Resistant Readings: John MacArthur’s Homophobic Theology


Today’s post comes from Charlie Winn, who is a Pākehā third-year student at the University of Auckland, majoring in Sociology and Theological and Religious Studies. His academic interests include Sara Ahmed’s theorisation of emotion and affect, and the philosophy of Alain Badiou. Charlie is also an active member of the prison abolitionist organisation People Against Prisons Aotearoa. He plans to complete his Sociology Honours degree in 2020.

Charlie wrote this post as part of his coursework for our University of Auckland course, ‘Religious Texts of Terror’. His interrogation of John MacArthur’s sermon showcases the importance of resisting those (mis)interpretations of biblical texts which promote symbolic violence in all its forms.

If you prefer listening to reading, Charlie’s blog post can be heard in podcast form here.

Resistant Readings: John MacArthur’s Homophobic Theology

Charlie Winn

In this post, I will deconstruct and critically discuss the (mis)interpretation of a sacred text that I argue has been used to promote homophobia and intolerance. Specifically, I will be delving into a sermon given by John MacArthur, the pastor-teacher of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California. He is also a featured teacher on the ‘Grace to You’ media ministry, an initiative that has allowed him to distribute his books and study guides to the public in more bite-size, accessible formats, such as radio shows, YouTube videos, and podcasts. Grace to You was founded in 1969 and has developed a sizable international audience of committed followers. The sermon of MacArthur’s I will be exploring is called ‘Homosexuality and the Campaign for Immorality’, and was published on the Grace to You website on 23 September 2012. I will interrogate MacArthur’s appropriation of the Bible as a tool to condemn homosexuality, through which he uses his influential platform to incite symbolic and structural violence against a marginalised community. Throughout the 54-minute sermon, MacArthur skims over a great number of biblical passages, however, he pays particular detail to Romans 1:18-32 – often considered the most influential biblical text on same-gender relationships – and the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19.

This episode is divided into three distinct areas of analysis. Firstly, I will examine MacArthur’s literal interpretation of Romans 1:18-32, in which Paul the Apostle wrote of God’s wrath towards all those who disobey them. Next, I will briefly pick apart MacArthur’s assertion that the destruction of Sodom in Genesis 19 is a reference to the sinful nature of homosexuality. Finally, in consideration of these two arguments, I will challenge MacArthur’s claim that the Bible is not political by drawing on Professor Joel Baden’s conceptualisation of the Bible as a cultural prop.

The First Resistance: Romans 1

For many years, Romans 1:18-32 has been considered the central biblical text referencing same-gender relationships, with innumerable interpretations arising from it. Paul wrote Romans 1 due to his unease about people privileging themselves and their desires over worshipping God. He discusses the sin of human egotism and immodesty, as well as praising false idols (Punt 2007, 965-67). In MacArthur’s sermon, he adopts a conservative reading of this passage, deeming the Bible to be explicitly condemning homosexuality. Referencing Romans 1:24, MacArthur speaks of God’s abandonment of the nation that is contaminated by selfishness and vanity: “He gives them over to the lusts of their hearts to impurity.” This “impurity” is widely understood as sexual sin, implying that Paul’s Greco-Roman society has become obsessed with sex. Continuing, MacArthur references Romans 1:26-27: “Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.” In a wild stretch of the imagination, MacArthur correlates this “due penalty” with the twentieth-century HIV/AIDS epidemic and the spread of sexually-transmitted diseases. Through a very literal interpretation of this passage, MacArthur states that God’s abandonment of our world has lead to a sexual revolution, followed by a “homosexual revolution” that apparently we are living through right now.

MacArthur’s argument can be countered in three distinct ways. Firstly, I will explore the “nature/natural” debate, detailed in Jeremy Punt’s article on interpretive options for Romans 1. Punt explains that in this passage, Paul’s claims are founded on what is regarded as “according to nature,” with the “unnatural” describing practices that are unconventional or going against what is socially acceptable (2007, 972). Reading this passage in the historical and cultural context of Greco-Roman society, we can understand the term “natural relations” as specifying acts that conformed to the social hierarchy – the correct way of acting. From this, Punt asserts that Paul isn’t problematizing the gender of one’s sexual partner, but is instead arguing that one’s social status and the sexual act involved must be in accordance with the social hierarchy (2007, 973). Therefore, it is redundant to apply contemporary connotations to a word written in the first century, for it most definitely would have held different cultural meanings for the audiences at the time.

Image:Jenny Mealing

The second area in which MacArthur’s argument falls flat is through his inability to recognise the dynamic character of sexuality, ever-changing throughout time. When Romans 1 was written, conceptions of gender, sex and sexuality were vastly different from today’s understandings of them (Punt 2007, 976). Engaging in a queer reading of Paul’s Romans 1, Jeremy Punt recognises that in the Greco-Roman world, sexuality wasn’t defined by homosexual or heterosexual relations, but rather determined by activity and passivity informed by social status. Men asserted their dominance through acts of penetration, whereas those further down the social hierarchy – regardless of their sex – were deemed weak, and thus vulnerable to being penetrated (Punt 2007, 976). As Stephen Moore, in his article “Que(e)rying Paul” articulates, “The reduction of sexual relations to the act of penetration enables sex to become a simple yet effective instrument for expressing hierarchical relations” (1998, 271). In the first century, gender and social status were intimately connected. And so when Paul speaks of the reversal of the gender hierarchy and gendered practices, he’s referring to the loss of social status and the consequences of humiliation that these readers could face (Punt 2007, 977). Jeremy Punt’s analysis of Romans 1 shows us that the contemporary concept of homosexuality simply didn’t exist in Paul’s time, so it is erroneous and inappropriate for MacArthur to directly apply modern notions of homosexuality to this text.

My third criticism of MacArthur’s manipulation of Romans 1 is rather straightforward – decontextualisation. At the beginning of his article, “Romans 1:26-27 and Homosexuality,” Everett Kalin (2003) identifies whom Paul is condemning in this passage, and for what sin they are being condemned. In Romans 1:18-32, God’s wrath is pointed at the Gentiles, who have failed to recognise God’s presence in creation, alternatively fabricating and worshipping their own idols (Kalin 2003, 426). However, this is not the crux of Paul’s lesson, as MacArthur so clearly makes it out to be. Just several verses later, in Romans 2:1, Paul addresses the Jews who disapprove of the Gentiles’ wrongdoing, insisting that they are judging the Other: “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgement on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.” Paul’s reprimand of those who judge others by their sins can be applied to everyone (Kalin 2003, 429), especially John MacArthur. This raises the question: If MacArthur chooses to take vv. 26-27 to bolster his message, then surely he must also consider Romans 2:1, or Romans 12-15, whereby Paul urges his audience to welcome one another into their communities of faith despite their many differences (Kalin 2003, 430). Romans 1 doesn’t exist in isolation, it is part of a unified narrative. Thus, MacArthur needs to take Paul’s words in vv. 26-27 and place them in the context of his wider argument, which exposes those who view themselves as God’s special friends as equally capable of sin (Kalin 2003, 431). If John MacArthur were to read Romans with real integrity and vigour, he would gain greater clarity as to the relevance of Paul’s message for the Church today. Paul spoke negatively of those who considered certain Others as inferior, excluding them from their religious groups and encouraged all to live together in unity (Kalin 2003, 432). This is the message MacArthur should take from Romans.

The Second Resistance: The Destruction of Sodom

A considerable part of MacArthur’s sermon is dedicated to shallow analysis of Genesis 19, which he characterizes as a text of terror against homosexuality, one that categorically expresses God’s anger at same-gender sexual relations. In this biblical chapter, Lot takes in two angels who are visitors to Sodom and Gomorrah, warning them that it is not safe for them to stay in the town, and so invites them to his home. Later that night, Lot and the angels awaken to find the men of Sodom surrounding the house, hammering on the door, and demanding, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, that we may know them.” In other words, they want to rape Lot’s guests. To cut a long story short, when the men of Sodom continue trying to enter Lot’s home, the angels strike the men down, blinding all of them. Later on in the passage, God sets fire to Sodom and Gomorrah, destroying the cities entirely. Genesis 19 has been utilised in religious discourse to take the form of what Mieke Bal terms an “ideo-story,” taken out of context, “whose structure lends itself to be the receptacle of different ideologies” (1988, 11). The particular ideology surrounding Genesis 19 is homophobia.

John Martin, The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (1852)

MacArthur states that this story illustrates God’s position on societies that affirm homosexuality. Yet we must pay close attention to MacArthur’s sloppy conflation between same-sex relations and a horrific act of sexual violence – attempted rape. What is occurring is not an action of same-sex love and desire, but rather an act of terror and domination intended to degrade and torture the Other. Derrick Bailey was one of the first to challenge conservative interpretations of this passage, arguing that the sin of Sodom wasn’t a sexual one, but rather a breach of traditional customs of hospitality (1955, 5). Ancient Jewish culture privileged hospitality as a key pillar of social practice, as it granted strangers a special place within the community, treating them as honoured guests (Queer Grace, n.d.). By inviting the guests to his house, Lot followed his obligation of hospitality, yet the men of Sodom actively went against these required customs, attempting to inflict violence upon the strangers. The Hebrew Bible – and even Jesus – condemns Sodom not for unorthodox sexual practice, but its inhospitality (Carden 1999, 90). Therefore we should interpret the evil that dwelled in the city of Sodom as the abuse of strangers and not homosexuality. While MacArthur attempts to manipulate this story to fit his theological agenda, his logic falls flat when we analyse Genesis 19 in the historical and cultural context it was written in. We understand the passage’s meaning for its original audience and recognise the danger of uncritically applying it to contemporary religious discourse.

The Third Resistance: The Political Book

As already established, MacArthur understands the Bible to be the direct word of God, and this can be shown through his use of wording. In the sixth minute of his talk, he says “these very things that God hates and that bring down God’s judgment.” Then in the seventh minute, when addressing the Democratic Party’s affirmation of gay marriage, he continues, “What God condemns they affirm. What God punishes, they exalt.” In branding the Democratic Party the “anti-God party,” it is evident that MacArthur views the Bible as possessing only one single meaning, and that any textual analysis that deviates from this ideal is considered as opposing God’s word. If this standpoint doesn’t seem problematic enough, shortly after, MacArthur states, “Romans 1 is not politics. The Bible is not politics. This is nothing to do with politics. This has to do with speaking the Word of God to the culture in which we live. It has nothing to do with politics.” This is simply not correct. As Martha Nussbaum articulates in the first chapter of her book, The New Religious Intolerance (2012), the history of the Western world has been defined by bloody and violent religious bigotry. The Crusades, European colonisation of indigenous peoples and their lands, and the Holocaust, are just a few obvious examples of the Bible’s application as a text of terror. Even in more recent events, for example the synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh last year and the passing of this year’s abortion “heartbeat” bills in Ohio, we continue to see biblical scripture being utilised as a mechanism of hate and discrimination. The Bible is political.

We can best identify and explore these contradictions in MacArthur’s logic by drawing from Joel Baden’s (2014) conceptualisation of the Bible as a cultural prop. By inscribing the Bible with divine authority, a vessel of God’s word, MacArthur grants an enormous amount of power to scripture. However, by simultaneously denying its inherent political nature, he disavows any attempt to debate or question the content of the Bible. But where there is power, there must also be politics, and Baden affirms that whenever someone cites the Bible, they acquire some of that authority to scaffold their argument. So we should consider MacArthur a political figure then, a powerful man whose theological viewpoints are liable to criticism and objection. The previous two examples of scriptural analysis are fine examples of MacArthur’s use of the Bible as a cultural prop. In employing the bible to force through one ill-considered (homophobic) message, rather than to evoke deep thought on the various potential meanings of these passages, MacArthur uses the Bible as an instrument with which to impose a political ideology that is not rooted in scripture. It is no longer the words on the page that are considered important, but what they have come to represent in our society. Baden states that when this shift occurs, the Bible stops functioning as a text, and becomes nothing more than a symbol.

MacArthur capitalizes on the cultural influence and authority of the Bible, declaring a singular, fundamental truth and meaning while disregarding the numerous contradictions that arise within this text. In his closing prayer, MacArthur remarks, “We are so grateful that You’ve not left us in doubt about these things which are part of life for us.” To function as a prop, the Bible must serve one specific purpose, and to do this, its message must remain clear-cut and unambiguous. However, as we know, in reality, this is not the case. Baden affirms that within the Bible there is so much scriptural conflict and narrative discord, that it is impossible for anyone to claim a single truth from it. So when MacArthur says, “Our responsibility is to tell people about the kingdom of God, and who can be in the kingdom of God, and who is excluded from the kingdom of God”, we should ask: but what makes this interpretation anymore valid than other interpretations and texts that oppose your homophobic argument? When we turn to the Bible in search of answers to our burning questions, we are presented with a variety of voices, clashing beliefs, and divergent opinions. The Bible is fundamentally multi-vocal by nature, and in acknowledging this fact, the notion of “the truth” must be replaced with “many truths” – all of which hold significance for different communities (Baden 2014). MacArthur’s insistence that the Bible is an apolitical text is an attack on the religious pluralism that has existed throughout time and in all places since the Bible was written. If one is to bestow upon the Bible the great weight of divine order and command, then one must also allow their interpretation of it to be dissected, challenged, and actively opposed (Baden 2014). For as long as the Bible is used as a guide to how we should (or should not) live, in turn shaping our material reality, it remains a political document subject to debate.

Final thoughts

We live in a world of what Joel Baden describes as “religious cacophony” – the existence of a plethora of voices, all saying different things, often conflicting with each other (2014). And we view this as a good thing, welcoming diversity of religious values throughout our communities. But this very dynamic can be found within the pages of the Bible too. The inconsistent and contradictory nature of scripture should signal that if we are going to invest such great authority in a text, healthy discussion and debate around its meaning is not optional, but necessary (Baden 2014). The fallacy in John MacArthur’s homophobic argument lies in his inability to accept that the Bible holds numerous truths, each of which is up for analysis and criticism. He should acknowledge that one of the key values we can take from the Bible is the inclusion of differences. Scriptural interpretation involves dialogue, not monologue (Baden 2014). Through the earlier examples of Romans 1 and Genesis 19, I have shown how the absolute adoption of one single, ill-informed interpretation can cause immeasurable harm and discrimination towards the most vulnerable in our society. MacArthur must accept that scriptural analysis evolves throughout history as we acquire more knowledge. By disregarding these progressive advances in theological scholarship, he is only inhibiting the transformational potential of the Bible.


Baden, Joel. “What Use Is the Bible?” Video, 19:52. Posted by The Nantucket Project, March 28, 2014.

Bailey, Derrick Sherwin. Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition. London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1955.

Bal, Mieke, and Ruth Richardson. Death and Dissymmetry: The Politics of Coherence in the Book of Judges. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Carden, Michael. “Compulsory Heterosexuality in Biblical Narratives and their Interpretations: Reading Homophobia and Rape in Sodom and Gibeah.” Australian Religion Studies Review 12, no. 1 (1999):47-60.

Carden, Michael. “Homophobia and Rape in Sodom and Gibeah: A Response to Ken Stone.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 24, no. 82 (1999): 83-96.

Grace to You. “Homosexuality and the Campaign for Immorality.” Accessed October 23, 2019.

Grace to You. “John MacArthur.” Accessed October 26, 2019.

Kalin, Everett R. “Romans 1: 26-27 and Homosexuality.” Currents in Theology and Mission 30, no. 6 (2003): 423.

Moore, S.D. “Que(e)rying Paul: Preliminary questions.” In Auguries: The Jubilee volume of the Sheffield Department of Biblical Studies, edited by David J.A. Clines & Stephen D. Moore, 250-274. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998.

Nussbaum, Marta C. The New Religious Intolerance: Overcoming the Politics of Fear in an Anxious Age. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012.

Pharr, Suzanne. Homophobia: A Weapon of Sexism. Little Rock, Ark.: Chardon Press, 1989.

Punt, Jeremy. “Romans 1: 18-32 amidst the gay-debate: Interpretative options.” HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies 63, no. 3 (2007): 965-982.

Queer Grace. “Is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah about Homosexuality?” Accessed October 26, 2019.


All Biblical references in my writing are taken from the New Revised Standard Version.

All of John MacArthur’s Biblical references are taken from the English Standard Version.

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#MeToo 2 Years On: What Have We Learnt – Event at St Paul’s Cathedral, 19 November


Shiloh Project co-director Katie Edwards (University of Sheffield) will speak at this event, reflecting on the #MeToo movement, at St Paul’s Cathedral later this month. Booking details can be found here.

Two years on from #MeToo – what have we learnt?

Tuesday 19th November 2019, 6:30pm-8pm
OBE Chapel, St Paul’s Cathedral, St Paul’s Churchyard, London, EC4M 8AD

It’s two years since the world was rocked by allegations about high-profile men harassing women, who often felt they had to stay silent in order to keep their jobs. As the social media storm grew, more and more stories emerged from around the world and in every workplace sector. Women at all levels of working life had experienced discrimination, sexualised behaviour, and abuse. Has anything changed since then?

This event will reflect on the last two years: the nature of debate, the experiences of women and men, and the consequences for working life.

Speakers include:

  • Sarah Churchman OBE, Chief Inclusion, Community & Wellbeing Officer, PwC
  • Ayesha Hazarika, journalist and political commentator
  • Dr Katie Edwards, University of Sheffield
  • Sarah Whitehouse QC, Senior Treasury Counsel, 6KBW

The entrance for this event will be the Crypt Door. If you have any accessibility needs please let us know by emailing:

This event is open to all who wish to attend and is free of charge. However, we would welcome a donation (we suggest £5-£10) to help cover the running costs from anyone who wishes to make it.

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Celebrating all things queer

KCQ book

Last month I visited Nairobi to embark on a project together with my Leeds colleague Adriaan van Klinken. Adriaan has been conducting research in Kenya over a number of years but it was my first visit. Our project is funded by the British Academy/Leverhulme Trust and centres on a collaboration with the Nairobi-based initiative called The Nature Network.

The Nature Network is a community of LGBTQ+ refugees (the majority from Uganda) who have come together in Nairobi for solidarity, mobilization, community and survival. Kenya has been called a haven for LGBTQ+ refugees, but their lives are nevertheless far from easy.

The Nature Network provides support and community, advocacy, resources, advice, and a social justice platform for its members but, like other LGBTQ+ people and other refugees, too, they are a vulnerable community. Homophobia in all its insidious and often violent forms is very much present in Nairobi, as it is in very many other places. Added to that, like refugees elsewhere, community members are struggling in the face of economic uncertainties, poverty and all the vulnerabilities these bring with them. The range of members’ needs is complex and varied. Many suffer from unmet health problems, including mental health issues, and all live with various kinds of uncertainty regarding employment, economic security, and future prospects. Many are awaiting decisions from UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency, and several are due to be resettled, as others have been before them, in the USA, Canada, or Iceland.

Our project is called ‘Tales of Sexuality and Faith: The Ugandan LGBT Refugee Life Story Project’ and it explores how life stories, or autobiographical accounts, in combination with biblical stories, can become both a means and a resource for activism towards social justice for LGBTQ+ refugees and for activist-inspired research. In doing so, we are mindful of and draw on established and important work in other parts of the continent of Africa. I am thinking here, for instance, of the many activities of the Talitha Qumi Center in Ghana and of the Contextual Bible Study projects of the Ujamaa Centre in South Africa.

Johanna at the Nature Network, waiting to conduct an interview

Adriaan and I conducted some interviews on our visit, but the bulk of the data is being collected by members of The Nature Network. The initial interviews have proved moving and inspiring and we are working towards a collaborative publication that will bring these stories and the method itself into wider circulation.

While I was in Nairobi, there were two other queer highlights for me: one was attending the loud, proud, and lively service with the Cosmopolitan Affirming Community, which again demonstrated creative and empowering deployment of religious motifs and biblical texts; and the other was joining in the vibrant launch of Adriaan’s extraordinary new book, Kenyan, Christian, Queer: Religion, LGBT Activism, and Arts of Resistance in Africa. What a fine party it was – with dancing, drag, fabulous outfits, a play, presentations, and above all, abundant celebration and joy. I am so glad I could be there.

Raymond Brian of The Nature Network holding Adriaan’s book

Adriaan’s book is being launched again in Leeds: at 4pm on 14 November 2019, at Claire Chapel, Emmanuel Centre, University of Leeds. The event is co-hosted by the Leeds University Centre for African Studies and the Centre for Religion and Public Life. All supporters are welcome.

Alongside the people and communities I encountered in Nairobi, and alongside Adriaan’s research and publication, there are yet more queer events to celebrate. First, there is the research of Sam Ross, a PhD candidate based at the University of Leeds. Sam is exploring queer readings of Hebrew Bible texts that focus on suffering, pain, and trauma; he features as our Researcher of the Month on the Religion in Public blog. You can read about his research journey here. What he does not mention is that he has had a paper accepted in the peer-reviewed Journal for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies. Congratulations! Look out for the special issue on transgender and genderqueer perspectives coming soon.

And another shout-out for a queer celebration goes to Chris Greenough who has just had two books published (yes, he’s an over-achiever). The first, Undoing Theology: Life stories from non-normative Christians (SCM, 2018, reviewed here), has been invaluable as I reflect on and think ahead to the next stage of the project in Kenya. In this book, Chris takes up the call of Marcella Althaus-Reid who, in 2003, published the words, ‘At the bottom line of queer theologies, there are biographies of sexual migrants, testimonies of real lives in rebellions made of love, pleasure and suffering’ (The Queer God, Routledge, 2003, p.8, reviewed here). Chris documents his communications with three sexual migrants, or non-normative Christians: an intersex-identifying Catholic, a former ‘ex-gay’ minister, and a Christian engaging in BDSM (bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, sadism, masochism). The result is a moving testament from those who are sometimes seeking, sometimes demanding, and occasionally finding inclusion and spiritual fulfilment. What remains un-erased in the course of this book are the difficulties and traumas encountered by and inflicted on sexual migrants. The book is a remarkable blend of vivid personal accounts and incisive critical theory.

Chris’s second book is called Queer Theologies: The Basics (Routledge, 2019) and is an invaluable resource for anyone wanting to come to grips with queer interpretation and queer theologies. Those who have tried to do so know it to be a rich and varied field with some hard-to-navigate ideas, theories, and terminologies. Chris’s book is accessible and written with clarity and flair. It also contains a helpful glossary and plenty of suggestions for further study and exploration.

There is so much queer to celebrate!


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

Slide 11

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:; 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

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:; Text added: E.Samuel; Cartoon source:

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


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


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 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: For press articles on Legabibo, see:  


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“Male and Female He Created Them” – A Response to the Vatican Report on Gender Education

First trans solidarity rally and march, Washington, DC USA

On 10 June 2019 the Vatican released a 30-page document entitled Male and Female He Created Them: Towards a path of dialogue on the question of gender in education.The document is intended for Catholic schools and purports to guide educators’ responses on the topics of gender theory, third sex, transgender identities, and gender fluidity.

In the UK this comes at a time of protests against the school PSHE (Personal, Social and Health Education) curriculum (including Relationship Education in primary and secondary schools), for allegedly  ‘promoting gay and transgender lifestyles’. This is also a time when homophobic and transphobic hate crimes are surging in England and Wales.

As posted on the Shiloh Project previously, religious discourse plays its part in fanning transphobicand homophobic discrimination and violence. While the evidence suggests that LGBT persons are far more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violence, negative stereotyping and misinformation persist.

The Vatican document has been met with much anger from LGBT rights groups – not least, because it reflects a poor understanding of both gender theory and transgender identities. To provide an expert response, here is a reflection on the document from Dr. Susannah Cornwall.

Susannah is Senior Lecturer in Constructive Theologies at the University of Exeter, where she also directs EXCEPT, the Exeter Centre for Ethics and Practical Theology. In one of her current research projects she is working in partnership with the West of England National Health Service (NHS) Specialist Gender Identity Clinic on spiritual care for people transitioning gender.(You can read here an interview she contributed to the Shiloh Project’s 16 Days of Activism last year.) On 15 June 2019 Susannah was one of several contributors to Radio 4’s Beyond Beliefwhich focused on religion and transgender issues.

What follows is a version of Susannah’s response to the publication of Male and Female He Created Them. This response was first published on Facebook on 13 June 2019.

Please look out for a forthcoming special issue of the Journal for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies (JIBS) on The Bible: Transgender and Genderqueer Perspectives, guest-edited by Caroline Blyth.

The Vatican’s Male and Female He Created Them – A Response

Susannah Cornwall

“The Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education’s new document on “gender theory” in education[1] starts with an appeal to crisis in its very first sentence, repeating and reinforcing the notion that somethingis going on in the world and, specifically, in schools and other educational establishments, about which it is appropriate to be defensive and afraid.

From the beginning, the document is replete with language of ‘disorientation’, ‘destabilizing’, and ‘opposition’, which is understood as conveying threat. Disorientation, destabilization and opposition are, of course, familiar territory for the “gender ideologists” the document seems to have in mind. There is no specific appeal here to the paranoid-suspicious tradition associated with theorists such as Judith Butler, but it haunts the authors nonetheless. We learn later in the document that “queer” implies “dimensions of sexuality that are extremely fluid, flexible and … nomadic”: this is, let the reader understand, a bad thing.

In this short response I will suggest that gender theory does pose the kind of disruption to social and familial norms that some queer theorists would like, but not exactly the same one or for exactly the same reasons that the Vatican authors fear.

The document, at least in its English version, often fails to distinguish between sex, sexuality and gender (though it is worth acknowledging that in several other languages, the same nuances do not necessarily exist as in English, and vocabulary such as sexe must do broader work). So, in English, the document thereby finds itself hoist by its own petard: we are told, “The Christian vision of anthropology sees sexuality as a fundamental component of one’s personhood. It is one of its modes of being, of manifesting itself, communicating with others, and of feeling, expressing and living human love”. If, as in common usage, “sexuality” is basically synonymous with “sexual orientation”, here we have the Vatican seeming to maintain that such orientation is ontological, irreducible, and inextricable from the concept of the self: not, in fact, something easily relegated as disordered, or indeed separable from the psyche all told. Of course, this is probably not what the authors intended, since it becomes clear from the document (implicitly at the start, and explicitly later on) that sex and sexuality are to be considered inextricable and basically identical. In fact, for the authors, it is (biological) sex that is the irreducible thing, not orientation – and it is biological sex on which orientation and gender expression must supervene.

That is, of course, unless one is someone whose sex is “not clearly defined”. (You or I might refer to this as “intersex”, but the document seems to understand intersex, rather, as a synonym for transgender.) In that case, we are told, it is quite appropriate for medical intervention to take place. Here, biological sex is not understood as irreducible and fundamental at all, but rather as something that can and does go wrong and must therefore be altered: “In cases where a person’s sex is not clearly defined, it is medical professionals who can make a therapeutic intervention. In such situations, parents cannot make an arbitrary choice on the issue, let alone society. Instead, medical science should act with purely therapeutic ends, and intervene in the least invasive fashion, on the basis of objective parameters and with a view to establishing the person’s constitutive identity.”

In other words, everyone has a true sex as male or female – it is just not always immediately obvious what it is. “Constitutive identity” – which the document makes clear again and again means biological sex – must be established: that is, uncovered. There is no acknowledgement that, in medical paradigms for the treatment of variant sex characteristics, “establishment” of sex is, frequently, exactly that: a well-intentioned but nonetheless experimental, risky and sometimes arbitrary process of hacks, best guesses and pragmatic assignments, something far more akin to founding than finding. That the document appeals to intervention “in the least invasive fashion” is a dim light in the darkness, and suggests some awareness of critiques of the early corrective surgery paradigm which left many sex-variant adults in permanent pain, incontinent, or unable to experience any sexual sensation as a result of genital surgeries. Yet on the basis of the remainder of the document I am not confident that any such engagement has actually taken place.

Indeed, I suspect appeals to minimal invasion are actually of a piece with Roman Catholic denunciations of gender confirmation surgery for trans people lest these threaten the organic integrity of the individual, with particular regard to the possibility of procreation. Where the document does speak of “intersex” by name it is to denounce it as something that intends to undermine the reality of masculinity and femininity, and to negate or supersede sexual difference. That the document contrasts(what it calls) “intersex” with “those who have to live situations of sexual indeterminacy” is pure muddle-headedness and suggests a critical failure to engage with the now extensive literature (scientific, sociological and theological) in this area.

That intersex and transgender are not the same thing is hardly esoteric, obscure information. The document, then, seems wilfully to conflate intersex and trans people, and repeats the outmoded claim that where intersex arises in infants, early corrective surgery is not only legitimate but actually necessary. If the sex binary is so vulnerable that the bodies of unusually-sexed infants must be operated on in order to shore it up lest the whole edifice crumble, that tells us something important about how secure and stable the concept was (or, rather, wasn’t) in the first place.

The family as an institution is also rendered peculiarly vulnerable here. The document refers back to a 2012 address of Pope Benedict XVI in which he said that “if there is no pre-ordained duality of man and woman in creation, then neither is the family any longer a reality established by creation. Likewise, the child has lost the place he had occupied hitherto and the dignity pertaining to him”. But if the family (subtext: somekinds of families) were as incontrovertibly and self-evidently good as all that, surely it would be something human societies went out of their way to protect and reinforce regardlessof whether it could be traced back to the orders of creation. Humans are cultured and technological creatures: we can and do construct all kinds of norms and institutions on the basis that we have come to a common agreement that they are good and desirable things – and frequently without having to appeal to orders of creation in order to justify them. If the institution of the family is going to crumble just because we acknowledge that maleness and femaleness are (at a biological level) less stable and binary than we once thought, then what kind of institution is it really? Why insist, anyway, on maintaining an institution which apparently relies on something less than the full truth to bolster it, when we could, instead, choose actively together to build something better? And why assume that we would not do that if the insights of natural law were and are so universally compelling?

The document cites the importance of listening, but immediately tempers this by delineating in advance which voices should and should not be listened to. It is appropriate, we learn, to listen to anthropological work on sex difference (and, presumably, gender difference, since, as we have established, no proper distinction is made between them) across cultures – but not to listen to “gender ideology” (for the Vatican’s own position is, of course, we are led to believe, completely ideologically immaculate). It is appropriate to learn from “the whole field of research on gender that the human sciences have undertaken” – except, of course, where that would mean acknowledging the reality of variant sex in cases such as intersex, not just within humans but across animal species. It is striking that there is no engagement in the text with any actual trans or intersex individuals or communities, but perhaps unsurprising when we see that there is practically no engagement with anything(or anyone) at all other than previous Roman Catholic teachings (mostly from the current Pope and his two immediate predecessors). The term “echo chamber” is overused in current parlance, but one does wonder exactly what new intervention they believe they are offering here.

Adjectives are important. Let us believe what the document is telling us about itself. The document sets itself up as being against unjust discrimination. (Subtext: some forms of discrimination are just.) With specific reference to disability, race, religion, and “sexual tendencies”, it appeals to welcoming and respecting all legitimateexpressions of human personhood. (Subtext: some expressions of personhood are not legitimate – or, perhaps, not even human. Which disabilities, races, religions and “tendencies” – orientations? – are less than human, one wonders?) This kind of couching begins to feel somewhat “no true Scotsman”: of course equality is important, as long as it’s the right kind of equality! Of course listening matters, as long as we listen to the right arguments and don’t allow them to disrupt or undermine what we already know to be true! Of coursesubsidiarity, and the fundamental right of parents to educate and make decisions on behalf of their own children, matter – as long as the parents cede to medical authority to make sex assignments for their children in cases of atypical sex (for if they do not then they are, we learn, doing nothing more than making an arbitrary choice influenced by “society”).

In order to shore up its insistence that “gender ideology” is undermining marriage, the family, and the very orders of creation, the document makes the kinds of essentialist appeals that have become commonplace in a certain kind of theological argument (conservative evangelical as well as conservative Catholic) but are no less inadequate for that. Women – allwomen, we assume – have “a more realistic and mature reading of evolving situations” (more than what?). Women “have a unique understanding of reality”: so unique that it is common to all of them! As we have seen in other Roman Catholic documents, identity and character are made to rest in sex and sex alone, as though no other trait mattered when it came to the grand muddle of difference and affinity that go to make up human social relationships.

Many critics of the document will, of course, and not without justification, say something like, “Trans people are just like anyone else; they/we are nothing to be afraid of, and this document and its appeals to gender ideology are pure scaremongering”. But the document is correct in its assessment that trans people do pose a threat: not because gender transition in itselfis necessarily peculiarly or particularly subversive, but because the paucity of the Vatican’s responseto it – or, rather, to a straw man of “gender ideology” made to rest on it – shows up the inadequacy and thinness of its accounts of sex and gender all told.

Image courtesy of Ted Eytan on Flickr

The authors could have offered something of the richness of what it has been (and still is) possible for the theological tradition to say about how sexuality, sex and gender as aspects of human being and experience intertwine and allow us to know and communicate complex, troubling and beautiful truths about ourselves as creatures, creators and curators. Rather, the document retreats to a reactionary project of wallpapering over not only cracks but huge great missing sections of theological wall – a wall whose bricks have been quietly carried away one by one to be used in new and more edifying ways by the very queer, trans, intersex and otherwise “destabilizing” people who dare to see their lives, bodies and identities as sites of God’s grace. This is a document sticking its fingers in its ears and shouting “la la la la la” to avoid having actually to listen to and engage with those whose beliefs and insights it has decided ahead of time are too dangerous to entertain. It is an argument which, precisely via its intention to protect and nurture young people, actually risks perpetuating damage to many of them. And it is an enormous missed opportunity to pour oil on the troubled waters of the current toxic debates about trans rights in church and society.”

[1]Signed by Giuseppe Cardinal Versaldi (Prefect) and Abp Angelo Vincenzo Zani (Secretary).

Feature image courtesy of Ted Eytan on Flickr.

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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.


[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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Finding Companionship with Josephine Butler and Forging out a New Theology in a Time of #ChurchToo

Josephine Butler

Today’s post is by Dr Elizabeth Ludlow, Senior Lecturer in English Literature and the Director of the Nineteenth Century Studies Unitat Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge, UK. Find her on Twitter @ludlow_e 

In an article in the Church Times last year, Linda Woodhead reflected on the urgent need to scope out a “new theology” in the wake of the problems exposed by the hearings of the IICSA (The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse). The damning IICSA report that details the hearings that Woodhead refers to – surrounding the Diocese of Chichester and Peter Ball (abishop in Chichester before becoming Bishop of Gloucester)– was released earlier this month. Its conclusion highlights the tragic consequences of shielding a perpetrator of child sexual abuse at the cost of victims. Through a series of case studies, the report gives “examples of perpetrators who were able to hide in plain sight for many years” and details the occasions “when the Church put its own reputation above the needs of victims and survivors.” In highlighting how compassion was extended to Ball but not to his victims it explains how, at the time of Ball’s caution and resignation, the only reference that Church officials made to Neil Todd (the original complainant against Ball who took his own life in 2012), came when adiocesan bishop “said he hoped that Mr Todd ‘will be able to forgive Bishop Peter’.” I’m sure that many abuse victims can identify with the frustration of having their anguish overlooked, the damage that has been done minimised, and of being told by those in authority that they are expected to forgive the perpetrator.

Woodhead explains how, in Chichester, a “faulty doctrine of forgiveness” was used by abusers, church officials, and parishioners. In contrast, the theology she calls for refutes any notion that the doctrine of easy forgiveness is “a possession of the church” and looks instead to the wider implications of a belief in “a God who is present in, with, and through creation, and affected by it.”Over the past few months, I’ve been  researching the work of Victorian social reformer Josephine Butler.  I would suggest that the theological strategies she uses to interpret the Bible from the perspective of the oppressed offers useful tools to grapple with what it means to break institutional silences around abuse and reach beyond the platitudes of easy forgiveness.

In their book, In a Glass Darkly, The Bible, Reflection and Everyday Life, Zoë Bennett and Christopher Rowland comment on how “[p]art of any intellectual engagement that is critical is finding appropriate alternative perspectives that bring fresh understanding of a situation.” They then explain how William Blake and John Ruskin have become for them “companions on the road” who open up these perspectives and provide “a critical space for understanding the Bible, life, and crucially also the modes in which we might explore the connections between life and the Bible” (2016, 108). Following on from theologian Ann Loades who has noted the longevity of Butler’s work in addressing sexual abuse, I want to suggest how Butler might act as a “companion on the road” for us today and how, through an engagement with her work, some of the suggestions that Woodhead offers in terms of repudiating the doctrine of easy forgiveness might be worked out.

Josephine Butler (nee Grey) was born in 1828 into a large and well-connected family in Northumbria. In 1852, she married George Butler, an academic who had just been appointed to the role of Chief Examiner in Oxford. It wasn’t long after they returned from their honeymoon that she became dismayed at the prejudices of the male academics and clergy she found herself among. Having parents who encouraged a strong social conscience and a hatred of all forms of injustice, she was struck by the “great wall of prejudice” among the university community (192, 98). In her biography of her husband, she recalled several instances of being rebuffed after bringing to light cases of injustice and abuse. On one occasion, she approached an esteemed university fellow, hoping he could “suggest some means” of holding the abuser of a young girl to account; the fellow “sternly advocated silence and inaction” (1892, 96). She then commented that, for a long time:

there echoed in my heart the terrible prophetic words of the painter-poet Blake – rude and indelicate as he may have been judged then – whose prophecy has only been averted by a great and painful awakening –

                 “The harlots’ curse, from street to street,

                  Shall weave old England’s winding sheet.” (ibid)

Butler’s recollection of William Blake’s words from his poem “Auguries of Innocence,” and her identification with him as one who was judged “rude and indelicate,” signals a willingness to take an unpopular stand against the systematic institutional reluctance to address sexual abuse. Butler’s faith was, like Blake’s, revolutionary and practical and she recognised Jesus’s actions as those of a “dangerous leveller” (1869, lviii). Her engagement with “Auguries of Innocence” is indicative of her commitment to Blake’s perception that “God Appears & God is Light / To those poor Souls who dwell in Night” (lines 129-30) and to his understanding that God is present in “Human Form” (line 131). The inaccuracy in her memory of the lines she cites – changing the word “cry” (115) to “curse” (thus recalling the reference to the “harlot’s curse” in Blake’s poem “London”) – signals her concern with attending to the anguish of the outcast woman: an anguish that has such force it could destroy “old England.”

Along with her husband, Butler read the Bible eschatologically, reflecting on the person of Christ and praying “that a holy revolution might come about, and that the Kingdom of God might be established on the earth” (1892, 102). The account of prayer that she gives can be helpfully understood in terms of what biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann describes as an act of “breaking the silence” (2018, 3) Such an act is, he explains, always a “counterdiscourse,” because it “tends to arise from the margins of society, a counter to present power arrangements and to dominant modes of social imagination” (ibid.). Following a series of vignettes concerning oppressive silence, Brueggemann reflects on how “silence breaking is evoked by attention to the body in pain” (6-7). Butler’s attention to marginalised, hurting bodies, along with her prayers for a “holy revolution,” indicates her own refusal to accept oppressive silencing and signals her protest against the status quo of what Blake terms “old England.”

Courtesy of Granpic (Flickr), Josephine Butler on staircase window in Liverpool Anglican cathedral.

In the introduction to the volume of essays that she edited on Woman’s Work and Woman’s Culture, Butler speaks out against a society content to stand by and watch “sinister social forces” drive “whole armies of little girls to madness and early graves” (1869, xix). Butler’s social activism in leading the repeal against the Contagious Diseases Acts, in rescuing girls and women from lives of prostitution, and in pushing for parliament to raise the age of consent from 13 to 16, was propelled by both her recognition of the worth of each individual and by a concern for partnering with Christ in breaking oppressive silences.

During the years in which she was involved in repealing the Contagious Diseases Acts, Butler wrote a biography of Catherine of Siena, in which she stressed Catherine’s Christ-likeness in both radical action and in prayer (1894 [1878]). Catherine’s ongoing and “passionate intercession” (182), which enabled her to see and respond to the corruption around her, stood in stark contrast to the “prominent representatives” of the Church who were concerned with “worldly, greedy, grasping power” (7).

Such juxtapositions between worldly power and the power of prayer among the marginalized can be seen through Butler’s own life. In her account of the 1883 parliamentary debates regarding the suspension of the Contagious Diseases Acts, Butler writes of a prayer meeting that exemplifies the “counterdiscourse” defined by Brueggemann, where “ragged and miserable women from the slums of Westminster” prayed side by side with “ladies of high rank” (Johnson, 181).

In the conclusion to her biography of Catherine of Siena, Butler describes how prayer opens up the “social and sympathetic” aspect of each individual as they stand in relationship with God, their community, and creation (338). She stresses that the act of interceding for the Other involves envisioning them as distinct and as loved by God. This loving attention is the very opposite of abuse and stands in stark opposition to a culture that promotes a doctrine of easy forgiveness and prioritises the perpetrator over their victims for the sake of convenience and reputation.


Bennett, Zoë and Rowland, Christopher. 2016. In a Glass Darkly: The Bible, Reflection and

         Everyday Life.London: SCM Press.

Brueggemann,Walter. 2018. Interrupting Silence: God’s Command to Speak Out. London:

Hodder & Stoughton.

Butler, Josephine (ed). 1869. Woman’s Work and Woman’s Culture. London: Macmillan.

— 1892. Recollections of George Butler. Bristol: Arrowsmith

— 1894 [1878] Catherine of Siena: A Biography. London: Horace & Son.

Johnson, George W, Johnson, Lucy A, and Stuart, James (ed.). 1909. Josephine E. Butler: An

Autobiographical Memoir Bristol: Arrowsmith.

Loades, Ann. 2001. Feminist Theology: Voices from the Past. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Woodhead, Linda. 2018. “Forget culture. It’s a new theology we need” Church Times, 06


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Autoethnography: The Voice of a Sexually Abused Body

45 mins, oil paints, 4 Dec

Sophie Witherstone is a PhD student at the University of Chester. She is currently researching the utility of Ignatian Spirituality for female survivors of sexual abuse, focusing on embodied aspects, and the ways that this tradition reconnects sexually abused women with their own bodies and with God.

Autoethnography: The Voice of a Sexually Abused Body

Autoethnography, or self-narrative, is a qualitative research method that delves into the personal experiences and stories of the researcher themselves. The researcher’s personal and meaningful experiences are used as a source of a data, which can speak into academic research in ground-breaking ways. This method fosters the liberation of vulnerable and silenced voices, such as the voices of abused bodies (Olson, 2004; Fletcher, 2018; Crisp, 2004). Using the privileged platform of academia in order to present their own unique voice in such a creative way allows the researcher to reach out to those other abused bodies that remain silenced and hidden.

Autoethnography also gives the researcher license to portray their experiences in whatever way they choose, giving them authority and ownership over the effect their voice can have on others. It has been described as a “therapeutic” method for vulnerable voices, such as the voices of those who have experienced sexual abuse, offering a means of healing through writing (Ellis et al, 2011).

Thad Zajdowicz, Nude (on Flickr)

My own autoethnographic research is situated in feminist theology, where the silenced voices of sexually abused bodies are rarely heard (Morton, 1985). Abuse and trauma theologies (Rambo, 2010; Brock & Parker, 2001; Manlowe, 1998) have represented the sexually abused body, but there has been a lack of visibility in terms of the self-representation and self-expression of such bodies. In particular, the female sexually abused body has not been taken seriously enough. Certainly, some feminist theologians have tackled the issue of women’s silencing and abuse within the androcentric traditions of Christianity considering the ways that such silencing adds to women’s experiences of abuse. For example, abuse theologian Marie Fortune engages with women’s consequential experiences of God (and of religion as an institution) as survivors of sexual abuse, particularly where members of the clergy are the perpetrators (Fortune, 1983; 1998, 350-356; see also Sands, 2003). Building on the work of feminist theologians such as Fortune, methodologies such as autoethnography can further bring the voices and experiences of violated women to the surface.

In my research, I engage with the method of autoethnography because I am interested in the real, lived experiences of concrete bodies – of bodies that demand to be taken more seriously in academic reflection. My own body is no exception to this demand, and that is why autoethnography is particularly liberating for me – it does not discount my experiences from my research and does not perpetuate the silencing caused by my abuse.

Within autoethnography, the researcher delves into painful experiences, yet as Ellis (2004, 110-111) proposes, the pain need not take over. The ethnographic research process is purposeful and meaningful in evoking emotion, but this does not need to be negative emotion despite the depth of pain within experiences of abuse. The freeing of the vulnerable voice through autoethnography can begin to remove the hold that the abuse has had on survivors. According to Ettore, there is often a redemptive power in the use of self-narrative (2017, 357) – it has the potential to be emotionally transformative for the researcher themselves, and for their readers and academic peers. As a result, women may become reassured and encouraged that all women’s experiences can be heard, are valuable, and are unique – deserving to be expressed in their own ways. Indeed, authethnography can be a powerful platform for the voices of allabused and violated bodies, whatever their gender. The vulnerable self-exposure of revealing one’s own narrative of abuse opens a door to readers’ participation in one’s stories and thus, as Chang (2008, 145) puts it, a “mutual vulnerability” may unfold. For me, this “mutual vulnerability” represents a coming together of abusedvoices; uniting and forming a stronghold that encourages more silenced voices to speak out and be heard.

Frédéric Glorieux, BWR (black white red) naked #4

Sexual Storytelling: Engaging with the ‘Messy’ Bodies

Sexual storytelling is a lens that we can apply to autoethnographic research, as demonstrated by feminist liberation theologian Marcella Althaus-Reid (1997) and sociologist Ken Plummer (1995). Sexual storytelling involves the inclusion of any experience related to the sexual, such as stories of sexual abuse, sexual behaviour, and sexual desires(Plummer, 1995, 4). Althaus-Reid uses sexual storytelling within theological reflection, describing it as a method of writing authentically and honestly, without leaving God outside our bedroom doors (2000; 2003). For Althaus-Reid, this radical notion is an attempt to “queer” theological hermeneutics, contrasting with more “normative” Christian frameworks that have only restricted and suffocated the freedom to embrace who we are before God (2003).

Within my research, the use of “sexual storytelling” is particularly meaningful as it allows women (and allbodies) to extract fragments of meaning and hope from their narratives of sexual abuse. In the revelation of these vulnerable stories, women may finally feel a sense of control and authority over the narratives of oppression and violence imposed upon them by the restrictions of the Christian tradition that have consumed their lives. The freedom in writing one’s own experiences of sex, particularly of abusive sex, can provide a sense of literary agency and control, which may be liberating for the abused body who lost control during their abuse and in their lives after the abuse. Sexual storytelling allows the freeing of the self from the androcentric bonds of Christianity. And, while some abused bodies feel that their only option is to walk away from their faith community (a place where they feel misrepresented or marginalized), for me, autoethnography offers another alternative solution to tackle this experience.

Although the concept of sexual storytelling can be freeing and allows God to be included in the sexual experiences of sexually abused bodies, this image and way of doing theology may be too overwhelming and invasive for those who are vulnerable. I am aware of the dangers of suggesting that God is in our bedrooms. For a sexually abused body like myself, sex is a fearful space, and (despite it not being the case for me) sex can be a space that has no hope of healing potential. It is therefore important to acknowledge some of the issues that need to be taken seriously when engaging with this method of sexual storytelling.

Working with abuse theologies, Susan Shooter (2012, 14) considers how the shattered boundaries experienced by survivors can cause difficulty in their intimate relationships; picturing ourselves intimately before God may be an uncomfortable task. All sexually abused women ought to be taken seriously, and granted patience in our journey towards rediscovering and re-entering sexual spaces. It is not easy to let ourselves back into the sexual realm, let alone for us to allow God to walk with us once again into this traumatic space. However, the method of sexual storytelling within theology works to reassure other sexually abused women that the fearful thought of God existing in our bedrooms can be the meeting point that saves us – where we conquer and rebel against the abuse. Locating God where the abuse happened is an act of revolt that may put a stop to the suffocation of spirit, setting God’s presence free into all the spaces in our lives.

Gustave Klimt, Danae (1907-1908)

Therefore, as Althaus-Reid argues, sexual stories exist within indecent theological reflection in which there are no pages cut from the books of our sexual experiences (2000, 146). Althaus-Reid’s imagery here is significant for sexually abused bodies, as it reassures these bodies that they do not have to censor their trauma, restricting themselves to only the “appropriate” experiences that will not upset those who listen to them. Althaus-Reid wants to eliminate this censorship, especially within Christian theology, as she argues that theology has thus far limited its engagements with sexuality to neat, tidy, and unrealistic boundaries (2003, 61).

As researchers who engage with self-narrative approaches, we should not have to eliminate the sexual, dirty, dark, or messy experiences from our stories. In doing feminist theology, we ought not to begin with those bodies considered “normative,” but should dare to do theology from a sexually abused body, as Grovijahn demands in her theological reflection on embodiment (1998, 29). As my own narrative consists of stories of sexual abuse, it is important for me that all stories – including those considered “obscene” (Goss, 2003) – are  voiced and not silenced.

Althaus-Reid challenges the disembodied theological method of writing abuse, and asks, “why is the tortured male body of Christ less offensive than a woman’s tortured body?” (2000, 111). With this shocking image being laid before us, Althaus-Reid demands that abused women’s bodies be taken seriously and not ignored or brushed aside. For, such brushing aside only continues to distort and suppress the confidence and dignity of the abused female body. The work of theologians such as Althaus-Reid creates a revolt against the stigma surrounding “non-normative” bodies – it allows for an inclusion of all types of bodies that have not been taken as seriously as those defined as “ordinary” (Althaus-Reid, 2003). Althaus-Reid suggests that this can become a reality when we defamiliarize ourselves with the heteronormative God, and look instead to a stranger-God who may, like so many non-normative bodies, be left outside the gates of traditional theology (2003, 59).

id-iom, The Virtue of Venus (on Flickr)

Grovijahn (1998, 29) likewise argues that we ought to begin our theology from a place of authenticity, where we can be ourselves – daring to do theology from a sexually abused body. Similarly, Greenough (2018, 30) proposes that writing the sexually abused self into theological research can “enable individuals to move from sexual shame to embracing themselves.”  Using sexual storytelling within queer theology, Greenough offers an “undoing” methodology in which honesty and vulnerability liberate the researcher to be reflexive on a deeper level. Greenough looks to “undo” the “diluted” (9), “normative theology” or “vanilla theology” (13) that engages with sex and the body, and to work towards a theology that uses sexual stories as a central framework that will “disrupt sexual ideology in Christianity” (23). It is a theology that is firmly grounded in the messiness of life (32) – finding God in our everyday experiences of sex and the body.

When researching the sexually abused body, feminist theology begins with the locus of the female body. It asks: how and where do women experience God? This question has led feminist theologians to begin their theology in the bodies of women of all shapes and sizes (see e.g. Isherwood, 2007who engages with “fat” female bodies). For Carter Heyward, “God is immersed in our bodyselves – in all our particularities” (1989, 103). In these particularities, Heyward refers to sensuality and the erotic, arguing that if we use the Bible as our primary authority, and we live in “denial of our bodyselves” (94), we will be pulled apart from the embodied God, each other, and ourselves (95). Heyward proposes that Christianity has developed a fear of the erotic (“erotophobia”) and has thus separated God from the realm of the sexual (1989, 5). She suggests that this is why distorted relational acts, such as sexual abuse, occur. Fear creates a divide from self, others, and God. She laments, “We have been stripped of our capacities to delight in ourselves, one another, and [God]” (1989, 4). Until we take our bodies more seriously and treat our bodies as authoritative, she warns, we will remain “untouched and untouching” (Heyward 1982, xviii). “Our bodyselves know better,” she suggests, “They speak the truth” (1989, 106).

Our bodies tell us so much about God and our personal relationships with this embodied God. We will come to understand that the bodies of women – their sexual acts, their sensory experiences – are the real presence of the divine (Isherwood, 2010, 78). We can learn a great deal about God in all our experiences, even in the surprising places such as the journey of healing and recovery from sexual violence.


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Feature image courtesy of Jon Nagl (Flickr,

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