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Q&A with Nancy Tan, author of Resisting Rape Culture: The Hebrew Bible and Hong Kong Sex Workers

Nancy’s Book Cover

Nancy Nam Hoon Tan has featured as activist on the Shiloh Project. From Singapore, where she is now resident, she taught Hebrew Bible at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Her published work demonstrates acute sensitivity to power dynamics, focusing particularly on the intersections and tensions between gender, ethnicity and notions of belonging. Nancy’s earlier work showcasing this includes her monograph The ‘Foreignness’ of the Foreign Woman in Proverbs 1-9 (De Gruyter 2008) and her chapter on women, colonialism and whiteness in The Bible, Centres and Margins (Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2018).

Her latest book is in the Routledge Focus Series Rape Culture, Religion and the Bible. Entitled Resisting Rape Culture: The Hebrew Bible and Hong Kong Sex Workers (2020), this a tour de force combining scholarship and advocacy.

Here is a Q&A with Nancy…

1. Tell us about yourself! How does your book relate to your work as a whole and how did this book come about?

For many years I was based in Hong Kong, where I taught and researched the Hebrew Bible. I opine that interpretations of biblical texts, both by academics and by faith communities, matter— maybe especially for individuals and communities who use the Bible to guide how they should behave and act. But the Bible and how it is interpreted also has bearing on society well beyond this – maybe more so than we think.

Most of my work has focused in some way on women, gender, power and oppression – and this book is no exception.

While living in Hong Kong, I volunteered as a teacher of English at the Jei Jei Jai Association (JJJ), the city’s first self-help and independent organization run by sex workers. This opened up for me the opportunity to get to know the sex workers as friends and to learn about their profession. This engagement also confirmed for me that the current interpretations of biblical texts on “prostitutes” and “prostitution” promote stigmatization and victimization of today’s sex workers.

With the help of Ms Sherry Hui, the co-ordinator for JJJ, I was able to hold the reading exercises on biblical texts with the sex workers that are at the heart of this book. It was Professor Johanna Stiebert who invited me to contribute the outcomes of these reading exercises in the framework of “rape culture”. Indeed, this couldn’t have been more apt, because the injustices that Hong Kong sex workers are subjected to stem from rape culture. And so… here is the book!  

2. What are the key arguments of this book?

First, this book debunks rape myths such as: “sex workers cannot get raped”, “sex workers are immoral and deserve punishment”, and “if women don’t resist, they aren’t really raped”, etc. The book shows how such rape myths contribute to the escalating violence that Hong Kong sex workers are facing.

Second, the book also shows that biblical scholars rarely consider how certain biblical texts and interpretations of them, too, promote stigmatization of today’s sex workers and rape culture. This is thrown into relief by engaging Hong Kong sex workers in the reading and analysis of three biblical texts of the Hebrew Bible where the Hebrew root word znh, often translated as “prostitute” occurs: namely, Genesis 38, 1 Kings 3:16–28 and Hosea 1–3. Each reading unpacks where rape culture and the stigmatization of sex workers lie and through the sex workers’ standpoints, these texts are revealed in a new light.   

3. What do you hope readers will take away from reading this book?

I hope readers will see the humanity and dignity of sex workers. Sex workers deserve to be respected in every way, and the hatred that society has mounted against them is cruel and unjust. I hope this book will change the way we talk about and the way we treat sex workers. 

I also hope that this book will persuade readers that interpretations of the Bible need to be re-evaluated. I hope it will encourage readers to ask themselves, “Do interpretations do justice to marginalized communities today? Do they promote hatred and reinforce oppression?”

I hope readers will be informed and come to realise how subtle and dangerous rape myths can be: rape myths find support from biblical texts, and, consequently, biblical texts can become justifications for violence against humanity.  

4. Give us one quotation from your book that you think will make readers go and want to read the rest!

“One of the sex workers disagreed with the statements the others made concerning women’s decision to return to abusive men because of the children. … She would not allow anyone to harm her in this way and would rather lose her life to fight for freedom. …She said if women would not protest against such wicked threats on their lives, then the children would not learn to fight for what is right and just. In this way, cycles of abuse continue. She regretted that that is how abusive men keep oppressing women…” Find it and read the rest!

Nancy Tan

Nancy’s book is available for pre-order (see here) and will be dispatched by 1 September.

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COVID-19 Lockdown Interview Series: Dawn Llewellyn

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I’ve never used the phrase ‘these are strange times’ as often as I have over the past few weeks! On the day my Department closed its doors, I went into my third year class at 2pm and when it ended at 3.30pm, I was told we were being sent home and had to leave the building by 6 o’clock. I quickly grabbed books and papers that I thought I might need, rescued my office plants, and colleagues and students said goodbye to each other without the usual hugging! For the final year undergraduates, they have been deprived of the traditional ‘end of year’ closure – the stress and celebrations that go along with writing up dissertations and their last assessments, and all  students felt the abrupt end to the academic term. In some ways, I’m enjoying working from home, pottering in our small back yard, undertaking a bit of DIY, doing on-line exercise classes, keeping up with household chores that never get done (yep, the skirting boards and shower tiles are gleaming), but I know it is a privilege to live with my partner, Bran, and for us to be relatively safe and secure, and to continue working. I am, of course, missing our lively Department and the bustle and business of term time, but we’re staying in touch with virtual coffee every day (we do this in real time too!). I’m so impressed and heartened by the way our students are adapting and coping with studying at home, some of them in challenging and very difficult circumstances during a very anxious time for them and their families. They are supporting each other and us  brilliantly,  and with good humour that brightens up the day. Yesterday, during a 3rd year catch up on TEAMS, two of them turned up with superimposed images of Trump and Johnson on their heads…they sort of know my left-leaning politics.

Like everyone, my usual routine is out of kilter. This coincided with the spring vacation, when I took some annual leave and switched off email, admin, and writing for a week or so.  In January, we had arranged to remodel our kitchen during March and April, and before the lockdown we had ripped out our existing cupboards and cabinets, and unplugged the dishwasher and oven; it’s a shell of a room at the moment. For five weeks we’ve been cooking on a two-ring camping stove on our living room floor, washing up outside, and contributing heavily to the local Chester foodie scene by relying on the places that are offering take-aways. I keep telling myself we’re glamping and it’s an ‘adventure’.

I’ve got a few projects on the go. I’m working on a chapter on methodology in the study of religion and gender for a Handbook edited by Emma Tomalin https://ahc.leeds.ac.uk/philosophy/staff/142/professor-emma-tomalin and Caroline Starkey https://ahc.leeds.ac.uk/philosophy/staff/1161/dr-caroline-starkey  – I’m a qualitative researcher so enjoy getting my methodological geek on. My new book, Motherhood, Voluntary Childlessness, and Christianity explores women’s religious reproductive agency in Christianity and their narratives and experiences of ‘choice’,  and I’ll be getting that finished for Bloomsbury during my research leave later on this year. I’m also working with Sian Hawthorne https://www.soas.ac.uk/staff/staff31080.php and Sonya Sharma https://www.kingston.ac.uk/staff/profile/dr-sonya-sharma-57/ on the Bloomsbury Studies in Religion, Gender, and Sexuality series https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/series/bloomsbury-studies-in-religion-gender-and-sexuality/ , and we’ve just launched a call for chapters for a new Bloomsbury Handbook on Religion, Gender, and Sexuality that we are editing together. We’d be delighted if Shiloh readers and members considered contributing! https://bloomsburyreligiongender.wordpress.com/

How am I coping? Well, I’m a swimmer and usually train about 4 times a week. April is the start of the open water swimming season when the rivers, lakes, and seas start to warm up enough to stretch out in ‘skins’ (just a swimming costume, no wetsuit). Normally, I’d be prepping for  5km and 10km events in the summer but instead I have taken up some surprising hobbies. I’ve started taking our friend’s dog, Sidney, for walks (they’ve just had a baby) and have found him to be an excellent listener as I talk at him (he’s great on career advice); I’ve discovered Radio 3; I have found out that I really like trashy TV (Making the Cut and Next in Fashion, anyone?); I’ve bought a hoola hoop; and I’ve completed a jigsaw. I barely know myself.

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COVID-19 Lockdown Interview: Susannah Cornwall

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Tell us about yourself.

I’m Susannah Cornwall, Senior Lecturer in Constructive Theologies at the University of Exeter. I’m the author of various books on Christian theology, sexuality and gender, of which the most recent is Un/familiar Theology: Rethinking Sex, Reproduction and Generativity (Bloomsbury, 2017).

What have you been doing and are you able to work during this COVID-19 lock-in?

I’m Director of Education with responsibility for all our undergraduate and taught postgraduate programmes in Theology and Religion and Liberal Arts at Exeter, so this has been a spectacularly busy time, working out details of changes to assessments and exams, moving teaching online, and ever-changing contingency planning in response to the latest advice. We are also working out what will happen with admissions over the summer, and helping our students with a wide range of academic and pastoral issues raised or exacerbated by coronavirus. As ever, I’m in awe at their resilience, patience and good humour.

Work from home is really challenging now that it also involves full-time childcare: my husband (also an academic) and I are doing alternate work and childcare shifts. I’m fortunate to be in an institution that has made clear that it appreciates these are exceptional circumstances and that something has to give, and is encouraging us to prioritize our own and our dependents’ wellbeing. I have colleagues elsewhere who are being told that the expectation is that there’s no drop to their productivity during this time, which is terribly unrealistic and inhumane. However, there’s no getting around the fact that a constantly shifting mode and getting no uninterrupted time to work is going to have knock-on effects, and I hope institutions are going to take seriously the fact that there are equality, diversity and inclusion implications to all this that will impact on many academics’ pay, progression and job security for years to come.

Which aspects of your work past and present might be particularly interesting for supporters of the Shiloh Project?

I’m currently working on a constructive theology of gender diversity, and coronavirus is highlighting the fact that lots of the precarities trans people face are even more heightened in a pandemic. These are extreme times and big decisions are being made centrally for the sake of what we’re told is a common good, but of course there’s going to be collateral damage. This is a time when life looks almost unrecognizable, so there are all kinds of possibilities. People are learning about ways of life they didn’t know before; new relationships are being forged that didn’t exist before. So that’s exciting, but it also means there’s even more marginality and precarity than there was before.

But it’s an opportunity, too. When the world goes back to normal (will the world ever go back to normal?) what will gender look like? How will things be for trans and intersex people? What do all of us, cis and trans, endosex and intersex, want to carry over into our new world?

How are you bearing up and what’s helping you most?

I have it so much easier than many people: I have secure employment, a safe place to live, more than enough food, a garden, internet, and more. I live within walking distance of green fields and the edge of countryside. I’ve started running again. I’m enjoying doing more “slow cooking” (but not slow-cooking!) than normal, and my son is revelling in having everyone at home. He’s very used to one or other parent being away for several days or having had to leave early before he gets up in the morning. So I’m enjoying the fact that he’s enjoying it! I think I’ll also look back with gratitude at having had this unexpected extra time with him at home every day before he starts school in the autumn.

I love the small creative acts of kindness that people are doing around the neighbourhood: setting up WhatsApp groups to ensure everyone is okay and has enough shopping; some kids in the next road have set up a pop-up library (with hand sanitizer!) outside their house; people have been chalking murals and adventure trails on the pavement for children to enjoy during their walks; someone has made their front garden into a safari zoo with toy snakes, orangutans, birds and big cats to spot. All that said, I’m also finding it really hard. I feel sad that my son is missing out on so much time with his friends and amazing teachers. I’m feeling lethargic, powerless, and like I have only just enough energy to tread water and survive, when I somehow want to be making the most of this weird time. I’m feeling frustrated that I’m too exhausted to be creative or generative, or even think about grand schemes like “theology in the time of coronavirus”. I’m feeling angry that it’s taken this situation for people to realize how scandalous it is that nurses, care workers, supermarket workers, food producers and distributors are the people on whom society really relies and yet continue to be underpaid and badly treated.

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COVID-19 Lockdown Interview: Laurie Lyter Bright

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Since shelter in place began in Wisconsin, I’ve been balancing pastoring a church through a virtual Lent and now Holy Week, executive directing a non-profit that supports peace-building through interfaith schools in Palestine and Israel, working on my dissertation, and keeping two very small children alive and happy. My husband’s a full time grad student in nursing, so our days are full. Work takes place in the margins around our new reality, and maybe that’s closer to where work should have always been in terms of priorities. I’m surprised by how the preciousness of time has been illuminated in this crisis.  When writing can only happen between the start of nap time and lunch, you learn to write very efficiently.

My dissertation work emphasizes the role of the Christian church (particularly U.S. manifestations thereof) in co-creating rape culture and is seeking ways for the church to be a part of disrupting rape culture instead. My new work in progress for the Shiloh Project series with Routledge Focus is exploring the role of the prophetic in both the #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter movements.  Getting to interview and collaborate with scholars in these fields has been an absolute privilege and I’m grateful for the access to technology that allows me to keep moving forward on both projects even in a time of lock-down!

I am running the full gamut of feelings in this season and allowing myself space for all of those emotions is what’s keeping me going.  I am profoundly thankful – that my family are healthy, that my kids are too young to be scared by what’s happening, that my partner is also my best friend, that my work can be reasonably accomplished remotely, etc.  I am profoundly sad – at the loss of life, the co-morbidity of the weight of poverty and racism in my country, the suffering that was preventable, and more. I am angry – at the pathetic excuse for leadership in my government, at our collective fear responses. I am proud – of the community spirit that rises above, the difficult but necessary questions and conversations that are rising to the surface.  And I am baking right up to the edge of an unhealthy amount of cookies.

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COVID-19 Lockdown Interview: Tom Muyunga Mukasa

Tom’s Virtual Hugs

Tom Muyunga Mukasa is originally from Uganda. He was resettled as a refugee in the USA. He is currently in Kenya. Tom is HIV Care and Global Health Specialist; Manager of the House of Rainbow HIV/AIDS Protection and Advocacy Consortium; and Co-founder of Advocacy Network Africa (AdNetA). He works towards enshrining human dignity by leading a number of campaigns. These are aimed at refugee integration and protection in host communities, the elimination of violence against women, the promotion of wellness that integrates Universal Health Coverage (UHC), and at ending TB, HIV & Malaria by 2030. AdNetA is also active in the campaign to end COVID-19.

  1. Tell us about yourself and about what you’re doing and what you’re working on and how, during this COVID-19 lock-in.

Thank you so much. Right now I am in Nairobi. In August 2019, I came here to Kenya as a student volunteer from St Mary’s College of California, USA. I went to do volunteer work in Nyeri Town, which is about 200 kilometers from Nairobi. I lived at St. Mary’s Boys’ Vocational Rescue Centre and Secondary School up to November 2019. This is a combined vocational and rehabilitation school for boys aged 3-20 years. I facilitated the establishment and development of community organisation frameworks that enable Lasallian Volunteers to participate in effective change activities during their African experience tours. (La Salle, or the Lasallians are a Catholic order established in 1679 by John Baptist de La Salle. Today the Lasallians minister to around 900,000 students in universities, schools, educational and welfare institutions in more than 80 countries all over the world.)

While working in Nyeri, my own focus was on the Secondary School and how its communities could engage the large youth population in sports, livelihood, vocational skills and other capacity-building. Together we came up with tailored programmes to provide younger people with opportunities to improve healthy and purposeful living, self-esteem and to avoid  drug-use due to peer pressure and other factors. The Lasallian volunteers helped facilitate these sessions.  I developed a strategic plan for 2019-2025 hinged on economic development, orphan support and rehabilitation. We presented this to the local government and they promised to support it fully. Alongside my volunteering, I was engaging in my own research work in drug-use disorders, conducting fieldwork in three informal settings in Mountain Kenya, Eastern and Central regions. Into this research, I incorporated queer refugee issues. I developed my findings into abstracts, which were accepted by the International AIDS Conference 2020 among other conferences.  I had worked on preparing twelve presenters, all, like me, queer refugees. All abstracts were accepted and we were rearing to go! But… COVID-19 restrictions are now in force here in Kenya and the conference will be held via virtual sessions.

Fast forward to lock-down, or lock-in here where I am now, in the Matasia zone of Ngong in Kajiado County on the outskirts of Nairobi. It is one of the largest, most urbanized and most densely populated areas of Kenya. Right now I am managing a community health awareness programme run by volunteer refugees. Some refugees are now resettled in Kenya, others are waiting to be resettled in a third party country. But, they agreed to work with me and have brought into the campaign their lovers, friends and acquaintances. Our campaign is growing in numbers! At the core are people I had earlier identified as key-Informants. While we were still able to do research work or data collection in the field, I found 7 persons living with TB whom I immediately connected to health care facilities. I had some little money on me and provided them with a month’s supply of food. All 7 are now 4 months along a steady healing process.  These 7 enabled us to penetrate deeper into their networks and we have linked more and more TB patients to care and hope to continue with this.

As a trained infectious diseases specialist, when I heard of this particular kind of infection, rumbling across from China to other places, I knew I had to act fast. There was no way Africa would escape! Given the health care facilities as the risks posed by increased hospital attendances, there was much to do, and fast. This is much on my mind.  We have been able to secure 4 months’ medication supply for the TB patients. Those who are HIV positive were also given the same amount of medication. This is called aligning medication supply. I connected patients to AMREF, Red Cross, different CSOs and local government hospitals where they are now getting more support beyond what I could provide. 

I am now embarking on training mobilisers to become Anti-TB Champions and I am integrating COVID-19 Response and Prevention into this campaign. What I have not yet mentioned is that I am connected with the Switzerland-based WHO division on TB. I engaged with them and advocated on behalf of TB patients back in November-December 2019 already. I did it because I felt my voice could add to finding ways to meet their needs. I even wrote a concept note on TB prevention. I felt I owed the communities I had visited during data collection. I wanted to give back in a small way. So, I have designed what we call the TB Prevention Communities of best practices. This is an iterative model with 15 steps that is both pedagogical and a heuristic.

The best practices are hinged on: Identification, Participation, Access, Hygiene, Adherence and Self-Esteem (IPAHAS). When a patient is identified, the Anti-TB Champions catalyze full participation of the person to be evaluated for TB, going through all the nine yards from testing to taking medication for the first crucial 8 weeks and then beyond. The Champions help with access to housing, nutrition, transport and with medication not being disrupted. Given the present situation, we have had to adapt, so I have shown them how to use WhatsApp groups and Facebook or Zoom to communicate, inform and educate. 

Most of our TB and HIV patients live in one-room houses.  We got lucky in that the organisations we linked patients to have provided food rations, masks and aromatic detergents, which they can use to wipe surfaces, clean toilets and bed pans or night pails. The practices for helping people with TB and compromised immunity also help with limiting the spread of COVID-19. I have come to note that COVID-19 restrictions are now making it easier for TB patients to be less stigmatised. Wearing masks no longer leads to stigma: it no longer signifies disease but precaution, self-care and care for others. The sweet-smelling detergents have made the dwelling places less unpleasant. Food is shared around in these hard times – because life is restricted and hard for everyone just now.  (I have written a short perspective report intimating  this tendency.) I am sure the Anti-TB Champions continue to be motivated, not least because they are receiving food rations too and they are helping one another, as well as relatives and friends. 

Personally, I am staying in, as instructed. I am concentrating my efforts and trying to keep expenses to a minimum. I am training my teams via zoom, video calls and email instructions. I continue my work as Social Justice Practitioner in whatever way I can. Motivated by the UN SDGs, I focus on a range of community activities, focusing most on conservation, Universal Health Coverage (UHC), elimination of violence against women and on ending TB, HIV, and Malaria by 2030. These are all connected. But now, I am also integrating COVID-19 into my work, because this is pressing. I make virtual work activities and share them online. I have become busier while I am following up my patients from home.

  • You have added COVID-19 to your earlier campaigns which included preventing transmission of TB, HIV and Malaria. You also have years of experience of advocacy for LGBT rights and you are passionate about ending gender-based and sexual violence. Tell us more. What drives you and what do you do?

Ha-ha! Professor Johanna, I am humbled by the statement and question. A long time ago in Uganda as a younger medical student I volunteered with the Rotary Club. We were taken to an island far into Lake Victoria to popularise immunization and digging and using latrines. You know, we were young and from the ivory tower. It was supposed to be a one-time thing. We were given this opportunity to see the world’s realities and to relate them to our book learning.  

I was touched and after my return asked to be included on a list of those who would volunteer regularly. Little did I know that this was preparing me to polish my social face of medicine! This was a time when almost everything was ‘medicalised’, if you get what I mean. There was an expectation that medication was the solution to so many things, a whole laundry-list of issues. Not all of these, however, actually required medication (tablets, drops, operations…) at all. They were health matters but what they needed was something else. I’m talking about such things as domestic abuse, sexual and gender-based violence, husbands using up their wives’ savings and giving the lame excuses of ‘I am the man of the house: I do as I like!’  I was a witness during a meeting in which a woman had brought a case against her husband. Guess what it was about, Professor? The woman had come to report the husband for not beating her when she made any mistake like when they had just met! No, seriously Professor! Her expectation was that when your husband beats you, it means they love you and when they ignore you, it means they have someone else who is special (enough to be beaten). 

I come from a family of nine mothers and many children. I know so many other families like mine. I think I was made an activist subconsciously, without realizing it, through my close relationships with women and children, who often suffer the brunt of patriarchal violence. Or, maybe, I am correcting things, or reconstructing things and it is just plain rebelliousness on my part! My passion about ending gender-based and sexual violence is rooted in what I grew up seeing at home, in my communities, in wider African society. It is rooted too in my joining the organizing committee of a San Francisco-based Women’s March, where I have served since 2013.

Professor, knowing you and how you guided us in sharing real lived stories [for the report, see here. Tom is in the picture, wearing a crown], I am dwelling so far on the positive side of things. Let me share how it might have begun as well. I knew I had to be part of the solution to put a stop to the mentality that women are regarded as inferior. But funnily enough, in my earlier days, being male, not White, and without money, in Africa, I met with the most vehement of barriers. Being a male, people, including women, called me names whenever I appeared in meetings on women’s and girl children’s rights. You should have been there! But hey, they did not know me that well. I am a very determined and different male but they did not know this at first. So, I just went on doing my work. Well, to cut a long story short I am here still and I am a social justice practitioner among many other hats I wear.

Thank you so much for supporting my work. You know and have seen me at the frontline where you have been as well. I am sure all your faculty colleagues are ‘radicals’ (ooooops, sshh, do not say I said this!) But, what I mean, is that on behalf of many others, thank you so much for coming into our lives. You asked what drives me. I enjoy passing on skills to others and to see them turn into self-driven actors too. This takes patience and guidance but when results start showing, I go to bed and sleep like a log. I have seen the people I train become the better version of who they could be. I have seen transformation manifest before me. I have witnessed people who gain the skills, change into adopting healthy practices and behaviours. They turned out to be recognised and this increased their being dependable and admired by others who work with them. It is this that drives me! Thanks.

  • How you bearing up and what is helping you, or would help you, most?

Professor, is this a trick question?  But, let me answer it as I feel it in my heart and belly. I am scared. My life has had so many turns and all of them following each other in sequence. I am not a biblical Job! I am just a Black male striving to be good. I want to be a scholar and not a raw field epidemiologist, for crying out loud.  I made a decision to improve myself scholarly-wise and chose to take on the discipline of Political Science. I hope to complete every requisite and to be taken on to a PhD programme (they write ‘program’, that other side of the Atlantic) at Princeton University. I was given a promissory letter and the conditions I need to fulfill. Part of my coming to Kenya to do community work, was to prepare me and give me an advantage to get into Princeton. I am competing with 45 others but I am not scared at all.

But now, COVID-19 has come along. I am wondering how I can return to the USA, say in December 2020! These things go on and on and they require vaccines. Nothing else can hurry things along! For now, I have tried to put all my worries aside and have engaged in anti-infection activities with which I am so very familiar, given my earlier, medical incarnation. I am helping a team here and more people, too, via phone. I have written perspective reports which are read widely and I am so happy there is a sector that asks for my opinion.

Professor,  I know I am going to be here until December. I have given myself that period. Keep the Shiloh Project moving please, we read it here. By the way, I also follow your University of Leeds Faculty colleagues via Twitter. I like the themes you cover. They are so heart-tugging, they make one realise how comfortable they have been to the point of exuding a self-righteous air about them, and they are so ‘radical’.  I realise I am slowly learning to effectively ask questions that make our society more involved in healing.  Maybe one day I shall ask to come there as an exchange student to sit down and get trained or just converse! Thank you.

[From Johanna: Tom, we need you here! You could give us a good dose of reality and maybe wake us up to and make us embarrassed about our self-righteous airs. Thank you for giving some insight into much greater struggles than most of us contend with. If you do come over as an exchange student, I will keep you busy with speaking engagements. Be well, be safe, and thank you so much for your words.]

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COVID-19 Lockdown Interview Series: Ruth Everhart

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Tell us about yourself. What have you been doing and what are you working on during this COVID-19 lock-in.
I’m an author and pastor, although I find it difficult to be both at once! This fall I’ll celebrate my 30th anniversary of ordination, and for the last nine years I’ve put a lot of energy into writing while pastoring part-time.
Two of my three books could be classified as “spiritual memoir.” Chasing the Divine in the Holy Land (Eerdmans, 2012) takes the reader along on a transformative pilgrimage to Israel and Palestine. Ruined (Tyndale, 2016) tells the story of a traumatic experience of sexual violence when I was 20 years old, and explores how that shaped my life and faith through the next decade. 
My new book (InterVarsity Press, Jan 2020) is The #MeToo Reckoning: Facing the Church’s Complicity in Sexual Abuse and Misconduct. In this book I widen my lens to tell other people’s stories as well as my own, and intertwine those stories with scripture. 
So far during this Covid-19 lock-in, I’ve been following up on podcasts and articles related to my #MeToo book launch. My speaking engagements have been cancelled, of course, so I’m doing more videos and webinars than I had planned to do.
I would love to begin to think about “the next thing” but it’s been challenging to find mental and emotional bandwidth during a time of global distress!

2. Which aspects of your work past and present might be particularly interesting for supporters of the Shiloh Project?
My memoir Ruined explores how my religious upbringing shaped my response to a brutal rape by two African-American strangers — and the response of the Calvinist faith community in which I was submerged. The title is a synonym for shame, which engulfed me. My viewpoint alternates between the 20-something Ruth who felt ruined, and the self who became a pastor and found healing in a larger faith tradition.
My more recent book is The #MeToo Reckoning: Facing the Church’s Complicity in Sexual Abuse and Misconduct. The interplay between current and ancient stories of abuse may be of particular interest to the members of the Shiloh Project. In the introduction I itemize the lenses I bring to the work: “My interest in sexual assault and faith is not academic. I wrote this book because I felt called by God to do so, and could find no excuse to refuse (although I did search for one). I bring certain lenses along with me. As a rape survivor, I am passionate about justice for victims and accountability for victimizers. As a former “good girl,” I am conversant with the conservative subculture. As a committed Christian, I am tenacious about loving Jesus, who first loved me. As a pastor, I spend my days swimming in Scripture. As a wife, I am one half of what turned out to be an egalitarian marriage, thirty-five years and counting. As a mother, my heart walks around outside my body with two daughters, a fact that will keep me poking and prodding the church toward greater gender equality as long as I live. Most of all, as an author, the response to my earlier writing about assault has softened my heart and thickened my skin. I will not be bullied by blowback or made callous to the plight of my sister survivors, and brothers as well. It is time for a reckoning.”

3. How are you bearing up and what’s helping you most?
I am in a very fortunate situation. I am “locked-in” with my husband, with whom I am very companionable. There is plenty of room and quiet for each of us to pursue our own work. We are doing yoga each day and going for walks in the fresh air as often as possible.
We are very grateful for technology which allows us to see the faces of our loved ones — our two grown daughters who each live alone about an hour’s drive from our home, and our two aged mothers, each living in a facility a great distance from us.
Every one of us is living with a great deal of pain and loss right now, on a personal level and a societal level. I find that naming these losses — even trivial ones — and then naming that for which I am grateful, helps me feel more centered and settled during this most unusual Lent. Because I tend toward the contemplative, the practice of praying for others is also essential.
I also look forward to a few ounces of tawny port and a dose of Netflix each evening!

4. Send us a picture to capture you or your work in these COVID-19 days.
I do quite a bit of supply preaching, and had agreed to help a local Presbyterian congregation for a few weeks, which turned out to be the beginning of lockdown. The picture, taken by my husband, is of me preaching via FB Live in my study, with an improvised worship space created by a purple stole, a cross on the wall, and a few sprigs of forsythia.

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COVID-19 Lockdown Interview Series: Adriaan Van Klinken

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The first week of this lockdown I spent closely following the news with updates about the pandemic across the globe, which became depressing. I also felt sad about having to cancel a trip to South Africa and Zimbabwe, where I had a friend’s wedding, a holiday with my husband, a conference and two book launch events lined up – a trip I’d been planning and looking forward to for months. After that first week or so, I decided to only check the news twice a day, and to take a distance from social media, especially WhatsApp where groups were constantly buzzing, and instead to make the most of “working from home”. 

I’m lucky that I’m on research leave at the moment – so I could ignore the many emails that the University sent about student education related matters, while feeling sympathy for my colleagues who suddenly had to experiment with online teaching methods. My planning for research leave has been greatly affected by the current crisis – in addition to cancelling the South Africa trip, I also had to postpone a trip to Kenya in May to launch an AHRC funded research network, not knowing when I can reschedule; I’m also uncertain whether or not I should start preparing for my inaugural lecture that’s planned for June. In recent days I spent quite a lot of time planning the sessions of the African Religions unit for the AAR annual meeting in November, with on the back of my mind the idea that the meeting may soon be cancelled. 

With all the uncertainty, I decided to prioritise a couple ofprojects I can actually easily do from home: preparing the launch of a documentary film, completing a book manuscript, and processing and analysing the data of a research project. Each of these projects might actually be of interest to Shiloh readers! 

The film is called Kenyan, Christian, Queer, and is related to my book with the same title that was published last year. The film features an LGBT church in Kenya and the work they are doing to create an affirming space for LGBT Christians in a mostly conservative society. The actual production of the film is done by Aiwan Obinyan, a British-Nigerian film maker who is a friend of mine. I’ve been giving feedback on drafts, communicating with relevant stakeholders, and preparing educational resources for using the film in classroom settings. Unfortunately the African Studies conference where the film was to be launched has been cancelled, so we’re currently making alternative plans. 

The book I mentioned is titled Reimagining Sexuality and Christianity in Africa, and I’m authoring it with Ezra Chitando, a colleague in Zimbabwe. It’s aimed at a non-specialist audience of students, religious leaders and activists, thus requiring a more accessible writing style than the typical academic monograph. The book seeks to interrogate the dominant narrative of Christian homophobia in Africa, demonstrating how Christianity also serves as a site to imagine alternative possibilities of sexuality in African cultures and societies. Thereto we discuss a number of African thinkers, ranging from Archbishop Desmond Tutu to feminist theologian Mercy Oduoye, but also a range of creative and cultural expressions, such as novels, films and poetry.

Then, with my Leeds colleague Johanna Stiebert I’ve been working for the past year on a British Academy funded project for which we work with a group of Ugandan LGBT refugees based in Nairobi, Kenya. It focuses on the life stories of participants, and how biblical stories can be used to narrate and signify their experiences, struggles and hopes. The group we are working with is truly amazing – in terms of their creativity and resilience – and so is Johanna as a very inspiring colleague and collaborator. Going through the transcripts of interviews and focus group discussions brings back many wonderful memories. The creative bible studies we did, about Daniel in the lion’s den and about Jesus and the “adulterous woman”, resulted in drama plays that have been video recorded. This project is also supposed to result in a book, and the lock down gives us the time to start working on it. 

So, after the initial setback I’m now managing reasonably well. I intersperse my working hours with gardening – hooray for the goldfish that we were able to buy the weekend before the lockdown started, which make the garden pond so much livelier –, with a daily run along the canal, and checking in with friends and family nearby and far away to try and help them cope with the current situation. The reports I get from friends and colleagues in Kenya and other parts of Africa do worry me – the lockdown there has an enormous impact on people’s livelihoods. The whole situation makes me aware, again, of my own privilege and makes me reflect upon what solidarity means in these times. As much as it’s true that the virus does not discriminate, the effects of the pandemic are felt most severe by communities that are already vulnerable and marginalised. (On that note: If anyone reading this is able to offer some support to the above mentioned group of Ugandan refugees, who really struggle economically in the current crisis, please get in touch.)

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COVID-19 Lockdown Interview Series: Helen Paynter

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  1. Tell us about yourself. What have you been doing and what are you working on during this COVID-19 lock-in? I have a number of roles, which I’m trying to juggle effectively in these strange days. As Director of the Centre for the Study of Bible and Violence at Bristol Baptist College, I’m continuing to work on books we’re editing, and a reading group I’m convening. I’m also, rather distractedly, trying to get on with writing a paper on retellings of the conquest narrative. Since the lock-down started, I’ve also been appointed Biblical Studies tutor at Bristol Baptist College, to start in August (DV). My other main role is that I’m a Baptist minister, sharing the care of a local church. So my colleague and I have been discovering the joys of online services, zoom leadership meetings, and trying to offer pastoral support to people over the phone. Most importantly, I’m doing my best to be a non-anxious presence for the congregation, and to help people to stand firm in their faith in these scary times. Some of this will be shifting around soon, however, as I’ll be returning to work as a doctor in one capacity or another, three days a week. I hung up my stethoscope 13 years ago, so this is a rather scary thought, but the NHS is offering intensive retraining and good support, and once a doctor always a doctor! So this will probably mean that my research will have to be put on hold for a while, though I will continue to serve the church as their minister.


2. Which aspects of your work past and present might be particularly interesting for supporters of the Shiloh Project?
I think they might be interested in my recently published book on a terrible act of sexual violence in the Bible (Telling Terror in Judges 19: Rape and Reparation for the Levite’s Wife), and my forthcoming one on the use of the Bible in domestic abuse (The Bible Doesn’t Tell Me So: Why you don’t have to submit to domestic abuse and coercive control).
I’m very concerned about the problem of domestic abuse in these days, as people are trapped in homes with abusers, and frustration and anger are riding high. I understand that nine women were killed in their home last week. I’ve been trying to help raise awareness of this issue, and to highlight that refuges are still open and that this constitutes an acceptable reason for leaving lockdown.


3. How are you bearing up and what’s helping you most?
I’m doing okay most of the time. I’m incredibly grateful that we have a garden, and we’ve been playing a lot of swingball! I’m trying to keep a good daily and weekly routine, which includes writing the day in large letters in our hall(!), making sure I always get dressed, and exercise regularly. There are five of us at home here – I’m very grateful that our two student daughters have been able to come home to be with us. We’ve been having some great family times, including a riotous quiz evening, board games (if you’ve never played Terraforming Mars, it’s utterly addictive), and recreating famous works of art very badly! (See pictures.)
Above all, I’m appreciating regular a rhythm of prayer throughout the day, which really helps me to recentre myself. In the mornings, I ‘gather’ with colleagues from the Baptist College to pray. After our evening meal, as a family we have been using the Northumbria evening prayer together – great words for a time of darkness (see here). And at bedtime I’ve been streaming an Anglican church’s evening office. Three very different traditions, and all very helpful.

(Helen is also during self-isolation giving a ‘Tour of the Bible’ in daily short recordings. Here is her recording of Judges.)

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The #MeToo Reckoning: Book Review

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Reflection on and review of The #MeToo Reckoning: Facing the Church’s Complicity in Sexual Abuse and Misconduct, by Ruth Everhart (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2020).

This is not the kind of book I usually pick up – but I’m glad I did. Why might I not have picked it up? The author, Ruth Everhart, is a Presbyterian pastor, and she writes of Jesus as a presence and of the Bible as instrumental in addressing sexual abuse and misconduct in today’s churches. I am not drawn to church, and for me, doing something ‘because of Jesus’ (the title of one sub-section early on in the book), or treating the Bible as a kind of how-to for protecting the most vulnerable (signified by ‘the little ones’ of Matthew 18), as much as I applaud Everhart’s purpose, is utterly unfamiliar. Like humanizing one’s pets, or talking to the dead, I see nothing wrong in theory with believing in Jesus’ active presence, but at the same time it’s just not ‘me’.Moreover, I’ve tended to see the Bible as more part of the problem in matters sexual abuse than part of the solution.

Some of Everhart’s writing struck me as too ‘churchy-preachy’ to warm to. Hence, I almost put the book away when I got to, ‘[Jesus’] love changes everything. He is the divine one who came into this world via vagina. To Jesus, women’s bodily experiences matter. To Jesus, all humans bear the image of God equally. To Jesus, the voices of victims crying out for justice is a beatitude sung by a chorus. Stop and listen. Push past the fear. Unleash the energy. The Spirit is here’ (p.15). But I pushed past, persevered, perhaps in part, because Everhart had said at the outset that the book was addressed to victims, survivors, allies of victims and survivors, pastors, lay leaders and also to non-Christians. 

I had ordered Everhart’s book, because I came across it as forthcoming while researching my own book on rape culture and #MeToo. In my book I make much of the enduring influence of biblical texts, particularly in faith communities. And yet, can I really say this with authority, given my own remove from such communities? I preordered Everhart’s book and began to read it soon after it arrived, hot off the press. It is a book that – much to my own surprise – engaged me; a book I admire and warmly recommend. It has taught me much and given me some insight into new perspectives. Here are a few things I particularly like about this book.

Everhart knows what she is talking about and sticks to what she knows 

Everhart is a rape survivor. She has written a memoir about her ordeal, when she and her roommates, all young students at a Christian college, were held at gunpoint and raped by two intruders. The memoir is called Ruined(Tyndale House, 2016)because this word captured her perception of herself following the rape. Feeling ruined can be traced back in part to the purity culture in which Everhart was raised and immersed. Her intimate understanding of both purity culture and of trying to understand rape against the backdrop of faith in a loving God also contributes to her acutely sensitive and empathetic depiction of the stories of others who have encountered sexual abuse and mistreatment in church settings: like Melissa, raised and home-schooled in a conservative Christian culture that deprived her of the language to disclose or speak about rape; Stephanie, the pastor who had to recognize and resist the sexism that was creating a rape-supportive environment in her own faith community; Kris, the young man exposed to a sexual abuser who was protected by church structures and secrecies.

Ruined follows Everhart’s spiritual journey moving through and past rape, past feeling ruined, and her choice of remaining in the church and following her calling to become a pastor. I have not read Everhart’s memoir, only her allusions to it in this book. Like other first-person accounts of rape, Everhart’s albeit brief descriptions stay with me. The two book-length autobiographical accounts of rape I have read – and yes, sadly, rape memoirs are a genre –  are Jill Saward’s Rape: My Story (Bloomsbury, 1990) and Joanna Connors’ I Will Find You: A Reporter Investigates the Life of the Man Who Raped Her (Fourth Estate, 2016). 

With both of these accounts, as with Everhart’s, the victim is easily identified as ‘innocent’. Of course no victim of rape is anything other than blameless; rape is always a dreadful crime, regardless of who the victim is. But it is no revelation that not all rape victims receive sympathy or support. Instead, some victims are blamed – on account of being drunk, or being perceived to have been sexually provocative, for instance. There exists a hierarchy of respectability with some victims deemed ‘more innocent’ and ‘more undeserving’ and others as‘rapable’, their violation ‘understandable’, occasionally even deserved. 

This hierarchy is amply infused with perceptions regarding purity, as well as with racism and other forms of discrimination pertaining to class, for instance. Moreover, it is affected by the identity of both victim and perpetrator – and Everhart is well aware of these toxic dynamics. Early on she alludes to the inequalities of rape, including those pertaining to race (pp.7-8), which she returns to repeatedly (e.g. p.49, pp.222-23). Everhart also unpicks the subtle workings of purity culture and its intersections with rape culture (pp.108–32) and the multiple vulnerabilities of class-based inequalities (passim).

Everhart, Saward and Connors’ accounts are all by white women. Everhart and Saward were both very young at the time of their rapes and both were devout Christians – Everhart a student at a Christian college, Saward a vicar’s daughter. In all three cases the rapists were strangers, in two (Everhart’s and Saward’s) there was more than one rapist and the rapists were armed intruders. In both Everhart and Connors’ cases the rapists were black men. All of these factors – that the rape victims were young, white, Christian, and the assailantsviolent, armed, black, strangers – serve to render the victims ‘more innocent’ in terms of the hierarchy of respectability and the rapists ‘more deplorable’ in the hierarchy of perpetrators than if the victims had been black, sexually experienced, older, or sex workers, for instance, or if the rapists had been their victims’ husbands, acquaintances, or famous, handsome, white. 

This is due to networks of rape myths and how theseshape stereotypes, expectations, prejudices, values and it explains why some rapists – such as good-looking, or wealthy, white men, boyfriends or celebrities – are more likely to get away with rape and why black victims, or sex workers, or disabled victims while, according to statistics especially vulnerable to sexual violence, more often than not do not get a hearing, let alone justice in court, or even representation or acknowledgement of their disproportionate suffering in popular culture.

Everhart comprehends this fully and reflects this in her writing. She chooses, however, wisely in my view, to hone in on the rape culture context she knows and understands best. As she writes, ‘Because I have become a progressive Protestant, this book focuses on stories within that world. I feel a call to clean the dirt in my own house…’ (p.9). Everhart makes no bones about who she is – ‘a rape survivor… a former “good girl,” … a radical feminist’ (p.6) and she takes a clear-eyed look at the church to which she belongs and feels indebted but which she also recognizes as ‘the culprit… the place where culpability hides’ (p.4).

The book contains a variety of stories and gives insight into the complex reasons why abuse is common in churches 

This book is substantial in length and demonstrates considerable narrative agility. It combines accounts ofEverhart’s personal experience, stories of others who have encountered church complicity in sexual abuse and misconduct, news reports (including about the testimony of both Anita Hill and Christine Blasey-Ford), excerpts from written correspondences, and careful examinationsof a wide range of biblical texts: among these, Leviticus 15 (detailing the menstruation purity laws), Numbers 27 (about the daughters of Zelophehad), 2 Samuel 11–13(the stories of Nathan’s parable and the rapes of both Bathsheba and Tamar), Psalm 55, the book of Lamentations, Matthew 10 and 18 (about Jesus and the children, or ‘little ones’), Mark 5:21-43 (the stories of two daughters – Jairus’ daughter and the woman healed of a continuous discharge), Luke 18 (the story of a persistent widow – a text I hadn’t known about prior to reading Everhart’s book), and 1 Corinthians 12 (on theinter-dependent body of the Church).

Everhart is superb at telling and at connecting stories that show in multiple ways that churches foster environments in which sexual misconduct and abuse thrive. She tells her own story, of working in a new congregation and of the inappropriate attentions of a church leader, culminating in his forcibly kissing Everhart. She talks of her efforts first to forestall and then to address this incident and of the many obstructions she encountered. She speaks of how this revived past trauma and also, how her past trauma was used against her.

Alongside this, Everhart tells others’ stories that have been entrusted to her. Some of these describe cases of severe physical abuse (Melissa’s rape by two men, one a stranger, one a trusted friend from church; Kris’s violent assault by a church-assigned chaperone), others of apparently less serious encounters (the misogynybrewing in Stephanie Green’s congregation). Skillful and effective here is how Everhart constructs a church-specific picture of a rape culture pyramid, in which it isclear that the serious crimes that happen in church settings (and which have begun to make the news with horrible regularity) are under-shored by networks and tributaries of rape-supportive attitudes, complicities and suppressions. As Everhart argues persuasively, none of these, even if seemingly small or jocular, are harmless and – if left unchallenged – transpire in the protection of abusers and the multiplication of victims. Atmospheres where sexist jokes are accepted as ‘banter’ diminish and silence women; small sexualized transgressions when dismissed can embolden perpetrators. Everhart tells of the sexualized ‘jokes’ of Big Joe, which go on to influence a vulnerable attendee of his soup kitchen, who then begins to stalk Stephanie, and of Ginni, who is tooready to forgive a sexual predator in spite of his not taking accountability or accepting any punishment. Everhart’s stories are vivid and familiar – even to those not part of a church community. This is because the church setting she describes is a microcosm that, for all its distinctive features, echoes broader social patterns. 

Everhart’s examinations of biblical texts are also compelling – and here I feel on more familiar ground. I, too, have interfaced biblical texts with contemporarycontexts. Everhart describes her approach as hearing stories of the Bible and the present ‘in tandem, the twin halves of a double helix’ (p.11). She uses the Bible as an inspiration for seeking justice: Jesus’ advocacy for ‘the little ones’ calls her to speak for victims and survivors and to heal the church; she appeals to David’s exposure of guilt, as well as to his acknowledgement of fault and acceptance of punishment to act as a model for seekingperpetrators’ accountability.

But Everhart is not uncritical of the Bible by any means. Hence, she notes, for instance, David’s mourning for his sons, Amnon and Absalom, but not for Tamar, his daughter: ‘David’s silence speaks volumes: Tamar’s life is not equal in value to those of her brothers. How painful to be confronted with the sheer expendability of females in Scripture – yet this is our religious heritage’ (p.34). Everhart finds inspiration in the Bible – for women’s solidarity in the story of Zelophehad’sdaughters, and for persistence in seeking justice in the parable of the widow and the judge – but she is not blind to the Bible’s misogyny and she is aware of how it has been used against women. 

Everhart has clearly studied and reflected on the Bible in considerable depth. I have too – but I learned from Everhart. I found her reflection on the ewe lamb in Nathan’s parable insightful, for instance. Hence, Everhart suggests that the man’s affection for the lamb might point to a particularly tender relationship between Uriah and Bathsheba. I did not know and agree with Everhart that it is meaningful, that Bathsheba, though not named here, is referred to as the wife of Uriah in the New Testament (Matthew 1:6). I also concur that the image of the lamb emphasizes Bathsheba’s youth and vulnerability: Everhart asks, ‘Due to stark disparities in status, power, and age, was meaningful consent possible in the story of David and Bathsheba?’ (p.144) We are agreed that the story is one of rape. 

Everhart’s adept and lively narration of stories – both personal and biblical – makes this book enjoyable to read. Her careful analysis of texts from the Bible is balanced with vividly related accounts of actual people from her own circle. The parallels between the two make the Bible stories relevant and alive but without obscuring their toxic potential. As Everhart recognizes ‘Scripture says many things, including many contradictory things. … We must be aware of the temptation to “baptize” what feels good and right because it’s known and comfortable’ (p.36). Everhart avoids this temptation and delves into much that is uncomfortable and painful.

Ruth Everhart

The book not only identifies and explains problems but offers hope and church-compatible ways and incentives to resolve them

Everhart is clear where she stands: she is in the church and intends to remain there. She recognizes the church’s potential for facilitating abuse and wants to be part of the solution for bringing this to an end. She is motivated by feminism and enthusiastic about #MeToo, identifying it as a time to speak up and to bring the church into a movement for positive change. 

Among the problems Everhart identifies and seeks to resist are Christian complicity ‘in championing a patriarchal masculinity that marginalizes women and protects abusers’ (p.11); the manipulation of turning the willing sacrifice of Jesus into the exploitation of self-sacrifice, or into sacrifice of the truth (p.35, p.204); the prevalence of a purity culture and a conservative view on sexuality, which can prepare a seedbed for driving sexual abuse underground; the church’s ‘tremendous pull toward institutional self-preservation’ and the ‘intricate web of relationships within the church’ (p.53); and disciplinary processes that do not acknowledge, let alonehonour harms done (p.90ff., 104–06). 

Over and over again, Everhart, while drawing on discrete examples, agues that these problems lie not with a few ‘sick individuals’ but with systems (e.g. pp.80-81). She advocates for transparency and speaking out (p.106) and for making churches ‘safer and braver’ (p.212). Hence, rather than holding meetings about abuse behind closed doors or foregrounding privacy and anonymity, Everhart advocates for public laments, in line with the large-scale, public strategies of #MeToo. Shame, she points out, lies not with victims but with perpetrators and resisting sexual abuse is not a women’s issue but a human issue. Without active resistance, she warns, churches will lose all the remaining trust they still have and go under. 

Everhart’s book ends on a note of hope, optimism and activity – with a list of strategies for effecting positive change within congregations.

I was left, after reading this book, feeling sombre but also more knowledgeable, and very grateful for people like Everhart and others, including several who have featured on this blog – Jayme ReavesRosinah GabaitseMusa DubeDavid TombsMegan RobertsonLaurie Lyter-BrightHelen PaynterJoachim KueglerGerald WestEricka DunbarJoyce BohamJo Sadgrove… – for fighting the fight in the churches. 

I hope many of you will read this book, whether you are Christian, church-going, or not.

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Daniel in the Homophobic Lion’s Den

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Here’s a post by Shiloh Project co-director Johanna Stiebert about her second research visit to Nairobi, where she participates in a project with Ugandan LGBTQ+refugees. The project has the title “Tales of Sexuality and Faith: The Ugandan LGBT Refugees Life Story Project”and is funded by the British Academy/Leverhulme Trust. Its lead investigator is Adriaan van Klinken

The project is focused on stories: life-stories, stories of the Bible, and stories that combine the two. At its heart and centre is a group of refugees, a collective called The Nature Network. Johanna talks about the project and its intersections with Shiloh-relevant themes, such as religion and vulnerability to violence, in an earlier post. Here are some of her reflections on the project’s recent developments. 

Stories and Lives

Stories matter. In my life certainly stories and story telling have played a major part since as far back as I can remember. Growing up, I was the youngest member of a multi-generational household and even before I learned to read stories, stories were told and read to me. I loved folk stories and fairytales but I especially liked stories about me, set in the-time-before-I-could remember. I loved the stories of when I was very small, about the funny or naughty things I did. 

I demanded to hear such stories of my earliest life over and over again. I demanded details and eventually heard multiple versions, with different embellishments (and probably some exaggerations and inventions). Those stories somehow linked me to the protagonists of other stories; they made me feel important, an agent. They linked me to the past, to a bigger, world-connecting meta-story. I like stories to this day.

My academic work focuses on the study of the Bible. It was the stories that first drew me in but also the people I met through studies and teaching – and their stories. Approaches of biblical interpretation have become more honest about how our identities and experiences shape our interpretation and increasingly, life stories and Bible stories have been coming together for me.

Nairobi Stories

Adriaan has been travelling to Kenya, making friends, hearing stories, making stories, and gathering material for his publications for some years. When he and the people who move into and out from The Nature Work developed ideas around life stories and Bible stories, I was eager to get involved. By then, I had also become involved in a number of other projects, all of them relevant to the Shiloh Project, that explore the use of stories and images derived from the Bible to open up discussions about gender-based violence. Because the Bible – while variously interpreted in different settings – is a shared text, it has been an effective medium for connecting me with people whose identities, lives and experiences are very different to mine.

I have only been to Nairobi on two short visits – the second was last month, in January. My impressions of the city are a succession of little snapshots – of bustle and crazy traffic, but also of sweeping parks with leafy trees; of roadsides displaying an array of wares, from potted plants to double beds, playground items to beaded bracelets; of colourful roadside fruit and vegetable markets and little enterprises selling cut flowers or grilled corn on the cob. We drove several times through Kibera, Africa’s largest urban slum, which is highly concentrated with busy-ness – washing drying, wood being cut, tiny shops crammed together selling everything from cellphone units to clothes alteration. Sometimes, such as in the large malls, I could completely forget where I was – other times, in Kibera, or seeinggrazing warthogs by the roadside, marabous perched on monuments, or monkeys on the walls of residential buildings, you knew you were definitely in Kenya.

But back to life stories. When something sharp happens in our lives, when we are, for instance, accused of something we haven’t done, then the telling of our stories becomes more carefully constructed. We choose our elements with care, so as to recount vividly and persuasively what really  happened. This also happens when we are treated unjustly in other ways – and many of the stories we heard at The Nature Network reported being accused of ‘recruiting’ minors, of being willfully deviant, of choosing depravity to dishonour family and community and religious affiliation. The life stories collected as part of this project were invariably told with vividness and fluency. The refugees were used to telling their stories – they were often telling them for survival, including as part of their efforts to secure resettlement with UNHCR. 

The stories told featured rejection, threat, violence, vulnerability, condemnation from family and community and church representatives. Sometimes there were stories of a painful past and of a present in which the story was turning towards more hope. New families were formed within The Nature Network, families not of blood ties but of ties of love and solidarity and acceptance. New religious networks were established, with prayers that bonded together and with a God who loved unconditionally – a God who created queer and whose image was therefore queer. 

The Story of a Project: Tales of Sexuality and Faith

The first stage of the project consisted of collecting life stories of refugees associated with The Nature Network. The majority of this was conducted by two members of the Network one of whom, Raymond Brian, is its co-founder. During interviewing, contributors were asked about the role and presence of religion in their lives and whether they had a favourite Bible story. Some interesting things emerged here. Many stories – from all over the Bible – were sources of inspiration. Jesus was repeatedly identified as an ally – as someone who embraced those on the fringes of society and who spoke out against condemning others. One interviewee mentioned identifying with David in the story of David and Goliath (1 Samuel 17). The reason was that the interviewee felt small and up against a Goliath of mighty and imposing challenges in day-to-day life. Like David they had little to work with – a small stone, metaphorically-speaking. But that small stone could be utilized to achieve something bigger and assert their rights and be vindicated. A second story that popped up was Daniel in the Lions’ Den (Daniel 6) – because the interviewee this time identified with the threat all around but simultaneously with a strong sense, too, that like Daniel they had done nothing to justify such threat and hostility. It was this story that seemed like a good one to draw on more.

Daniel in the Homophobic Lions’ Den

Before Adriaan and I arrived in Nairobi, the members of the Nature Network spent time reading the story of Daniel in the Lions’ Den and discussing it in groups. By the time we joined them the story was quite familiar. Now it was time to relate it to personal experience.

On 12 January we all gathered at the Network’s main venue, on the outskirts of Nairobi.

We shared breakfast and introduced ourselves and each other; we discussed expectations for the day – which ranged from the practical (to receive a refund for travel expenses) to the experiential (to learn, be entertained, and form connections and new friendships) – and rules (to respect one another and listen, and to all participate). 

Next, Chris gave a summary of the earlier meeting – where the text of the Bible was read and discussed in focus groups. A decision was made to read the text again – this time with the specific plan to try and make the story relevant to the present.

In our groups, as soon as we sat down with the biblical text, printed out on paper, to read it aloud together, a mood of seriousness descended. I think this is discernible in the pictures.

When we all got together to pool what had taken place in our groups, the discussion got very lively. We looked together at the characters and at the events of the Daniel story – who and what could these be in the present setting?

In the Daniel story there is a king, King Darius, who is somewhat sympathetic to Daniel but none the less submits to his governors who remind him of the laws. Who is this king today? Who are the governors?

Suggestions came in thick and fast: the king is the government of Uganda, or the President of Uganda. The governors are oppressive elements of African culture and pastors using the Bible to condemn, as well as members of parliament. Daniel is the LGBTQ+ community – being unjustly persecuted. The lions are maybe family members who are sometimes harmful and obstructive but not always, or enemies within the LGBTQ+ communityitself who sometimes deny their sexuality, or who choose to blackmail others when it suits them to do so. The den is identified as Kenya and as prison… Some spoke up to say they found the punishment of the governors’ wives and children wrong, others saw this as collateral damage, or as the punishment of those who didn’t speak up but benefited from their powerful family members’ privileges. 

After some discussion, a play was put together, performed and recorded. This all happened very quickly– from discussion to completion of the recording took no more than 3 hours. The idea of weaving stories together and of transporting an ancient story into the lived present was quickly embraced and vividly imagined and reenacted. There were some fabulous spontaneous ideas and there was much articulate expression both of condemnation encountered and liberation desired.

The King is the President of Uganda. (In this reenactment he has a consort.)

The governors are members of parliament and representatives of churches, as well as a mufti from an Islamic congregation. 

Daniel is a representative of the LGBTQ+ community.

The den is prison.

There are also in this reenactment members of the police force, of the press and supporters of Daniel.

God’s voice can be heard at the beginning and end.

Here is the recording, ‘Daniel in the homophobic lion’s den’. Enjoy.

It was a real joy watching the play at each of its various stages. The strength of feeling and the power of story telling really come across. There is a new immediacy and resonance to the old story of Daniel. I, certainly, will never read this story again in the same way. And when we all watched the completed recording together everyone was very engaged and delighted with the end result.

In time, we – members of the Network, Adriaan and I – hope to publish a book about the project. 

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