How do we understand the dynamics between men and women? Should women keep their opinions to themselves, because they live in their husbands’ homes and not their own homes? How do such sayings unconsciously affect women’s attitudes to their roles, identities and homes?

Our aim in these discussions and with our other events at the Institute is to create safety nets, especially for women. Many young women and girls migrate to Accra where our Institute is located from the northern regions of Ghana. Often they are escaping forced marriages or poverty. But life in the capital city is also fraught with difficulties. It can be difficult, for instance, to find a safe place to wash, or sleep, and that can make them and their children vulnerable to rape and other forms of violence and exploitation. The Institute seeks to work with women who hold some authority and power (such as queen mothers and traditional women leaders), alongside the Department of Social Welfare, NGOs and politicians, to find ways forward to keep these women and girls safe and help them towards lives with opportunities and prospects. 

Another area of the Institute’s attention is to initiate practical strategies that advance the wellbeing of women in rural areas. Sometimes these strategies can be narrowly targeted but make a significant difference. To give an example: in some rural communities in Ghana cultural norms persist that forbid girls who are menstruating from crossing rivers. Unfortunately, when community schools are located over the river, this means that menstruating girls cannot attend school for a significant timespan each month. The Institute offers public education focused on this practice, among others. Education can empower and include girls and work against the stigma associating menstruation with pollution.

The topic of women’s health more generally is an area requiring more action. The Institute seeks in the future to foster public education on early cancer diagnosis, STD prevention and treatment, as well as on other illnesses and conditions that affect women. Reproductive health, broadly defined and including negotiating consent and sex, spacing children and safe sex, is another significant area for more work. This needs to be done in conjunction with education on proper nutrition, regular exercise and maintaining good mental health. These are programmes the Institute hopes to develop. 

 The Institute, while focused primarily on the concerns of women in Ghana, also organizes educational tours for religious studies students from outside Ghana, especially those who may want African women theologians’ perspectives on issues related to religion and culture. 

We also provide workshops and resources for students of religion and theology that focus on the role and significance of gender in ministry. 

Our elders say it is easy to break a broom stick but impossible to break a bundle of brooms. Together we can create a strong and just future. This is our call for partners. Come join us and shape our generation.

 

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The Shiloh Project Visits Legabibo

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Today, Shiloh Project co-directors Katie and Johanna, returned to Legabibo headquarters in Gaborone to meet with Bradley and Lebo, two members of the committed team at this fabulous organization working towards full human rights and inclusion for LGBTQ+ persons in Botswana.

Since the last time they met up, in December of last year, much has happened. Most excitingly, last month saw Botswana’s High Court unanimously rejecting section 164, the law that imposed up to seven years in prison for same-sex relationships.

Homosexuality is now decriminalized – for the first time since 1965 when the law was brought in by the colonial British government of the protectorate of Bechuanaland.

Bradley and Lebo reported that this legal victory was still hard to take in. They have been fighting so long and so hard and now there is a real prospect that LGBTQ+ persons of Botswana can finally access rights – not just the right to free expression of their orientation but also to legal protection from discrimination in the workplace and health care sector.

Of course this is not the end of the road. Legabibo will be busy for a long time to come. An appeal to the court decision from the Government is in progress and there has been a backlash from a number of quarters, in particular from factions of the media (including social media) and from the Evangelical Fellowship of Botswana. This has included threats and incitement to violence against gays and lesbians.

But Bradley also reported that many influential religious communities, notably the Botswana Council of Churches, have been supportive of Legabibo. Support has also come from neighbouring South Africa in the form of the Interfaith Network, which has provided valuable training to LGBTQ+ individuals of faith.

The court case has been a tremendous boost but it also reminds the team at Legabibo how much more is left to do. There is still no legal same-sex marriage in Botswana and same-sex marriage formalized in countries where it is legal is not recognized here. Moreover, the rights of the Trans community, including the right to change gender markers, have a long way to go.

Legabibo is planning a range of campaigns aimed at consciousness raising and disseminating information about the impact of the ruling. These include workshops with religious leaders, traditional leaders, educators, health workers, the police, and with miners.

After a wonderful morning at Legabibo and feeling thoroughly impressed by all the work being done, Katie and Johanna joined Legabibo as members. We look forward to many years of collaboration to come. Given their organized, upbeat, collaborative and holistic approach, we have much to learn from Legabibo.

 

Legabibo

Legabibo stands for Lesbians, Gays and Bisexuals of Botswana and is an LGBTQ+ non-governmental membership organization, registered in 2016 after winning a freedom of association case at the Botswana Court of Appeal.

Legabibo promotes the value of botho. Botho is a Setswana term for a concept better known by the isiZulu term ubuntu. Botho and ubuntu refer to humanity and inclusiveness and are associated with the expression ‘I am because we are’.

Legabibo also promotes and practises integrity, transparency and accountability.

For more information and to become members and receive regular updates on their mailing list, see: www.legabibo.org. For press articles on Legabibo, see: www.legabibo.wordpress.com  

 

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“Until the rain poured down from the heavens on the bodies”: Rizpah and the power of silent protest

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Today’s blog post is written by Siam Hatzaw. Siam is an undergraduate student of English Literature and Theology at the University of Glasgow. She is an editor for Persephone’s Daughters, a literature magazine empowering female survivors of abuse, and is also a features editor of The Glasgow Guardian. You can find Siam on Twitter @siamhatzaw.

“Until the rain poured down from the heavens on the bodies”:  Rizpah and the power of silent protest

The story of Rizpah and her silent vigil (2 Samuel 21:1-14) is one of the most heart-wrenching narratives of grief, devotion, and sacrifice within the Bible. But more than this, its implications are far-reaching as her story resonates with the voices of oppressed women throughout history. If actions speak louder than words, then Rizpah’s vigil epitomises the power of silent protest in the face of injustice.

The Madwoman in the Attic

I frame my reading of Rizpah through the “madwoman in the attic” trope which refers to certain female literary characters. The trope is coined by Gilbert and Gubar in their seminal work of feminist literary criticism by the same name, where they discuss the tendency within literature to characterise women as either angelic or monstrous, an embodiment of purity or an unkempt madwoman. Gilbert and Gubar argue that both characterisations should be killed off as neither can accurately represent women; they emphasise the need for women to be written as multifaceted and developed characters in their own right.

The trope’s name is drawn from the character of Bertha Mason in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, a woman locked away by her husband for an unnamed insanity. The perception of Bertha’s character exemplifies the link between Rizpah and the madwoman trope: madness is continually feminised and thus weaponised against victims of trauma to deride the justness of their cause. Juliana Little explains that:

“Madness has been perceived for centuries metaphorically and symbolically as a feminine illness and continues to be gendered into the twenty-first century. Throughout history, images of mental illness in women send the message that women are weak, dangerous, and require containment”.

This association between women and madness is also represented through the feminisation of “hysteria” – a common theme in Victorian novels and the basis of a medical diagnosis (predominantly linked to women) that the American Psychiatric Association did not drop until 1952.

In short, women and madness have always gone hand in hand. Female literary characters are all too often painted as irrational, overemotional, or excessive – and it is here that we find Rizpah.

Situating Rizpah

Rizpah begins her story already a victim. She is introduced as Saul’s concubine and after his death, his commander in chief Abner is accused of “going into” her (2 Samuel 3:6-21). This leads to conflict between Abner and Ish-Bosheth, Saul’s successor, so Abner defects to David who becomes King. According to Isabel Hamley, Abner’s assertion of power through sexual domination to achieve his own means is enough to qualify the incident as rape. Rizpah’s body is used to assert a claim to the throne, making her “nothing but a pawn in powerful male hands”. The men’s conflict isconcerned with the violation of Saul’s property and pays no attention to Rizpah’s trauma. This comes as no surprise, considering the concubine’s status as “the locus of battles between men”.

David’s Atonement

Fast forward to 2 Samuel 21, we find Israel in the midst of a three-year famine. God tells David the famine is “on account of Saul’s blood-stained house” (2 Samuel 21:1) as he had broken an oath by trying to annihilate the Gibeonites in spite of Israel’s sworn promise to spare them.

David asks the Gibeonites what he can do for atonement, at which they call for the execution of seven of Saul’s descendants: five sons of Merab and two sons of Rizpah. Seven is considered the biblical number of completion, used repeatedly to reference redemption. Therefore, these men can be seen as Israel’s sacrifice of redemption for Saul’s sin.

Transforming Trauma into Action

The seven sons are executed and left to hang upon the hillside at the beginning of harvest, as Rizpah watches with unspeakable grief. Here we can draw a parallel with another grieving mother who stands at the foot of the cross, watching her own son become a sacrifice of redemption. What unimaginable strength must it take for these mothers to bear witness to their sons’ deaths?

According to Deuteronomic Code, corpses must be buried on the same day or they are cursed by God. Hebraic tradition views burial as a sacred rite. However, David leaves these men to rot for all to see – a grave injustice.

And so, Rizpah defies the king. Her suffering sparks something within her, driving her to turn her trauma into action.

Alone Upon the Hillside

Rizpah guards the corpses “from the beginning of the harvest until the rain poured down from the heavens on the bodies” (2 Samuel 21:10). This is a period of approximately six months, April to October, through which she endures immense physical and psychological torture. The sight and smell alone would be enough to destroy anyone – and yet, she perseveres.

Let’s come back to the madwoman trope. Picture Rizpah alone at the foot of the bodies, fighting off the birds by day and wild animals by night, sleeping with the rotting corpses… in all this time, she finds no aid, no company, or consolation. She is seen as a woman driven insane by grief.

But Rizpah doesn’t care. Her vigil is more than mourning; it’s a protest, and she knows she is right in the eyes of God.

Rizpah’s Significance for Israel

We should take a moment to consider why the bodies are left to hang. Samantha Joo argues that if David was only looking to appease God for atonement, he would have demanded a burial. Instead, he leaves them as a warning for those who would oppose him. Joo suggests that had it not been for Rizpah’s presence, onlookers would have slinked away in fear. Instead, because of this madwoman on the hillside, they start to ask questions. Their murmurs spread and eventually reach King David.

Rizpah’s protest was on the verge of dismantling the legitimacy of his kingship, as he had broken his oath to spare Saul’s descendants and defied Hebraic funeral ethics. And so, to silence the murmurs, David gathers the bones of Saul and Jonathan, together with the seven men, and gives them their just burial. After this, God “answered prayer in behalf of the land” (2 Samuel 21:14), and rain falls on Israel once more.

Ekaterina Kozlova proposes that by ensuring the men’s burial in the ancestral tomb, Rizpah’s vigil salvages the dynasty’s dignity. Moreover, it is intertwined with the fate of a nation. Her actions neutralised the penal plagues that wreaked havoc in Israel. Kozlova further argues that these ritual contexts allow women to enter the previously inaccessible domain of male power and turn these solemn occasions into public forums for pressing issues.

Rizpah rouses David into action as, according to the rabbis, he considers: “If she, who is but a woman, has acted with so much loving kindness, must not I, who am a king, do infinitely more?”. Thus, she uses the power available to her in this domain to shame the king into utilising his own power and right his wrongs.

What’s in a Name?

A deeper look into the meaning of Rizpah’s name illuminates the story’s political significance in light of her call to repentance. The name means “hot coals” which symbolises the cleansing of sin.  In Isaiah 6, a seraphim places a hot coal from the altar upon Isaiah’s lips to cauterise the wound of sin. Rizpah, the “hot coal”, served as a symbol to Israel as a cry to repent – when her protest is heard, the rain falls from the heavens and completes their redemption.

Athalya Brenner presents “hot coals” as a symbol of quiet but enduring passion, a slow-burning anger, and purification.Likewise, Kozlova notes that glowing coals or fire are symbolically connected to human life, further proposing that by situating Rizpah’s name (a double light-based cipher) at the intersection of two dynasties, it becomes “an indispensable gloss” on the narrator’s intentional social commentary: to criticise the king’s injustice.

Contemporary Examples

Rizpah’s story resonates with contemporary examples of women who use their trauma to fight for change. Joyce Hollyday relates her to Israel’s Women in Black, and to other groups of mothers of grief who become mothers of hope.

The Women in Black

The Women in Black are an anti-war movement demonstrating opposition to Palestine’s occupation by holding weekly vigils in mourning for the victims of the conflict. Formed in 1988 following the outbreak of the First Intifada, the group now comprises an estimated 10,000 activists around the world. The movement inspired global vigils in solidarity, which became protests for local issues in each country and evolved into an “international network of women for peace”.

Gila Svirsky has written about this movement’s powerful symbolism of mourning, dignity, and conscience; their commitment to nonviolence was a source of strength. She describes a particular vigil before which they had been warned by the Commissioner of Police about an overwhelming threat of violence – and yet more women than ever showed up to protest.

“All of us, with our hearts in our throats, more silent than our silent vigil ever really was, standing there in determination not to be shoved aside by bullies.  People threw things from their cars, but nothing exploded.  And the women continued to stand with dignity”.

It is notable that the majority of protesters were victims of trauma themselves, who channelled their pain into transformative action. As Svirsky states: “Those who were sensitive to the issue of violence against women applied that lesson to all forms of violence and oppression”.

Svirsky uses the Arabic word sumud, steadfastness, to describe the Palestinians clinging to their views despite adversity, not being shaken from the ultimate goal. Sumud reflects the power of nonviolent resistance. However, the media’s reports of the vigils are continually littered with ridicule and criticism. Svirsky writes: “What’s that you say about prophets in their own land?  One had to be really committed – or nuts – to keep plugging.  But we did”.

“Nuts”. These were madwomen in the eyes of the onlookers, like Rizpah, a picture of insanity at the foot of the bodies. The trope portrays women who are vilified, using “madness” to invalidate their cause, women who are called hysterical rather than brave, despised rather than sympathised. And yet, they persevere, standing firm against their oppressors. Both the Women in Black and Rizpah embody sumud in their powerful resilience.

“Comfort Women”

Another contemporary comparison is proposed by Samantha Joo, who relates Rizpah to bronze statues situated around the world which represent the “comfort women”. “Comfort woman” is a translation of the Japanese ianfu, a euphemism for “prostitute”. It refers to the many thousands of women and girls forced into sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II. Joo explores the insidious efforts of governments who seek to suppress stories of and by these women whose bodies bear witness to rape and oppression.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan pressured President Moon Jae-in of Korea to honour the December 2015 agreement in which the Korean government agreed to remove the bronze statue of a comfort woman standing outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, in exchange for an apology and monetary compensation. Prime Minister Abe “and other like-minded constituents” also tried to encourage the removal of bronze statues in Hong Kong, Australia, and the US, as well as whitewashing Japanese textbooks and attempting to change textbooks in Korea and the US. Joo views this as an attempt to “monopolize all of history with their master narrative”, an “all-out international campaign to wipe out the counter-narratives of the comfort women”.

Joo discusses the similarities between this endeavour to erase the scandal of the “comfort women” and King David’s attempts to cover up his collusion with the Gibeonites. The historian’s master narrative implies that David’s hands were tied: he had to sacrifice the men to restore fertility to Israel. Yet underlying this narrative was an attempt to silence David’s opposition. It is a message of terror, which Rizpah dares to confront.

Joo argues that, similarly, the Korean people must resist until Japan’s Prime Minister publicly acknowledges the systematic sexual enslavement of the “comfort women”. Just as Rizpah is the silent presence representing the senseless death of innocent men slaughtered for King David’s ambition, the statue represents the senseless trauma these women suffered through. Both the statue and Rizpah thus become counter-monuments embodying stories which interrogate and destabilize unjust leaders.

Joo powerfully states that:

“If any of us allow a government to deny the injustice of the past or the present by manipulating and perpetuating its master narrative, then we are complicit. We are like the men of Gibeah, who passively watch a king kill seven innocent people. Rather we, like Rizpah, should dare and persist in fighting the master narrative that tries to silence the cries of women who with their bodies incarnate the counternarratives.”

The Power of Silent Protest

Rizpah’s story echoes throughout the history of oppressed women. She is in a dangerously vulnerable position as a concubine, a victim of rape, and a grieving mother. Yet, Hamley argues that it is her very lack of power – exemplified in her repeated victimisation and taking up the only option open to her – that ultimately enables her to achieve her goal.

In the end, Rizpah, the madwoman alone upon the hillside, is vindicated. Hamley states: “The woman, invisible and used in 2 Samuel 3, abused further through the death of her sons, is now seen and recognised… not simply by David but by the God who only brings the famine to an end once justice is done for her loved ones”.

Rizpah’s story portrays the incomprehensible strength of women in their suffering, an ability to turn trauma into transformative action and enact real change. Although she is silent, her actions ring loud and clear as a daring challenge to the king to do what is right.

Funlola Olojede describes silent but open resistance as a powerful tool, particularly in cases where overt forms of protest would be dangerous or ineffective: “Her silence continued to cry out louder than words… her resilience in the face of unspeakable grief as she watched the bodies of her two sons rot away before her eyes speaks to women today”.

Across the world, women who bear unspeakable suffering are not allowing themselves to be broken. They are letting their silence cry out until justice is found, a mirror to Rizpah and her vigil which touched the heart of God.

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Tough Conversations: Teaching Biblical Texts of Terror

bible study

Today’s post is by two Shiloh Project members, Caroline Blyth and Emily Colgan, who talk about some of the challenges they have faced and the pedagogies they have adopted when teaching biblical texts of terror in the  classroom, focusing in particular on their own cultural location in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Tough Conversations: Teaching Biblical Texts of Terror

Caroline Blyth and Emily Colgan

The Bible is a violent book, its pages crammed with “texts of terror” that attest to the ubiquity of gendered violence in biblical Israel. Its narratives confirm the commonality of wartime rape (e.g., Judges 21), forced marriage (e.g., Deuteronomy 21:10–14), and sex slavery (e.g., Genesis 16). We read stories of stranger rape (e.g., Genesis 34), acquaintance rape (e.g., 2 Samuel 13), and gang rape (both threatened and actualized; e.g., Genesis 19; Judges 19). Turn to the prophetic texts and we are offered numerous metaphorical renditions of spousal abuse and intimate partner violence, perpetrated (or at least sanctioned) by Israel’s jealous deity (e.g. Hosea 1–3; Ezekiel 16, 23). Meanwhile, biblical laws uphold the structural violence of patriarchal power, which grants divine mandate to the rigidly prescriptive and proscriptive control of women’s (and sometimes vulnerable men’s) bodies, while normalizing their social, sexual, and religious subjugation (e.g. Leviticus 20:13, 18; 21:9; Numbers 5:11–31; Deuteronomy 22:23-29). Other laws and teachings have been and continue to be (mis)used by theologians, biblical interpreters, and other interested readers to validate homophobic and transphobic intolerance, as well as the delegitimation of queer and transgender identities (e.g. Leviticus 18:22; Deuteronomy 22:5; Matthew 19:4; Romans 1:24-28).

As biblical scholars who wrestle with these texts of terror, we are all too familiar with the emotional toll that this work can take. But are also aware that our engagement typically takes place in the relatively safe confines of academic publications and our own research environments. It is quite another matter, however, to take this conversation into more public spaces, particularly those that lie at the heart of our roles as educators: the classroom. Within such spaces, we need to watch where we tread, for we enter a minefield scattered with contesting perspectives, resistant voices, and the potential to engage with others in ways that can be either healing or harmful. In this blog post, we offer a personal reflection about our attempts to navigate these spaces, specifically in our own context of Aotearoa New Zealand.[1]

First, though, a few details about us. We are both practitioners employed in the New Zealand tertiary education system. Caroline works in a religious studies department at a secular university, while Emily teaches in a theological college. Both of these institutions are located in Auckland, the largest and most multicultural city in Aotearoa New Zealand. This is reflected in our student cohorts, who identify as Māori, Pākehā (understood here as inhabitants of Aotearoa New Zealand of European descent), Pasifika, and Asian; we also host a significant number of international exchange students (predominantly from the United States and Europe). In terms of religious affiliation, Caroline’s university students typically come from a range of faith backgrounds or none, while Emily’s students are Christian.

Regardless of our different teaching locations, we both share a common pedagogical goal: to encourage our students to engage critically with the biblical texts, whatever their faith background. Neither of us approach biblical studies from a faith perspective; rather, we come to the text with a hermeneutic of suspicion, keenly aware of the role the Bible plays in shaping contemporary discourses, both locally and globally. While we both respect the fact that this ancient book holds sacred authority for many of our students, we are committed to teaching biblical interpretation that is rooted in a framework of critical thinking. Nevertheless, as we will discuss below, this teaching pedagogy comes with its own challenges.

In a number of our courses, we introduce students to biblical texts that depict various forms of gender violence. We don’t include these texts to shock or antagonize our students, or to provide them with the classroom equivalent of clickbait. We do it because, like it or not, these “texts of terror” are in the Bible. For some Christian students, this may come as a surprise, as the biblical texts we talk about are rarely the focus of church sermons or Bible study groups. For non-Christian students, there is often a sense of disbelief that a book which carries huge religious and cultural weight contains such problematic portrayals of gendered violence. But to exclude these texts from our course syllabi and lecture schedules would be doing our students a huge disservice; for, to properly understand the Bible, we must have the integrity to confront it in its entirety, regardless of how tough the ensuing conversations might prove.

With this in mind, how do we teach our students about biblical texts of terror? Particularly, how does our location of Aotearoa New Zealand—a country with one of the highest rates of gender violence among developed countries in the OECD—inform the ways we approach these troubling texts? As biblical scholars and educators, we are not claiming that the Bible (or Christianity more broadly) is the sole source of the incredibly high rates of gender violence in Aotearoa New Zealand (or elsewhere in the world); we do contend, however, that it must be interrogated as a text that both supports and perpetuates such violence, particularly given the Bible’s colonial legacy within this country. We cannot afford to ignore the potential for biblical traditions to contribute to the harm experienced by countless victims of gender violence who live with us upon this land. This conviction has informed our scholarly engagement with biblical texts of terror in three ways.

First, when talking to people about biblical texts of terror, we must always be sensitive to the very real possibility that some of our audience may be affected personally by gender violence. With this in mind, we always ensure some basic steps are taken to minimize our own potential to further the harm they may already have experienced. We take time at the beginning of lectures to remind our students that we will be talking about gender violence, acknowledging that we are aware some people might find this topic especially confronting. We also invite anyone who does feel distressed by the content of our discussion to talk to us directly, or to contact appropriate support services (the details of which we provide at the start of our presentation). Equally important, we remind everyone how important it is that the space we are in remains a safe space for everyone; discussions must therefore be carried out with a sensitivity to others’ diverse perspectives and experiences, and a commitment to hold each other’s words and testimonies in confidence. What we share in the lecture room stays in the lecture room.

Second, we acknowledge that among our audiences, there may also be those who participate in the social structures that sustain gender violence. This can be incredibly challenging, particularly when class members voice rape-supportive, homophobic, or transphobic opinions, or try to downplay the seriousness of gender violence in both the biblical texts and their own contemporary cultures. We have had students tell us that the Bible “clearly” condemns homosexuality, or that biblical rape victims must have “deserved” their assault, or that the perpetrator of gender violence was somehow “justified” in their actions. This is particularly common when the perpetrator is a biblical “hero” (like David) or even the biblical God themselves.

Of course, this kind of response doesn’t just happen in the classroom. We have both sat in a biblical studies conference here in Aotearoa New Zealand when the mere mention of “same-sex marriage” in the context of biblical theology provoked an outburst of disdainful laughter. At a similar conference, we listened as a colleague began his presentation with a joke about physically assaulting his wife, much to the amusement of many attendees. Trying to retain a level of professionalism while maintaining the safety of our discussion spaces is a fine line to walk. We are committed to calling out cisheteropatriarchal[2] discourses expressed by members of our audience, be they students or colleagues. This is surely our responsibility as academic role models and, let’s face it, as decent human beings. These conversations can be difficult, but they are also a learning opportunity, where we remind ourselves and others that the gendered violence evoked in the biblical texts can still have consequences in our own contemporary contexts and communities.

Third, the practices we outlined in our last two points reflect our commitment to our role as critic and conscience in wider society. We need to stress to our students (and to some of our colleagues) that the issue of biblical gender violence matters, particularly because ancient sacred texts continue to have power in contemporary communities to sustain discourses of violence and intolerance. Some of our students will take what they learn from our discussions back to others—Bible study groups, youth groups, or simply family and friends. We remind them that their own engagement with biblical texts of terror have the potential to impact other people’s views of gender and gender violence. As Linda Day notes, the students in our classrooms “will be responsible to a wider public, and hence must learn to be aware of how they are either serving or harming others through their methods and results when interpreting the Bible”.[3]

Yet, within our classrooms, conversations about the Bible and gender violence are not always easy to negotiate. We engage with biblical scholarship in a bicultural country, and, situated in Auckland, we are located in one of the most ethnically diverse cities within that country. Our classrooms reflect this diversity. Some of our students belong to cultures that embrace traditional gender roles and hierarchies, which normalize and sustain various forms of gender violence. How do we critique such violence when, for some of these students, it is so closely woven together with their own cultural identities? How do we challenge the unacceptable violence of patriarchy, misogyny, and all forms of intolerance to LGBT communities, while still being sensitive to others’ investment in their cultural traditions? To what extent can we invite our students to critique the traditional underpinnings of their own cultures, particularly when we ourselves do not belong to these cultures? These are incredibly thorny questions, which highlight that issues of colonization and marginalization constantly intersect with discourses of gender violence. We are conscious of the fact that, as educators who self-identify as Pākehā, we always run the risk of “colonizing” our students’ own cultural contexts, of prioritizing our western value systems and ideologies over their own diverse worldviews. At the same time, however, we must always invite them to join us in our quest to each scrutinize our own cultural traditions with integrity, and to acknowledge that all of our cultures and communities are, to some extent at least, complicit in sustaining the discourses that enable gender violence to flourish.

Another thorny issue we are often confronted with is not unique to Aotearoa New Zealand, but is encountered by biblical scholars teaching biblical texts of terror throughout the world. For many of our students, the Bible is not only their course “textbook”; it is also their sacred scripture. When we invite them to interrogate its texts and identify the problematic ideologies around gender violence voiced therein, we often encounter resistance, or even a refusal to do so. Some find it too threatening to engage with any reading of a text that (in their eyes) challenges its authority, or appears to undermine its message of “Good News.” They may refuse to discuss, or even consider, the potential for biblical texts of terror to convey “Bad News” to people who have themselves been impacted by gender violence. Instead, they suspend their critical faculties, unwilling to recognize the violence within the text, even though they’d likely acknowledge and condemn the same violence were it to appear in other non-biblical writings.[4]

Moreover, Christian readers of the Bible (be they students, academics, or otherwise) often resort to performing an impressive display of interpretive gymnastics to sanitize the text and preserve its sacred reputation in which they are so heavily invested. Prophetic re-enactments of spousal abuse are dismissed as “harmless metaphors”; biblical laws that sanction wartime rape are justified as “relatively humanitarian” compared to other Ancient Near Eastern legal codes; and biblical heroes such as Abraham and David, who perpetrate unequivocal acts of gendered violence, are excused because they are “doing God’s work,” playing a vital role in Israel’s (and ultimately Christianity’s) wider redemptive narrative. Meanwhile, biblical texts that offer a potentially subversive alternative to cisheteronormative discourses—such as the David and Jonathan narratives (1 Sam 19–20; 2 Sam 1), the book of Ruth, the Samson and Delilah saga (Judg 16), the Judas kiss (Mark 14:43–45), and the eunuch traditions (Isa 56:3–5; Acts 8:27–39)—are typically given very “straight” readings, with their queer potentialities either ignored, ridiculed, or denied.

Yet such exegetical contortions only serve to sustain a vicious cycle of interpretation and affirmation that protects the destructive power of biblical texts of terror. As critic and conscience both in and beyond the biblical studies academy, we therefore have to equip our students to consider the capacity of the text to perpetuate gender violence in all its forms. While affirming our respect for everyone’s faith traditions, we nevertheless reiterate to them the responsibility we all have to ask searching questions about biblical texts.  We remind them of the power that language—particularly sacred language—has to impact the lives of real people and their experiences of violence. And, most importantly, we offer them a safe and non-judgmental space within which they can interrogate and explore their sacred scriptures.

In all honesty, sometimes this works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Some of our students have told us that they truly appreciate the opportunity to discuss gender violence, which remains such a taboo topic in their own cultures and communities. When they encounter such violence in the biblical narrative, they feel empowered to talk openly about these issues in church and family contexts. As sacred scripture, the Bible can mitigate strict cultural taboos, offering a point of entry for discussions around contemporary instances of gender violence. The Bible ceases to be an “otherworldly” text that has little relevance to everyday life, and becomes instead a means by which social praxis is fostered and enacted.

Yet at other times, our attempts to talk to students about biblical gender violence are far less well received. We still encounter those who disengage, or become frustrated with the subject matter. Some even project their frustrations against us—the bearers of “Bad News”—articulating their hostility in discussions, emails, and their written work (not to mention on social media). We have been accused of “misreading” the biblical texts, of having a “feminist agenda,” or being “biased towards LGBT concerns” in our research and teaching, and of being “anti-Christian” in our approach to scriptural traditions. Such encounters can be demoralizing, frustrating, and exhausting—both for ourselves and for those students who feel as passionately as we do about our responsibilities as critic and conscience. At the end of the day, though, these criticisms only serve to reinforce for us the importance of persisting—and persisting and persisting—with these tough conversations in Aotearoa New Zealand and beyond.

Notes

[1]Aotearoa is the most widely-used Māori name for New Zealand, and often precedes its English counterpart when the country is written or spoken about. The precise origins and meaning of Aotearoa are uncertain, but it is often translated as “land of the long white cloud.”

[2]This rather wordy word sums up quite neatly the dominant discourses within western cultures that normalize cisgendered, heterosexual, and hegemonic masculine identities while simultaneously othering or delegitimizing anyone who does not fit into these categories, be they transgender or gender diverse, other-than-heterosexual, female, and/or non-compliant with traditional masculine ideals.

[3]Linda Day, “Teaching the Prophetic Marriage Metaphor Texts,” Teaching Theology and Religion2, no. 3 (1999): 173–9 (citation p.174).

[4]Day, “Teaching the Prophetic Marriage Metaphor Texts,” p.176.

 

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Violence in Marriage: A Closer Look at Numbers 5

Spilled water

The following post by Shiloh Project co-director Johanna Stiebertfollows on from an earlier recent post on marriage, the Bible and violence.

In this post, I want to focus on one specific text of the Hebrew Bible: Numbers 5:11-31, which prescribes what to do if a husband suspects his wife of adultery. I will demonstrate how this text not only describes but also legitimates gender-based violence in marriage. Moreover, while scholars describe the law as ‘particularly perplexing’ (Friedman 2012, 371), or comment that we may be ‘understandably puzzled by this unique episode’ (Britt 2007, 05.7), Numbers 5 is also in some ways disturbingly familiar, even today.

Numbers 5:11-31 is unusually detailed. It is emphatically about violence in the context of marriage and it clearly describes religious violence – given that the ritual is performed in front of a priest, at the Tabernacle, and repeatedly alludes to holy water, offerings, and God.

It seems Numbers 5 is not widely known or widely referred to in contemporary Christian contexts. In Judaism, being part of the Torah, the first and most holy and authoritative portion of the sacred scriptures, it is read annually in the Shabbat reading cycle. But there are no intra-biblical references or allusions to performance of the elaborate ritual. With its emphasis on quasi-magical ritual performed in a Tabernacle, or Temple, that no longer exists, it is a passage that could be said to be particularly obscure, even irrelevant. And yet, in the Talmud, the influence of Numbers 5 extends well beyond the time that the ritual was declared void (see Haberman 2000).

Gendered Injustice and Divine Legitimation of the Ritual

The ritual of Numbers 5:11-31 is gender-specific, applying only to a womansuspected of adultery. Elsewhere in the Torah, adultery is depicted as a grievous crime and the death penalty is stipulated as punishment for bothparties involved – the man andthe woman (Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:22-29). It must be added, though, that here too, indications are that adultery is a lopsided matter, which occurs when a womanis either married or betrothed and has sexual relations with someone other than her husband. A married man, on the other hand, can have sex with other women, without committing adultery, as long as the women are not married or betrothed to another man.Also notable about Numbers 5 is that, from the outset, there is insistent reference to religious authority: the ritual is ascribed to the word of God using the holy name (YHWH), is transmitted to Moses, his preeminent prophet, and is to be administered by the priest.

The priest is particularly active in the execution of the ritual. The woman is brought to the priest and it is he who positions her ‘before the Lord’ (v.16), who takes sacred water and prepares a potion (v.17), who dishevels the woman’s hair and places a ‘jealousy offering’ in her hand (v.18), who holds the potion (v.18), who adjures and administers a curse (vv.19-22), who puts curses in writing (v.23), who makes the woman drink the potion (v.24), and who burns the offering (vv.25-26). The woman, by contrast, is active only insofar as saying ‘amen, amen’ to the curse pronounced on her. Otherwise, everything is done toher.For Susanna Towers, ‘[t]he embedding of her consent to the curse reinforce[s] the passive role she plays in the ritual’ (2014, see here). Brian Britt, similarly, concludes that the woman ‘is treated like a living mannequin by the men’ (2007, 05.3, see here).

For feminist commentator Alice Bach, the emphasis on men’s control of the woman in Numbers 5 reflects male anxiety about female erotic desire. Bach interprets the text to assert ‘dominance over women’s bodies’ and to assure a husband ‘that his honor could be restored if he had so much as a suspicion that his wife had been fooling around’ (1999, 506). Ishay Rosen-Zvi agrees that the ritual constitutes ‘the ultimate cure for male fears, presenting the rebellious woman as passive, controlled, publicly exposed and ultimately stripped of all her seductive powers’ (2006, 276, see here).

Gender-Based Violence and its Religious Legitimation

Important to emphasize is the violence of this text. There is physical violence, or injury to the body: hence, if the woman is guilty, the potion will ensure ‘that her belly will distend and her thigh … sag’ (5:27). This is expressed as the consequence of the woman being a curse and an imprecation among her people, and seems to happen directly upon ingesting the potion prepared by the priest (5:21-22). Alongside this, there is also the possibility of psychological and emotional violence, given that the woman is suspected of a crime and subjected to an ordeal in which she is exposed and put on trial in a sacred and possibly public setting. She is also at risk of social exclusion and ostracism if she is found guilty of adultery (5:27).

Richard Friedman discusses several commentators who argue that because a potion ‘of “holy” water, dust from the Tabernacle floor, and ink from words on a parchment… cannot be guaranteed to produce prolapsed uteri or any other particular condition in all guilty adulteresses… the law’s effect was precisely to find all women not guilty and thus to prevent “lynchings”’ (2012: 372, see here). In other words, the law is sometimes considered as having the ultimately benign purpose of both assuaging a jealous husband by having an elaborate ritual that validates and also allays his anxieties and, simultaneously, not harming (allegedly) and even protecting the woman. For a number of reasons, I find this unlikely.

First, there is Mary Douglas’s question: ‘is it plausible to argue that [lawmakers] tend to codify nonsense – arbitrary enactments?’ (1984, 47). I agree with her that it is not. Whoever may have recorded and transmitted the text in Numbers 5:11-31, for them to record and transmit a text so detailed and precise, in the full knowledge that the ritual described is basically a smokescreen to protect women from their husbands’ jealousy, is highly improbable.

Second, it is also unlikely that if such a ritual was practiced, it did no harm to the woman – even if the potion was no more than a placebo. Her husband suspects her of adultery and this suspicion is brought to the priest and possibly made known also to other members in the community – this alone is likely to cause the woman great distress. If the societies in the background of Hebrew Bible texts are indeed shame cultures – as proposed by numerous commentators – the woman’s distress would have been acute. Additionally, there is the elaborate and formal ritual and the fear of punishment. If the ritual is able to assuage the husband, its curse and punishments are likely to have been believed in – or, at the very least, sufficient gravitas and dignity would need to have been conferred on the ritual for it to have any efficacy in restoring either the woman’s public standing or the husband’s emotional equilibrium.

I find it disturbing that some interpreters consider the ritual to be protectiveof the woman. If that is the case, not only does protection come with elaborate accommodation to husbands’ jealousies but it also comes at considerable cost to the woman. The question arises: is such ‘protection’ worth having?

Presumption of Guilt

In a number of ways, the ritual is very much stacked against the woman. It is supposed to determine her guilt and yet, while the potion may eithercause her harm orexonerate her should she be innocent, leaving her ‘unharmed’ and able to retain seed (that is, remain pregnant or become pregnant) (vv.27-28), the opening statement presumesher guilt. The reference is to a woman who hasgone astray (from ś-t-h) and who has broken faith (m-‘-l)with her husband (v.12). This is then elaborated upon: the straying refers to another man who has had sex with the woman (male initiative is presumed – š-k-bis a verb that males perform). The sexual activity has involved šikbat-zera‘(‘lying of seed’), presumably penetrative sex and ejaculation (v.13), and this has been hidden from the eyes of the husband. Moreover, the woman, we are told, has kept secret that she was defiled or that she has defiled herself (the verb is from t-m-’ and in nifal form, which can indicate either a passive or a reflexive voice),but there was no witness to the event, nor was she forced (v.13). So, a man other than her husband had sex with her but shedefiled herself. She is accused of secrecy and somehow (though it is not clear how) it is supposed that she was not forced. On the one hand, her agency is undermined by her passive role (the man took initiative – but she has becomedefiled or defiled herself). But her passivity does not remove responsibility. She alone is responsible for what was done to her.

In Numbers 5 the woman’s collusion is, to begin with, assumed: if she had sex with another man, the only possibility under consideration is that there was no physical force. No physical force is equated with compliance, possibly complicity. There is no other witness. Strikingly, establishing the identity of the other man, an adulterer, is not a preoccupation. Unlike in Deuteronomy 22, hisresponsibility, hiscrime or hispunishment, is of no interest to either the woman’s husband or the lawmakers. Attention is on the woman alone – she is the sole focus of her husband’s jealousy, she is the sole reason that a ‘spirit of jealousy’ has come upon him. The possibility  that the woman is innocent of this charge is acknowledged, but only after the possibility of her adultery has been fully laid out (v.14).

Jealousy

The Hebrew words for ‘jealous’ and ‘jealousy’ are from q-n-’, which is also sometimes translated ‘ardent/ardour’ or ‘zealous/zeal’. There is reference elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible to jealous husbands (Proverbs 6:34) and to the emotional intensity of jealousy (Proverbs 27:4; Ecclesiastes 4:4; 9:6). Britt identifies it as ‘an exclusively male passion’ (2007, 05.6). Interestingly, the word is applied regularly to God, often with reference to divine violence and revenge: ‘zeal of YHWH of Hosts’ (2 Kgs 19:31; see also Exod. 20:5; Deut. 5:9; 29:19; 32:19-22; Josh. 24:19; Isa. 9:6; 26:11; 37:32; 42:13; 59:17; 63:15; Ezek. 5:13; 35:11; 36:5-6; 38:19; Zeph. 1:18; 3:8; Zech. 1:14; 8:2; Ps. 79:5.

Sometimes jealousy is associated also with others in authority: approvingly, for instance, in a divine pronouncement about the (violent!) zeal of Phinehas the priest (Numbers 25:11). Jealousy may be self-destructive (Gen. 30:1; Prov. 3:31; 23:17; 24:1, 19), or plain destructive and occasionally futile (Job 5:2; Eccl. 4:4; 9:6; Pss 37:1; 73:2-3; Prov. 14:30) and decidedly negative (Gen. 37:11; Isa. 11:13) but it is also associated with, or valorized as, great love (Song 8:6; Isa. 63:15) or ardour forYHWH (2 Kgs 10:16; cf. Pss 69:10; 119:139).

So, while there are some biblical passages that depict human jealousies in pejorative terms, as futile, ill-advised, or destructive, a number of points serve to underpin and legitimate the husband’s jealousy and the religious violence that results from it:

  • first, the positive association of jealousy with love, and with men of God (such as with Phinehas) but above all with God himself
  • second, the sense of righteous anger, anxiety and outrage leveled at adultery and women’s infidelity
  • third, the prominent depiction of God himself as either angry avenger or – more pointedly – as spurned husband of an unfaithful wife exacting effusive and violent punishment that is depicted as justified.

In the God-as-husband metaphor, familiar from prophetic writing, God’s jealous rage is depicted as a legitimate and proportionate response to the people’s excessive sinning, which is likened to a depraved woman’s adultery. This leads up to violent punishment for the metaphorical woman, with Ezek. 16:38, 42 and 23:25 providing the most sustained examples. God and Phinehas can behave violently, and their violence is depicted as justifiable, even legitimate. Jealousy, moreover, is a mark of ardent love or devotion – even if it can turn nasty when disappointed. In a troubling way, therefore, the jealousy of Numbers 5 masks and downplays the violent damage it causes.

The closing words of the passage confirm that this is what is to be done when a man is jealous. The role of both YHWH and priest are restated once more and the closing verse pronounces that the husband is clear of guilt while the woman shall suffer for her guilt.

Reading Numbers 5 in the Context of Present-Day Rape Culture

One thing that is familiar about this passage is the association between, on the one hand, jealousy and, on the other, violence exerted against an intimate partner. Jealousy – in particular male jealousy – is prevalent in contemporary reports of domestic violence and intimate partner violence (cf. Britt 2007, 05.6).

A second affinity between the ritual of Numbers 5 and contemporary settings pertains to exposure in courts of law. In Numbers 5 the woman is treated as guilty of adultery until proven innocent; similarly, so-called complainants in sexual assault cases that go to court – and most do not –often report feeling as though theywere the ones on trial (which they are not), rather than the defendant. and under scrutiny. In Numbers 5, the woman is brought before YHWH and her head is bared, her hair loosened or disheveled, which appears to be an action designed to serve no purpose other than embarrass, expose, or humiliate her; in the court rooms today, women bringing forward cases of rape are also exposed in ways that are likewise highly distressing. Recent cases have, for instance, included a woman having to hold up her underwear in the court room, the disclosure of a rape victim’s sexual history and testimony from former lovers to undermine her capacity for consent, and the possibility of investigating complainants’ entire phone text history and social media presence, inclusive of private messaging, with the possible intention of casting aspersions on their character.

How can we account for or make sense of such parallels? Are they coincidental? Has the violence described in the Bible and transmitted in a text of such long-standing religious authority contributed to patterns of violence in our present? Do both signify variants of rape culture? Or, do we simply see what we recognize?

Britt suggests four possible options in going forward with a text like Numbers 5:

to ignore the text, reject it, neutralize it, or subvert it.

I agree with Britt that ignoring or rejecting the text ‘offer[s] nothing to those who cannot overlook the influence or authority of the Bible’ (2007, 05.2).

Neutralizing readings might be those that dismiss Numbers 5 as an archaic relic, or that excuse it, by arguing that in placing punishment in the hands of God, women are protected from jealous men. Yet, as I stated above, this fails to acknowledge the violence of the text, including the collusion of religious violence. (It is in some ways the equivalent of saying ‘it’s not really so bad’ when it actually is.) As Britt also draws out, neutralizing a text only qualifies or brackets out its meaning.

The way that Britt chooses to address Numbers 5 is subversion: hence, he offers two reading strategies, influenced by Luce Irigaray and Judith Butler: the first reversesthe thrust of the text, throwing suspicion on the accusing husband and the second parodiesthe text by reading it alongside the exchange of sandals ceremony of Ruth 4. I like the cleverness of intertextual play in Britt’s argument but I am not seeking, like him, to change the text into something else.

My purpose is above all to call out and rail at the violence of the text, because it is so clearly a text of religious violence and of violence in marriage – and yet all too rarely called out by biblical readers and interpreters for being such.

Numbers 5 is not unequivocally about rape (although it does not rule out that the woman might have been raped – not being physically forced or injured does not mean rape did not occur – see here) but it is suggestive of rape culture – of gender-based violence that ranges from accusations and humiliations to physical harm. This spectral violence, moreover, is legitimated – on the grounds that the accuser (the husband), who is exonerated from all guilt, cannot help himself (given his intense jealousy). High religious authority – God and the priest – further legitimates the violence inherent within this religious ritual.

The effect of this is toxic, including in contemporary contexts, where, for all the professed oddity of the text, aspects of it – namely the directionality of gender-based violence (i.e. most often perpetrated by men against women), the victim-blaming, and the humiliating public exposure – echo with uncomfortable familiarity. I maintain that it is important to call out, to question and to resist such a text. Numbers 5 may not be the best known or the most directly influential of biblical traditions, but it exemplifies well the strata and expressions of violence familiar and resonant up to the present day.

Works Cited

Bach, Alice. 1999. ‘Good to the Last Drop: Viewing the Sotah (Numbers 5:11-31) as the Glass Half Empty and Wondering How to View It Half Full’. In Women in the Hebrew Bible: A Reader.Edited by Alice Bach. New York and London: Routledge, pp.503–22. ISBN 978-0415915618.

Britt, Brian. 2007. ‘Male Jealousy and the Suspected Sotah: Toward a Counter-Reading of Numbers 5:11-31’. The Bible and Critical Theory3/1: 05.1-05.19. DOI: 10.2104/bc070005. Available online: file:///C:/Users/User/Downloads/124-480-1-PB.pdf

Douglas, Mary. 1984[1966]. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London, New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-203-12938-5.

Friedman, Richard Elliott. 2012. ‘The Sotah:Why Is This Case Different From All Other Cases?’ In Let Us Go Up to Zion: Essays in Honour of H. G. M. Williamson on the Occasion of his Sixty-Fifth Birthday(Vetus Testamentum Supplements 153). Edited by Iain Provan and Mark Boda. Leiden: Brill, pp.371–82. ISBN: 978-90-04-22658-6. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1163/9789004226586.

Haberman, Bonna Devora. 2000. ‘The Suspected Adulteress: A Study of Textual Embodiment’. Prooftexts20: 12–42.

Rosen-Zvi, Ishay. 2006. ‘Measure for Measure as Hermeneutical Tool in Early Rabbinic Literature: The Case of Tosefta Sotah’. Journal of Jewish Studies57/2: 269–86. Available online: https://www.academia.edu/257307/Measure_for_Measure_As_a_Hermeneutical_Tool_In_Early_Rabbinic_Literature_The_Case_of_Tosefta_Sotah

Towers, Susanna Clare. 2014. ‘An Analysis of Philo’s Exegesis of the Sotah Ritual’. Women in Judaism: A Multidisciplinary E-Journal11/1. ISSN: 1209-9392. Available online: https://wjudaism.library.utoronto.ca/index.php/wjudaism/article/view/21735

 

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Sticks and Stones: Symbolic Violence and the Conservative Christian “Transgender Debate”

sticks and stones pic

In this post, Shiloh co-lead Caroline Blyth talks about her current research on symbolic violence and conservative Christian responses to the “transgender debate.” 

Sticks and Stones: Symbolic Violence and the Conservative Christian “Transgender Debate”

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Really? Critical theorists, such as Slavoj Žižek and Pierre Bourdieu,have long highlighted the fallacy of this well-worn phrase, contending that language (written, oral, and visual) can be a source of symbolic violence, which has the capacity to inflict profound injury. In my current research, I am exploring the transphobic violence embedded in conservative Christian interpretations of the Bible, which high-profile conservative Christian pastors and theologians disseminate to sizable audiences via blog posts, websites, videos, online sermons, popular books and articles, social media postings, and official church statutes. Appealing to specific biblical texts, they repeatedly insist that transgender (trans) identities are the result of a “fallen” world; that trans individuals are “sinners” whose very identities are a “rebellion” against God’s design; and that trans people therefore pose grave danger to Christian “family values.”They advise fellow Christians to evangelize trans people through “love” and compassion, urging them to “repent” and renounce their “disordered” and “confused” gender identities.

These discussions have been particularly prevalent over the past few years, as conservative Christian pastors, theologians, lobby groups, and churches clamour to participate in (what they refer to as) the “transgender debate.” While this “debate” by no means explicitly advocates for or defends the use of physical violence against trans people, it does nevertheless represent a dangerous form of symbolic violence, which sanctions and justifies the intolerance and marginalization—the othering—of trans people. In other words, the transphobic language and ideas expressed in this “transgender debate” (even when couched in the language of Christian “love”) have the potential to shape particular understandings of and responses to trans identities, and toperpetuate and validate the daily injustices and acts of violence experienced by trans people the world over. This language is violent – words can indeed “break bones.”

Conservative Christian groups (and religious communities more broadly) are not the only participants to enter into this “transgender debate”; it is something we hear spoken about repeatedly within wider secular culture. If you do a quick Google search of “transgender debate,” you will get literally millions of hits—so many people (most of them cisgender) seem intent on spreading their outrage and intolerance about issues as diverse as gender-neutral bathrooms, trans women in sport, and the appropriate care of trans children. All of these engagements in the “transgender debate” serve to question the authenticity and validity of transgender identities and to challenge the very right of trans people to exist. And if you look closely, there is actually very little “debate” going on here—minds have already been made up, and dissenting voices are ignored or shouted down. At the same time, participants in the “transgender debate” rarely if ever seek to include the voices of trans people in their discussions. Trans people are spoken about, but rarely spoken with.

Why should we be concerned about the “transgender debate”? Well, despite this significant increase in the visibility and awareness of trans people in public life and the media, transphobic violence remains ubiquitous. As trans rights advocate, Masen Davis, notes:

Right now we’re experiencing a Dickensian time, where it’s the best of times and it’s the worst of times at once … We’re seeing a marked increase in the public awareness about transgender people and really incredible progress for trans rights, especially from a legal perspective. At the same time, we still represent and are part of a community that experiences incredibly high rates of unemployment, poverty and violence. (quoted in Steinmetz 2015)

Transphobia can impact all areas of trans peoples’ lives, including those everyday things that people often take for granted.A US survey carried out by the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) in 2015 interviewed 27,715 trans people nationwide, who reported high levels of mistreatment, harassment, and violence, including physical and sexual violence, verbal bullying, and workplace discrimination (NCTE 2016). Similarly, a study carried out by civil rights group Transgender Europe (2016) documented over 2,000 murders of trans people within sixty-five countries between 2008 and 2015. In the United States alone, twenty-seven trans people were murdered in 2016, the majority of whom were women of colour—members of a community who are particularly likely to exist at the perilous intersections of transphobia, racism, sexism, and criminalization (NCTE 2016). And, in the United Kingdom, the number of transphobic hate crimes reported to the police has nearly trebled in the past five years (Yeung 2016). Trans people are also far more susceptible to sexual violence, perpetrated by either intimate partners or strangers (Stotzer 2009).

Moreover, intersecting forms of structural violence can prevent trans people from full access to education, employment, housing, and healthcare, rendering many members of the community even more vulnerable to violence (Grant et al. 2011; Human Rights Campaign and Trans People of Color 2015; Human Rights Campaign 2017; Movement Advancement Project, Transgender Law Center, NCTE, and GLAAD 2015). Unemployment, lack of access to decent housing, and poverty can marginalize trans people even further, pushing them into dangerous contexts, including sex work and homelessness.

The aim of my current research is therefore to expose the symbolic violence of conservative Christian voices within the “transgender debate” and to trace the ways that these voices contribute to multiple forms of transphobia experienced so ubiquitously by trans people the world over. I am particularly keen to explore the ways that these Christian communities use the Bible to grant authority to transphobic discourses, citing specific biblical texts (e.g. Deut. 22:5; Mark 10:6; Matt. 19:4) that they claim speak directly to the “transgender debate.” The Bible—a text that is thousands of years old—actually says nothingexplicit about trans identities, yet this does not stop Christian pastors and theologians plucking out certain biblical verses from their original context and misinterpreting them in ways that sustain a transphobic agenda. In other words, the Bible becomes a “cultural prop” (Baden 2014), (ab)used to “prop up” and perpetuate existing transphobic ideologies and behaviours.

Ken Ham tweeting about Target’s inclusive bathroom policy

While conservative Christian pastors and theologians speak (in the main) to their own congregations, the impact of their engagement in the “transgender debate” extends well beyond their immediate faith communities. My research also traces the capacity of transphobic biblical interpretations to influence public and political opinion about trans identities and undermine trans rights. The recent rash of “bathroom debates” offers an example: appealing to biblical teachings, conservative Christian lobby groups (particularly in the US, but also elsewhere) exert significant pressure on businesses (such as retailer Target) and lawmakers to prohibit trans people from using the public bathroom of their choice. Safe and accessible bathrooms are a fundamental need for all people; legislation that denies trans people this basic need ultimately impedes their ability to work, go to school, and exist in public spaces. Laverne Cox makes this point really powerfully:

When trans people can’t access public bathrooms we can’t go to school effectively, go to work effectively, access health-care facilities—it’s about us existing in public space … And those who oppose trans people having access to the facilities consistent with how we identify know that all the things they claim don’t actually happen. It’s really about us not existing—about erasing trans people. (cited in Landsbaum 2017)

The authenticity and legitimacy of trans people continue to be hotly debated in legal, political, and public forums around the world. I hope that my research can contribute to the voices who are already raising the problematics of this “debate,” by showing how conservative Christian interpretations of the Bible are complicit in perpetuating and justifying the relentless systemic injustices experienced by already vulnerable trans communities. These injustices can seriously impact the physical, emotional, and spiritual health and wellbeing of trans people, and I hope that my research will both highlight the insidious nature of the “transgender debate” and offer ways to begin dismantling its harmful rhetoric.

*Featured image courtesy of Nick Thompson. used with permission.

References

Baden, Joel. 2014. “What Use is the Bible?” Nantucket Project. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NIXfDyoYK8Q.

Grant, Jaime M., Lisa A. Mottet, Justin Tanis, Jack Harrison, Jody L. Herman, and Mara Keisling.Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey. Washington: National Center for Transgender Equality and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, 2011. http://www.thetaskforce.org/static_html/downloads/reports/reports/ntds_full.pdf.

Human Rights Campaign. 2017. “Violence Against the Transgender Community in 2017.” https://www.hrc.org/resources/violence-against-the-transgender-community-in-2017.

Human Rights Campaign and Trans People of Color Coalition. 2015. Addressing Anti-Transgender Violence: Exploring Realities, Challenges and Solutions for Policymakers and Community Advocates. http://assets.hrc.org//files/assets/resources/HRC-AntiTransgenderViolence-0519.pdf?_ga=2.255354443.256696965.1496936140-1591189054.1496256759.

Landsbaum, Claire. 2017. “Laverne Cox Explains Why Anti-Trans Bathroom Legislation Isn’t Actually About Bathrooms.” The Cut, 24 February. https://www.thecut.com/2017/02/laverne-cox-explains-what-bathroom-laws-are-really-about.html.

Movement Advancement Project, National Center for Transgender Equality, Transgender Law Center, and GLAAD. 2015. “Understanding Issues Facing Transgender Americans.” http://www.glaad.org/sites/default/files/understanding-issues-facing-transgender-americans.pdf.

National Center for Transgender Equality. 2016. “2015 U.S. Transgender Survey.” http://www.ustranssurvey.org/reports.

Steinmetz, Katie. 2015. “Why Transgender People are Being Murdered at a Historic Rate” Time, 17 August. http://time.com/3999348/transgender-murders-2015/.

Stotzer, R. L. 2009. “Violence against Transgender People: A Review of United States Data.” Aggression and Violent Behavior 14 (3): 170−9.

Yeung, Peter. 2016. Transphobic Hate Crimes in “Sickening” 170% Rise as Low Prosecution Rates Create “Lack of Trust” in Police. The Independent, 28 July. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/transphobic-hate-crime-statistics-violence-transgender-uk-police-a7159026.html.

 

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Seminar at Cliff College: Researching Faith Among Survivors of Abuse

BGC

‘I asked the question. I was a happy 20-something woman going to an evangelical church and dating one of the rising stars in the preaching circuit. However, what no one knew was that in addition to his splendid preaching skills, this man was also hitting me. After several rounds of ‘sorry’ and ‘it won’t happen again’, I decided to take matters into my own hands: I asked the question. I approached one of the pastors in the church with a ‘hypothetical scenario’ where a husband in the church was beating his wife. What would the pastor advise? He told me in no uncertain terms that he would find out what the wife was doing wrong.’ Anon.

This, sadly, is the reality facing women in the church all too often. Believing in a loving God does not shield victims from abuse; lack of knowledge, understanding or even empathy can hide or even empower a whole host of toxic relationships. It is for these reasons that, in a joint initiative with the University of Manchester, Cliff College is opening a research centre for the study of Bible, Gender and Church (BGC). The centre seeks to bring biblical and gender studies together with issues faced by men and women in the contemporary church, starting with our inaugural lecture during Cliff Fest in May 2019.

Revd Dr Susan Shooter

The lecture will be delivered by Revd Dr Susan Shooter and is entitled ‘Yet in my Flesh Shall I See God: Researching Faith With Survivors of Abuse’. She will address both the joys and difficulties she faced in her research, giving centre stage to the expression of faith and understanding of God among those who have survived abuse. This will be followed by responses from Dr Holly Morse and Dr Kirsi Cobb, as well as a reception for all participants.

The event will be held at Cliff College (Calver, Hope Valley, Derbyshire) on Monday 27 May. The event will start at 1.45 pm, with coffee, followed by the lecture 2.00‒3.00 pm. The reception, with drinks and nibbles, will take place 3.00‒4.00 pm.

All the tickets for the event are free. You can book either for the lecture and the reception, or just for the lecture itself. For more information and to register, please visit: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/the-bgc-inaugural-lecture-tickets-58870632647.

Kirsi Cobb is director of the BGC Research Centre and a lecturer in Biblical Studies at Cliff College. Her research focuses on women’s studies, hermeneutics and the Hebrew Bible, with a particular interest in expressions of trauma.

Kirsi Cobb

 

k.cobb@cliffcollege.ac.uk

@CobbKirsi

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Shiloh Project Research Day Report

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Mmapula Kebaneilwe (University of Botswana) is a womanist biblical scholar and project partner for an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) grant entitled ‘Resisting Gender-Based Violence and Injustice ThroughActivism with Bible Texts and Images’.

Her recent research visit brought her to Yorkshire, where both the project’s principal investigator (Johanna Stiebert, University of Leeds) and co-investigator (Katie Edwards, University of Sheffield) are based. All three, together with co-lead of the Shiloh Project Caroline Blyth (University of Auckland), who is spending part of her sabbatical at the University of Leeds, organized a research day at the University of Leeds.

The aim of the day was to bring together a diverse group of researchers and practitioners who all engage with some aspect of confronting, understanding and reducing the prevalence of gender-based and/or sexual violence. All share experience of working on or with victims and survivors of gender-based violence; all share a commitment to and drive for facilitating information, practical help or healing; all are open to opportunities for effective collaboration and networking between academic and public sectors.

The Shiloh Project is a collaboration of scholars and activists and was launched in early 2017. It seeks to explore and promote ways for better understanding the dynamics and intersections between religion, the Bible, gender-based violence and rape culture. This is in acknowledgement that matters of religion and faith have diverse and profound impact on human interactions the world over – including when it comes to domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. Such impact was amply borne out by all participants in the research day on 25 March 2019, which was attended by 20 active participants. The research day was co-sponsored by the AHRC and the Centre for Religion and Public Life. It represents one of several Shiloh Project initiatives.

Here is a quick summary of participants and organizations. Each participant, or participant pair, gave a summary and introduction to their work and expertise.

Angela Connor and Esther Nield represented the Sexual Assault Referral Centre (SARC) team of the Hazlehurst Centre in West Yorkshire. Angela is the Hazlehurst Centre manager and Esther works in the Centre as a crisis worker. SARC provides acute service (for up to seven days post incident). The SARC is commissioned by the National Health Service (NHS) and Police to provide forensic healthcare, alongside free support and practical help to anyone in West Yorkshire who has experienced sexual violence or abuse. The majority of victims (around 80%) are referred by the Police. The majority are white women under the age of forty but the service is available to anyone, for no charge, irrespective of age, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, or immigration status. The Centre strives to become more accessible to diverse demographics and nurses take pride in providing sensitive expert care.

Misbah Ali (Legal Assistance and Senior Development Worker) and Michelle O’Neill (Senior Capacity Builder and Recovery Worker) together represented Staying Put, a charity providing gender-sensitive services for men and women in the wider Bradford area of Yorkshire who experience abuse from a family member or intimate partner in a domestic setting. The charity attends to about 1200 to 1400 users per year. They work with situations in the area of domestic violence, intimate partner violence and forced marriage and assist in reducing victimization, preventing domestic homicide and facilitating domestic safety and security. The organization fulfills diverse services – including providing information about female genital mutilation (FGM), conducting family interventions, issuing legal advice, evidence gathering, support for attending court, as well as practical and emotional support. Their Freedom Programme operates in several languages (Urdu, English and Polish). Misbah and Michelle reported on the relative frequency of ‘spiritual abuse’ – that is, abuse attributed to possession, witchcraft and djinns, for instance. The told the group that they come across such matters more and more often but do not always feel adequately trained to address some religious justifications of violence.

Ziona Handler is the Manchester keyworker for Jewish Women’s Aid (JWA), working for and with victims of abuse in Jewish communities across all of the North of England. JWA is a registered charity and Ziona is emphatic that Jewish communities are as affected as other communities when it comes to the spectrum of domestic violence, which encompasses physical, sexual, psychological, economic, spiritual and cultural abuse. In terms of recognizing and addressing such abuse and supporting victims, many of the strategies detailed by representatives of Staying Put resonated with Ziona. But she also pointed out that some matters are bespoke to Jewish communities and best supported by a Jewish practitioner. (The SARC representatives mentioned that they had never, knowingly, assisted a Jewish victim of sexual assault, in spite of West Yorkshire having a sizable Jewish community. This might indicate that Jewish women have preference for groups such as JWA.) Ziona reported that the average period of suffering prior to reporting is a shocking 11.5 years in Jewish communities. JWA offers a variety of core services – including a helpline, client support, counseling, therapy, the Dina Project (a response to #MeToo), children’s therapy and an educational outreach programme that visits schools, synagogues and universities. JWA has launched a Safer Dating campaign in universities and training to address Lad Culture. The charity also has a toilet door campaign (placing stickers bearing information about accessing help from JWA on toilet doors) and provides input and training for non-Jewish groups working with victims of domestic and sexual abuse.

Rabbi Dr Deborah Kahn-Harris is a former congregational rabbi and university chaplain and is now Principal of Leo Baeck College, a rabbinical seminary and centre for training of teachers in Jewish education. Leo Baeck College represents primarily members of Reform Judaism and Liberal Judaism and the institution also trains and ordains women and members of the Jewish LGBT+community. Deborah facilitates training from JWA and stresses that even in progressive communities – where the expectation might be that topics such as ‘consent’ are widely discussed and understood – such training remains essential. Deborah pointed out that low-level microagressions persist – often very publicly – and that biblical and rabbinic texts, which continue to be plumbed and interpreted, have the potential to propel abusive ideas and actions. In a tradition with ancient roots, where ancient texts continue to be given authority, the possibility of internalizing damaging attitudes is considerable. But, as Deborah pointed out, Jewish tradition also offers tremendous scope for critical thinking, debate and resistance. In response to a question from Angela Connor about Jewish attitudes to emergency contraception, Deborah was able to demonstrate this versatility, with recourse to a range of Jewish texts reflecting multiple viewpoints.

Sam Ross is a WRoCAH (White Rose College of the Arts & Humanities) funded PhD candidate in the School of Philosophy, Religion and History of Science (University of Leeds). His provisional thesis title is ‘Queering the Ketuvim: Queer Readings of Representations of Pain and Trauma in Biblical Hebrew Poetry’. Sam has particular interest in trauma research – not least, because the LGBTQ community is particularly vulnerable to discrimination, abuse and prejudice. Sam is using the Bible both because of its persistent influence in faith and secular contexts and because it offers stories that address pain and trauma head-on. His plan is to fuse biblical criticism and autoethnography to explore queer individual suffering (through the book of Job), and queer communal suffering (through the book of Lamentations). Sam also highlighted the particular vulnerability of the trans community and the abusiveness of the so-called ‘trans debate’ in targeting trans persons as aggressors and predators when they are, in actuality, far more often victims of violence, including sexual violence. Representatives from Staying Put confirmed Sam’s point by stating that even professionals are sometimes abusive towards trans persons, citing instances where trans women have been denied access to women’s refuges, with no offer of any alternative help, even when they were at acute risk.

David Smith is Victims Services Commissioning and Third Sector Adviser at the West Yorkshire’s Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner. David has worked in third sector and local government for several decades and has expertise in the area of strategy, planning and policy development. That is, he has expertise in making actions effective. David’s role is to commission support services around domestic abuse and sexual violence. These are usually funded at (increasingly cash-strapped) local and regional levels. David’s work is focused on policy and he has an informed interest also in the language of his subject – such as the language of the victim’s code and witness charter. He agrees that the terminology around sexual violence – of ‘victims’, ‘perpetrators’ and ‘complainants’ –is problematic. He is supportive of the position statement being more inclusive now in its language of violence against men. Male victims, he stresses, are a significant part of the agenda – something which should not take away from the very serious issues facing women and girls. David’s policy-focused perspective was a fascinating one.

Adriaan van Klinken (University of Leeds) is Director of the Centre for Religion and Public Life and an academic working in the areas of religion and public life, gender and sexuality, especially in contemporary Christian contexts of countries in southern and eastern Africa (predominantly, Zambia and Kenya). He is about to embark on a project working closely and collaboratively with Ugandan LGBT refugees in Kenya through using story telling and life stories as a tool for creative and liberating self-expression as well as a research strategy. As Adriaan points out, violence is central in the lives of LGBT people, as well as in the lives of refugees. This violence, moreover, is multi-dimensional and can include religious violence, political violence and police violence.

Sarah-Jane Page (Aston University) is a sociologist of religion. She researches, among other topics, attitudes and practices around sexuality and how these are negotiated in relation to religious tradition. She spoke about two current projects. The first – in the very early stages – examines the Church of England inquiry into child sex abuse. She is focused especially on how organizational and institutional structures serve to enable abuse, as well as in the hierarchies and class dimensions at work in this. Her second project is ethnographic and partly funded by the British Academy. This project looks at varieties of activism, ranging from silent prayer to displays of graphic imagery, outside of abortion clinics. She is especially interested in the reactions and responses to these forms of activism, both from religious and secular sources.

Gordon Lynch (University of Kent) has conducted long-term research and public engagement activities on the history of UK child migration programmes. These programmes, responsible for sending some 100,000 children to Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Zimbabwe, resulted in extensive and sustained abuse, which only came to light much later. He has also served as expert witness under instruction to the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse. Gordon’s work has served to raisepublic awareness about historic abuse. He has, for instance,contributed to and organized museum exhibitions, musical performances, and TrueTube films, alongside his many academic publications. Gordon highlighted the dysfunctional relationships between government offices and organizations, including the competing interests, fragmentations and difficulties in terms of challenging groups involved in the networks facilitating migration at the various stages. All of these enabled the abuse to go on for very many years. Moreover, regarding organizations overseen by the Catholic Church, monitoring was minimal,due to assumed ‘bonds of trust’. Gordon asked what it is about religious organizations that exempted them from scrutiny. What permitted the religious exceptionalism that saw the suspension of so many otherwise widely adopted recommendations? When the usual recommendation was to advise that children be adopted, fostered, or raised in small-scale residential units, why were exceptions made by national policy makers to permit religious institutions to run large, understaffed orphanages where abuse was able to thrive?

Sema Khan represented Barnardos, a long-established charity that protects and supports above all vulnerable children and young people, as well as parents and carers. She is based in Bradford where Barnardo’s has a family support and a child sexual exploitation (CSE) team. Semareports that more children on the autistic spectrum and more boys and young men are seeking help to address emotional needs, including the help of recovery groups following sexual exploitation. Sema explained, too, that Barnardo’s is less pronouncedly Christian in focus than it has been historically. It has a diverse staff and works for a diverse community, including many Syrian refugees and asylum seekers.

Saima Afzal has worked in all of research, consultancy, local government and community development, particularly in matters to do with religion, gender and South Asian communities of Lancashire and Yorkshire. She is an elected councillor for Blackburn. Saima has conducted research on child sexual exploitation in South Asian communities of the UK, on sexuality in Islam, and on police stop and search powers against minority ethnic communities. Saima has founded her own community interest group called SASRIGHTS CIC (see also Saima Afzal Solutions). She works as a freelance criminologist and has served as expert witness for cases involving domestic abuse, forced marriage and so-called “honour”-based killing. She has received an MBE for her services to policing and community relations.

Bob Balfour is founder of Survivors West Yorkshire(SWY), formerly called One In Four (North). SWY is action-oriented and works in supporting survivors of sexual abuse. Prominently included in this support are male survivors of sexual abuse. Bob was also instrumental in the creation of Ben’s Place, a West Yorkshire support service for male survivors of sexual abuse, named after Ben, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse who took his own life soon after his twenty-third birthday. The mission of Ben’s Place is to deliver specialist support and advice to adult male survivors (i.e. aged 16+) who are ready to disclose experiences of sexual crimes committed against them and who want to access support to explore options for understanding and integrating what was done to them. SWY and Ben’s Place work in partnership with Rape Crisis and challenge the silencing and alienation of survivors. One of Bob’s campaigns is ‘Challenge the Silence’ and he has written for ‘A View From Inside the Box’. Bob has been vigorous in his resistance to denial. He has not only founded support groups and actions, he has published on the topic, devised practical strategies for post-traumatic growth, collaborated with universities as ‘expert by experience’ and in the role of Teacher at Liverpool (paid for by the NHS), and is currently supervising four Clinical Psychology students.

Jo Sadgrove has considerable expertise in the area of faith-based international development – both as an academic researcher and a practitioner. She works part-time as research and learning advisor to the United Society Partners in the Gospel (USPG), an Anglican mission agency engaging in community development and theological education around the world. Jo discussed the imperialist echoes and tendencies of some of the work of USPG but also the ways that being part of such an organization can give access to networks and opportunities for making a difference. Jo’s particular interests are in intersections of religion and health and in Christianity and sexuality in cross-cultural perspectives. Jo talked about workshops she has conducted with perpetrators of gender-based violence, which bring men together to talk about being men and about violence in their lives. She sees great value in working with perpetrators as well as victims of gender-based violence.

Jo has direct experience of We Will Speak Out, a global coalition of churches and Christian NGO’s challenging prevailing patterns of violence.

After presentations from all participants, we had an open discussion to begin to explore ways of collaboration and support. During the coffee and lunch breaks already, representatives from different institutions and organizations had begun to chat in small groups and exchange information, advice, and ask questions.

 

The following arose in discussion:

There is little available in the way of accessible, succinct and helpful information on the topic of spiritual abuse. More discussion and more research on the topic are required. This would be invaluable for a range of practitioners encountering perpetrators and victims of gender-based violence. (Representatives of Staying Put reported that a defense of spiritual abuse – blaming demons, possession, djinns, or witchcraft for inciting violence, including sexual abuse – comes out with some regularity in one-on-one conversations with both perpetrators and victims.)

More emphasis on prevention is necessary. Often crisis support is the preserve of highly trained effective individuals. But more expertise needs to be invested in recognizing the signs before the tipping point.

Not infrequently – and this is sometimes due to the sheer strain on service providers (something that received repeated mention) – professionals become part of the problem for already vulnerable groups. Sometimes, for instance, there will be insistence (by social welfare or by NGO or charity staff) that service users take a particular training course, with the threat that otherwise their children will be removed. The effect of this can be to alienate already vulnerable people and to deter them from continuing to seek professional help.

Practitioners welcomed the opportunity to meet others working in related areas. They would very much like more work between groups. SARC, for instance, would appreciate information about JWA, to make bespoke help available in their networks targeting vulnerable people in the community at risk of sexual violence.

There was acknowledgement that communities are diverse and that multi-faceted expertise is needed (e.g. from all of police, social services, consultants, charities, etc.) to address gender-based and sexual violence. Again, better communication between different groups is recognized as important.

There was an expression of need for more religious and cultural literacy – and for academics who could providethis in accessible ways.

Practical micro-level and macro-level strategies are required to address the structural problems that facilitate much of the violence on the ground.

David Smith mentioned that he is often looking for research pieces towards capacity building. He recommends that we all register with and join Blue Light Services, to let emergency services know what we can provide.

There was widespread acknowledgement that religious leaders are often obstructive when it comes to addressing domestic situations of violence and abuse. More needs to be done to train religious leaders in gender-sensitive strategies, as well as in encouraging them to facilitate professional advice for their community members – as opposed to attempting to handle delicate and complex matters themselves when they lack the necessary training and expertise.

The Sex and Relationships Education curriculum, to be rolled out September 2020, is likely to lead to a deluge of referrals. Help will be needed urgently to manage these.

Some practitioners predict a backlash to the extent of safeguarding training – a backlash that will include alsotheological and ethical questions. Again, collaboration between practitioners and researchers will be important in addressing these.

All in all, it was a stimulating, thought-provoking and fruitful day. We will take the conversations forward in our ongoing work in Project Shiloh. This was just the start of the conversation, and we hope to sustain it through ongoing collaborations.

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Dr Mmapula Kebaneilwe (University of Botswana) Visits the UK

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Dr Mmapula Kebaneilwe (University of Botswana) is currently visiting the UK to work on the AHRC Network Grant (International Highlight Notice) project ‘Resisting Gender-Based Violence and Injustice Through Activism with Bible Texts and Images’ with Shiloh co-directors Johanna Stiebert and Katie Edwards.

Dr Kebaneilwe is based at the University of Leeds during her visit. She  co-led a Shiloh Project research day on 25 March and gave a paper ‘Troubling Misogyny and Gender Based Violence: Examples from Botswana and the Hebrew Bibleat today’s SIIBS seminar.



Dr Kebaneilwe also met with journalist Rosie Dawson to discuss possibilities for collaborating on a radio documentary.

Look out for Dr Kebaneilwe’s forthcoming monographs with the Sheffield Phoenix Press SIIBS series and our Rape Culture, Religion and the Bible series with Routledge Focus.

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