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

sticks and stones pic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ken Ham tweeting about Target’s inclusive bathroom policy

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

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

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

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


Baden, Joel. 2014. “What Use is the Bible?” Nantucket Project.

Grant, Jaime M., Lisa A. Mottet, Justin Tanis, Jack Harrison, Jody L. Herman, and Mara Keisling.Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey. Washington: National Center for Transgender Equality and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, 2011.

Human Rights Campaign. 2017. “Violence Against the Transgender Community in 2017.”

Human Rights Campaign and Trans People of Color Coalition. 2015. Addressing Anti-Transgender Violence: Exploring Realities, Challenges and Solutions for Policymakers and Community Advocates.

Landsbaum, Claire. 2017. “Laverne Cox Explains Why Anti-Trans Bathroom Legislation Isn’t Actually About Bathrooms.” The Cut, 24 February.

Movement Advancement Project, National Center for Transgender Equality, Transgender Law Center, and GLAAD. 2015. “Understanding Issues Facing Transgender Americans.”

National Center for Transgender Equality. 2016. “2015 U.S. Transgender Survey.”

Steinmetz, Katie. 2015. “Why Transgender People are Being Murdered at a Historic Rate” Time, 17 August.

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

Yeung, Peter. 2016. Transphobic Hate Crimes in “Sickening” 170% Rise as Low Prosecution Rates Create “Lack of Trust” in Police. The Independent, 28 July.


read more

Seminar at Cliff College: Researching Faith Among Survivors of Abuse


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

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

Revd Dr Susan Shooter

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

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

All the tickets for the event are free. You can book either for the lecture and the reception, or just for the lecture itself. For more information and to register, please visit:

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

Kirsi Cobb


read more

Shiloh Project Research Day Report


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The following arose in discussion:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

read more

Grant for Research with Ugandan LGBT Refugees


Congratulations to Adriaan van Klinken and Shiloh Project co-director Johanna Stiebert (University of Leeds) on their latest grant success!

Adriaan van Klinken and Johanna Stiebert (University of Leeds) have secured a research grant from the British Academy/Leverhulme Trust, for a project entitled “Tales of Sexuality and Faith: The Ugandan LGBT Refugees Life Story Project”. The project uses community-based participatory research methodology to undertake life story research among Ugandan LGBT refugees in Kenya.

The project engages established methodologies in feminist, queer, and postcolonial studies that emphasise the political and epistemological importance of autobiographical storytelling in research with marginalised groups. Expanding this existing scholarship, the project develops an innovative approach that explores the potential of biblical stories to signify the queer lives of the Ugandan refugees. Foregrounding the popularity of the Bible in contemporary Africa, and conceptualising biblical appropriation as a decolonising and queer process, the project reclaims the Bible as part of African queer archives.

We’re looking forward to hearing more about the project later this year!

read more

LGBTI History Month: Reconciliation between the LGBTIQ community and the church


February is LGBT History Month, and this year, the central theme has been peace, activism, and reconciliation. To mark this, Project Shiloh is delighted to offer a blog post from Harriet Winn, who writes about the need and potential for reconciliation between the LGBTIQ community and the Christian Church. Harriet is an Honours student at the University of Auckland, whose research interests include queer theology and gendered histories within Christianity. Harriet is also an active member of Thursdays in Black Aotearoa, a student-led group campaigning to end campus rape, and Hidden Perspectives NZ, a student community that works to heighten LGBTIQ awareness and acceptance in the Faculty of Arts.

Reconciliation between the LGBTIQ community and the church

Harriet Winn

‘Theological ideas are powerful.’[1]

The queer community can understand the potent power of theology more acutely than many other groups. Historically, the church has contributed to the societal subjugation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and queer or questioning (LGBTIQ) people, appealing to destructive theologies that designated them “disordered” beings.[2] Yet, in recent years, some church denominations have begun to engage with queer communities in ways that hint at the possibility of reconciliation.[3] The issue of same-sex marriage, for example, has been considered or even embraced by a number of churches.

However, whilst theological engagement with issues such as marriage equality have value, true reconciliation between the church and LGBTIQ people will not come from tokenistic gestures but needs to be deeply rooted in an embrace of queer theology. Queer theology presents a challenge to traditional methods of theology from the margins.[4] Through its rejection of essentialism, queer theology demands that the church dismantles and rebuilds its conceptualization of human relationships both with each other and with God, thereby articulating a theology of reconciliation which works both horizontally and vertically.

In this blog post, I will argue that for reconciliation between the church and LGBTIQ communities to take place, there must be a process of unlearning normative theologies, followed by a reclamation of queer identity rooted in faith, and finally the finding of common ground between both groups.

Stained-glass window at Church of Our Savior MCC (Metropolitan Community Church, Boynton Beach, Florida.

The discord between queer communities and the institution of the church has a long and varied history. The conflict between these two groups does not necessarily follow a monolithic path, as there are certainly Christian communities who welcome LGBTIQ people into their fold unconditionally. Moreover, the approach taken by churches to queer people varies between denominations.[5] Overwhelmingly, however, the Christian faith has expressed hostility towards the queer community which has served to rob LGBTIQ people of their ‘fullness of human expression.’[6]

This pervasive hostility has manifested itself in diverse ways. At a scriptural level, verses of the Bible such as the Sodom and Gomorrah narrative (Gen. 19) have been torn from their original context to elicit condemnation over queer sexuality.[7] Legalistically, conservative forces who seek to discriminate against the queer community have used the rhetoric of church leaders to bolster their political arguments.[8] In their denial of marriage to LGBTIQ people, various denominations of church – most prominently Anglicanism and Catholicism – deny the queer community a fundamental human right on the basis that same-sex marriage disturbs the sanctity and stability of the heterosexual family unit.[9]

All of these objections to queer humanity contribute to a rhetoric of violence which has taken root in the institution of the church and led to the exclusion of queer people from its varying communities. And while this may not involve the total exclusion of LGBTIQ people, this rhetoric has certainly made participating in Christian faith a less-accessible, and oftentimes hostile, experience for them. The question of how to reconcile the queer community with an institution that has historically pushed them to the margins is, therefore, a loaded one.

In tackling the daunting topic of reconciliation, Gregory Baum recognizes that in order to be truly effective, the process must elicit a ‘change of mind and heart’ within its participants.[10] As confronting as it may be, this radical change of position will not take place without a period dedicated to the practices of listening and dialogue between queer people and proponents of theology that oppose their sexuality. It is in these spaces that the unlearning of normative theology and a reorientation of faith towards the inclusion of LGBTIQ people will occur.

Gay Christian Jeff Chu believes that if people simply stop and listen to the stories of queer marginalization, their minds will be ‘positively transformed.’[11] Here Chu gives voice to the immense value of the role of witness within queer theology. Baum adds nuance to Chu’s assertion when he states that the participants of the dialogue must ‘be willing to examine their own history critically’ and ‘recognise the distortions of their self-understanding.’[12] Therefore, passive acceptance of the other party’s position is not sufficient – each group must embark on a process of deep self-reflection. For those who oppose queerness, this will involve maintaining an openness to queer theology’s criticism of binaries. Queer theologians proclaim that these binaries – whether related to gender (man/woman) or sexuality (heterosexual/homosexual) – are arbitrary forms of socially constructed categorization which generate discrimination through the process of othering.[13] Recognition and acceptance of the fluidity of identity embodied by queer people is a crucial part of their reconciliation to the church – they cannot and will not be subject to restrictive classification.

Capital Pride Parade, DC, 2016, image courtesy of S Pakhrin, Wikimedia Commons

This may be an unsettling prospect for Christians who hold theologies which support the idea of gender complementarianism, but as Gerard Loughlin proclaims – faith should be unsettling.[14] Furthermore, this part of the process will challenge many Christians to acknowledge how sin manifests itself in ‘conformity with the status quo’; that collusion with homophobic theology is displeasing to God.[15] The commitment to listening and dialogue allows the process of reconciliation between queer people and their theological opponents to begin on the foundations of truth.

The next crucial stage of reconciliation sees LGBTIQ people reclaiming their identities rooted in faith. Liberation theology, arguably the predecessor of queer theology, presents the need for victims of oppression to find a ‘new self-understanding’ due to the internalization of hatred which can infiltrate their mindsets in an insidiously destructive way.[16] Reconciliation, therefore, implicates forgiveness of oneself as well as of others.[17] For queer Christians, the most profound affirmation of their identity can be found in the conceptualization of God as queer. Furthering the tradition of apophatic theology, which professes God’s transcendence of human understanding as being ‘above all essence’, Patrick Cheng argues that God is an ‘identity without essence’ much like, in its fluidity, queerness.[18] Queer theologians go beyond conceptualizing God as standing in solidarity on the side of the marginalized to contend that God actually becomes one with them; Loughlin believes that queer can be ‘offered as a name for God.’[19] This remarkable notion affirms LGBTIQ people’s sense of self in the most radical of ways as it expresses an unequivocal divine support for queerness.

A rainbow flag on Union Congregational Church in Hacksensack, Minnesota. Courtesy of Tony Webster, on Wikimedia Commons.

On a more pragmatic line of thought, reclamation of queer identity also occurs through the embrace of historic queerness. Lara Ahmed and J. Michael Ryan illuminate how both homosexuality, and same-sex unions, date back as far as heterosexuality.[20] They recognize the unproblematic, historic existence of same-sex unions in China, Egypt, within certain tribes of Native America, and in Māori culture of Aotearoa New Zealand.[21] Delving into the historical place of queerness illuminates how contemporary societal understandings of marriage and sexuality are entirely contextual and not ubiquitous across cultures.[22] Recognizing this offers the potential for liberation from the position of restrictive normativity which has often been the church’s default response to queerness. The reclamation of a queer identity rooted in faith is necessary for the establishment of justice within this process of reconciliation: it puts LGBTIQ people on equal grounding with their non-queer sisters and brothers in faith.

The restoration of justice for queer communities through their reclamation of identity is not the end of the reconciliation process. The next stage involves the growth of mercy between the two groups through the finding of common ground; as Baum has found, the ‘need for a common story’ is one of the most fundamental aspects of reconciliation.[23] In the same way that ecclesiastical endorsement of same-sex marriage will not instantaneously lead to the rooting out of all theological homophobia, simply existing on an equal platform within the Christian faith does not immediately bring about unconditional acceptance of queerness within the church. Therefore, it is vital that LGBTIQ people are able to show a sense of mercy, and patience, towards their theological opponents as they gradually embark upon the path of understanding and accepting queerness.

And conversely, theological opponents of queerness must root their discernment process of trying to understand queerness in the attribute of mercy. Reconciliation is a time-consuming process – not a one-off event; this sentiment is aptly summed up by Leah Robinson who conceptualizes reconciliation as ‘an inspired lifestyle.’[24] Due to its ongoing nature, mercy must undergird the process as it entails a certain sense of compassion which is ultimately conducive to the establishment of peace: the ultimate goal of reconciliation. The finding of common ground between both parties is a practical method of helping establish merciful attitudes and can be done within this context through illuminating the intersection of queerness and theology. By demonstrating the queerness inherent to both theology and Christian faith, queer theology could gently show its opponents that queerness is not a terrifyingly ambiguous and threatening concept, but something which has a long-standing place in the Christian tradition.

Chicago Pride, 2013. Image courtesy of Richie Diesterheft,

The queerness of Christianity is widespread. It finds itself in defiance of the status-quo, and its seeking of the strange – ‘the unknowable in Christ’, just as the desire to deconstruct ‘traditional boundaries’ and binaries within queer theology demonstrates a commitment to uncertainty.[25] Moreover, the destruction of binaries is not a practice exclusive to queer theology. By existing as both human and divine, Jesus epitomized Christianity’s flagrant disregard for binaries.[26] If traditional modes of theology find the blurring of boundaries between humanity and divinity unproblematic, they should be able to conceptualize, and thus show mercy towards, the blurring of binaries within the human realm.[27] Mercy for the other can take root between the queer community and their theological opponents through the finding of common ground; the queering of Christian faith.

Reconciliation between the queer community and the church will only occur when queer theology is fully embraced by normative theology as a legitimate and life-giving source of faith. The road to peace between these two communities will certainly not be a smooth or swift process, as the hurt that has been wrought by homophobic theologies is deeply entrenched in the psyche of LGBTIQ people. However, through the practical steps outlined earlier – the establishment of truth through listening and dialogue, assertion of justice engendered by reclamation of identity, and the nurturing of mercy by finding common ground, peace becomes an exhilarating possibility. Amidst all the incongruous debate taking place about same-sex marriage and the place of queer people in the highest echelons of the church, queer theology presents the most hopeful way forward.

Image courtesy of Theoroditsis, ‘Jesus Loves You All’, on Flickr

Queer theology transcends the bounds of theory to become praxis – it precipitates, and requires ‘authentic Christian discipleship.’[28]  Therefore, it requires sustained commitment, which is a crucial component to reconciliation and will aid the long-term inclusion of queerness. In order to avoid the disconnect between itself and society being further widened, all Christian theology must be undergirded by the declaration made by eminent archbishop and theologian Desmond Tutu that ‘he would rather choose hell than worship a homophobic God.’[29] Patrick Cheng proclaims the church as an ‘external community of radical love’,[30]  and now is the time for the church to fully embrace this role.



Ahmed, Lara Aasem, and J. Michael Ryan. “Same-Sex Marriage.” In The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Gender and Sexuality Studies, edited by Nancy A. Naples, 1-2. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., 2016.

Althaus-Reid, Marcella, and Lisa Isherwood. “Thinking Theology and Queer Theory.” Feminist Theology 15, no.3 (2007): 302-314.

Aspin, Clive, and Jessica Hutchings. “Reclaiming the past to inform the future: Contemporary views of Māori sexuality.” Culture, Health and Sexuality 9, no.4 (2007): 415-427

Baum, Gregory. “A Theological Afterward.” In The Reconciliation of Peoples: Challenge to Churches, edited by Gregory Baum and Harold Wells, 183-192. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1997.

Cheng, Patrick S. “Contributions from Queer Theory.” In The Oxford Handbook of Theology, Sexuality, and Gender, edited by Adrian Thatcher, 1-20. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Cheng, Patrick S. Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology. New York: Seabury Books, 2011.

Dickinson, Colby, and Meghan Toomey. “The Continuing Relevance of “Queer” Theology for the Rest of the Field.” Theology & Sexuality 23, no.1-2 (2017): 1-16.

Endsjø, Dag Ølstein. Sex and Religion: Teachings and Taboos in the History of World Faiths. London: Reaktion Books, 2011.

Kirby, Andrew, Barbara McKenzie-Green, Judith McAra-Couper, and Shoba Nayar. “Same-Sex Marriage: A Dilemma for Parish Clergy.” Sexuality & Culture 21, no.3 (2017): 901-918.

Loughlin, Gerard. “What Is Queer? Theology After Identity.” Theology & Sexuality 14, no.2 (2008): 143-152.

Robinson, Leah. Embodied Peacebuilding: Reconciliation as Practical Theology. Bern: Peter Lang, 2015.

Shaw, Jane. “Conflicts Within the Anglican Communion.” In The Oxford Handbook of Theology, Sexuality, and Gender, edited by Adrian Thatcher, 1-20. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Wells, Harold. “Theology for Reconciliation: Biblical Perspectives on Forgiveness and Grace.” In The Reconciliation of Peoples: Challenge to Churches, edited by Gregory Baum and Harold Wells, 1-14. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1997.

[1] Harold Wells, “Theology for Reconciliation: Biblical Perspectives on Forgiveness and Grace,” in The Reconciliation of Peoples: Challenge to Churches, eds. Gregory Baum and Harold Wells (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1997), 1.

[2] Gerard Loughlin, “What Is Queer? Theology After Identity,” Theology & Sexuality 14, no.2 (2008), 144.

[3] Jane Shaw, “Conflicts Within the Anglican Communion,” in The Oxford Handbook of Theology, Sexuality, and Gender, ed. Adrian Thatcher (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 11-12.

[4] Marcella Althaus-Reid and Lisa Isherwood, “Thinking Theology and Queer Theory”, Feminist Theology 15, no.3 (2007), 304.

[5] Althaus-Reid and Isherwood, 9-12.

[6] Colby Dickinson and Meghan Toomey, “The Continuing Relevance of “Queer” Theology for the Rest of the Field,” Theology & Sexuality 23, no.1-2 (2017), 10.

[7] Patrick S. Cheng, Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology (New York: Seabury Books, 2011), 12-3.

[8] Dag Ølstein Endsjø, Sex and Religion: Teachings and Taboos in the History of World Faiths (London: Reaktion Books, 2011), 165.

[9] Andrew Kirby, Barbara McKenzie-Green, Judith McAra-Couper and Shoba Nayar, “Same-Sex Marriage: A Dilemma for Parish Clergy,” Sexuality & Culture 21, no.3 (2017), 908;

Lara Aasem Ahmed and J. Michael Ryan, “Same-Sex Marriage,” in The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Gender and Sexuality Studies, ed. Nancy A. Naples (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., 2016), 1.

[10] Gregory Baum, “A Theological Afterward,” in The Reconciliation of Peoples: Challenge to Churches, eds. Gregory Baum and Harold Wells (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1997), 198.

[11] Dickinson and Toomey, 6.

[12] Baum, 190

[13] Ahmed and Ryan, 2.

[14] Loughlin, 143.

[15] Patrick Cheng, “Contributions from Queer Theory,” in The Oxford Handbook of Theology, Sexuality, and Gender, ed. Adrian Thatcher (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 10.

[16] Baum, 189.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Cheng, “Contributions,” 9.

[19] Cheng, “Contributions,” 9.

[20] Ahmed and Ryan, 2.

[21] Ibid;

Clive Aspin and Jessica Hutchings, “Reclaiming the past to inform the future: Contemporary views of Māori sexuality,” Culture, Health and Sexuality 9, no.4 (2007), 417-8.

[22] Ahmed and Ryan, 2.

[23] Baum, 190.

[24] Leah Robinson, Embodied Peacebuilding: Reconciliation as Practical Theology (Bern: Peter Lang, 2015), 35-6.

[25] Loughlin, 143;

Cheng, “Contributions from Queer Theory,” 9.

[26] Ibid, 6.

[27] Cheng, “Contributions from Queer Theory,” 11.

[28] Dickinson and Toomey, 4.

[29] Shaw, 18;

Ibid, 12.

[30] Cheng, Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology, 106.

read more

Challenging Clergy Abuse in the Catholic Church: An Interview with Rocio Figueroa Alvear


Today, over 100 senior Roman Catholic bishops from around the world will meet in Rome for a 4-day summit called by Pope Francis to address the long-standing crisis of clerical sexual abuse. It’s fitting, then, that today’s post is an interview with a scholar and activist whose work highlights and challenges the crisis of abuse in the Catholic Church.

Dr Rocio Figueroa Alvear is a Peruvian Theologian, Lecturer in Systematic Theology at Good Shepherd College in Auckland and an External Researcher at the Centre for Theology and Public Issues at Otago University, New Zealand. She has a bachelor’s degree and license in theology from the Pontifical Faculty of Theology in Lima and her doctorate in theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. She has previously lectured and worked in Peru, Italy, and Mexico. She worked in the Holy See as head of the Women’s section in the Pontifical Council for the Laity. She has published on women’s studies and reciprocity between men and women.

Rocio’s present research focus is theological and pastoral responses for survivors of Church sexual abuse. She spoke about her work at a recent public lecture organized by Voices of Faith, ‘Overcoming Silence – Women’s Voices in the Catholic Abuse Crisis’. She also appeared earlier this year on the BBC’s Woman’s Hour programme, #NunsToo: Nuns abused by priests and bishops. Rocio works with theologians Professor David Tombs and Dr Jayme Reave on a project, ‘When did we see you naked?’, which considers the historical, pastoral, and theological questions around faith-based responses to sexual abuse.

More details of and links to Rocio’s research are listed below.

Tell us a bit about yourself

I am a Peruvian Theologian and currently I am a lecturer in Systematic Theology at Good Shepherd College in Auckland and an External Researcher at the Centre for Theology and Public Issues at Otago University, New Zealand.

I did my doctorate in theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. I have previously lectured and worked in Peru, Italy, and Mexico. I lived for 15 years in Rome and while there I worked in the Holy See for five years as the head of the Women’s section in the Pontifical Council for the Laity. I have always enjoyed working on women’s issues. While in Mexico I developed a program to promote micro-businesses and the empowerment of women in an indigenous community in Puebla.

Following my research and activity on the promotion of women, I am currently focused on theological and pastoral responses for survivors of sexual abuse.

Can you tell us more about this aspect of your research – what inspired you to focus on this topic, what research you’ve done to date?

My first inspiration was my own experience. I am a survivor of sexual abuse within the Church. I belonged to the Sodalicio Catholic community in Peru, where I was abused when I was 15 years old by the second-in-charge.  It took me twenty years to be able to face my own abuse.  I was a member of the Marian Community of Reconciliation (MCR), a Catholic Association of lay consecrated women, which is the female branch of Sodalicio. I served as the MCR General Superior for 9 years (1991-1998). In 2006 I began to receive reports of sexual abuse of male members of the Sodalicio community. Because of what happened to me personally these reports immediately made sense. In 2006 I began an investigation and I helped these victims to present accusations to the ecclesiastical court in Lima, and to the Vatican in 2011. During this time, I developed a relationship of trust with the victims and because of this, I felt the necessity to do even more work for survivors using my theological and pastoral research.

The first outcome of this research was a project with Prof. David Tombs at the Centre for Theology and Public Issues at Otago University. This report was entitled “Listening to male survivors of Church sexual abuse. Voices from survivors in Sodalicio”. The aim was to explore the impact of church-related sexual abuse on each of the interviewees and to identify the short and long-term psychological and spiritual consequences associated with it. There are a lot of studies about the topic of sexual abuse within the Church, however, the spiritual impacts of sexual abuse are a largely neglected.  One lesson from this report is the devastating effects on the faith and the spiritual identity of survivors. This made us conclude that the spiritual impact of abuse should be included in any full understanding of impact and consequences.

At this time my research is focused on the response of survivors to recognizing Jesus as a victim of sexual abuse.

What do you see as the main significance of this research?

Prof. David Tombs and I wanted to uncover the responses of survivors to the naming of Jesus as a victim of sexual abuse. This research has as its basis the idea that the torture and crucifixion of Jesus involved sexual humiliation.

The first academic discussion of Jesus as a victim of sexual abuse was developed by Prof.  Tombs in 1999. In the ancient world, crucifixion as a practice imposed on prisoners was not just meant to kill the victim but also to sexually humiliate them. Nakedness during execution was a sign of humiliation and absolute powerlessness for both the Romans and the Jews.  Jesus being stripped of his clothes by the soldiers and his nakedness on the cross allow us to read the passion narratives as the story of someone who was sexually humiliated (see also Tombs, 2018).

Historically, the sexual component of Jesus’ torture was minimized in the artistic representations of the crucifixion by depicting him wearing a loincloth. We wanted to know how survivors felt about this idea. We asked them if they thought the historical evidence of Jesus as a victim of sexual abuse was persuasive. We also asked them if they thought the topic could help victims and the wider Church. The responses have been fascinating.  We think that their insights could help the wider Church in confronting the crisis of sexual abuse and improving their understanding of survivors.

How important do you think it is for researchers and teachers in theological education to bring activism into their work and teaching?

Theology is not just a theoretical science isolated from the reality of the world. On the contrary, it is concerned with how to express the meaning of faith and how to respond to God in the present. Inspired by the Latin American way of doing theology I consider that discipleship comes first, and theology is a second step on this path. As disciples we want to live the Gospel and be committed to the needs of the poor, the vulnerable, and those who have no voice. By doing this, I believe that our theological reflections and teaching can only be enriched and fulfil the purpose of doing theology.

What would you like to say to our readers about the importance of engaging with the topic of religion and gender violence in our research and teaching?

There are some challenges in our society that cannot be avoided. The topic of religion and gender violence is one of them.  Religion is such a fundamental dimension in the life of so many people in the world that we need to reflect on how it can help those who have experienced any kind of gender violence. At the same time each religious community must become a welcoming place for healing and reconciliation. However, it is important also to analyze how many times religion has been misused to excuse or condone abusive behavior. Religious communities have leaders with spiritual authority. This authority can be used for healing and guiding, but it can also be misused to abuse members of the community. The religious worldview and the faith of members of the community can be harnessed to justifying gender violence. Religious communities are never neutral; they need to play a role in gender violence.

Some of Rocio’s publications include:

Figueroa Alvear, R., & Tombs. D. 2019. ‘Recognizing Jesus as a victim of sexual abuse. Responses from Sodalicio survivors in Peru’.

Figueroa Alvear, R., & Tombs. D. 2016. ‘Listening to male survivors of church sexual abuse: Voices from Sodalicio abuses in Peru’.

Rocío Figueroa Alvear and David Tombs. 2016. ‘Escuchando a sobrevivientes masculinos de abuso sexual en la Iglesia: Voces de sobrevivientes de abusos del Sodalicio en el Perú’.

Figueroa Alvear, R., & Tombs. D ‘Lived Religion and the Traumatic Impact of Sexual Abuse: The Sodalicio case in Peru’ in: Trauma and Lived Religion. Transcending the Ordinary, ed. R. Ruard Ganzevoort-Srdjan Sremac, Amsterdam: Palgrave 2018).

Figueroa Alvear, R., Covenant of Love – Sources (México City 2015).

Figueroa Alvear, R., Man and woman, equal or different? (Puebla 2013).

Figueroa Alvear, R.,  Towards my own true self (Mexico City, 2011).

read more

Rolling out the fine mat of scripture: Church responses to gender-based violence in Samoa


In 2017, I was invited to join a research project titled ‘Fola le ta’ui a le Atua: Rolling Out the Fine Mat of Scripture. Church Responses to Gender-Based Violence Against Women in Samoa’. The project has investigated how Samoan churches can best participate in wider national efforts to tackle the troublingly high rates of violence against women (VAW) reported in this island nation. Particularly, those involved in the project considered how the church in Samoa might develop its capacity for transformative social leadership in tackling VAW.

The ‘Fola le ta’ui a le Atua’ project ran between 2017 and 2018, and was funded by the New Zealand Institute for Pacific Research (NZIPR), which promotes and supports excellence in Pacific research. Project members were affiliated with the Universities of Auckland and Otago, and the National University of Samoa. The project lead was Dr Mercy Ah Siu-Maliko, a lecturer at Piula Theological College, Samoa and research affiliate at the University of Otago’s Centre for Theology and Public Issues. Professor David Tombs (Howard Paterson Chair of Theology and Public Issues, University of Otago) was the principal investigator, and other team members included Dr Melanie Beres (University of Otago), Dr Ramona Boodoosingh (National University of Samoa), Dr Tess Patterson (University of Otago), and myself (University of Auckland). Together we made up an international and interdisciplinary team, drawing on our combined expertise in theology, biblical studies, sociology, gender studies, and the health sciences.

The primary aims of the project were fourfold:

  1. To investigate current attitudes within Samoan churches about VAW, particularly their understanding of VAW as a pastoral and public issue. The project looked at the level of church support for tackling VAW, as well as church norms and structures which might sustain this violence. In particular, the project sought to assess the extent to which there may (or may not) be a disconnect between Samoan church responses to VAW and international, national, and local initiatives on VAW prevention.
  2. To develop contextual and participatory group Bible study resources that could be used to foster church conversations about VAW. These resources were grounded in biblical and theological scholarship, focusing on biblical texts that speak to the issue of VAW. They also included texts that are sometimes used to justify the subordination of women (particularly in marital relationships) and, consequently, to excuse domestic violence.
  3. To pilot and assess the impact of these Bible study resources in Samoa, introducing them in a series of workshops delivered to church groups, theological students, and women’s groups. These workshops were guided by the transformative and dialogical pedagogy pioneered by Brazilian educator and philosopher, Paulo Freire.
  4. To consider the practical decisions, actions, and policy recommendations that church leaders might take in response to the Nadi Accord 2014, in light of the issues raised by the project. The Nadi Accord arose from the Pacific Prevention of Domestic Violence Programme, and declared that culture, tradition, and religion ought never to be used as an ‘excuse for abuse’. It also called on religious leaders to ‘champion the elimination of SGBV [sexual and gender-based violence] and to act with strong leadership in this regard’ (Pacific Prevention of Domestic Violence Programme, 2014).
Russell James Smith, University of Auckland clocktower, 2010

Throughout the project, there has been a range of conferences and conversations with colleagues in Samoa, Fiji, and New Zealand (more details here), including a conference held at the University of Auckland on 11 June 2018. The conference, titled ‘Tatala le ta’ui a le Atua: Church responses to gender violence in Samoa’, aimed to initiate new conversations between academics, researchers, church pastors, and community activists about the role of the church (in Samoa and the wider Pacific region) in tackling VAW.

The conference included presentations from three esteemed keynote speakers: Dr Ah Siu-Maliko, Rev. Dr Joan Alleluia Filemoni-Tofaeono1 (lecturer at Kanana Fou Theological Seminary, Tafuna, American Samoa), and Rev. Dr Nasili Vaka’uta (Principal of Trinity Methodist College, Auckland). In the afternoon, there was a screening of the 2015 documentary Sisi le Lā’afa – Raise the Sennit Sail, directed by Galumalemana Steven Percival. Following the screening, there were group discussion sessions, where attendees could share their responses to and reflections on the documentary, which highlights the complex intersections between religion, cultural tradition, and VAW in Samoa.

In the rest of this blog post, I focus on the keynote presentation delivered at the conference by Dr Mercy Ah Siu-Maliko, Tatala le ta’ui a le Atua (Rolling out the fine mat of scripture): Constraints and opportunities.2 I have chosen this as the basis of my discussion as it captures so beautifully the aims, motivations, and challenges of the wider ‘Fola le ta’ui a le Atua’ project, not to mention the vital role that Mercy has played in shaping the philosophy that underpins it.

At the start of her presentation, Mercy spoke about how important it is for researchers to feel connected and committed to their work, particularly when this involves the vital issue of gender-based violence. She described her own ‘passion’ for researching VAW in Samoa, and her commitment to speaking openly about it in order to bring about positive change in Samoan churches and society. ‘Gender-based violence is part of my being’, she admitted, ‘I wake up thinking about gender-based violence. When I breathe, it’s gender-based violence. When I look around – my whole being is dominated by this issue’.

Dr Mercy Ah-Siu Maliko, speaking at the Tatala le Ta’ui a le Atua conference, 2018

Referring to some of the recently published reports which record the growing rates of violence against women and girls in Samoa, Mercy noted that there have been a number of responses to these reports from government ministries, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and some religious institutions, many of whom have initiated projects to challenge VAW.

Nevertheless, Mercy noted that there is still one key voice absent from the conversation about gender-based violence in Samoa – the ‘prophetic voice’ of the Samoan church. While Fijian church leaders have recently made a public commitment to VAW prevention initiatives, including participation in the country’s 16 Days of Activism campaign, the Samoan church has remained relatively silent, preferring not to engage actively with government and NGO initiatives that aim to tackle the crisis of VAW in Samoa. It is this silence that Mercy seeks to break, in her capacity as a member of the Methodist church in Samoa, an academic, a public theologian, and a ‘concerned citizen of Samoa’. In these intersecting roles, she spoke of her determination to move out of her ‘comfort zone’ to ‘mingle with the vulnerable in Samoan society’.

Mercy then went onto explain the context of tatala le ta’ui a le Atua – rolling out the fine mat of scripture. The phrase conveys the importance of being relational in Samoan culture, and the Samoan belief that the self takes its form from maintaining relationships: ‘It articulates the necessity to reconnect with one’s God, and sisters, neighbours, and environment in order to reveal one’s genuine self-identity rooted in relationships of respect’. In Samoan culture, ta’ui has a particular use, referring to the finest woven mats, which have been cared for and cherished over the years within their Samoan homes. These mats are old and delicate, and are only rolled out in public on special occasions.

A fine woven mat from Samoa.,_Honolulu_Museum_of_Art_accession_328.1.JPG

At this point in the presentation, David Tombs and Mercy rolled out a large ta’ui that was lying, rolled up, beside the presenter’s lectern. As Mercy explained, the conference was a special occasion – an opportunity to talk about a vital issue affecting not only Samoans but the entire world. The phrase tatala le ta’ui a le Atua also emphasises the significant role of the Bible in this conversation; the fine mat of scripture has to be rolled out to transform human relationships, including those damaged by violence.

Mercy also spoke about some of the constraints and challenges she has faced researching gender-based violence in Samoa. The first challenge was her status as an ‘insider researcher’ – a Samoan woman theologian researching a Samoan issue. As she noted, a researcher’s ‘insiderness’ can be of benefit, as long as it does not bias their study; for example, her identity as a Samoan woman has facilitated safe and honest communication with the Samoan women she interviewed during the course of her research. Moreover, her Samoan identity has also allowed her to represent faithfully Samoan understandings and worldviews and to engage critically with scholarly research about Samoa.

Another research challenge that Mercy raised was that, although VAW is a public issue in Samoa, it is often regarded as a ‘woman’s issue’, with the result that men are reluctant to engage with it. She noted that some male participants in her research interviews seemed to feel uncomfortable talking about the topic, resorting to humour in an attempt to evade having serious conversations. She was also aware that some men did not want to be interviewed by her in case others thought they were perpetrators of gender-based violence. As she noted, ‘Finding ways to engage with this issue in a public arena when it has historically been shrouded in silence and secrecy has required great sensitivity and patience’. Being an ‘insider researcher’ in this project has therefore been of great value here, allowing her to approach these difficult conversations with greater understanding.

Yet, Mercy admitted in her presentation, patience is sometimes hard to come by when there is still so much work to be done. She therefore described her role as lead researcher in the Fola le ta’ui le Atua project as a ‘God-given opportunity’ that has allowed her to begin urgent dialogues with Samoan churches about their role in tackling VAW. She noted without irony that her academic status allowed her to speak to those in the ‘upper level of Samoan society’, such as male church leaders.3

Image by AJC1. On

Much of Mercy’s research has been guided by the work of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, whose ‘pedagogy of the oppressed’ is rooted in the imperative to see everyone’s potential, regardless of their life situations, and to treat research participants as agentic subjects rather than passive objects. Drawing on Freire’s work has allowed Mercy to forge strong and fruitful networks with Samoan women from all walks of life, including women in leadership positions. And, while challenges remain and progress can appear awfully slow, she reminded the conference audience that ‘it’s about taking small steps, with passion and love’.

Mercy also took time during the conference presentation to discuss the preliminary findings of her research. She admitted that initial analysis of her interviews with Samoan church leaders and members has provided her with an ‘eye-opening opportunity’, both to assess the extent of work already being done by churches to address VAW and to consider what else they could and should be doing.

Of especial interest, her research findings uncovered an overall philosophy that guides Samoan relationships and engagements: as she puts it, ‘keeping the face, or keeping the front matters tidy’. While some of her research participants understood this as an enactment of the Samoan concept of teu le va (respecting and honouring the relational space between two people, Mercy contended that it is, nevertheless, a key contributing factor to gender-based violence being hidden, or, as she put it, ‘swept under the carpet as if it’s not a problem’. She also noted that this philosophy was particularly evident in the responses she received during her interviews with church leaders and NGOs in Samoa. The only exceptions to this were some of her female interviewees, who admitted that the confidential space afforded by the interviews gave them ‘a moment of liberation from the fear of the status quo’.

Speaking openly about gender-based violence is still taboo in many cultures and countries around the world, and Samoa is no different. Yet, as the ‘Fola le ta’ui le Atua’ project has found, the silence that often surrounds VAW only perpetuates the sense of shame and stigma experienced by its victims. In both Samoan churches and wider society, women who are victims of gender-based violence are more likely to be blamed than offered support; even when they are not directly blamed, many still fear the stigma they will encounter in their local communities and churches. The church’s silence about VAW is therefore never neutral, but can often be harmful.

Piula Theological College, Samoa, where Mercy is the first woman to be appointed to a teaching position. Image courtesy of,_Upolu_island,_Samoa,_2009.jpg

Mercy also stressed that her research provided her with a valuable opportunity to engage with the wider Samoan public and thus to create concrete platforms from which work can be done to tackle VAW. It has also enabled her to develop strong networks with other women who stand with her on the ‘battlefield’, waging war against those systems and ideologies that sustain VAW. In these networks, she noted, ‘we are not only developing and sharing resources, but nurturing human relationships as a way to prevent violence against women’.

Mercy ended her presentation by offering the audience a glimpse of the ‘end product’ of her research, which incorporates one of the key goals of the ‘Fola le ta’ui le Atua’ project. Drawing on material from her research interviews, and working alongside biblical scholars and theologians (including myself and David), she has developed a series of Bible studies for use in Samoan churches to foster dialogue about VAW. Based on the transformational model of Paulo Freire, these Bible studies aim to liberate people through the process of self-awareness and consciousness raising. The studies eschew passive learning and encourage participants to think and speak for themselves, giving them the confidence to break the silence that surrounds VAW. As Mercy explained, the studies are not a ‘quick fix’ to VAW, but rather move participants from reflection to concrete action as part of an ongoing process.

Crucially, these Bible studies draw churches into this process, enabling them to dialogue openly about VAW, to participate in tackling VAW, and to offer healing and support to those impacted by it. The Bible studies also break the silence surrounding VAW in Samoan society, inviting members of the Samoan churches to publicly challenge the shame and stigma that many victims experience. Churches clearly have massive potential to lead the way in tackling VAW, but they need to recognise and embrace this as an integral part of their mission and ministry at both national and international levels. Mercy’s Bible studies offer an invitation to the Samoan church to recognize this potential and to begin taking action; as such, they are worth their weight in gold.

Mercy concluded her presentation by noting that her participation in the ‘Fola le ta’ui le Atua’ project has reminded her of the importance of knowing herself – ‘my tūrangawaewae – my standing place – and believing I can be a part of making a positive change’. She acknowledged that her commitment to making change is an ongoing process that affects her personally at every level – her self, her family, her church, her nation. But, as she noted:

Every little step counts, as they are steps driven by a passion and conviction to enhance the common good of Samoans and all of God’s people. God did not put me here for no reason. There is a purpose for everything. And despite the challenges entailed in combatting gender-based violence, we are discovering in our faith tradition and our sacred scriptures resources that can guide us towards liberation and empowerment.

It was a privilege working with Mercy on the ‘Fola le ta’ui le Atua’ project, along with the other researchers who made up the project team, and also those who participated at the Auckland conference. As Mercy observed in her presentation, those of us working to end gender-based violence find ourselves very quickly on a ‘battlefield’, waging war against the systems, ideologies, and structures that sustain such violence. This work can be exhausting and demoralizing, but we support each other, and draw strength from each other, refusing to give up while there is still so much work to be done. And, as Mercy reminds us, ‘Every little step counts’.


1 Rev. Dr Filemoni-Tofaeono is co-author (with Lydia Johnson) of the ground-breaking book, Reweaving the Relational Mat: A Christian Response to Violence against Women from Oceania (Routledge, 2006). Prior to Ah Siu-Maliko taking over the role, she also co-ordinated Weavers: Women in Theological Education, which developed resources for use by theological colleges to open up dialogue about violence against women in Oceania.

2 The other two keynote addresses at the ‘Tatala le ta’ui a le Atua’ conference were presented by Rev. Dr Joan Alleluia Filemoni-Tofaeono, University of Auckland, Embrace our Voice: A call to re-image Tama’ita’i Samoana (women) in the image of God, and Dr Nasili Vaka’uta, Trinity Theological College, Auckland, #MeToo: Troubling ‘Sexual Abuse’ in Scriptures.

3 Dr Mercy Ah Siu-Maliko is the first Samoan woman to be awarded a PhD in theology, and the first to be appointed to a teaching position in a Samoan theological college. For an overview of her research, see her article, “A public theology response to domestic violence in Samoa.” International Journal of Public Theology 10(1), 54-67.

read more

Book Launch of Broken Bodies: The Eucharist, Mary, and the Body in Trauma Theology


Thirty seconds before I was due to take the podium, I opened my copy of my new book and realised that my carefully prepared notes were on my desk in my office halfway across the building. And that was how I winged my first ever book launch. Best laid plans…

On a cold Tuesday January evening at Sarum College in Salisbury, I was delighted to celebrate the launch of my new book Broken Bodies: The Eucharist, Mary and the Body in Trauma Theology (SCM Press, 2018) with colleagues, friends, family, and members of the public. Despite leaving my notes in my office in my haste to get to the launch on time, it was a real privilege to share my research (a project I’ve been working on since 2013!) with so many interested people. I shared some of the inspiration for the project with those gathered; my frustration at the eliding of bodies in theology and my sense that the concept and experience of trauma offered real potential for doing something creative and fresh in theological scholarship.

A short section from the middle of the book entitled ‘Rupture’ sets out the task I am undertaking in Broken Bodies.

The experience of trauma is a rupturing event. Like an earthquake rolls through a landscape and radically alters the topographical features, so does trauma roll through lives, stories, memories and bodies, leaving them radically altered. Allowing the traumatic memory of the Body of Christ to be framed in terms of the Annunciation-Incarnation event and moving it away from the destructive power of the Cross causes a rupture in traditional Christian narratives. The way in which the Christ-event has been understood, along with the intertwined narratives of priesthood, sacrifice, and the Eucharist, are radically altered in the light of this traumatic reframing. It is from this rupture that new, fresh, life-giving theological narratives come forth. They blossom in the space cleared by the rupture of trauma. Like a forest awakening in the aftermath of a fire, or a trauma survivor stirring up a survivor’s gift in the aftermath of trauma, some stories can only be told in the wake of the rupture. These are those narratives.

Highlighting the way in which my reading of trauma through and against traditional Christian narratives of death and destruction brought to light a theology that was full of generativity and flourishing, this sense of traumatic rupture captures something of what this book is about.

The discussion afterwards ranged from questions about caring for those who had been in war zones, self-care when supporting people who had been traumatised, and the responsibility of the church to be a place where trauma was acknowledged and where liturgy and ritual for post-traumatic remaking was offered. It was a rich conversation that helped make the connections between theological work and praxis. I was reminded once again of the words of Michelle Gonzalez Maldonado who urged me to do my theology from the place where it hurts. Broken Bodies is theology from a hurting place and I’m really delighted it is available for people to read.

You can buy it from SCM Press in hardback or if you can wait until late March you can buy it in paperback!

Karen O’Donnell

Coordinator, Centre for Contemporary Spirituality and Programme Leader for MA in Christian Spirituality, Sarum College.


read more

Interview with Professor Mercy Oduyoye


While on our WUN-funded research trip to Ghana, Shiloh Project co-director Johanna Stiebert interviewed veteran academic and activist Prof Mercy Oduyoye and gender educationalist Joyce Boham. Mercy is the founder of the Circle for Concerned African Women Theologians and of the Talitha Qumi Centre Institute of Women in Religion and Culture in Legon, Ghana, where this interview was conducted. The short version of this interview links to a much longer conversation with both women. Enjoy!

read more
1 2 3 4 8
Page 2 of 8